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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage