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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.