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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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

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