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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.