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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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