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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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.