An alternative way of learning

The story of life at Findhorn continues with an explanation of the community's role in educating peo

Early December marks another turning point in the year – the ending of several of our longer-term (3-month) training programmes and the departure of those who have been taking the courses – folk who have become part of our family.

One of these programmes that is especially dear to my heart is the Findhorn Community Semester (FCS) programme. This is an accredited semester for students at US universities, counting towards their degree programmes.

Findhorn is one a number of ecovillages around the world that offer such courses, under the aegis of the Living Routes programme based in Massachusetts.

At root, what I love so much about this programme is that it's more or less exactly the kind of training programme that I would have loved to have had on offer when I was a young adult. This is education that engages head, heart and hands and that fires the imagination. I teach the Applied Sustainability course, where the ecovillage infrastructure really helps make the concepts come alive.

Some vignettes from the last couple of months.

Having spent the first part of one morning discussing how the global food economy works and its various impacts – including deep cruelty to animals force-fed on hormones and other growth agents – we go up to Wester Lawrenceton Farm, that is linked into the community.

There we take a farm tour in silence, with the farmer, Nick, occasionally holding up pre-prepared text written on pieces of paper. Next to his chicken-house, with chicks scrubbing around at our feet, Nick holds up an A4 sheet: ’90 per cent of hens in the UK spend all their lives in an area no larger than this sheet of paper’. The students deeply get the message – in their guts.

We spend the first part of another session talking about water and how we could design sustainable treatment systems. Then, we walk around our own Living Machine sewage treatment plant – an indoor, biological system, where plants and the various organisms that attach to their root systems filter out toxins so that the water coming out at the end of the process meets European bathing water standards.

It is beautiful, with flower blossoms tumbling out of the processing tubs. And the sight of snails and myriad water-borne organisms working way in the process of transformation in this elegant, watery cathedral is worth more than a thousand words on the concept of waste treatment delivered in a dry and arid classroom.

Classes (or parts of classes) on ecological building techniques happen on the building site, with the self-builders explaining their designs and describing the various trade-offs they are making between up-front costs and ecological sustainability. (Often, the most eco-friendly option is the most expensive). During the economics class, we play physically with the community currency we have created here – and trace its course through the community economy.

A theoretical session on Peak Oil and how communities can respond to the coming energy famine is brought to life by a visit to our four wind turbines that make us net exporters of electricity. The bases of the turbines have been painted by community members and local school children in beautiful patterns – in the shape of footprints, describing visions of the sustainable future we are trying to fashion.

We build on a theoretical exploration of permaculture principles with the construction over the course of the semester of a sustainable garden next to the Youth Project building. The young people of the community are ‘the client’ and our FCS students work with them in preparing the designs and then doing the building – or at least starting the building. Next semester’s FCS students will complete the job and, by next spring, the area in front of the Youth building will be ablaze with colour.

This is education that works. It stimulates the mind, engages the body and allows the imagination to soar. It has been joyful to watch the 12 young people who have spent the last three months with us open so gracefully and creatively to the transformation they have seen here. And the good news is that it is never too late, after all, to have a happy childhood. For, even though my own spirit and creative imagination were all but crushed in an appalling and brutal educational system that paid respect only to the rational mind, the inner youth in me watches on and dances in celebration of the fact that education like this now exists.

Tonight, we say goodbye to our beautiful students with a sumptuous community feast. Then we breathe for a while before opening up space to receive the next intake.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change