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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.