Findhorn Records Lowest Ever Ecological Footprint Result in the Industrialised World!
Yes, it is now official — the Findhorn Foundation community’s ecological footprint is the lowest ever recorded for any community in the rich, overdeveloped world. We weigh in at a whisker over half of the UK national average (2.71 hectares compared to 5.4 hectares).
This is mighty big news! Perhaps the most cheerful finding to emerge from the footprint study (undertaken independently by the highly respected Stockholm Environment Institute) is that we do not need to live in caves wearing animal skins to achieve a significant drop in our levels of consumption. Indeed, most who have spent time here would agree that our quality of life is conspicuously high. Could it be that consuming less and living within a vibrant community might make us happier, after all?! This is indeed the subversive truth underlying the findings we have before us.
Let us look a little more closely at the results. Three major factors explain this historically low footprint. Of greatest importance is the factor of communality — that is: the high levels of sharing and of holding possessions in common. Most meals within the community are cooked and eaten communally, with up to 300 people per meal in the two main dining rooms. This involves a substantial saving in terms both of energy consumption and in the equipment needed for two large kitchens as opposed to many small ones.
Much living space is inhabited communally, especially at the Cluny Hill College campus, where around 40 community residents and up to 60 guests live. This permits a significant sharing of energy, with the entire building being heated by one single gas-powered boiler. The community’s energy-related footprint, in fact, is a staggering 21.5% of the UK national average, helped along by the growing number of energy-efficient eco-houses and the fact that its four wind turbines make the community a net exporter of electricity.
Communality is also reflected in a relatively low ownership of ‘consumables’ — that is, washing machines, lawn-mowers, television sets and the like (65% of the national average). Rather than everyone owning each of these, people share. There are community laundries. People gather in private homes for showings of DVDs and videos. Informal car-sharing arrangements are common. Moreover, the vibrant arts scene within the community — choirs, dance classes and community-organised sharings are common — reduce the demand for televisions and other technological toys.
The strength of communality was also reflected during the project process! That is, one of the reasons that the project was so successful was the willingness and enthusiasm with which the community participated. This included filling in the long questionnaires (more than 20% of all community members did this), contributing financially to fund-raising events to finance the study, and active engagement in discussions about how we can further reduce our footprint.
A second factor accounting for the low footprint is the relationship that Findhorners have with their food. Earthshare is the UK’s oldest and largest organic community-supported agriculture (CSA) scheme, supplying in the region of 200 boxes of local, organic vegetables with zero discarded packaging and no more than five food miles. Except in the most exceptional circumstances (turkey at Christmas and a haggis for Rabbie Burns), only vegetarian food is served in the community dining room — though residents are, of course, free to cook whatever they want in their own kitchens. Vegetarian food has a much lower associated footprint than does meat.
There is an effort to eat with the seasons, though this is not enforced in any rigid way; to find ways of working with — and celebrating — what the earth yields in this beautiful little corner that we inhabit. Two community residents even created a cookbook, Boxing Clever, crammed full with ideas on what to do with yet more cabbage, beetroot and cauliflower. Taken together, these factors enable Findhorn to record a food-related footprint just 37% that of the national average.
Third, there is enough employment on the community’s two sites for most residents, thus reducing the need for commuting to a minimum. The largest employer is the Findhorn Foundation which employs around 100 people. However, there are scores more: Scotland’s only solar panel manufacturer, the award-winning earth restoration charity, Trees for Life, ecological waste water treatment systems designers, architects, a school, a theatre, two cafés, a shop, a publishing house, artists and therapists of many kinds, eco-construction companies, small retreat centres, craft studios… the list goes on. As a result of the integration of residential, commercial and industrial uses and the concomitant low levels of commuting, Findhorn’s footprint for car use is around six per cent of the national average. (We do, however, choose to make substantially greater use of trains — six times more train miles on average, than the national average; and of airplanes — more than twice the national average per capita air miles.)
The vitality of the community economy is due in part to two innovations introduced in recent years: a community currency called Ekos and a structure (legally, an Industrial Provident Society) by the name of Ekopia that permits members and friends of the community to invest their savings in community enterprises and initiatives. Both these innovations have helped the community to keep its wealth at home and to encourage money to circulate locally, rather than leaking away as happens all too often with marginalised rural and urban economies. What one sees in Findhorn is the evolution of a cooperatively-owned economy, with community residents as shareholders in the community shop, in the wind-turbines, in cows on the local farm, in various parcels of land and, in the near future, in an initiative to provide affordable housing within the community.
Now, it is, of course, true that there is a significant cloud associated with this silver lining — that is, that at the heart of Findhorn’s economy is an educational trust that draws 3,000 people a year from around the world on courses. Hardly sustainable……
All this is true. Yet, there is much that we can learn from the Findhorn experience about the design of settlements that are both convivial and low-impact. Above all, it is that living lightly on the earth not only makes sense ecologically; it also makes us happier as beings! This, indeed, is the greatest gift of the ecovillage movement: the de-linking of levels of consumption and wellbeing. Our most subversive message is that beyond a certain standard of living (that almost all households in Western Europe have long since passed), greater wellbeing comes not through the lonely consumption of more stuff, but through the sharing and the building of meaningful relationships within human-scale communities.
Jonathan Dawson and Deniz Dincel
Global Ecovillage Network, Findhorn, 2007