How do you end up at Findhorn?

Jonathan tells us the story of how he came to live in the world's most famous ecovillage Findhorn

So, how do people wind up at a place like this? Lots of reasons, really, generally embracing the political, the personal and the spiritual in ways that defy easy classification. As good a place to start as any is to describe my own journey here.

I spent the 15 years or so before arriving at Findhorn working as a development professional, living in Africa for most of the 1980s and then based in the UK, making regular visits as a consultant on community economic development. By the mid-1990s, I was beginning to get disillusioned and to feel lonely. Life lived out of suitcase, with precious little time between recovering from the last trip and preparing for the next one, was not fulfilling my need to belong within a supportive and caring community.

In parallel, the impact of economic globalisation made it progressively more difficult to truly believe in the effectiveness of the work I was engaged in. While the system was severing limbs, it seemed to me, we were dishing out Elastoplast.

I have had the privilege of working with numerous noble international and indigenous NGOs. Yet, rather than system change in favour of the poor, the marginalised and planet, it felt to me that we were increasingly being left to clean up the mess created by the distorted and destructive global economy.

Having reached the conclusion that the root of the global malaise lay in the North rather than in the South – in affluence rather than poverty – I started looking for ways of getting involved back here in Europe.

My first break with the conventional career I had followed up to then was to go and live with my girlfriend in a small community on the Dorset/Devon border called Monkton Wyld. I had a great year, learning how to milk cows, grow vegetables, keep bees and relearning the art of serious playfulness.

By the end of a year, however, while my soul and body were nourished, my brain was in meltdown. I left my relationship and the community, in the belief that intentional communities were cool and fun places that were keeping alive many of the labour-intensive skills we will need as we head into energy descent, but unable to provide the stimulation required by the intellectually curious and the politically engaged.

I remember arriving back in Oxford, moving back into a terraced house, feeling the sadness and isolation of everyone having their own little patch of lawn, their own little television set, their own ludicrously small pots and pans and stoves – these felt like they belonged in a doll’s house compared to the great hobs and pots we used to cook for 60 or more at Monkton. This felt like poverty of imagination on a grand scale after the communality I had experienced both in Dorset and in Africa.

Several years later, I found myself doing a course at Findhorn – how often has this story been told, of going for a week-end and ending up spending a lifetime?! A critical moment for me came when one of the residents started telling us about the work of Findhorn at the United Nations and in hosting Ecovillage Training Programmes that were bringing together activists from the global North and South. Another was when I attended one of the legendary Findhorn conferences not long after – Spirit in Education, it was called. It was unlike any other conference I had been to. Not only was the intellect respected and stimulated, but this was woven into a great festival of song, dance, meditation and beauty that truly nourished head, heart and hands. Wow, I thought – I want more of this!

So, now here I am, organising inspiring Findhorn conferences of my own – next up is Positive Energy: Creative Community Responses to Peak Oil and Climate Change in Easter 2008 that I have put together.

I do occasional shifts in the kitchen where we cook for up to 200, work in the gardens when I can get away from my desk, perform stories in our theatre or open mikes, teach on programmes and act as coordinator for the Global Ecovillage Network of Europe.

This is at the heart of what keeps and sustains me here. We are all multi-tasking, escaping the tyranny of one single profession. And while many of the residents here are apolitical, I have never lived with such a strong and dense cluster of world-workers and change-agents – working in the arts, politics, ecological restoration, peace and justice activism. It is a rich and vibrant mix.

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 deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.