Green heart of Hawick

Jonathan Dawson makes a trip to an environmental fair in Hawick and explains a recent paradigm shift

Green Heart of Hawick
I spent the weekend down at Hawick, a picturesque town in the Scottish Borders. The event was an environmental fair and conference called Green Heart of Hawick, put on by the irrepressibly enthusiastic Michael Shallis and his team.

The fair had everything, from films (including Al Gore’s "An Convenient Truth" and the wonderful "Power of Community" about Cuba’s response to its peak oil crisis), talks from a variety of speakers and exhibitions of local initiatives such as eco-schools, tree-planting programmes, compost making, local food schemes, allotments and the like.

It is tempting at times to despair at how few basic skills we have retained in our communities as the economy has globalised, but in reality, fairs like this demonstrate that the great British art of amateur tinkering has kept alive many older and more traditional ways of doing things. As if to reinforce the point, towards the end of Saturday afternoon, the town’s streets filled with an army of mounted riders, tracing the boundaries of the town’s lands on horseback in an annual practice that dates back to the 15th century.

I was there by kind invitation to talk about how to build and nurture local economies and how Hawick might go about creating its own transition town initiative. I have referred to transition towns in several previous blogs; these are community-led initiatives that embrace the reality of energy descent as fossil fuels run down as an opportunity to create more convivial and resilient communities.

So why, you might ask, was I advocating on behalf of transition towns rather than ecovillages? Why was I not trying to persuade the citizens of Hawick to model themselves on Findhorn?

Track back to February of this year, the most recent Board meeting of GEN – the Global Ecovillage Network – at the Los Angeles Ecovillage. There, a coin that has been wobbling on the edge for some time fell finally and firmly into the slot of our collective understanding.

This new understanding is reflected in the GEN Manifesto that emerged from that meeting. One section of the manifesto concludes: ‘…it may be of value for us to see today’s ecovillages less as ends in themselves and more as research, demonstration and training centres for sustainable community initiatives in conventional towns and villages worldwide’.

This is a substantial and significant shift in perspective. No longer, it suggests, is the good society that we promote to be created primarily by way of replication of the ecovillage model. Rather, the core purpose of these distinctive, charming, but somewhat artificial communities is to act as laboratories for the development of sustainability models of all kinds that can be scaled up into more conventional communities.

This insight comes to me as a breath of relief. The extent of Findhorn’s distinctiveness cannot be overstated. How on earth would one go about replicating such a unique model – especially given the growth in land prices and tightening of planning regulations over recent decades?

Just as we are coming to recognise that greening Britain’s housing stock will be primarily about intelligent retrofitting rather than new-build, so the building of a more healthy and resilient society needs to happen in existing communities like Hawick.

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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Not for the first time, James Brokenshire is making things worse in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland secretary's questions on Jeremy Corbyn and the IRA are valid. But he shouldn't be asking them for the sake of the Tory campaign. 

Consensus is an elusive thing in Northern Irish politics. But ask anyone how well James Brokenshire is handling his brief, and the answer from many is almost inevitably a variation on “not very”.

There are plenty of reasons for this. Some are fairer than others. But an overriding concern among nationalist and cross-community parties is that the Northern Ireland secretary cannot and has not acted as a neutral or honest broker in his time in office. They believe him to be both too close to the DUP and all too ready to take nakedly partisan lines on the issues that continue to disrupt the business of devolved government.

The legacy of Troubles violence is one such issue. By far the rawest of the disagreements looming over Stormont, neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP have brooked much compromise. That Brokenshire hasn’t been able to solve these issues in his 11 months in office isn’t all that remarkable.

One might even sympathise: few cabinet wickets are stickier than Northern Ireland, more so now than at any point in the last decade. Some – though not all – nationalists are instinctively hostile to his presence and think talks ought to be handled with kid gloves, preferably worn by a grizzled American senator.  

What is remarkable, however, is how prepared Brokenshire has been to make that situation worse – this time apparently for the sake of influencing an election his party is almost certain to win. On Monday, the secretary of state – who appears to have spent most of the general election campaign in his Bexley constituency – issued a statement via the Conservative party that challenged Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell (whose party, unlike the Tories, do not stand in Northern Ireland) to clarify their record on the IRA.

Whether these questions are valid – and they are – is irrelevant. What matters is whether they ought to be being asked by a serving secretary of state for Northern Ireland at this stage in an election. It is, to put it lightly, pretty difficult to conclude that they are. Here, not for the first time, we see Brokenshire moving in lockstep with the right-wing press away from the consensus – or at the very least sensitive, though not uncritical, engagement with both sides – so desperately necessary for the restoration of devolved government.

As I wrote when Theresa May called the election last month, the impasse at Stormont means this election cannot be siloed from the mainland campaign. I predicted that electioneering pitched at middle England will feed into the culture wars that still dominate Northern Ireland's politics. The province's troubled past remains a live issue and continues to disrupt the business of devolved government. It was clear that attacking Corbyn with the Lynton Crosby playbook will do nothing to defuse it.

And so it hasn’t. The IRA dead cat was of course to be expected, but for Brokenshire to be the one throwing it on the table is almost ridiculous. Some might argue, as they have before, that he has derelicted his duty as secretary of state for the sake of the shortest-term political expediency. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams says the flurry of Tory-provoked interest in Corbyn’s record on the IRA is a “distraction”. Well, he of all people would. But the underlying truth is this. If we can learn anything from the fitful past few years at Stormont, it’s that arguments over legacy issues are nearly impossible to mediate.

Not for the first time, Brokenshire has made his own job – if he intends to stay in it – much more difficult. And if he is destined for pastures new in May's victory reshuffle, then his successor will not thank him for the febrile and distrustful atmosphere he has helped create. 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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