From Guernsey to the Seychelles, island communities are working to reinvent themselves. Lucy Purdy explores the new social and economic systems being developed offshore

From wind-lashed, rugged heaps patrolled by wheeling gulls, to tropical, postcard-perfect paradises, islands have long captured our imaginations. Perhaps they speak to our desire to live simply, to escape, or even to isolate ourselves from the pain and challenges of the world. Something about the sun dancing on waves promises a fresh perspective, and the romance of island life has fascinated people for centuries.

Now offshore communities all over the world are seizing upon this sense of possibility. Using their islands – by their nature, limited in land and population – as natural laboratories, they are exploring new ways of organising themselves, and in the process are learning lessons that suggest ways forward for society as a whole.

The Dandelion Project, on the Channel Island of Guernsey, has a single mission: to make Guernsey the best place to live on Earth by 2020. Since devising the plan over a coffee two years ago, Marc Winn and Jock Pettitt have brought hundreds of islanders together to work on projects ranging from crowdfunding law reform to reimagining Guernsey’s food landscape. Their team has also organised two TEDx events, bringing in speakers from all over the world to help islanders ensure Guernsey flourishes, and test strategies that can be adopted by other communities.

Using their islands as natural laboratories, people are exploring new ways of organising themselves, and learning lessons that suggest ways forward for society as a whole

The project is unique in taking a holistic view to bringing about change.

Those taking part want to encourage the island’s only newspaper to take a more constructive approach to journalism, in order to support community cohesion and islanders’ mental health, and they also want to improve the island’s health service more generally. This is where the realisation dawns, says Winn, that law and democratic participation, the media, and people’s health are inextricably linked.

On the health side, the Dandelion Project asked the question, how does Guernsey become the first place to reach an average life expectancy of 100? “Almost all health professionals we asked suggested the biggest gains are to be found in moving more and eating better,” says Pettitt. “So it keeps coming back to transport and food.”

A system-wide attempt to tackle the core issues, they concluded, is the only option.

“We have abundant resources here in this community,” says Winn.

“The ideas are out there, the money is out there, and the desire is out there. But people who want things to change come up against hurdles and get frustrated, and this is because everything is interconnected,” he says. “You can’t change the one thing about the world you want to change, unless everything else changes too.

“So this project is the first attempt in the world to do everything at once, shifting humanity’s ecosystem forward rather than trying to make change in silos.”

In order to realise a project with what Winn calls “a crazy goal of mass alignment”, change must happen inside those involved, as well as externally. Guernsey is well known as a tax haven, and the financial sector accounts for 40 percent of the island’s GDP. But Winn and Pettitt see this as false abundance, benefitting only a few, and bringing its own scarcity in turn: a lack of emotional fulfilment and connection.

Redistributing wealth

“Why does a billionaire keep accumulating? If you keep asking why, you’ll come up with the source of their pain,” Winn says. “I think we need to recognise that a billionaire might be as hungry as someone on the plain of Africa who doesn’t have food. It’s the same problem, just manifesting in a different way. And we cannot change the world until we understand that similarity.”

Being an island helps in other ways. As a self-governing crown dependency, Guernsey makes its own rules, and is largely independent of both the UK and the EU. Laws can be changed here relatively quickly, and when one of this year’s TEDx speakers tweeted Guernsey’s chief minister, three hours later, they were sitting having coffee together.

That kind of nimbleness and flexibility makes it easier for Guernsey to put new ideas into action, Winn says.

“Tax havens survive by creating faster legislation than big countries and so rather than using that to store money as they currently do, at a cost to them and humanity, why don’t we use the same mechanism to make the world a better place?” he asks. “I love the irony of a super wealthy country – a problem – becoming the birthplace of a solution.”

Similar ideas are catching on in other island communities. Skip over the waves to neighbouring Jersey, and Jersey in Transition (JiT) has around 1,000 members: 1 percent of the island’s population.

TEDX Guernsey 2015 (c) Carl Symes

TEDX Guernsey 2015 © Carl Symes

Having so many of the islanders involved makes it easier to turn talk into action, says JiT chairman Nigel Jones.

“Within an island community there are a lot of criss-crossing relationships, and this helps when organising a response. So many people seem to know at least someone who has just what is needed,” he explains.

