Returning to Findhorn

The Findhorn eco-village has had to work hard to avoid becoming a 'New Age old people's home', but i

Let me introduce you to Michael. Now in his early 30s, Michael spent the first 18 years of his life here in Findhorn before heading off to the US to seek his fortune and see how the world might look when viewed through different lenses.

Barely a day passed, however, when he did not think about the community where he grew up. And, in early 2002, just in time for the Findhorn community’s 40th birthday and the launch of his mother’s book, ‘In Search of the Magic of Findhorn’, he came back – and decided to stay.

Michael’s journey runs parallel to that of a good number of his peers and now, a happy group of the generation of children he grew up with here has moved back and today plays a variety of important roles in the community.

Michael notes two significant changes in the community compared to the one he left in the mid-90s. First, as it had grown in size and complexity over the previous decade, it had become easier for young people to stay on and find a niche for themselves in the community. Several of our enterprises – notably the shop, bakery and Bakehouse restaurant – actually favour young people in their employment policy.

On the other hand, and also part of the process of enlargement and diversification, the body at the heart of the community, the Findhorn Foundation, had shrunk back to its area of core expertise, namely the provision of educational services.

In the process, many activities that the Foundation used to finance and manage had been shed, delegated or sold off into private or cooperative community enterprises. One of the activities thus shed was the funding of a coordinator for the Youth Project, the core focus for youth activities in the community and also often attracting children and young people from neighbouring communities.

As a result, on his return Michael found that young people were less consciously held by the community than previously and that intergenerational conflict and misunderstanding were on the rise. He also noted a strong demographic imbalance, with a large gap in the community’s population between the ages of around 18 and 40.

This was symptomatic of wider trends in the community as a whole. For, with the Foundation clearly defining its remit in terms of the performance its core educational business and the welfare of its hundred or so employees, it became ever clearer that we were lacking an overarching governance body for the entire community, a majority of which did not and never had worked for the Foundation.

The Youth Project was just one of a number of areas of areas of activity that were in danger of falling between the cracks. Who was responsible for recycling, for care of the elderly, for decision-making and conflict facilitation outside of the community of Foundation employees? Who, in short, was to manage the community’s welfare state?

As you would expect in this place, necessity became the occasion for a fresh bout of creativity and the New Findhorn Association was born with membership open to and encouraged for all members of the community. Michael was one of a number of young people who got involved in helping to steer the NFA in the direction of more actively holding the young people and giving them a greater voice in community affairs.

Today, the NFA funds two part-time youth positions – one a project worker, the other a youth advocate who sits on the NFA council. There is a growing range of youth-oriented cultural and educational programmes. Findhorn is one of the core nodes of NextGEN, the Youth Council of the Global Ecovillage Network. And, if we are still not demographically representative of the population as a whole, the 20 – 40 year-old age group is no longer as sadly sparse as it has been.

Work, of course, remains to be done, a key challenge being that of providing reasonably well-paid and responsible jobs for our youth. But a corner seems to have been turned. One of the community’s pioneering figures suggested years ago that a real challenge facing us was to avoid the trap of becoming a ‘New-Age old people’s home’. If we have succeeded in at least postponing that dread fate for the time being, we have much to be thankful for to Michael and the other young people who have been so active over the last five years or so.

And the latest news from Michael? Well, he has recently come back from the most recent gathering of the Young Scotland Programme, a week of debates and presentations on themes of importance to Scotland’s youth. And, on the back of a keenly and passionately argued speech on the potential for renewable energy to transform our society for the better, he has returned glorying in the title of Young Scottish Thinker of the Year.

Bravo.

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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.