Treading Softly

In a marathon effort to combat global climate change, one village in the Western world is standing out as a shining example of how to reduce resource consumption and waste - without its occupants compromising their standard of living and living a life of deprivation.

This village, in a groundbreaking 2006 study, recorded the lowest-ever ecological footprint for any community in the industrialised world.

"Ecological footprinting" measures the consumption of resources and creation of wastes. The study was undertaken by the Global Eco Village Network (GEN-Europe), in collaboration with the Sustainable Development Research Centre, with technical support provided by internationally recognised footprinting consultants, the Stockholm Environment Institute based at the University of York .

What the study found was that this village's ecological footprint was just a fraction over half the national average of its country. In short, this means the average resident in the village consumes half the resources and generates half the waste of the average citizen of its country.

So where is this pioneering village of environmental excellence? It's Findhorn in Scotland.

The Findhorn Community began in 1962 from humble beginnings in a caravan park and has evolved in four decades to become an example of global ecological excellence. It first became famous in the late '60s for its beautiful gardens grown in adverse conditions on the sand dunes of the Findhorn Peninsula. Today, Findhorn is known internationally for its experiments with new models of holistic and sustainable living. The Findhorn Foundation was established in 1972 and has grown into a major education centre conducting programs for over 14,000 visitors a year from over 50 countries.

In the study, the ecological footprint was calculated in global hectares (gha) per person. Findhorn residents and guests worked out at an average of 2.56 gha per person compared to UK residents at 5.4 gha. The footprint was measured in terms of food, home and energy, travel, consumables, services, government and capital investment. (There only area where the Findhorn Community impact was higher than national figures was air travel. This contributed to 70 per cent of the residents' travel footprint and was more than twice the Scottish average.)

Today, there is an urgent need to find sustainable ways of living with less that can be adopted across urban and rural areas throughout Australia and the rest of the world. The results of the Findhorn study provide a blueprint of strategies that can be used to reduce our environmental impact in Australia, without compromising quality of life and living standards.

Jonathan Dawson, president of the Global Eco Village Network, lives in Findhorn and is quick to point out that it's not a hippy colony packed with shack-style accommodation.

"A study four years ago by the local enterprise company into the economic impact on the north of Scotland found that Findhorn's overall contribution to the economy was £8 million a year and 400 jobs. It's clearly not hippydom."

Far from it. Around 500 people live at Findhorn within Cluny Hill, a former hotel that houses 90 people, and The Park which is made up of bungalows, caravans, 58 houses, eco-houses, a community centre kitchen and more. Aside from some straw bale houses, generally speaking the buildings are best described as state of the art, ecological, timber clad Scandinavian-style, ranging from a long terrace that forms 15 houses to freestanding double storey houses.

Aside from the largest employer in Findhorn, the Findhorn Foundation, an educational trust that employs around 100 people and attracts around 3000 a year on training courses, there are plenty of employment opportunities on site. For example, there is a solar panel manufacturer, the award-winning earth restoration charity, Trees for Life, architects, a school, a theatre, two cafes, ecological waste water treatment systems designers, a shop, a publishing house, artists, therapists, small retreats and craft studios - all of which reduces the need for commuting.

In terms of energy, Findhorn scored so well because it has its own wind park with four turbines. Only 40 per cent of what is generated is used, with the rest sold back to the grid. Most houses have thermal solar panels, wood burning stoves which are hooked into the radiator system (Findhorn has its own sustainably managed woodland) and several buildings have geothermal heat pumps. Findhorn's publisher released the UK's first technical guide to ecological housing and other notable "firsts" include Britain's first Living Machine sewage treatment system.

In terms of food, Findhorn has the UK's oldest and largest Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) system (as well as its own currency and bank). Jonathan explains: "Our food footprint is 38 per cent of the national average which is primarily because of Earthshare, Britain's first organic CSA model. Basically, the farms belong to the subscribers so the equivalent of 200 families own three farms and every year we share the harvest between us. Last year, we had terrible weather so it was a very modest harvest. Basically, we're sharing the risk between the consumer and farmer."

Food is grown locally - the furthest of the three farms is just five miles away from the community enabling food miles to be kept low. It's organic where possible, and seasonal, connecting Findhorn residents with their traditional food culture.

Jonathan explains that there is a harvest every Thursday afternoon and Friday morning. Every Friday lunchtime, boxes are packed with vegetables to go to two collection points. The local shop also buys a certain number of "family units" which it sells. Included in the 200 "families" are locals who live outside the Findhorn Community who share similar values.

