Earth Activist Training: Reflections 10 Years On

It’s hard to believe that ten years have passed since I took part in Earth Activist Training. While the course itself was immensely rewarding at the time – a whirlwind of ideas, connections and emotions – I took it on faith that the experience would make a lasting imprint. Ten years on, it’s obvious that those two weeks in Northern California shaped my life in ways I never could have predicted.

There are the obvious habits that have ‘stuck’ since 2004: vegetables, berries and herbs growing in the back garden, a thriving colony of composting worms, a relatively low level of material consumption, a socially-useful job, occasional bursts of political writing. But beneath the surface, the changes go much deeper.

Back in 2004, I was adrift. I’d graduated college, but lacked any sense of direction beyond a vague inclination towards activism. I wanted to settle in Scotland after a year abroad there, but that dream had crumbled with a failed attempt in 2002, leaving me depressed and uncertain, wandering from one meaningless job to the next. Earth Activist Training seemed like an opportunity for a new perspective.

Inspiration didn’t just come from the content of the course, but from the whole experience, the whole approach to learning and organising and being, the sense of mutuality and caring, the wonderful people. Those two weeks were awash with heady conversations, quiet contemplation, thinking in new ways, connecting through the heart, digging in the soil, dancing and singing and imagining a better future. I went home energised and optimistic.

Nine months later, I gave Scotland another try, signing up for a masters course in Human Ecology that seemed a perfect extension of EAT. I feared another painful disappointment, but EAT had helped me to find the inner resources to face the risk. And if it didn’t work out, I knew that I could always call on my new friends to help find the next steps.

As it turned out, the Centre for Human Ecology became the focal point of my life for several years, giving me the chance to practice consensus organising, ecological thinking and critical pedagogies as both a learner and a teacher. I also got to experience the exhausting reality of creating space for radical visions in mainstream institutions. When I began the masters, we were in the process of reshaping the course to fit into another university, having been moved on from its second home in less than a decade. A few years later, the course was shut down completely, despite its continuing popularity and high academic standards – we simply could not pare down the experiential core any further to meet the university’s demands for ‘efficiency.’

Meanwhile, I had started a Sociology PhD with the same university, looking at the changing landscape of higher education and its affect on social conscience. The PhD led to a teaching job in that department of activists, but six months later we faced the same fate as the Human Ecology masters: closure. The popularity of our courses, healthy levels of grant money for a small department, and a strong grassroots campaign were not enough to override the university’s strategic plan, so we’re now finishing the degrees for our last cohorts of students.

The closures have been painful, but not unexpected. On reflection, the type of holistic political analysis introduced at Earth Activist Training helped me understand what was happening on a wider level, and find the emotional reserves to continue my work with integrity. The importance of connecting the personal and political – another theme from EAT – has informed my teaching, and its group process work has shaped my approach to collaboration. Of course, EAT was only two weeks – but it lit a flame that illuminated opportunities to develop and deepen its themes, and gave me the burst of optimism I needed to return to Scotland. Later this year, I’ll be applying for permanent residence.

It’s a wonderful time to be living in Scotland: in September, there will be a referendum on Scottish independence. I won’t be able to vote, but I’m still campaigning. The distant possibility of independence inspired me when I first arrived in Scotland, just after the devolved Scottish Parliament was established in 1999. The possibility of independence is even more exciting now that it’s within our reach. A ‘yes’ vote would be a major step towards real social change, giving the people of Scotland the chance to shape their own priorities rather than being ruled by London. There is real hope for sustainability, social justice, and the abolition of nuclear weapons within our borders. As Alasdair Gray said, ‘work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.’

This isn’t just a naïve vision. The current Scottish government is more progressive than any other government I’ve lived under. There is already a raft of social services free at the point of use: healthcare, prescriptions, care for the elderly, a certain amount of childcare. We are moving towards becoming carbon neutral, and Scotland is a leader in developing technologies for renewable energy. We’re ahead of England on issues like community land ownership, proportional representation, and free higher education. Opinion polls show that Scots consistently oppose nuclear weapons and foreign wars, and historically they have voted to the left of England. But we’re still constrained by London in important areas like defence, taxation, finance and social welfare, and our overall budget is set in London.

Independence is an opportunity to work towards a vision of what a small country can achieve. Ten years ago, at Earth Activist Training, I never imagined that I might be using my campaigning skills for such a big goal. Whichever way the vote goes, in a country of five million, I feel like there’s space for me to make a difference. Especially at this time of year, I’m grateful for those two weeks in Northern California that set me on this path.

More information on the Radical Independence Campaign can be found on

More information on Earth Activist Training can be found on

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