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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.