Manifesto for truly sustainable communities

Raising the standard in ecovillages

Two things caught my eye in the New Statesman over the last week. The first was the emphatic thumbs-down by Sian Berry, UK Green Party speaker, to Gordon Brown’s new ‘ecovillages’ idea – the proposed pilot projects that will inform the design of five new ‘eco-towns’. She imagined they would “end up as sought-after, trendy developments whose residents, in practice, commute miles to work, shop in supermarkets and rarely walk or use the bus”.

The second was the policy advice given by a series of progressive think tanks and individuals to our prime minister in waiting.

Since I live in an ecovillage that goes a long way towards meeting the government’s carbon-reduction targets – we have the lowest footprint of any community in the UK that has been scientifically measured at around one half of the national average – it feels worth exploring why our reality is so different from Sian’s (entirely legitimate) fears and what policy guidance might emerge from our experience.

So, here goes!

Per capita car mileage in the Findhorn ecovillage was found by our ecological footprint study to be just six per cent of the national average. This is primarily because we generate so much employment on site – in the region of 200 jobs – that very little commuting is necessary. In addition, the community runs a fleet of small buses to ferry residents and guests between the two community campuses – that are around five miles apart – and there are many informal car-sharing schemes.

Policy implications? Promote mixed-use planning zones that integrate the residential with the commercial and industrial in a convivial mix, thus reducing the need to commute and provide advice and incentives for car-pooling.

Our ‘Home and heating’ footprint is 21 per cent of the national average – partly because our four wind turbines make us net exporters of electricity and partly because of the highly energy-efficient design of many of the houses. My near neighbour, John Willoner, had a total heating bill of £48 for calendar year 2006.

Policy implications? Encourage small-scale, community-based generation of electricity. This will involve greatly simplifying the regulations, assessments and studies required for small-scale projects that are currently broadly in line with those required for creating large wind farms: our pre-planning costs were in the region of £100,000 – far in excess of the cost of the actual turbines!

A predominantly vegetarian diet based primarily on local and seasonal produce gives us a food footprint 32 per cent of the national average. Policies to promote local procurement of food for schools, hospitals and other local government facilities could do much to promote a low food-mile diet, with extra employment generated in the agricultural sector.

Finally, an important reason why our community economy is relatively strong and able to generate so much employment is that we have our own community currency - Ekos. These, necessarily, keep purchasing power local, since the notes can only be spent in businesses in the community as well as several in the neighbouring village. In this sense, they are ‘un-travellers’ cheques’!

The promotion of community currencies to run parallel to national currencies would do much to regenerate local economies, enabling people to walk or cycle to work and school. As with the wind turbines, significant simplification of the regulations is required: much our largest item of expenditure in launching the Eko was lawyers’ fees.

None of this is rocket science. It is all sufficiently simple that we have been able to manage it with a minimum of official assistance.

Now, it may be said – in fact, all too often it is – that all of this is of little relevance since ecovillages like ours are so different from how most people live. Ours, after all, is a predominantly urban society. However, this is to miss the point. We have chosen to work on a small scale in a rural context since this makes it considerably easier to develop and prove the models. Having done so, the trick is to scale them up.

This is being done nationwide with gusto and imagination. We are seeing a proliferation of CSAs (community-supported agriculture box schemes) linking up cities with neighbouring farmers, urban carpools, community currencies and even, as in Dundee for example, some city-based, community-owned wind farms.

What is lacking is a clear vision and strategy at governmental level. Weaving cities back into the fabric of their bioregions and reviving local economies is both achievable and necessary if we are to meet our carbon-reduction targets. But, there will be commercial interests to face down.

The challenge facing our prime minister in waiting is not that of identifying policies to create truly sustainable communities – these are already out there in abundance – but the political will and imagination to champion and implement them.

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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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to back a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the department behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.