Treading lightly on the planet

The results of Findhorn's ecological footprint analysis are encouraging - but there is still work to

We have just received the results of our ecological footprint analysis (a tool for measuring resource use) and the results are pretty encouraging. In fact, as far as we can tell, it is the lowest footprint ever recorded for any community (of any type or size) in the industrialised world. We weigh in at just a fraction over half the UK national average: 2.71 as compared to 5.4 hectares per capita.

The funny thing is that the initial reaction of many in the community to the results was somewhat sceptical. All our communications with the academic consultants responsible for the study were aimed at getting them to adjust our footprint upwards rather than down.

However, the consultants consistently came back with solid explanations, singling out several key characteristics as accounting for our historically low score: the largely vegetarian diet with a high local and organic content; our four wind turbines that make us net exporters of energy; and the strong ethic of communality that means we share resources and have a low per capita level of energy consumption. (Though the report does not say so, a further important reason why our consumption is so low is simply that we pay ourselves so little!)

There are, nonetheless, some flies in the ointment. The first is that even though our level of consumption is relatively low, if everyone on the planet enjoyed a level of consumption similar to ours in Findhorn, we would still need around one and a half planet Earths to satisfy the needs of the human family. (We would need about three planets to satisfy the needs of a global population at typical European standards of living and a staggering five planets if we were all to live like North Americans.)

Second, our community economy as it currently stands is dependent on air miles – lots of air miles! Over 3,000 people per year come to do courses here. We offer a wide range of programmes covering spirituality, ecology and arts. The proportion of people coming by public transport from within the UK is growing. However, we are very far north – Inverness is our nearest city – and many choose to fly.

In a sense, this is an inevitable price to be paid by all training centres, accentuated to some degree in our case by our location. Our judgement is that the benefits associated with the provision of inspiring and empowering education outweigh the associated weight of carbon. True, this is a difficult call to make. However, we know of many communities and other initiatives inspired by time spent at Findhorn that involve the choice to live more lightly on the earth. No doubt there are many more we know nothing about.

Debate is also lively on how we can encourage course participants to come by public transport. And a meeting has been called for early January on how we can move towards being a carbon-neutral (or at least carbon-light) community. This will inevitably involve further extensive tree planting in the Highlands by the community’s earth restoration charity, Trees for Life, which has already planted over 300,000 trees and has pledged to plant at least another 100,000 in 2007.

Paradoxes and ambiguities still abound. While the average Findhorn resident travels less than one percent of the national average in terms of car miles (due to the fact that most people work on site, with no need for commuting), our level of car ownership is relatively high. The car I co-own with two others spends a good 80 percent of its life sitting idle in its parking spot. Moreover, our use of aeroplanes is not far off the national average – primarily a symptom of the fact that this is such an international community and residents feel the need for occasional visits back home to visit family and friends.

The low overall energy score also masks an uncomfortable contrast between the spacious, elegant, highly energy-efficient eco-houses and the cold and draughty caravans that still play home to too many of our residents. Replacing the latter with the former has proved more costly and difficult than had been anticipated – though progress is made year on year.

Still, these various anomalies point to the fact that we live in an imperfect world and that the folk who live here face the same sort of dilemmas as folk everywhere else. And (thank God!) that they do not always “get it right” and sometimes make choices that illustrate the frailty of the shared human condition and the kinds of sad and compromised choices we all have to make.

But at the end of the day, these results shout out one message loud and clear above all the others. Namely, to significantly reduce one’s impact on the Earth does not necessarily need to entail suffering and deprivation. Living in a sharing community is not just fun. It also happens to be the best single strategy for reducing levels of consumption. In practical terms, this is because of the sharing of resources involved. However, it also underscores a more profound truth: owning lots of things is no compensation for a life spent within a network of high-quality relationships in a human-scale community. The need for consumerist toys drops when our true needs are met.

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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage