Family reunion

A community that has succeeded in redefining wealth in terms much broader than money income alone

Once a year, the European ecovillage family meets for a week of networking, policy discussions and fun – this is the GEN-Europe annual General Assembly. This years’ GA, to be held next week, will take place in a small community in the mountains to the east of Rome. We are expecting somewhere in the region of 100 representatives of ecovillage initiatives and other interested individuals from over 20 countries across Europe.


A small group of four of us – three GEN-Europe staffers and a council member – are using the opportunity presented by the GA to visit a number of other ecovillages in Italy. The three we have visited so far provide an illustration of the strength and diversity of the Italian network.

First stop was the Federation of Damanhur, high in the foothills of the Alps to the north of Torino, to participate in the three-yearly conference of the International Communal Studies Association. (Yes, there is a niche of academics devoted to the study of intentional communities. Many of these, unsurprisingly given the historical importance of the kibbutz movement, are from Israel.)

Based on a highly distinctive esoteric belief system, Damanhur is a community of around 1,000 members who live in shared houses of around15 members each that are spread throughout the length of the Valchiusella Valley.

Among the many impressive achievements of the community is the creation of a cooperative economy – complete with a community currency (the Credito), a credit union and many cooperative enterprises. In contrast with most local economies across Europe that are being flattened by the juggernaut of globalisation, Damanhur is flourishing and bringing economic life and employment back into the valley.

In a powerful piece of symbolism, several years ago the community took over a factory that was previously owned by the Olivetti company. This has now been beautifully restored and plays host to many of the community’s small cooperative enterprises.

Next, we moved on to the jewel that is Torri Superiore, a stone village in Ligura that can trace its roots back to the beginning of the fourteenth century. Torri was one of a large number of deserted or near-deserted ancient villages in northern Italy that have suffered from the inexorable drift of population during the twentieth century from the villages to the cities.


A group of 15 ecovillagers, together with their six children, bought the settlement in the late 1980s and have since been retrofitting it using a creative mix of traditional stone-work and modern, energy-efficient and eco-friendly technologies. Perched on a hillside where it appears to defy gravity, the retrofitting still very much a work in progress, the community hosts a guesthouse with a wonderful organic, wholefood restaurant. It has been discussing with the University of Genova the potential for using their experience as a model for repopulating the many other abandoned stone villages in the neighbouring areas.

Last on our Italian ecovillage itinerary was la Comune di Bagnaia located near Sienna in Tuscany. Very much a product of the 1968 student and workers uprising, Bagnaia is a left-leaning commune that has succeeded in maintaining a ‘common purse’ economy in which there is no private property and all earnings are divided equally between the residents. There are 28 of these, eight of whom work the community’s 200 acres. The community is more or less self-reliant in food and derives income from selling its surplus wine, olive oil and honey. It is also an important cultural resource for the surrounding area, hosting choirs, folk-dancing and workshops.


In an increasingly individualistic world, that has seen many other communities abandon their common purse economies in favour of at least part-privatisation, Bagnaia has found a way of maintaining its social cohesion and solidarity. This is a community that has succeeded in redefining wealth in terms much broader than money income alone. By any standards, they are very wealthy.

These various settlements may be small, but they are dense centres of innovation. They represent social end economic experiments that have the potential to provide models for the transformation of our societies in ways that could make them more sustainable, equitable and fun to live in.

Now, as we speed down the Autostrada de Sole, Sienna shimmering over to our left in the golden Tuscan light, we feel deeply nurtured in body and soul and filled with anticipation for the week ahead.

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.
Getty
Show Hide image

Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.