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
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.