Inspiration from a new generation

Jonathan's second report from Thailand and the story of a young woman who devotes herself to that co

Still at the Wongsanit ashram, just outside Bangkok. The two meetings that I have come here to attend, along with around 25 other ecovillagers from around the world – a mid-term review of the Gaia Education project (www.gaiaeducation.org) and a Board meeting of the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) – have just come to a close.

Now, most of the meeting participants have scheduled in a few days of sight-seeing and travels. A small group of us leave in the morning for a two-day tour of several of the villages with which the ashram is working. The ashram really is a remarkable centre of spiritual exploration and social activism. It plays home to a community of around 30 mostly young people who are devoting their lives to spiritual practice and to empowering poor and marginalised communities throughout the sub-region – including Burma, Lao and Cambodia as well as Thailand.

The entire community is rarely on site at the same time – generally, a number of the members are always out in the villages working on community development initiatives or in formal training programmes. At present, a group of grassroots leaders from Burma is being trained by ashram members in leadership skills in a training centre in Bangkok.

Let me introduce you to one of the community members, a young woman by the name of Om. Om is 27 and has lived here in the ashram for around four years. Previously, she worked as a research assistant with Japanese academics in the villages of north-east Thailand, the region where she was born.

Growing dissatisfied with the sterility of academic research, she spread her wings and began working as a volunteer for various organisations, looking for a deeper sense of meaning. When she came to work as a volunteer here at the ashram for six months in 2003, she was introduced to Buddhist meditation and became progressively happier and clearer about what she wanted to do in her life.

Now, she travels between ‘alternative’ communities in Thailand, helping them to identify and satisfy their needs and to network with each other. The alternative communities scene in Thailand covers a fascinating mix of types. There are middle-class urban folk who have left the hassle of the city to reconnect with the land and a simpler, more land-based lifestyle.

There are also traditional communities that are seeking to resist the incursions of the ‘modern’ world that dismantle their local economies and cultures and that lure their young people away. A good number of these are ‘tribal’ communities, peopled by indigenous people who have lived in forest communities for centuries. Finally, there are Buddhist monastic and other alternative education centres that are also seeking to retain what is best in traditional Thai culture.

Om spends up to a month at a time, living in these communities, building relations of trust with their inhabitants and helping empower them to resist the steam-roller of modern, urban culture. She is especially devoted to helping young people create lives for themselves that are meaningful and satisfying.

Most recently, Om has also been active in international youth networking with NextGEN, the Youth Council of GEN. She was one of 20 young people who met in mid-2006 in an ecovillage in Mexico to build global networks of solidarity and exchange among young people devoted to a shared vision of sustainability.

Om is one of a new generation that is devoting itself to a life of service in the cause of social and ecological healing. Within the ecovillage movement, a new generation of leaders is emerging, under the umbrella of NextGEN, answering the call of the tumultuous and startling times we are moving into.

All these words, of course, represent only the menu. The meal will be served over the next two days as we move among the people and the projects in the villages with which the ashram is working. How many rich and inspiring stories wait to unfold for our delight and inspiration?! More next week – watch this space.

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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.