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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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

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