The LA Ecovillage

Jonathan Dawson blogs about an alternative Findhorn, in downtown Los Angeles...

I want to devote my blog this week to an extraordinary development unfolding in a poor, multi-ethnic, working-class neighbourhood some 6,000 miles from here – in inner-city Los Angeles.

Why on Earth would I do that is a column called Life At Findhorn?! Well, first because we are part of a much larger global family, one of whose members, the Los Angeles Ecovillage, is engaged in quite wonderfully distinctive and inspiring work. Second, because I have just returned after spending ten days there, participating in the annual board meeting of the Global Ecovillage Network.

In terms of the general flavour of LAEV, in retrospect the die can be seen to have been cast right at its inception. It was the early 1980s and the original idea of the founder, Lois Arkin, had been to create a new-build intentional community outside town.

Then the Watts riots happened and LA burned in the heat of racial conflict. Lois decided that the priority was to work within rather than without. So, she located herself in the small corner of Koreatown – today very multi-ethnic but with a strong Latino flavour – where she finds herself to this day. The intentional community of around 30 of which she is a member sees its mission in terms of helping bring back to life the entire neighbourhood in which they live.

The two large, Mediterranean-style houses in which most intentional community members live feel like nothing more than great beehives, with a continual traffic of people in and out. On my first morning in the community, a group of kids from a local community centre working on a video project were filming within the courtyard, asking us about GEN and its relevance to neighbourhoods like this.

Later, great boxes of locally-grown, organic vegetables were delivered and community members set to work dividing them into boxes to be collected by members of the food cooperative. More people coming in and out, most stopping to exchange news and chat.

Several of the evenings I was there, there were also public speakers in the community’s main lounge, with the events open to the general public.

Then, there is the traffic out. One community member is working installing PV solar panels on properties throughout the city. Another goes out regularly to man the phones for a fund-raising drive by the local, independent radio station.

Others are off to work at the Bicycle Kitchen (an initiative born in LAEV but that has now moved out into the neighbourhood due to a lack of space), a workshop in which young local people are taught how to repair bicycles.

Community members have been involved in creating mosaics that now decorate the street, planting trees, sculpting a playful and beautiful cob bench (in the shape of a dragon), installing permeable pavements that allow rain-water to run down to the water-table below, helping design a small local park along permaculture lines and, most spectacular, working with local children to create a colourful mandala in the middle of the street.

Community members seem to spend a lot of time in this mandala – community meals, meetings, workshops, discussions – while the traffic slows and gently wends its way around them. This is part of a conscious effort to ‘re-educate the traffic’, as Lois puts it. One poster within the community shows a road filled with cyclists on one of the periodic Reclaim The Streets days. The poster declares: ‘We are not blocking the traffic – We are the traffic’.

It is great, if all too rare, to see an ecovillage get stuck in in an urban context, really working in cooperation with their neighbours and helping transform and humanise an entire neighbourhood.

Now, however, the initiative is under threat – and this is where you, dear reader, may just be able to help. The LA school department is planning to locate yet another school in the neighbourhood – there are several there already. This would entail demolishing 35 affordable housing units (all to rare in the city) and even more bussing in of kids from other parts of town.

The ecovillagers are fighting it tooth and nail and have set up an online petition asking the authorities to find another site. If you feel inspired, visit http://www.laecovillage.org/ and sign up.

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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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad