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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.