Making Ends Meet

Balancing the needs for a business head alongside the ethics of the ecovillage movement hasn't alway

With every passing week, no fewer than three or four requests for assistance land in my email box from folk around the world wanting to create ecovillages.

This message I received yesterday, with the subject line “help required”, gives a representative flavour: “At present I am planning an ecovillage of sorts in Central America or any part of the developing world that is in dire need of social development through sustainable living and the protection of their environment…….The reason I am writing to your organisation is to find technical advisors and directors in the fields of, sustainable living, organic farming, animal husbandry, organic housing construction, community planning, holistic medicine, child development, water and waste management, eco energy production.”

Great!…….ah, but here is the rub: “These technical advisors will be paid a basic wage with a company profit share and accommodation benefits (free house)”. In other words, what is on offer is the opportunity for experienced, professional people to go build an ecovillage in Central America for local basic wages and a roof over their heads.

This sparks images of the great international solidarity camps of the 1980s – with young people heading off to bring in the cocoa harvest in Ghana or to show solidarity with Sandinista or Zapatista rebels.

Indeed, it is also redolent of the heroic phase of the creation of many ecovillages. Most have in their archives photos of great work-parties out building the new Jerusalem – digging trenches, erecting buildings and working in the fields.

One hopes that the radicalism of those days is not entirely behind us – indeed, dear reader, let me assure you that it is not. However, many of those among the youthful work-teams who stayed on to make their home in the ecovillages they helped build are now esteemed professional men and women. A good number of them now make their living using the skills they developed while creating their communities.

This morning in the community café, the Blue Angel, I sit at the next table to Randy Clinger, a fine artist, who has led a successful campaign to raise £400,000 to build a regional art centre here in the community. (I write this to the rhythm of hammers falling on the building site just across the way where it is taking form.)

In another corner of the café, two friends, Michael Shaw and Alex Walker, both older-timers in the community with decades of experience as consultants behind them, are discussing the performance of the new wind park they helped to create – weighing in at over £600,000 and comprising four wind turbines that make us net electricity exporters.

On the journey back from the café to my office, I bump into Alan Watson, Director of the award-winning Trees for Life charity that he helped create 25 years ago. Trees for Life has planted over 300,000 native trees in the Highlands of Scotland and plans to plant a further 100,000 in 2007 alone. I myself have spent 15 years working as a consultant in Africa, working on local economic development initiatives for clients as diverse as the World Bank, the UN and a host of NGOs.

And yet, as soon as we don our ‘ecovillage’ hats, it is apparently assumed that we will work for subsistence wages – if not for free! This curious fact betrays the strongly voluntaristic foundations of the ecovillage movement – created by visionaries turning their backs on misguided mainstream society. Solidarity within and between ecovillages was seen as paramount in a context of indifference or even open hostility from neighbouring indigenous populations.

However, this has changed – and it has changed fast. Many who were scornful of ecovillages as recently as a decade ago are now coming to realise that we were perhaps not after all barking up the wrong tree – nor barking mad. Meditation and complementary therapies have now become mainstream. Green is the colour of the age. And as local authorities ponder the environmental performance targets they have been set, they notice that ecovillages have been laboratories for just the sorts of technologies that they need to understand and adopt.

This is great news. We are seeing the development of a growing number of partnerships between ecovillages and local authorities across the world, and this is providing a much-needed source of income for many. However, the transition has not come without its growing pains as the suit and tie occasionally replace the overalls and as we learn to renegotiate our relationship with money, with power – and with those looking for advice for free.

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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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war