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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear