Sprats and mackerels

Are poverty alleviation and human rights work worth the carbon cost?

Just back from a return visit to Sierra Leone. I was working once again with MAPCO, the indigenous organisation engaged in poverty alleviation and human rights work that I spent time with in March. This time, I was helping them develop efficient monitoring and evaluation systems, to better enable them to track the impact of their work.

This feels like good and valuable work. And yet, how does this kind of activity sit with the whole carbon crisis? I pondered this on the flight out, while pouring over Mark Lynas’ excellent piece on the protest camp at Heathrow (In fact, when I had first seen the dates of my trip to Sierra Leone, I had been excited at the prospect of spending time at the camp. However, the more I read about the camp, the more difficult I realised it could be to move freely in and out – so, having signed a contract for the work, I prioritised the trip).

I have far more questions than answers on this whole question. Work like that I was up to in Sierra Leone is about building the capacity of pro-poor organisations and helping them develop tools for promoting the economic wellbeing and resilience of the poor through small enterprise development. I am one of many to have made a career out of this kind of work.

In addition, I am one of a number of people from within the global ecovillage family to have created a sustainability curriculum drawn from ecovillage experience – what we have called the Ecovillage Design Education (EDE). This training programme, that has been embraced by UNESCO as part of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, transfers life skills that will be of the essence as we head down the energy descent curve.

At present, the core EDE faculty finds itself doing a fair amount of international travel as we build the capacity of trainers in different places to deliver this educational programme. ‘Using a sprat to catch a mackerel’ is the analogy I have heard used to justify the use of carbon in this way to leverage a greater long-term benefit.

The issue of air travel poses a major dilemma to the ecovillage movement as a whole – certainly to the Findhorn ecovillage. On the one hand, a significant portion of our income derives from participants coming on our courses. The proportion of those coming from the UK has risen steadily over the years and now stands at about 50 percent. Sill, a good number of those continue to come through Inverness airport.

The sprat-mackerel analogy, however, still holds good here; many leave transformed, refreshed and better equipped to get stuck into good community development work of many shades and varieties when they get back home.

On the other hand, we are a highly international community. At any one time, between 15 and 25 nationalities are represented in our resident community. This generates a lot of what George Monbiot has memorably called ‘love miles’ – travel to meet up with friends and family on other continents. My wife is a New Yorker – I understand the dilemma.

The Findhorn community’s ecological footprint analysis gave us record low scores on most consumption categories (food 32 percent of the national average, home and heating 21 percent, car mileage six percent and so on). In one category alone, air travel, did we exceed the national average – by a factor of two and a half.

It is clear that government policy needs to change: a halt to new airport development; removal of taxes on aviation fuel and other externalities associated with flying; inclusion of air travel emissions in greenhouse gas emissions targets. Our top priority needs to be campaigns towards these ends. The time is rapidly approaching for us to decide where we want to call home and to sink our roots there.

In the meantime, as we effectively use our sprats to catch mackerels, is there not a case for continuing to undertake strategic international work – made possible by air travel – to strengthen the capacity, spread the skills and build the networks we will all need in the low-carbon world that is opening up before us?

The world of business shows little inclination to restrain its appetite for air travel. In this context, should those of us engaged in sustainability and global justice work unilaterally forgo the many advantages that continuing (at least in the short-term) access to air travel provides?

As I said at the beginning, more questions than answers.

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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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