Peripheral anomalies or centres of inspiration?

In his latest blog, Jonathan Dawson tells us why places like Findhorn still have much to offer


As recently as four or five years ago, my undergraduate students and I devised a game as a way of keeping ourselves cheerful. We created our own newspapers, filled with stories that we wrote ourselves, reflecting the kind of material that we wished was covered in the press. It was a way of grounding our visions of a more ecologically conscious and engaged world.

At least in terms of content, these colourful and creative clipped-together newsletters bear an uncanny resemblance to what you can buy today at the newsagents. Apparently out of the blue, our papers (not all, for sure) are presenting us daily with intelligent, joined-up thinking and writing, linking disturbing events in far-off places with their root causes in the over-consuming West.

And, just occasionally, as in our own self-created newsletters, there are reports of inspirational models and of community mobilisation in the pursuit of wiser and happier ways of living our lives and providing for our needs.

It is easy to forget just how quickly things have turned around, the urgency with which the serious media are suddenly engaging in the sustainability debate, reflecting rapid shifts in perspectives in society as a whole.

Superficially, all this seems to be great news for the ecovillage movement. After all, so many of the things that we have been banging on about for years – renewable energy, carbon footprints, downsizing and the merits of simpler, more community-based lifestyles – are suddenly grabbing the headlines.

The truth, however, is more complex. For, while as little as ten years ago ecovillages were clear ‘market leaders’, albeit in a marginal niche in which competition was almost non-existent, today sustainable community initiatives in more mainstream contexts abound.

In parallel, a combination of factors – rising land prices, tighter planning regulations and a more individualistic society – are closing off the conventional route to ecovillage formation. Almost all of the well-established ecovillages such as Findhorn were created twenty or more years ago.

In business parlance, (paradoxically, given the fact that in terms of foreseeing how society would evolve, we very much backed the right horse), the ecovillage brand is finding itself squeezed.

The question we face now is, given the difficulties inherent in creating new ecovillages and recognising that no more than a small minority of people are likely to choose to live in those that already exist, what in today’s changed world are ecovillages for?

Are we peripheral anomalies in a society that is increasingly mobilising in the face of the challenges ahead or do we retain some distinctive contribution to offer the greater cause?

Last week, a speaking engagement in Hereford afforded me the opportunity to undertake a tour of sustainable community initiatives in the south-west of England in pursuit of some answers to these questions.

The first and lasting impression was of the sheer range, diversity and vitality of initiatives that are sprouting up and of the new and sometimes unexpected alliances that are pushing them forward. The levels of excitement made me wonder whether someone has perhaps recently slipped something into the south-west’s water supply!

Too many fascinating initiatives to describe in any detail, but here are some of the highlights of my week. The Bulmer Foundation http://www.bulmerfoundation.org.uk/ established by the west country cider firm, is engaged in a coherent and well-put-together programme to promote sustainability in Herefordshire, including local food production, sustainable land management and a first-rate educational programme.

In Totnes, Stroud and far beyond, the Transition Towns movement http://www.transitiontowns.org/ is emerging as a model that is mobilising communities in the design and implementation of strategies for a low carbon future.

The emergence of a UK co-housing network http://www.cohousing.org.uk – I had the good fortune to spend time at the Stroud co-housing project, one of the movement’s UK pioneers.

The wonderful Thistledown environmental education centre near Stroud that combines beautiful sculpture with nature walks and educational materials on traditional, local farming practices http://www.thistledown.org.uk/

The Association of Sustainability Practitioners http://www.asp-online.org/ representing a hub for clusters of wide-ranging sustainability initiatives in Bristol and beyond.

Perhaps most surprising and inspiring of all was a presentation at the Bristol Schumacher Lectures by Nicky Gavron, Deputy Mayor of London, describing the astonishing range of carbon-cutting achievements already recorded in the capital and the scale of ambition for the future, including a commitment to reduce emissions to 40 per cent of current levels by 2025.

Answers to my questions are still in gestation, but I do return inspired and confident that places like Findhorn still have much to offer.

At present, I see our distinctiveness residing in three broad areas. First, to a society that still tends to look first and most easily to technological solutions to the challenges we face, ecovillages assert the primary importance of strong communities and relationships (both among humans and between humans and the natural world).

Second, ecovillages represent the apogee of citizens taking power into their own hands. There exists a can-do mentality that is likely to be important as we move into uncharted waters ahead where the state may be less able to provide for our needs.

Finally, places like Findhorn are simply incomparable as classrooms. Within these living microcosms of sustainability, with their closed loops and happy synergies, students simply ‘get it’ in a way I have never experienced before.

The interdependent nature, both of our challenges and of the role of ecological design principles in helping us transcend them become clear, tangible and exciting.

It is as centres of inspiration and education, and also perhaps as occasional refuges, that our gift resides.

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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear