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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The Tinder dating app isn't just about sex – it's about friendship, too. And sex

The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, as I found out quickly while using the app.

The first time I met someone using Tinder, the free dating app that requires users to swipe left for “no” and right for “yes” before enabling new “matches” to chat, it was an unqualified success. I should probably qualify that. I was newly single after five years in a committed relationship and wasn’t looking for anything more than fun, friendship and, well, who knows. A few weeks earlier I had tried to give my number to a girl in a cinema café in Brixton. I wrote it on a postcard I’d been using as a bookmark. She said she had a boyfriend, but wanted to keep the postcard. I had no date and I lost my page.

My Tinder date was a master’s student from Valencia called Anna (her name wasn’t really Anna, of course, I’m not a sociopath). When I arrived at the appointed meeting place, she told me I was far more handsome IRL (“in real life”) than my pictures suggested. I was flattered and full of praise for the directness of continental Europeans but also thought sadly to myself: “If only the same could be said about you.”

Anna and I became friends, at least for a while. The date wasn’t a success in the traditional sense of leading us into a contract based on exclusivity, an accumulating cache of resentments and a mortgage, but it had put me back in the game (an appropriate metaphor – people speak regularly of “playing” with the app).

According to Sean Rad, the co-founder who launched Tinder in late 2012, the service was invented for people like me. “It was really a way to overcome my own problems,” he told the editor of Cosmopolitan at an event in London last month. “It was weird to me, to start a conversation [with a stranger]. Once I had an introduction I was fine, but it’s that first step. It’s difficult for a lot of people.” After just one outing, I’d learned two fundamental lessons about the world of online dating: pretty much everyone has at least one decent picture of themselves, and meeting women using a so-called hook-up app is seldom straightforwardly about sex.

Although sometimes it is. My second Tinder date took place in Vienna. I met Louisa (ditto, name) outside some notable church or other one evening while visiting on holiday (Tinder tourism being, in my view, a far more compelling way to get to know a place than a cumbersome Lonely Planet guide). We drank cocktails by the Danube and rambled across the city before making the romantic decision to stay awake all night, as she had to leave early the next day to go hiking with friends. It was just like the Richard Linklater movie Before Sunrise – something I said out loud more than a few times as the Aperol Spritzes took their toll.

When we met up in London a few months later, Louisa and I decided to skip the second part of Linklater’s beautiful triptych and fast-track our relationship straight to the third, Before Midnight, which takes place 18 years after the protagonists’ first meet in Vienna, and have begun to discover that they hate each others’ guts.

Which is one of the many hazards of the swiping life: unlike with older, web-based platforms such as Match.com or OkCupid, which require a substantial written profile, Tinder users know relatively little about their prospective mates. All that’s necessary is a Facebook account and a single photograph. University, occupation, a short bio and mutual Facebook “likes” are optional (my bio is made up entirely of emojis: the pizza slice, the dancing lady, the stack of books).

Worse still, you will see people you know on Tinder – that includes colleagues, neighbours and exes – and they will see you. Far more people swipe out of boredom or curiosity than are ever likely to want to meet up, in part because swiping is so brain-corrosively addictive.

While the company is cagey about its user data, we know that Tinder has been downloaded over 100 million times and has produced upwards of 11 billion matches – though the number of people who have made contact will be far lower. It may sound like a lot but the Tinder user-base remains stuck at around the 50 million mark: a self-selecting coterie of mainly urban, reasonably affluent, generally white men and women, mostly aged between 18 and 34.

A new generation of apps – such as Hey! Vina and Skout – is seeking to capitalise on Tinder’s reputation as a portal for sleaze, a charge Sean Rad was keen to deny at the London event. Tinder is working on a new iteration, Tinder Social, for groups of friends who want to hang out with other groups on a night out, rather than dating. This makes sense for a relatively fresh business determined to keep on growing: more people are in relationships than out of them, after all.

After two years of using Tinder, off and on, last weekend I deleted the app. I had been visiting a friend in Sweden, and took it pretty badly when a Tinder date invited me to a terrible nightclub, only to take a few looks at me and bolt without even bothering to fabricate an excuse. But on the plane back to London the next day, a strange thing happened. Before takeoff, the woman sitting beside me started crying. I assumed something bad had happened but she explained that she was terrified of flying. Almost as terrified, it turned out, as I am. We wound up holding hands through a horrific patch of mid-air turbulence, exchanged anecdotes to distract ourselves and even, when we were safely in sight of the ground, a kiss.

She’s in my phone, but as a contact on Facebook rather than an avatar on a dating app. I’ll probably never see her again but who knows. People connect in strange new ways all the time. The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, but you can be sure that if you look closely at the lines, you’ll almost certainly notice the pixels.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad