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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.