Strange times

What a puzzling time to be alive. In the world that surrounds us, beauty and the comforting familiarity of seasonal rhythms. The ospreys have returned from West Africa and are putting on a grand fishing display in Findhorn Bay.

The last of the winter snow still lies deep on the mountaintops, glistening and melting in the now warm spring sunshine. (I spent last weekend walking in the magnificence of the Highlands and am now sporting a deep sun-snow tan.) We wait for the return of the swallows in the next week or so and the long, northern evenings hold out the promise of the return of life in all its fullness.

And yet, news carried on the wind speaks of melting ice, food riots and starvation and, closer to home, fuel strikes and long queues and fights at the petrol stations. Meanwhile, oil expert Matt Simmons declares it to be entirely feasible that petrol will rise in price to $300 a barrel within the next five years.

All this focuses our minds sharply. Since the end of the Positive Energy conference a month or so ago, there have been numerous gatherings to re-watch DVDs of conference presentations and to explore what the building storm means for us as a community and for the bioregion of which we form a part. Plans for basic skills training programmes are hatched and a hundred plans to build resilience into our systems take shape.

But how does all this news of the unravelling of the natural world and of global society land with the young people who are on the point of moving into their inheritance? Old enough to understand the implications but not generally yet in positions of power to be able to do much about it, how must the current unravelling feel?

We have with us at present a group of 13 students from US universities, here under the aegis of the Living Routes educational programme http://www.livingroutes.org/. I would say that among the strongest emotions they display is one of impatience and a desire to get stuck in, to ‘do something’.

So, while there is a general appreciation of the need for a sound theoretical understanding of how the world works – and how it can be made to work a whole lot better – I find with this group of students, as with none I have worked with before, a real urgency to engage on a very practical level. They demonstrate a highly commendable desire to use what power and control they do have to make a difference in their own backyard.

So it is that today, they are hard at work beautifying the area around an old RAF bunker (the land that the community sits on used to be part of the neighbouring air base). This involves clearing it out, disposing responsibly of the rubbish and creating ‘seed-balls’ – flower seeds folded into balls of the earth they dig out of the bunker that they will then distribute around the area at the end of the day.

This is formally part of their educational programme – their ‘service learning’ project, where they have an opportunity to create something of beauty for the community. Through the summer and autumn, we will remember their smiling faces as the woods teem with colour and fragrance.

This may seem like a fairly paltry response to sheer scale of the challenges that lie before us. And yet, all journeys begin with the first, small steps. To identify that over which one has control and to choose to exercise that control to create beauty is a fine first step.

The woods this morning felt alive with the positive energy of young people choosing to make a creative difference in their own backyard. They will carry the memory of the morning in the cells of their bodies – and all will be the richer for it.

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.
Photo: Getty
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Are the Conservatives getting ready to learn to love the EEA?

You can see the shape of the deal that the right would accept. 

In an early morning address aimed half reassuring the markets and half at salvaging his own legacy, George Osborne set out the government’s stall.

The difficulty was that the two halves were hard to reconcile. Talk of “fixing the roof” and getting Britain’s finances in control, an established part of Treasury setpieces under Osborne, are usually merely wrong. With the prospect of further downgrades in Britain’s credit rating and thus its ability to borrow cheaply, the £1.6 trillion that Britain still owes and the country’s deficit in day-to-day spending, they acquired a fresh layer of black humour. It made for uneasy listening.

But more importantly, it offered further signs of what post-Brexit deal the Conservatives will attempt to strike. Boris Johnson, the frontrunner for the Conservative leadership, set out the deal he wants in his Telegraph column: British access to the single market, free movement of British workers within the European Union but border control for workers from the EU within Britain.

There is no chance of that deal – in fact, reading Johnson’s Telegraph column called to mind the exasperated response that Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal and a supporter of a Remain vote, gave upon hearing that one of his players wanted to move to Real Madrid: “It's like you wanting to marry Miss World and she doesn't want you, what can I do about it? I can try to help you, but if she does not want to marry you what can I do?”

But Osborne, who has yet to rule out a bid for the top job and confirmed his intention to serve in the post-Cameron government, hinted at the deal that seems most likely – or, at least, the most optimistic: one that keeps Britain in the single market and therefore protects Britain’s financial services and manufacturing sectors.

For the Conservatives, you can see how such a deal might not prove electorally disastrous – it would allow them to maintain the idea with its own voters that they had voted for greater “sovereignty” while maintaining their easy continental holidays, au pairs and access to the Erasmus scheme.  They might be able to secure a few votes from relieved supporters of Remain who backed the Liberal Democrats or Labour at the last election – but, in any case, you can see how a deal of that kind would be sellable to their coalition of the vote. For Johnson, further disillusionment and anger among the voters of Sunderland, Hull and so on are a price that a Tory government can happily pay – and indeed, has, during both of the Conservatives’ recent long stays in government from 1951 to 1964 and from 1979 to 1997.

It feels unlikely that it will be a price that those Labour voters who backed a Leave vote – or the ethnic and social minorities that may take the blame – can happily pay.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.