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.
Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.