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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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.