Wrestling with Climate Change

The community's unique approach to the threat of climate change

The community sits snugly at the head of a bay on a stretch of coastline that was once called the Scottish Riviera – I kid you not!

Sheltered to the south and east by Cairngorm and the mighty Highlands, the Moray coast has significantly lower rainfall and a greater number of sunlight hours than anywhere to the south and west of here. Throw in the UK’s most northerly school of bottlenose dolphins and seals aplenty – especially during this period when the salmon start the run up to their spawning grounds on the Findhorn and Spey rivers – and you begin to see why this was the holiday destination of choice for Scots from the southern industrial belt.

Grand hotels sprang up all along this coast in the Victorian and Edwardian eras – especially in the area between Nairn and Forres. And, in a blessed period squeezed between the advent of cheap flights and dramatically rising property values, a good number of them came on the market at more or less affordable prices. Thankfully, this window coincided with a boom in the development of the community and three of these grand establishments are now owned by or associated with the Findhorn community ecovillage.

Let me take you inside one of these, the Cluny Hill Hotel, about a kilometre south of Forres, our neighbouring town. This is today one of the two main community campuses and especially geared towards receiving guests coming to the community to participate in courses. The building retains all of its Victorian grandeur – there is a large ballroom, a magnificent dining room and many large and elegant rooms, a good number of which have been converted to workshop space.

So, let’s walk into the dining room, a large, wooden-floored room that overlooks the splendid gardens and the golf course beyond. 80 or so community members form a circle – or rather a long, rounded oblong – leaving a large space in the middle. This is one of our twice-annual ‘internal conferences’, winter-time gatherings where the community comes together to consider the key issues that face us and to make decisions on how to move forward. On the agenda today is the question of climate change.

The space in the middle of the circle has been marked into four quadrants. In each has been placed a specific object: in one, a stone, representing fear; in a second a stout branch represents anger; in a third, some dried leaves for sadness; in the fourth, an empty bowl, representing emptiness or the element of surprise, being open to the new.

In the morning, we had all gathered to hear presentations on climate change. Our minds engaged with the challenges facing humanity, and more specifically our own community, and with the ethical dilemmas over our own lifestyle choices. Now, in the ballroom, the aim is to allow the emotions their voice. People take turns to come into the middle of the circle – perhaps 15 enter the space during the one hour session we spend in this ritual – moving between different emotions as they cradle the leaves, brandish the branch, or hold the stone or bowl in the palm of their hands – and giving voice to the various (and often conflicting) emotions they hold. All listen respectfully and as each person ends their time in the middle, the watchers say ‘We hear you’. By the end of the hour, so many emotions and voices have been expressed – and we are once again ready to move on to engage with the issues in a more rational and linear way.

The type of emotional literacy that this form of ritual seeks to nurture in us seems rich and necessary. It is so easy to lose sight of the complexity of our reactions and to demonise those who disagree with us – creating external enemies to take the place of those parts of ourselves that we most struggle with. This kind of ritual enables us to explore, to own and to verbalise the complex matrix of emotions that we each wrestle with. Far from being a distraction for clear, rational thinking, it is a necessary foundation and complement to it.

And as I sit watching, it reminds me of many similar meetings I have taken part in in rural Africa. The clan gathers to consider its challenges, invariably in a circle. All are invited to speak. The perspectives of those without voices – the ancestors, generations to come and other non-human species – are also considered. This feels like an engaged participatory democracy, so different from the simplistic, emotionally illiterate slanging matches in our national parliaments. Re-learning how to govern ourselves with respect and tolerance is surely as key a tool in our journey towards sustainability as any other.

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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Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley: "The Greens can win over Ukip voters too"

The party co-leaders condemned Labour's "witch hunt" of Green-supporting members. 

“You only have to cast your eyes along those green benches to think this place doesn't really represent modern Britain,” said Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green MP, of the House of Commons. “There are lots of things you could do about it, and one is say: ‘Why not have job share MPs?’”

Politics is full of partnerships and rivalries, but not job shares. When Lucas and Jonathan Bartley were elected co-leaders of the Green party in September, they made history. 

“I don't think any week's been typical so far,” said Bartley, when I met the co-leaders in Westminster’s Portcullis House. During the debate on the Hinkley power plant, he said, Lucas was in her constituency: “I was in Westminster, so I could pop over to do the interviews.”

Other times, it’s Bartley who travels: “I’ve been over to Calais already, and I was up in Morecambe and Lancaster. It means we’re not left without a leader.”

The two Green leaders have had varied careers. Lucas has become a familiar face in Parliament since 2010, whereas Bartley has spent most of his career in political backrooms and wonkish circles (he co-founded the think tank Ekklesia). In the six weeks since being elected, though, they seem to have mastered the knack of backing each other up. After Lucas, who represents Brighton Pavilion, made her point about the green benches, Bartley chimed in. “My son is a wheelchair user. He is now 14," he said. "I just spent a month with him, because he had to have a major operation and he was in the recovery period. The job share allows that opportunity.”

It’s hard enough for Labour’s shadow cabinet to stay on message. So how will the Greens do it? “We basically said that although we've got two leaders, we've got one set of policies,” said Lucas. She smiled. “Whereas Labour kind of has the opposite.”

The ranks of the Greens, like Labour, have swelled since the referendum. Many are the usual suspects - Remainers still distressed about Brexit. But Lucas and Bartley believe they can tap into some of the discontent driving the Ukip vote in northern England.

“In Morecambe, I was chatting to someone who was deciding whether to vote Ukip or Green,” said Bartley. “He was really distrustful of the big political parties, and he wanted to send a clear message.”

Bartley points to an Ashcroft poll showing roughly half of Leave voters believed capitalism was a force for ill (a larger proportion nevertheless was deeply suspicious of the green movement). Nevertheless, the idea of voters moving from a party defined by border control to one that is against open borders “for now” seems counterintuitive. 

“This issue in the local election wasn’t about migration,” Bartley said. “This voter was talking about power and control, and he recognised the Greens could give him that.

“He was remarking it was the first time anyone had knocked on his door.”

According to a 2015 study by the LSE researcher James Dennison, Greens and Kippers stand out almost equally for their mistrust in politicians, and their dissatisfaction with British democracy. 

Lucas believes Ukip voters want to give “the system” a “bloody big kick” and “people who vote Green are sometimes doing that too”. 

She said: “We’re standing up against the system in a very different way from Ukip, but to that extent there is a commonality.”

The Greens say what they believe, she added: “We’re not going to limit our ambitions to the social liberal.”

A more reliable source of support may be the young. A May 2015 YouGov poll found 7 per cent of voters aged 18 to 29 intended to vote Green, compared to just 2 per cent of those aged 60+. 

Bartley is cautious about inflaming a generational divide, but Lucas acknowledges that young people feel “massively let down”.

She said: “They are certainly let down by our housing market, they are let down by universities. 

“The Greens are still against tuition fees - we want a small tax for the biggest businesses to fund education because for us education is a public good, not a private commodity.”

Of course, it’s all very well telling young people what they want to hear, but in the meantime the Tory government is moving towards a hard Brexit and scrapping maintenance grants. Lucas and Bartley are some of the biggest cheerleaders for a progressive alliance, and Lucas co-authored a book with rising Labour star Lisa Nandy on the subject. On the book tour, she was “amazed” by how many people turned up “on wet Friday evenings” to hear about “how we choose a less tribal politics”. 

Nevertheless, the idea is still controversial, not least among many in Nandy's own party. The recent leadership contest saw a spate of members ejected for publicly supporting the Greens, among other parties. 

“It was like a witch hunt,” said Lucas. “Some of those tweets were from a year or two ago. They might have retweeted something that happened to be from me saying ‘come join us in opposing fracking’, which is now a Labour policy. To kick someone out for that is deeply shocking.”

By contrast, the Greens have recently launched a friends scheme for supporters, including those who are already a member of another party. “The idea that one party is going to know it all is nonsense,” said Bartley. “That isn’t reality.”

Lucas and Bartley believe the biggest potential for a progressive alliance is at constituency level, where local people feel empowered, not disenfranchised, by brokering deals. They recall the 1997 election, when voters rallied around the independent candidate Martin Bell to trounce the supposedly safe Tory MP Neil Hamilton. Citing a recent letter co-signed by the Greens, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru condemning Tory rhetoric on immigrants, Bartley points out that smaller parties are already finding ways to magnify their voice. The fact the party backed down on listing foreign workers was, he argued, “a significant win”. 

As for true electoral reform, in 2011, a referendum on changing Britain's rigid first past the post system failed miserably. But the dismal polls for the Labour party, could, Lucas thinks, open up a fresh debate.

“More and more people in the Labour party recognise now that no matter who their leader is, their chance of getting an outright majority at the next election is actually vanishingly small,” she said. “It’s in their interests to support electoral reform. That's the game changer.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.