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.
Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.