From megacity to ecovillage

Learning Brazilian style, with a little bit of song and dance thrown in for good measure

Very exciting developments in the ecovillage movement in Brasil. As part of an Ecovillage Design Education (EDE) course I am here in Sao Paolo teaching sustainable economy to around one hundred eager participants. This is a programme of Gaia Education, whose director, May East, herself a Brazilian, lives in Findhorn.

It is already very encouraging that 100 urbanites from one of the world’s great megacities should be so interested in the ecovillage model (in fact, far more were turned away than could be accepted – there were over 430 applications for the course).

Even more striking is the fact that it is the municipal administration that is hosting the course, in the recently established University of the Environment and Peace Culture (UMAPAZ) in conjunction with several nascent ecovillage developments in the city. The city administration is also paying expenses and airfares for the teaching staff, including three of us who have come from Findhorn.

The truth is that the ecovillage concept appears to be striking a deep chord here. It does not take long to get a sense of why this should be so. This is a culture that is unashamedly expressive and fun-loving. Singing and dancing come easily and men and women alike hug freely.

One gets the impression that Brazilians have a healthy understanding of the limitations of the technical dimensions of sustainability – the kind of stuff that we northern Europeans tend to be so focused on, like wind turbines, hybrid cars and the like.

For sure, these things are important. But without a vibrant human community at the centre, these machines begin to look like little more than a lifeless shell. Who wants to belong to any revolution that does not dance? – samba, by preference. The participants in the Sao Paulo EDE are in search of a path with heart and the ecovillage model is providing just that.

This is not to say that these are not serious students. Classes are generally in the evenings and the bulk of the students roll in from their day jobs hungry for engagement. Attention is focused and questions intelligent, right up until the final song and dance at 10.30pm.

This is applied learning: periodically, we break into 10 working groups where the participants explore how course concepts can be applied to their case studies. These are real life projects working with the landless, creating community schools and other sustainability initiatives in and around the city that many of the participants are personally engaged with.

Further confirmation of the easy marriage between the Brazilian way of being and the creative, holistic ecovillage model comes from another recent initiative.

La Caravana is a ‘mobile ecovillage’, an itinerant community of dancers, singers, poets and assorted performers that has been travelling around Latin America in a small fleet of multi-coloured trucks for the last decade.

Its core work, dressed up in the outfit of a clown, is the serious business of teaching about permaculture and sustainability through the medium of the arts.

Two years ago, Brazil’s minister of culture, the internationally-acclaimed singer, Gilberto Gil, described La Caravana as "the most original socio-cultural project in Latin America". Today, La Caravana is funded by the Ministry of Culture to travel the country, mobilising and empowering a network of more than 500 ‘Living Culture’ projects (community-based cultural organisations) established by the Ministry in 2003.

At the heart of the ecovillage concept is the truth that the journey towards sustainability is at least as much about creative expression within human-scale communities as it is about technical fixes. Is it really any surprise that the Brazilians are finding this so easy to grasp?

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.
Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.