The Transition Town concept

Jonathan Dawson suggests that ecovillages are moving toward encouraging Transition Towns, which allo

A great thing about living in such a large community (I know that the 500 or so souls who call this place home may not seem like a major conurbation to any Londoners reading this blog, but it is large by the standard of most ecovillages) is the scale of diversity that it affords. The place often feels like a small village that believes itself to be an unusually dynamic, medium-sized town, with so much happening on so many different fronts.


An interesting recently-launched initiative involving a number of community members is the creation of a Transition Town group in our local town, Forres. The Transition Towns concept is elegant and powerful and may just be the saving of us all.

For participating communities, it involves a three-step process. First, acknowledge the strong probability that in the near future, our communities are going to have much less cheap energy available to them than at present. Second, recognise that pretty much all our systems – for food production, clothing, house-building, making a living – are more or less completely dependent on the availability of cheap energy sources. Third, embrace the reality of energy descent as an opportunity to re-design our communities and entire societies along more human-scale, inclusive, equitable and convivial lines.

Now, you could say that this is what we have been doing here for decades, that Findhorn already is a Transition Town (or rather, Transition Village that believes itself to be a town). However, the point about the Transition Town concept – and what makes it so alive and popular at present – is that it offers a way for everyone to get involved in the work of creating sustainable communities, not just those choosing to live in ecovillages whose core purpose is finding ways of living lightly on the earth.

A key weakness of the ecovillage model in today’s world is that it lacks an effective replication strategy. Almost all of the large and well-established ecovillages like Findhorn were created in the 1960s and 70s at a time of low land prices and lax planning regulations. While some new ecovillages are forming, they are few in number and tend to face prodigious difficulties in finding affordable land and in winning planning permission.

So it is that our month-long ecovillage training programmes have, for the most part, shifted from being courses in how to create ecovillages into immersion experiences in ecovillages (from which participants emerge inspired and better resourced to be able to get stuck into building sustainability back in their home places).

We have an ecovillage training programme in Findhorn at the moment - 25 or so people from across Europe come here for a month of deep exploration of the four key elements of sustainability: technology, economy, spirituality (or world views) and the social dimension of sustainability.

I teach the economy module and, as ever, find myself divided between focusing on the specificity of creating and nurturing ecovillage-level economies or on looking more widely at the challenges and opportunities facing local economies in society at large. This time, as is generally the case, the predominant demand was for the latter. I find myself with increasing frequency pointing course participants to the Transition Town rather than the ecovillage model as the vehicle for their new-found enthusiasm.

I see ecovillages like Findhorn as having many parallels to monasteries. Does this sound sad and gloomy? This is not the way I experience it. Think of Iona and the other great Celtic monasteries created by Colomba, Brendan, Patrick and others. These were centres of light, dedicated to keeping alive the flames of learning and beauty during a dark age in European civilisation.

The role of ecovillages in the wider push towards sustainability is still unclear in this age when the traditional door to organic community development from the ground up is all but closed off. However, if our contribution is to be no more than as centres of deep experimentation, removing ourselves a little from the world in order to better be able to dream it anew, and then to manifest and communicate that vision through training, this is a lineage that I embrace with pride.

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 UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder