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.