Living on an island also brings many social issues into sharp relief, Jones says. “An island has a natural and very definite boundary, unlike a town or region in a larger country. Islanders are naturally very aware of this, and it does help focus the mind on issues like food security and food sovereignty,” he says.

Jones points to the recent closure of two organic farms and a local food warehouse, which he says sparked a major conversation about the security and sustainability of the island’s food supply. “The prospect of empty supermarket shelves within a day or two of ferries not arriving on schedule is very real,” he notes.

But at a time of such rapid globalisation, is an island mindset still relevant? The windswept Isle of Eigg, in the Inner Hebrides, was once owned by absentee landlords, but after a pioneering buyout in 1997 is now jointly owned by island residents, the Highland Council and the Scottish Wildlife Trust.

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The buyout gave islanders control over their future for the first time. Though islanders keep a firm eye on their past, with Pict and Viking influences, and a history steeped in clan warfare and a crofting way of life, their community has undergone a rebirth in the past 18 years.

Among other achievements, Eigg now has the first completely wind, water and sun-powered electricity grid in the world. And, residents say, empowerment has also manifested itself in less tangible ways.

Getting things done

“It gave us a sense of self-confidence as an island,” explains Maggie Fyffe of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust.

“After the buyout, we came together as a community to build a picture of how everyone felt and what they wanted,” says Fyffe, who moved to Eigg in 1976 and whose daughter and granddaughter were born there.

“It showed people they can get on and do something, and this has carried on today,” she adds. “If someone mentions setting up a singing group on Tuesdays for example, then it has already happened!”

“I love the irony of a super wealthy country – a problem – becoming the birthplace of a solution”

In fact, there’s now “a group for everything”, Fyffe says, with locals taking charge and setting up everything from history groups to waste management teams.

“The island has changed a lot since the buyout, but we’re really lucky in that basically everyone who comes to live here becomes an active member of the community,” she says.

Fyffe says the 90 or so residents of the island know each other “inside out and back to front,” and that means news travels fast. “You only have to tell one person about a meeting and everyone knows,” she laughs.

But the islanders are not united only by geography or chance, but by intention.

“Nobody who lives here earns a lot of money. People choose to live here because it’s beautiful and because of the way of life,” Fyffe says. “We all want to conserve what’s special about it.”

One of the issues the islanders have focused on in recent years has been affordable housing, particularly for young people wishing to remain on Eigg or to set up there anew.

A shared equity scheme has allowed islanders to build their own homes on designated plots, and Fyffe and others are now seeking to strengthen this.

“We’re getting young people coming back to live here,” Fyffe says. “The more the feeling of busyness, of excitement grows, the more attractive it is becoming to people of all ages as a place to live.”

Believe in Guernsey hi-res credit Campbell Sauvarin Photography

© Campbell Sauvarin Photography

Redefining what is possible

Eigg has, in a sense, started afresh as a community, and faced both successes and challenges in doing so. But in the same way that the buyout – a bold, controversial action – transformed the islanders’ sense of what was possible, the work being done in places like Eigg can help shift non-islanders’ definitions of what is practical and feasible.

Much as a gardener contemplating an acre of land might choose to concentrate attention on one bed first, islands offer glimpses of a new paradigm. Through cooperation, togetherness and a determination to challenge accepted norms, islands – though defined by their separation from the mainland – may paradoxically help restore what we really need to know: that security comes from interdependence, not independence.

Perhaps these islands are outposts of change, pointing the way for a renewal that could one day reach far beyond their shores.

As Guernsey’s Winn says: “The world’s going to change anyway. It’s an unstoppable part of evolution. We have two choices; one to ride on the top of the wave, slightly terrified but having the time of our lives, the other is to be thrashed around at the bottom. Everything else is pretty irrelevant.”

Photo title: Denis Island in the Seychelles. The private owners aim to keep the island's rich biodiversity protected

Photo credit: © Green Island Foundation

  • John Baker

    “I think we need to recognise that a billionaire might be as hungry as someone on the plain of Africa who doesn’t have food” Ignoring for the moment the most obvious crack in this facade, the difference is that in one case the symptom is quite likely to result in death; the fact that there is a link between the wealth of the billionaire and the poverty of the peasant is another issue the author suprisingly fails to note. There again, I suppose this is intended for consumption by the very rich rather than the very poor.