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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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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