Fire in its belly

The models and solutions on offer at Findhorn are not off-the-peg selections aimed at bored shoppers

Last week’s blog saw me down at the Green Heart of Hawick festival, celebrating GEN’s recognition that the battle for sustainability would be won on the streets of our villages, towns and cities, with ecovillages more akin to research laboratories than models to be widely replicated.

And yet, as I come back from another working weekend away – this time in Sweden (of which, more below) – I realise that this is not the whole story.

Re-entering the community is to be plugged into a living, thriving experiment in sustainability – rather as if dry theories on carbon footprint reduction had leapt off the page of their own volition to form a vibrant 3-D reality.

As I walk back into Findhorn on Monday early evening, the wind turbines are merrily dancing in the breeze, generating enough juice for the community here with plenty left to share with the national grid. Food scraps from the garden are making the journey back to the farm’s compost piles – with such sandy soils, soil enrichment is never-ending work.

Moray Arts Centre visitors



Visitors are leaving the just-opened exhibition in the Moray Arts Centre – as far as we know the UK’s only carbon-neutral arts centre, equipped with hyper-efficient lighting, geo-thermal heating and photo-voltaic panels that also export juice to the grid.

Meanwhile, in our main meeting area, a group of sixty community members – what!......on a sunny, Monday evening, is this entirely healthy? – gather to discuss the evolution of our decision-making structures as the community grows in size and diversifies.

This is no cold and sterile laboratory. The models and solutions on offer are not off-the-peg selections aimed at bored shoppers in the sustainability saloon. Rather, the research that Findhorn and other ecovillages around the world are engaged in has blood in its veins and fire in its belly.

Dare we imagine a world in which communities like this constitute not just the research stations but, for some at least, the models they will choose to call home? Why not?! As Oscar Wilde has it, ‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at’.

One such emerging experiment is a retreat centre in Sweden called Angsbacka, around which a small community intends to build a village on ecological design principles. It was here that I spent this last weekend, facilitating their process of creating a shared vision and transferring ownership of the site from private individuals to a cooperatively-owned association.

Outside Moray Arts Centre

Angsbacka has the great advantage that it is already an inspiration for many in Scandinavia as a spiritual and personal development retreat centre; its No Mind festival in early July has drawn upwards of one thousand people every year for the last decade. The aim now is to expand the initiative so that it also models and eventually teaches sustainable living on all levels.

There is a great hunger – especially among the young – for practical hands-on examples of sustainability in action. Angsbacka is one of a number of emerging initiatives across Europe and beyond that are seeking to respond to this hunger in a very immediate way.

Centres of research, training and demonstrations for the likes of Hawick, undoubtedly. However, who knows – as property prices tumble and cooperation replaces individualism in our energy-lite future, ecovillages may just also resemble the community model of choice for a growing number of people.

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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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.