KEN JONES (1930-2015) was the founder and secretary of the UK Network of Engaged Buddhists. He was also a long-standing Zen and Ch’an practitioner (Kanzeon International Sangha). The first half of his life was spent in radical politics and the peace and ecology movements. Midway through, he recognized the need for “inner work”, and began to work more extensively with Buddhist ideas. Among Ken’s writings are two major books: the well-known The Social Face of Buddhism and Beyond Optimism: A Buddhist Political Ecology.
Viewed from the TrawsCambria rapid transit railbus, the three blade wind turbines resembled dancing dervishes in the morning sunshine. They were a reminder of how rich the Welsh Confederation is in clean and renewable energy. First it was coal we exported to England; now it is cheap wind-and-wood-and-water electricity. Coming over the hills is the morning Cardiff to Dublin airship. Droning quietly towards the Aberystwyth mooring mast, it can’t be making more than 90 mph against the headwind. Since its lift comes mainly from the helium, the bio-diesel consumption is modest compared with a heavier-than-air machine. And there’s probably no safer form of transport today.
Aberystwyth was a nice surprise. It had largely escaped that last surge of “development” in what the history books call The Final Madness at the turn of the century. Mair Smith, chairperson of Pentre Gwyrdd (Greenham) community council, was so pleased to meet me that she almost forgot to unplug her little modur gwlad (country car) from the public battery charging point. It was a simple, durable, utility runabout, easily maintained and repaired, which had been designed to enable country people to get to the nearest public transport pick-up points in this region of scattered home-steads.
I was surprised at the size of the village – evidence of the rural repopulation by young people from the towns. There were old people who could still recall it as a ghost of a place, with prettified cottages empty most of the year, and surrounded by nothing but sheep walks and conifer plantations. It is now a busy, thriving centre, with new dwellings spreading out into clearings in the beautiful varied woodlands.
Mair explained that much of the woodland is communally owned, just like the traditional common grazings which it shelters and fertilizes. There are also numerous private land holdings, but their size is limited by law. Agro-forestry is a family way of life, not an agribusiness for growing rich.
Just looking at the varied pattern of the community landscape showed how livestock, forestry, organic arable, and the several small timber and food processing businesses all supported each other “What we take from nature we put back,” Mair explained. “Everything is recycled. We believe in keeping our wealth in the community. It’s difficult to imagine those crazy times when human manure was mixed with toxic industrial and agricultural wastes and, at considerable expense, was pumped into a polluted Cardigan Bay!”
From Mair’s garden we could sec the biggest group of buildings in the village the community timber yard. The village retains most of its timber, for household and community fuel and for the several little businesses that make everything from timber framed houses to domestic utensils.
Looking around the kitchen garden was a reminder of how much the global warm-up had encouraged people to grow their own, though a lot was sold or bartered at the weekly market or through the village shop. Now that heavy energy taxes make it so expensive to bring in long-haul food-stuffs there’s a big incentive towards local and regional self-reliance – and the control that goes with it.
Mair’s house was lined with pine, real wood instead of laminated chip-board, and warm, insulating and beautiful. As is now the fashion, the household goods were few and simple, cheap, long-lasting utility goods mingled with attractive hand-crafted things. Since the house is near the center of the village it benefits from the community-owned combined heat and power system, based on a wood fuel generator behind the timber yard. Outlying houses have their own high-tech wood burners, supplemented by cheap electricity from the community generator (which also sells into the grid). I was reminded that by now twenty per cent of Welsh energy needs are met from willow, poplar and other energy plantations.
Mair introduced me to the facilitators of the different management groups through which the community council runs much of the local economy; as well as the social services. Just about everyone is in on the act somewhere! This proud little community tries to live up to the three watchwords on the official notepaper: CYDWEITHREDIAD; ANTUR; DIGONOLDEB (co-operation; enterprise; sufficiency).
Of course, Ceredigion, like other Welsh county councils, is very much a power in the land. But it uses this to empower and enable willing community councils to manage and even create their own services. Typical is Pentre Gwyrdd senior citizen committee (with a majority of oldsters on it), which provides comprehensive care and support for the elderly; receiving specialist advice and assistance from the county council – not that most people ever really “retire” in a place like Pentre Gwyrdd! Here as elsewhere, however, there are a number of older chronically sick people to care for. You see, it wasn’t the global warm-up that eventually forced The Great U-Turn. It was the profound alarm created by a sudden awareness of the “eco-epidemic” of cancers and nervous and degenerative disorders.
Of the community leaders in the room most were women and all were bilingual. The first reminded me of how limiting it must have been in the old days to be without all the especially female talents we have now. After all, it was the women who really pushed through the Great Transition. As to the Welsh language, it’s not only that everyone was schooled in it. There’s so much going on in the community you feel you really have to be bilingual. It is amazing that we used to make so much heavy weather of the so-called language problem. Nowadays, every educated Welsh person is bilingual or trilingual, like every Belgian, Basque or Swiss. In many districts of the Welsh Confederation English is in fact recognized as the “first” official language, though both Welsh and English have equal status in law.
The village school is quite small, and a reminder of how unfashionable it has become to have more than one or two children. It is the childless couples who are now well regarded, as having made “future space” for others’ children. I think our biggest achievement is to have guaranteed our children a healthy future.
The teenagers are so involved in community life that some have so far not even used their first overseas air travel coupon. Public transport is cheap and easy; and it’s not only in the towns that there is much going on. And anyway computer networking is all the rage at present.
It all sounds utopian, but I learned that here as elsewhere there is plenty of disagreement and conflicts certainly do arise. Even round here you can still find selfish people who, despite the hundred per cent wealth and income tax ceiling, are still running round like headless chickens, trying to make their pile, and set off the old growth mania all over again. However, acquisitive and competitive behavior are nowadays seen as antisocial hang-ups, much like heavy drinking. Co-operation, mediation and conflict resolution are the skills most in demand.
Mair felt that one development which now makes it easier for people to get on well together is the revival of a meditative Celtic spirituality in the Confederation. The long-standing scatter of Buddhist and similar groups in rural Wales has contributed in the same direction. And whether you are church or chapel or neither, it is very much the thing to “do your own work”, both alone and in your little group. This spiritual revival and the profound change in lifestyle help to explain why people are more relaxed and contented than they were in the old days. The old people say that our generation is somehow more playful and has more time.
How did it all happen? Eventually enough people realized that things just had to change if there was to be any tolerable future, and that we could not wait for the politicians to do it all for us. And a different kind of person started to go into politics.
Extracted with kind permission from Beyond Optimism: A Buddhist Political Ecology by Ken Jones (Oxford: Jon Carpenter, 1993; distributed in the US by InBook, P.O.Box 120261, West Haven, CT120261)