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.
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.