Another factor keeping the ecological footprint low is a high level of communality. Up to 300 people eat in Findhorn's two main dining rooms. "The communal dining room is only vegetarian and where possible organic," explains Jonathan. "The biggest single category of people here are like myself, former vegetarians - people who are no longer vegetarian but whose diet is predominantly vegetarian. Within the community centre, most people eat together at lunchtime and some eat together in the evenings. There is turkey at Christmas and haggis on Burns Night."

Thanks to this cooperation, energy savings are made and other savings, too, in terms of consumables such as kitchen equipment.

Another form of communality is the cooperation involved in sharing possessions. "Around 90 people live in Cluny, with one big utilities room with washing machines and another big room with a television and DVD. In The Park more people have their own washing machines although there is a lot of sharing," says Jonathan. "The other factor is that people who work for the Findhorn Foundation are paid very little which is one way of keeping your consumption down."

Jonathan has lived in eco villages around the globe. "I chose to come here eight years ago after coming to a conference here because I was so blown away by how they did it. In terms of educational work, it's a very holistic approach that addresses not just the intellect but the whole being.

"On a training program about food for example, not only are you getting intellectual stimulation, but you are also going to share deeply and honestly with people and probably work in the fields as well. In the morning, we do a session on the theory of the global food economy and how we can improve the quality of our food, and in the afternoon, we go and spend it up at the farm talking with farmers who are doing it. The students just deeply 'get it' in a way that they don't if they are restricted to the classroom."

And in terms of social interaction? "Most people feel it's a really happy place to be. Quality of life feels very high," says Jonathan. "The reason for that I think is because what really makes us happy is quality of relationships rather than the ownership of things. There are a lot of things we own - the motor car being the most obvious one - that simply build walls between us."

Perhaps what makes Findhorn distinctive from other eco villages is its size, with around 500 residents. Just like any normal town, when a house comes up for sale anyone can buy it. "I used to live in a community of 25 adults and it was often hard work because it was deeply communal and you didn't really have a choice. Whereas at Findhorn you can choose your level of engagement with other people. It's pretty merciful in that you're not cheek by jowl with folk all the time."

But what happens in situations, for example, when two people want to use the only car that's available in the Car Club at the same time?

"There's definitely conflict here. It's a long way from being a utopia but people are generally sweet with each other," insists Jonathan. "About 20 of us own three cars between us. In that situation, generally I'll drive the other person to where they need to go and then go on with the car. It seems strange to say it, but this actually adds to my quality of life. We have to cooperate a little bit and I like this. It's a human trait that being generous to other people makes us feel good.

"The thing I really like about Findhorn is that it's not at all doctrinaire. There is no one line. It's very much a village where people choose their own level of engagement. There is no judgement on people who, for example, do or don't have a television. However, what's interesting is that there is generally less need of a television here because the community is stronger," says Jonathan. Indeed, Findhorn has a state of the art theatre, Universal Hall, which popular bands, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the International Jazz Festival and ballet use for gigs.

"We have a weekly newsletter called The Rainbow Bridge that's packed with things that are happening such as choirs and drama groups. So there is a high level of households that don't have a television. I haven't had one for years and I really don't feel the need of one because there is so much more interesting stuff happening."

Perhaps the main message from Findhorn is that there is no sense of "deprivation" from reducing consumption and that greater consumption and wellbeing don't go hand in hand.

"I really question whether consumption makes people happy. Certainly, indicators for depression, suicide, drug abuse are at record highs," says Jonathan. "I think this is because of quality of relationships. This doesn't mean you want everybody in your face all the time, but rather it's about creating human-scale communities where you can choose your level of engagement and it's possible to cooperate."

Certainly, some of the principles of the Findhorn Community seem to resonate with the community spirit of life around the 1950s and earlier across the English speaking industrialised world.

"I used to live in France and Italy and they are happier countries because they don't have this crazy individualistic Anglo Saxon mania. The communities are much stronger. They have never really left those aspects that were present in '50s Britain that we are drawing upon here.

"I think if you ask almost anybody who is above 45 or 50, they will hesitate, if not up front directly say, that the quality of life is going down. I'm sure this is not because they want to live in the 1930s, but there were elements of how we used to live then that were simply more conducive to happier communities. There can be a certain tyranny that we can't go back because we've taken an evolutionary path and it's the only one we could have taken. But there are elements of how we used to live that clearly our society is poorer now without - and that's definitely community and cooperation.

"I don't think it's anything revolutionary. It makes sense to intelligently ask yourself what makes us happy and choose elements of lifestyle that fit the bill."