Let's work together

Much of what eco-villages began doing decades ago is being adopted by the mainstream

Something wonderful is happening within the world of ‘alternative’ communities at present. This movement, whose very raison d’être is grounded in a comprehensive rejection of mainstream society – seeing it as being so misguided in its orientation that it makes little sense to try to reform it from within – is today seeing a growing number of alliances with that very society from which it has been so alienated!

Ecovillages around the world are building partnerships with local government, universities, enterprise promotion agencies and other community-based organisations. This trend is very much in evidence here at Findhorn. A new United Nations sustainability training centre opened last year, with the Moray Council, our local administration, as full partners.

We teach two accredited semesters per year to students from US universities and host visits from many UK colleges and school. A group of consultants based within the community is engaged in several mainstream sustainability initiatives, including advising the Cairngorn National park on how to reduce its carbon footprint, designing a model carbon-free island off the west coast of Scotland and working on the design of a new, a low-impact settlement of 60,000 people in the south-east of England.

A partnership initiative closer to home brings our community-supported agriculture (CSA) scheme, EarthShare, into partnership with the Highlands and Islands Local Food Network.


CSAs are an ingenious idea whose aim is to increase people’s connection to local food and to support local – and generally organic – farmers. CSA subscribers commit themselves financially to the scheme for a year in return for which they get a weekly box of vegetables. EarthShare – Britain’s oldest and largest organic CSA – is somewhat exceptional in that it delivers vegetable boxes every week of the year.

This reduces food miles (in the case of EarthShare, the furthest farm is only five miles from the community) and dispenses with the need for wasteful packaging. Moreover, with around 50 types of organic vegetables and soft fruit, EarthShare is doing its bit to promote biodiversity. The harvest is shared between the subscribers – in a bumper year, the boxes are full to bursting; in a lean year, they are merely generous. This gives us cheaper food than at the local supermarket (just think about how many middle-men are cut out) and guarantees a good income for the farmer.

EarthShare has been used by years for demonstration and training purposes by the Soil Association, Britain’s leading promoter of organic food. Now, it is playing a similar function for the Highlands and Islands Local Food Network. Currently, eight trainees from across the region are coming to Findhorn on a regular basis to learn to become organic farmers, with some specifically interested in creating a CSA.

I sometimes sense a feeling of unease within some quarters of the ecovillage movement at the development of all these partnerships. If mainstream society considers us to be appropriate partners, such thinking goes, we must have lost our radical, cutting edge.

However, I believe it is society at large that is changing fast. So much of what made ecovillages look strange and alien places as recently as a decade ago – organic food, micro-generation of energy, complementary medicine and a spiritual sensitivity – are becoming increasingly mainstream. Having stepped outside mainstream society for several decades, ecovillages are coming back into the fold, carrying with them many precious jewels gathered on their journeys.

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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How the Standing Rock fight will continue

Bureaucratic ability to hold corporate interest account will be more necessary now than ever.

Fireworks lit up the sky in rural North Dakota on Sunday night, as protestors celebrated at what is being widely hailed as a major victory for rights activism.

After months spent encamped in tee-pees and tents on the banks of the Canonball river, supporters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe finally received the news they’d been waiting for: the US Army Corps has not issued the Dakota Access pipeline with the permit it requires to drill under Lake Oahe.

“We […] commend with the utmost gratitude the courage it took on the part of President Obama, the Army Corps, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior to take steps to correct the course of history and to do the right thing" said a statement released by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s chairman, Dave Archambault II.

With the camp’s epic setting, social-media fame, and echoes of wider injustice towards Native Americans, the movement has already earned a place in the history books. You can almost hear the Hollywood scriptwriters tapping away.

But as the smoke settles and the snow thickens around the thinning campsite, what will be Standing Rock’s lasting legacy?

I’ve written before about the solidarity, social justice and environmental awareness that I think make this anti-pipeline movement such an important symbol for the world today.

But perhaps its most influential consequence may also be its least glamorous: an insistence on a fully-functioning and accountable bureaucratic process.

According to a statement from the US Army’s Assistant Secretary of Civil Words, the Dakota Access project must “explore alternate routes”, through the aid of “an Environmental Impact Statement with full public input and analysis”.

This emphasis on consultation and review is not big-statement politics from the Obama administration. In fact it is a far cry from his outright rejection of the Keystone Pipeline project in 2015. Yet it may set an even more enduring example.

The use of presidential power to reject Keystone, was justified on the grounds that America needed to maintain its reputation as a “global leader” on climate change. This certainly sent a clear message to the world that support from Canadian tar-sands oil deposits was environmentally unacceptable.

But it also failed to close the issue. TransCanada, the company behind Keystone, has remained “committed” to the project and has embroiled the government in a lengthy legal challenge. Unsurprisingly, they now hope to “convince” Donald Trump to overturn Obama’s position.

In contrast, the apparently modest nature of the government’s response to Dakota Access Pipeline may yet prove environmental justice’s biggest boon. It may even help Trump-proof the environment.

“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do”, said the Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Works.

Back in July, the same Army Corps of Engineers (which has jurisdiction over domestic pipelines crossing major waterways) waved through an environmental assessment prepared by the pipeline’s developer and approved the project. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe subsequently complained that the threat to its water supply and cultural heritage had not been duly considered. This month’s about-turn is thus vital recognition of the importance of careful and extensive public consultation. And if ever such recognition was needed it is now.

Not only does Donald Trump have a financial tie to the Energy Transfer Partners but the wider oil and gas industry also invested millions into other Republican candidate nominees. On top of this, Trump has already announced that Myron Ebell, a well known climate sceptic, will be in charge of leading the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Maintaining the level of scrutiny finally granted for Standing Rock may not be easy under the new administration. Jennifer Baker, an attorney who has worked with tribes in South Dakota on pipeline issues for several years, fears that the ground gained may not last long. But while the camp at Standing Rock may be disbanding, the movement is not.

This Friday, the three tribes who have sued the Corps (the Yankont, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes) will head to a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, seeking to increase pressure on the government to comply with both domestic and international law as it pertains to human rights and indigenous soveriegnty. 

What the anti-pipeline struggle has shown - and will continue to show - is that a fully accountable and transparent bureaucratic process could yet become the environment's best line of defence. That – and hope.

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