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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle