Life in the goldfish bowl

For good or bad, television cameras have become an unavoidable part of life in the ecovillage

Another camera crew is in town at the moment, shooting another film about life in the community.

We have become a good deal more careful about who we let in with movie cameras following the debacle several years ago with the three-part Channel Four series, The Haven, that made us look and feel rather foolish. Our naive hope had been that the film would try to depict something of our philosophy and work in the world. In fact, it turned out to be a fairly standard 'reality TV’ romp that was interested primarily in seeking out the whacky and the tacky.

Still, even though we exercise more control than we used to, a good number of film projects continue to get the nod. We are no strangers to cameras moving among us as we meet, eat and go about our daily business.

The question of privacy in the context of research, training and demonstration centres that also happen to be people’s homes is a common one for ecovillages. The community at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Wales (a founder member of the Global Ecovillage Network), for example, mostly moved off-site when their visitor numbers grew to today’s levels of 70,000 per year. Just too much human traffic to make any sort of normal home life possible.

The theme is taken up in Violet’s letter this week in the Rainbow Bridge, our weekly community newsletter. Violet is a gorgeously irreverent teenager whose letters provoke regular frissons of delight as she dares say the things that most of us too-careful adults keep carefully under wraps. In this respect, Violet has one great advantage over the rest of us; she is fictional.

The address on this week’s letter reads:

"Violet’s bedroom
(What is like a goldfish bowl in summer)
Feeld of Dreams"

Violet has no doubt where the problem lies:

"I blame all the programmes on British telly what tells you how to bild a house or sell a house or clean a house or make a house better or sell or swap a british house for a house in spain and make money too. I mean where else in scotland can you see a big fancy ecohouse near a yurt near a barrel house near a rusty old caravan. We got like everything."

We have nothing like CAT’s volume of through traffic. Nonetheless, with around 3,000 paying guests a year doing programmes plus several thousand more wandering around looking at the houses, the goldfish bowl metaphor can sometimes feel all too appropriate.

For most of us, most of the time, this is simply part of the package that comes with the choice of living in a social and ecological laboratory. In fact, more often than not, my feeling is one of pride that folk tend to be so interested and impressed.

Violet seem to have a different perspective. Her letter this week concludes: "Chow for now fans. I just got to go and moon at some folk who have been starin at our house too long."

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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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era