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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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.