Soya and dreadlocks

Jonathan rails against the stereotypes heaped on ecovillages by the media

This last week, there has been much media interest in the community. This follows the official launch of the results of our ecological footprint study – the lowest ever recorded in the industrialised world at a little over half the UK national average.

This does not mean that we are lowest-impact community – even within the ecovillage network, there are certainly other communities with a lower footprint.

Take the Tinkers’ Bubble ecovillage in Somerset, for example. Their only concession to a world run on fossil fuels is paraffin for their lamps and two shared cars for the entire community, comprising around 15 people. Other than that, everything – including the beautiful houses they have constructed – is provided by the muscle power of horses and people.

By comparison, we are energy spendthrifts. Still, as a community among whose aims are to create a model that can be widely replicated and to provide education for people from around the world, our score is excellent. Above all else, it demonstrates that it is possible to make significant reductions in the size of a community’s footprint without eating into the quality of life of its residents.

However, there remains a certain problem of communication. The image of ecovillages as hippy enclaves that are of little relevance to the rest of the world is proving hard to shake off.

Paul Kingsnorth, writing this month in The Ecologist, a journal one would have thought might be sympathetic, writes dismissively of ecovillages as ‘fringe concerns, inhabited by people who set themselves apart from wider society’.

His piece makes derisive mention of two of the old, tired stereotypes – dreadlocks and soya. In fact, I know of no one here with dreadlocks (although there is, admittedly, a taste for soya products). Mobile phones, suits and ties – while being a long way from the norm – are in far greater supply!

Similarly, The Scotsman gave pride of place in its Thursday edition this week to the town of Biggar in Lanarkshire, that is setting off on the journey towards becoming Scotland’s first carbon-neutral community.

A small footnote at the bottom of the article refers to the Findhorn footprint result. No mention is made of Findhorn in The Scotsman’s editorial on the subject that concludes with the line: ‘Well done Biggar: sometimes someone has to be the first to make the leap of the imagination.’

There is a gap to be bridged here. The world has moved on. What were seen as the concerns of the lunatic fringe just a couple of decades ago – complementary therapies, renewable energy, ecological footprints, meditation and so on – have become more or less mainstream.

Today, as we stand on the brink of an unprecedented energy descent, with imminent peaking in the availability of oil and gas, the sorts of concerns that ecovillages have been exploring for decades are now at the top of the political agenda. Findhorn and communities like it are hosting university students, working hand-in-hand with the United Nations and forming ever-closer partnerships with local government administrations.

The days of separation, thank goodness, are past. It is all hands to the pumps in the creation of a society comprised of more truly democratic, decentralised and self-reliant communities.

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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.