Heading in for winter

The appearance of geese high in the northern sky after they've left their summer breeding ground in the Artic and head for over-wintering pastures signals a turning point in the year.

It is one that ties us in with the natural rhythms of this place and within the ecovillage where I live, Findhorn, we make every effort to reconnect with the patterns and flows of the natural world and with the traditions of our ancestors who lived here. Full moons are marked with meditations. We celebrate the old Celtic festivals – Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasa and Samhain – as well as the equinoxes and solstices with bonfires, songs and dances. But nothing we can concoct ties us in so magically and so surely with the web of life that surrounds us as these moments of the year when the geese arrive, and then depart again in spring.

To me at least it is unsurprising a blog aimed at exploring life in an ecovillage should begin with geese. For sure, the visitor to Findhorn is greeted with much of the conventional hardware that might be expected in an ecovillage. The first sight of the community from most angles is the four wind turbines, standing proud and tall, that make us net exporters of electricity. In the settlement itself, housing designed according to ecological principles is progressively replacing the caravans that housed the community pioneers who first settled here in the early 1960s; we have now built 51 eco-houses. A biological waste-water treatment plant – a 'Living Machine' – treats our sewage. A large amount of organic food is grown in our community-supported agriculture system, EarthShare. We have a community currency and bank.

Ecological footprint

Yet, at the heart of our lives is something less tangible. When visitors ask me 'Where can I find the ecovillage?', expecting to be shown the eco-technology or the houses, my favourite response is to whisper conspiratorially, 'It is invisible'. By this I mean that at the heart of what we are about is the creation of healthy and loving relationships – with ourselves, with each other and with the world around us. Our ambitions are much greater than merely reducing our resource consumption. (Although this is hugely important here. We recently received the results of an ecological footprint study of the community conducted over the last year which suggests that our footprint is one half of the national average – the lowest footprint ever recorded, as far as we are aware, for any population in the industrialised world.)

The core aim, however, is altogether more visionary and utopian: to facilitate a transformation in consciousness and to create a model of a happy and healthy community that is sustainable on all levels. This noble task is not without its paradoxes. The greatest of these is that, as a community built around a training centre, we are dependent on air miles. Lots of air miles. Around 3,000 people a year come here to do courses. A second is that while Findhorn has won admirers and partners in the United Nations, among universities in the United States (which send under-graduates to study as part of their degree programmes) and among activist populations as far afield as Japan, Brazil and California, it has had a harder time landing the impulse in its own Scottish backyard.

Over the coming weeks and months, I hope to explore further these are other dilemmas and to introduce you to some of the people wrestling with them. Two of the core metaphors of the ecovillage movement are the lighting of candles in the darkness and 'being the change you want to see in the world'. I hope that the stories I am able to share with you may generate some light and inspiration.

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.
Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 


Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.