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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Let's seize our chance of a progressive alliance in Richmond - or we'll all be losers

Labour MPs have been brave to talk about standing aside. 

Earlier this week something quite remarkable happened. Three Labour MPs, from across the party’s political spectrum, came together to urge their party to consider not fielding a candidate in the Richmond Park by-election. In the face of a powerful central party machine, it was extremely brave of them to do what was, until very recently, almost unthinkable: suggest that people vote for a party that wasn’t their own.
Just after the piece from Lisa Nandy, Clive Lewis and Jonathan Reynolds was published, I headed down to the Richmond Park constituency to meet local Green members. It felt like a big moment – an opportunity to be part of something truly ground-breaking – and we had a healthy discussion about the options on the table. Rightly, the decision about whether to stand in elections is always down to local parties, and ultimately the sense from the local members present was that it would be difficult  not to field a candidate unless Labour did the same. Sadly, even as we spoke, the Labour party hierarchy was busily pouring cold water on the idea of working together to beat the Conservatives. The old politics dies hard - and it will not die unless and until all parties are prepared to balance local priorities with the bigger picture.
A pact of any kind would not simply be about some parties standing down or aside. It would be about us all, collectively, standing together and stepping forward in a united bid to be better than what is currently on offer. And it would be a chance to show that building trust now, not just banking it for the future, can cement a better deal for local residents. There could be reciprocal commitments for local elections, for example, creating further opportunities for progressive voices to come to the fore.
While we’ve been debating the merits of this progressive pact in public, the Conservatives and Ukip have, quietly, formed an alliance of their own around Zac Goldsmith. In this regressive alliance, the right is rallying around a candidate who voted to pull Britain out of Europe against the wishes of his constituency, a man who shocked many by running a divisive and nasty campaign to be mayor of London. There’s a sad irony in the fact it’s the voices of division that are proving so effective at advancing their shared goals, while proponents of co-operation cannot get off the starting line.
Leadership is as much about listening as anything else. What I heard on Wednesday was a local party that is passionate about talking to people and sharing what the Greens have to offer. They are proud members of our party for a reason – because they know we stand for something unique, and they have high hopes of winning local elections in the area.  No doubt the leaders of the other progressive parties are hearing the same.
Forming a progressive alliance would be the start of something big. At the core of any such agreement must be a commitment to electoral reform - and breaking open politics for good. No longer could parties choose to listen only to a handful of swing voters in key constituencies, to the exclusion of everyone else. Not many people enjoy talking about the voting system – for most, it’s boring – but as people increasingly clamour for more power in their hands, this could really have been a moment to seize.
Time is running out to select a genuine "unity" candidate through an open primary process. I admit that the most likely alternative - uniting behind a Liberal Democrat candidate in Richmond Park - doesn’t sit easily with me, especially after their role in the vindictive Coalition government.  But politics is about making difficult choices at the right moment, and this is one I wanted to actively explore, because the situation we’re in is just so dire. There is a difference between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. Failing to realise that plays into the hands of Theresa May more than anyone else.
And, to be frank, I'm deeply worried. Just look at one very specific, very local issue and you’ll perhaps understand where I'm coming from. It’s the state of the NHS in Brighton and Hove – it’s a system that’s been so cut up by marketisation and so woefully underfunded that it’s at breaking point. Our hospital is in special measures, six GP surgeries have shut down and private firms have been operating ambulances without a license. Just imagine what that health service will look like in ten years, with a Conservative party still in charge after beating a divided left at another general election.
And then there is Brexit. We’re hurtling down a very dangerous road – which could see us out of the EU, with closed borders and an economy in tatters. It’s my belief that a vote for a non-Brexiteer in Richmond Park would be a hammer blow to Conservatives at a time when they’re trying to remould the country in their own image after a narrow win for the Leave side in the referendum.
The Green party will fight a passionate and organised campaign in Richmond Park – I was blown away by the commitment of members, and I know they’ll be hitting the ground running this weekend. On the ballot on 1 December there will only be one party saying no to new runways, rejecting nuclear weapons and nuclear power and proposing a radical overhaul of our politics and democracy. I’ll go to the constituency to campaign because we are a fundamentally unique party – saying things that others refuse to say – but I won’t pretend that I don’t wish we could have done things differently.

I believe that moments like this don’t come along very often – but they require the will of all parties involved to realise their potential. Ultimately, until other leaders of progressive parties face the electoral facts, we are all losers, no matter who wins in Richmond Park.


Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.