Web of life

In his latest blog, Jonathan Dawson reveals the key to the continuing vitality of the Findhorn commu

So, we have come full circle. In my first blog, almost exactly a year ago, I began by looking up into the northern skies to watch the geese fly in from the Arctic to their over-wintering grounds. Now, they are back, lacing the high blue autumnal skies in exquisite sweeping arcs, filling the air with the wildness of their cries.

I made it clear in that first blog that I was making a conscious choice to begin my exploration of what it is to live in an ecovillage not with the visible hardware of sustainability – the wind turbines, eco-housing, waste management facilities and so on – but rather with the quality of our relationships, with other people and with the rest of creation.

The primacy of relationships and of community – the software of sustainability – seems even more paramount to me today. As I look back at over a year’s output of blogs, I can see that the researching and writing of these weekly vignettes has helped me come more awake to the richness and diversity of life within the community and to the multiplicity of ways in which it seeks to serve.

When travelling, representing Findhorn or the Global Ecovillage Network, I am often asked what is ‘Findhorn’s position’ on this or that issue or question. I almost always reply that, in truth, there is no one single position – that the Findhorn community is hugely diverse and one could often find as many views on questions of importance as there are members of the community.

This is a huge strength. Reflecting on almost all of the various initiatives that I have referred to over the last year – the green burial ground, the EarthShare organic CSA box scheme, the recently-opened Moray Arts Centre, the Living Routes educational programme that brings undergraduates from US universities here to study, the wind turbines, the Eko community currency, the link with the Kitezh orphan’s ecovillage in Russia, the cluster of ‘whisky barrel houses and so on – almost none can in any sense be said to have been created by the Findhorn community as an entity.

Rather, pretty much all of these initiatives have been the brainchild of individuals or small groups of individuals within the community. There is no master plan! Inspired, anarchic creativity comes closer to the mark. In this sense, the Findhorn community can be seen as a yin holding vessel that permits the proliferation of yang programmes and projects.

I think that this has been key to our continuing vitality. This is always a challenge for mature organisations; as operations become larger, more complex and inevitably more bureaucratic, how to retain freshness and inspiration? The way I see it, what is happening here is that while some of the more mature organisations within the community are passing into dignified middle-age, the raft of new, visionary initiatives being born keeps alive the spirit of vitality and inspiration.

I would argue that the aliveness and robust good health of the community lies close to the heart of this proliferation of new initiatives. Over and over again, I note that the dominant response to increasingly serious challenges, especially on the climate change and peak oil fronts, is one of determined (and often even optimistic) engagement. This comes so much more easily to a community built around a core of shared values that consciously seeks to be of service to something larger than itself.

So, another year has turned. Another intake of Living Routes students dazzles us with their creativity and sweetness. Another group of 30 or so social and environmental activists from various parts of the world – including Burma, Gambia, Chile, Argentina, India and Nepal – has joined us for our annual month-long Ecovillage Design Education programme.

And, high up in the skies, the geese sing to us of the long, slow turning of the Earth, whose children we all are. The pulse that sends them down to Findhorn Bay in their clamorous throngs every autumn is the same pulse that ties us all in to the web of life.

In the words of Mary Oliver:

“Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”

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.
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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

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. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage