The dog that turned green

Communities in Scotland and Brazil raise questions about carbon trading

I have just watched an excellent movie called The Carbon Connection. The film focuses on two communities, in Scotland and Brazil, which find themselves on opposite sides of a carbon trade deal.


The town of Grangemouth near Glasgow lives cheek by jowl with a huge BP refinery, that has bought the right to continue polluting by buying carbon credits through the planting of eucalyptus stands in Brazil.

The scale of the pollution in Grangemouth is scarcely imaginable given the proximity of the human population. The fumes are so bad and mysterious that one of those interviewed said her dog even occasionally turned green!

Meanwhile, in Brazil, the principal impact of the thirsty eucalyptus stands as far as local people are concerned is to dramatically lower the water table, emptying their wells and killing the plants on which they depend.

The two communities are taught how to use hand-held cameras and the film records their stories, the films they make to send to each other. It is profoundly moving to see communities talk to each other rather than through the distorting lens of the global media and so deeply to empathise with each other’s plight. Both communities thought their situation serious until they saw the problems faced by the other.

So, what has this to do with a column called ‘Life at Findhorn’? Its relevance derives from a debate happening within Findhorn and indeed the wider ecovillage movement over the concept of carbon credits.

On watching The Carbon Connection, one might come out thinking – "well that’s it then, carbon trading is simply a bad thing, end of story". But it is not that simple. In truth, there are many carbon trade initiatives that deliver solid and tangible benefits to communities – and ecovillages have great potential to be vehicles for just such transactions.

Ecovillages in Senegal, for example, are being funded to replant their mangrove forests and to introduce solar cookers. Now, as it happens, this work is not being funded through carbon trading, but it perfectly easily could be.

We could easily set up a mechanism whereby, for example, participants at the Positive Energy conference (www.findhorn.org/positiveenergy) we are organising here in Findhorn at Easter – who collectively will generate a fair amount of CO2 getting here – could be invited to make donations to fund such work in Senegal, or indeed in our own tree-planting or renewable energy programmes.

Perhaps, as seems so often to be the case, the key question is that of scale. Perhaps community-to-community, ecovillage-to-ecovillage schemes of this sort could work in ways that are life-and-Earth-affirming, enabling those of us who are heavy carbon consumers make the transition to a low-impact lifestyle while transferring resources in helpful ways to the global south?

Or are the dangers of muddying the message too great? If we say, "well, some carbon trading can be OK", will not the corporate spin-doctors respond in much the same way as they did with climate change denial – sowing the seeds of confusion as a smokescreen to permit business as usual? Especially so given that the great majority of carbon trading today is on a huge scale and probably resembles much more closely the BP/Brazil trade than the ecovillage model.

Can we run the risk of diluting the core message that we all need to dramatically reduce our carbon consumption as soon as possible?

Should we waste this opportunity to tie our gradual energy descent into the transfer of resources to sister communities across the south?

This is a live and open debate. We rejoin it at the Positive Energy conference. Why not consider joining us? – there are still some places available.

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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The English left must fall out of love with the SNP

There is a distinction between genuine leftism and empty anti-establishmentarianism.

After a kerfuffle on Twitter the other night, I am all too aware that writing something even mildly questioning of the SNP government is the British equivalent of approaching a lion pride on a kill. Nevertheless, seeing the almost hero-levels of mental gymnastics tweeted by Mhairi Black, in the week of the Hillsborough inquiry whereupon Nicola Sturgeon posed with a copy of The Sun endorsing her re-election, prompted me once more to consider just how spectacular the distance has become between the SNP that stood against Ed Miliband versus the SNP today and in government.

Mhairi tweeted: “So Kezia wants to put up the taxes of Scottish people to subsidise Tory cuts that her party supported in Westminster?”. Confused? So am I.

This follows in a series of SNP revisionism on what austerity is and the excuses the SNP has hidden, not quite so conspicuously, up its sleeve to not act on its new tax powers, so as not to break its bond with Middle Scotland. They insist that Labour’s plans for a penny tax are not progressive, and have framed it in such a way that an anti-austerity plan has now become a subsidy for cuts Labour actually haven’t supported for more than a year now. Just like that, the SNP is a low-tax mimicry of Toryism.

But it isn’t ‘just like that’. The SNP have governed from an economically cautious stance for seven years. For a brief period, they borrowed Ed Miliband’s clothes. But once the Red Wedding had been completed, they returned back to where they started: as successors to New Labour, though that is hardly fair: they are far, far less redistributive.

So why is it, in the 2015 election, and even today, many of us on the left in England still entrust our faith in SNP rhetoric? Still beat the drum for an electoral ‘progressive’ coalition with a party that doesn’t seem very happy to embrace even the concept of higher taxes?

My theory is that the SNP have successfully, indeed more successfully than any party in Britain, adopted the prime hobby of much of the Left: ‘againstism’.

‘Againstism’, clumsy I admit, is to be against everything. This can include a negative framing of being anti-austerity but not pro-anything in its place. But in this instance, it means to be anti-establishment. The latter, the establishment, is what Labour as a party of government always has aspired to be in competing to be the national government in Westminster - which is why elements of the Left will always hate it and will always vote against it. In a way, some of the left is suspicious of governance. This is occasionally healthy, until it prevents real progressivism from ever being elected.

While in government, Labour could be seen as sell-outs, rightly or wrongly, because they became the establishment and had no one but themselves to blame. The SNP are the establishment, in Scotland, but can nevertheless exercise ‘againstism’, even with new tax powers. They always will so long as Westminster exists, and so long as their main motivation is independence. This is why the bogeymans that sustain nationalism are not natural allies of social democracy; to achieve social democracy would be to remove the bogeyman. This means that the Lesser New Labour tradition within which they govern will continue to go unnoticed, nor be doomed to eventual death as New Labour itself suffered, nor be looked back on as an era of neoliberalism. The SNP can just avert attentions back to the Westminster establishment. ‘Againstism’. Paradoxically, the way the SNP have managed to come to exploit this is because of New Labour's devolution. Devolution has created, for the first time, the perfect environment for an establishment in one part of the country to blame the establishment in another. It has allowed for the rise of an incumbent insurgent. The SNP can campaign as insurgents while still being incumbents. It is a spectacular contradiction that they alone can manage.

Insurgency and anti-establishment politics are not, of themselves, a bad thing. We on the Left all dip our toes in it. It is a joy. It is even more fun for us to be successful. Which is why the celebratory mood that surrounded the SNP gains in Scotland, a paradigm shift against one incumbent for another, is, objectively, understandable. But these insurgents are not actually insurgents; they are the illusion of one, and they have had the reigns of power, greater now for the Scotland Bill, for seven years. And they have done little radical with it. The aim of an anti-establishment politics is to replace an establishment with something better. All the SNP have done is inherit an establishment. They are simply in the fortunate position of managing to rhetorically distance itself from it due to the unique nature of devolution.

This is why some of the Left still loves them, despite everything. They can remain ‘againstists’ regardless of their incumbency. They do not have the stench of government as a national Labour government did and inevitable would have. So the English Left still dream.

But now, with this mounting evidence and the SNP’s clumsy revisionism, it is up to the English Left to distinguish between genuine leftism and empty anti-establishmentarianism, and to see the establishment -via governance- as something to define for itself, to reshape as something better, rather than something to be continuously against. This is, after all, what Attlee's government did. The SNP have not defined the establishment, they have continued someone else's. It's up to us to recognise that and fall out of love with the SNP.