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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A Fox among the chickens: why chlorinated poultry is about more than what's on your plate

The trade minister thinks we're obsessed with chicken, but it's emblematic of bigger Brexit challenges.

What do EU nationals and chlorinated chickens have in common? Both have involuntarily been co-opted as bargaining chips in Britain’s exit from the European Union. And while their chances of being welcomed across our borders rely on vastly different factors, both are currently being dangled over the heads of those charged with negotiating a Brexit deal.

So how is it that hundreds of thousands of pimpled, plucked carcasses are the more attractive option? More so than a Polish national looking to work hard, pay their taxes and enjoy a life in Britain while contributing to the domestic economy?

Put simply, let the chickens cross the Atlantic, and get a better trade deal with the US – a country currently "led" by a protectionist president who has pledged huge tariffs on numerous imports including steel and cars, both of which are key exports from Britain to the States. However, alongside chickens the US could include the tempting carrot of passporting rights, so at least bankers will be safe. Thank. Goodness. 

British farmers won’t be, however, and that is one of the greatest risks from a flood of "Frankenfoods" washing across the Atlantic. 

For many individuals, the idea of chlorinated chicken is hard to stomach. Why is it done? To help prevent the spread of bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter. Does it work? From 2006-2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an average of 15.2 cases of salmonella per 100,000 people in the US (0.015 per cent) – earlier figures showed 0.006 per cent of cases resulted in hospitalisation. In 2013, the EU reported the level at 20.4 cases per 100,000, but figures from the Food Standards Agency showed only 0.003 per cent of UK cases resulted in hospitalisation, half of the US proportion.

Opponents of the practice also argue that washing chickens in chlorine is a safety net for lower hygiene standards and poorer animal welfare earlier along the line, a catch-all cover-up to ensure cheaper production costs. This is strongly denied by governing bodies and farmers alike (and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who reignited the debate) but all in all, it paints an unpalatable picture for those unaccustomed to America’s "big ag" ways.

But for the British farmer, imports of chicken roughly one fifth cheaper than domestic products (coupled with potential tariffs on exports to the EU) will put further pressure on an industry already working to tight margins, in which many participants make more money from soon-to-be-extinct EU subsidies than from agricultural income.

So how can British farmers compete? While technically soon free of EU "red tape" when it comes to welfare, environmental and hygiene regulations, if British farmers want to continue exporting to the EU, they will likely have to continue to comply with its stringent codes of practice. Up to 90 per cent of British beef and lamb exports reportedly go to the EU, while the figure is 70 per cent for pork. 

British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths says that the UK poultry meat industry "stands committed to feeding the nation with nutritious food and any compromise on standards will not be tolerated", adding that it is a "matter of our reputation on the global stage.”

Brexiteer and former environment minister Andrea Leadsom has previously promised she would not lower animal welfare standards to secure new trade deals, but the present situation isn’t yet about moving forward, simply protecting what we already have.

One glimmer of hope may be the frozen food industry that, if exporting to the EU, would be unable to use imported US chicken in its products. This would ensure at least one market for British poultry farmers that wouldn't be at the mercy of depressed prices, resulting from a rushed trade deal cobbled together as an example of how well Britain can thrive outside the EU. 

An indication of quite how far outside the bloc some Brexiteers are aiming comes from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's current "charm" offensive in Australasia. While simultaneously managing to offend Glaswegians, BoJo reaffirmed trading links with the region. Exports to New Zealand are currently worth approximately £1.25bn, with motor vehicles topping the list. Making the return trip, lamb and wine are the biggest imports, so it’s unlikely a robust trade deal in the South Pacific is going to radically improve British farmers’ lives. The same is true of their neighbours – Australia’s imports from Britain are topped by machinery and transport equipment (59 per cent of the total) and manufactured goods (26 per cent). 

Clearly keeping those trade corridors open is important, but it is hard to believe Brexit will provide a much-needed boon for British agriculture through the creation of thus far blocked export channels. Australia and New Zealand don’t need our beef, dairy or poultry. We need theirs.

Long haul exports and imports themselves also pose a bigger, longer term threat to food security through their impact on the environment. While beef and dairy farming is a large contributor to greenhouse gases, good stock management can also help remove atmospheric carbon dioxide. Jet engines cannot, and Britain’s skies are already close to maximum occupancy, with careful planning required to ensure appropriate growth.

Read more: Stephen Bush on why the chlorine chicken row is only the beginning

The global food production genie is out of the bottle, it won’t go back in – nor should it. Global food security relies on diversity, and countries working and trading together. But this needs to be balanced with sustainability – both in terms of supply and the environment. We will never return to the days of all local produce and allotments, but there is a happy medium between freeganism and shipping food produce halfway around the world to prove a point to Michel Barnier. 

If shoppers want a dragon fruit, it will have to be flown in. If they want a chicken, it can be produced down the road. If they want a chlorinated chicken – well, who does?