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.
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.