Economic worries and divine intervention

Jonathan Dawson discusses the financial problems at Findhorn and the village's unique way of dealing

So, last week, I left the Findhorn Foundation dangling over the edge of a cliff (in the form of an £800,000 debt) and torn between divine guidance and economic discipline as escape strategies, with its bankers getting twitchy. In fact – I am afraid it is always thus with cliff-hanging episode-enders – the camera angle made the situation look more perilous than it actually was.

Though by 2000 the Foundation had run five straight years of deficits, a good chunk of this debt was incurred in one single necessary expenditure – the rewiring of its one of its two campuses, Cluny Hill College in the neighbouring town of Forres. Moreover, the Foundation had several million pounds worth of property assets and was never in any serious danger of going under.

Nonetheless, the very real liquidity crisis and the string of operating losses did raise important issues that went right to the heart of the community’s self-definition.

As explained in last week’s blog, guidance has always been core to the community’s decision-making processes. This has led us on many merry adventures that we would have been most unlikely to have embarked upon had we been governed by left-brain rationality and economic logic alone.

For some, this colourful and cavalier history appears to seen as proof that we are, in fact, exempt from the humdrum rules of the market. A number of senior members of the community, for example, left in protest when in the mid-70s the Foundation bought the hotel that now houses Cluny Hill College because it took out a bank loan to do so.

Such a course, so the argument went, was proof of a lack of faith in the community’s ability to manifest the cash necessary for the purchase. Since the decision to buy had been the result of guidance, so the logic went, we should have trusted that the cash would come in.

Similarly, by the late 90s, there was a voice within the community that the path out of our financial difficulties was by way of guidance and manifestation rather than self-imposed economic discipline. The former was presented as representing ‘abundance’ as opposed to ‘fear-driven’ thinking.

The then head of the Foundation’s management team, Mari Hollander, sees the period as an important turning point in the development of the community. Accounting systems and practices were improved, with each of the Foundation’s departments becoming more like cost-centres, with awareness for balancing costs and income. The Foundation received a few generous donations and sold several substantial property assets to members and supporters of the community.

Meanwhile, Foundation members rallied to the cause. A good number tithed and, where they could, deferred payment of their income to ease the squeeze.

In parallel, detailed decision-making, which had previously been in the hands of all the Foundation’s co-workers, was mandated to a management team – where it remains to this day. This team consults with a council of co-workers that sets strategic priorities on all key issues.

A five-year plan to get back into the black was designed. The goal was achieved in two years and the Foundation has made operating profits for each of the last five years.

Mari took a no-nonsense approach to the need for greater efficiency and financial savvy: “If we are to manifest our needs, we need to know what they are. If we are subsidising departments, we need to know.”

This is a down to earth wisdom that allows for the possibility that the divine may be found in the balance sheets as well as in the meditation sanctuary. That economic rigour and guidance allied with manifestation may be bed-fellows rather than in competition.

The trick, it seems to me, is to be aware of the financial bottom line but not necessarily to be driven by it. To leave space for the miraculous to happen, and to see economic intelligence not with suspicion but as a potential tool in facilitating the process. Do we have the balance right? Who knows? This is an ongoing and lively debate within an ever-evolving community.

An old traditional story has it that as the storm waters rose ever higher, a house-owner climbed up onto the roof of his house to escape the flood. Three times, rowing boats passed offering to take him to safety. Each time he refused to jump on board, declaring his faith in the Lord who he knew would come to save him. He drowned and went to Heaven where he asked God why He had let him down.

“I tried three times!”, God replies.

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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When the world seems dark and terrifying, we shouldn’t feel ashamed to dream of Utopia

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there.

There are many cruel and routine lies we tell to children but perhaps the most indicative is this: if you tell anyone your wish, it won’t come true. This parable was probably invented by parents trying to avoid the trauma of not being able to give their children what they want but we carry it with us to adulthood, when it is repeated to us by our leaders. Don’t tell anyone the sort of world you would like to see – at best you’ll be disappointed and at worst you’ll be arrested.

“We want more.” This week, exhausted by the news, I dragged myself out of the house to a book fair, where I came across a new collection of utopian fiction by radical women. That was the first line and it stopped my breath in my throat. When basic survival seems like a stretch goal, caught as we are between the rich and the rising seas, hope feels like an unaffordable luxury. The precise words I used to the bookseller were, “Shut up and take my money.”

There has never been a more urgent time for utopian ideas, precisely because the concept of a better world has never felt further away. Right now, world leaders are deciding how many cities are going to sink before something is done to reduce carbon emissions. They are meeting in Paris, which very recently saw the opening scene of a new act in everyone’s least favourite dramatic franchise, “War in the Middle East”. We seem to be living in a dystopian trilogy scripted by a sadistic young-adult author and I very much hope that our plucky young heroes show up to save the day soon, even if there’s a clunky love triangle involved.

Dystopias are easy to construct: to paraphrase the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, you might as well pick five news headlines at random, make a collage and there’s your plot. Utopias are harder. Utopias require that we do the difficult, necessary work of envisioning a better world. This is why imagination is the first, best weapon of radicals and progressives.

Utopian stories existed long before the word was coined by Thomas More in the 16th century to mean an ideal society, or “no-place”. Plato’s Republic has some claim to being the first but there are as many Utopias as there are communities that dreamed of a better life. The greatest age of utopian fiction was the turn of the last century and it is no accident that the early 21st century is a great age of dystopian fiction. The ideology of late-capitalist patriarchy has become so all-encompassing that it no longer looks like ideology. Fredric Jameson observed, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” – and the reason for that is not that capitalism is the inevitable destiny of humankind but that we have spent our lives being told that even thinking about any other future makes us ridiculous.

Most leftists do have an idea of the sort of world they would prefer to see. We don’t say what we want for the same reason that we were told as children not to tell anyone else what we wished for – because it’ll be awkward and painful if we don’t get it.

When I think about Utopia, I think about my grandmother. My mother’s mother left school at 13, lived through the Maltese blockade and was obliged by religion and circumstance to marry young, suffocate all her dreams of education and adventure and spend her life taking care of a husband and six kids. Half a century later, I can choose when and whether to have children. I can choose to live independently from men. I regularly travel alone and there are no legal restrictions on getting any job I’m suited for.

The kind of independence many women my age can enjoy would have been almost unimaginable half a century ago – but somebody did imagine it and that is why we got here. A great many somebodies, over centuries of struggle and technological advancement, asked how the world could be different for women and set about making it happen.

Exactly a century ago, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland envisioned a society of women in which production was communal, motherhood was valued, relationships were equal and rape and violence were unknown. Reading Herland today, it is striking that for every proposition that came true – women are now allowed to divorce their husbands and participate fully in political life – there are two more that seem as far-fetched now as they did in 1915. Motherhood is still not valued as work. Women are still expected to organise our lives around the threat of sexual violence. But all that can change as long as we continue to ask for more.

For as long as I have been a feminist, I have been asked – usually by grumbling men – when, exactly, we will be satisfied; when women and girls will decide we have enough. The answer is contained in the question: because the instant that we do decide that we are satisfied, that there can never be a better world than this, is the instant that the future shuts down and change becomes impossible.

Utopia is the search for Utopia. It is the no-place by whose light you plot a course through a harsh and unnavigable present. By the time you reach the horizon, it is no longer the horizon but that doesn’t mean you stop going forwards.

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there. In the midst of multiple global crises, the only truly ridiculous proposition is that things are going to stay exactly the same.

Human societies are going to change beyond recognition and from the conference table to the streets, our best shot at surviving that change starts when we have the courage to make impossible demands – to face down ridicule and say, “We want more.”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State