If you had to pick one feeling that defines our modern world, what would it be? Most people I know are feeling angrier than they used to, with politics in many countries growing more polarised and less civil. Most people seem more fearful than they used to be, despite the fact that they are much safer than most of their ancestors. Yet the emotion that seems most widespread today, that seems to come attached to modern life, is helplessness.

You see, almost everyone I know thinks our modern world is in serious trouble. They know that pollution is increasing, that the climate is slowly changing, that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. Yet most people I know have no idea what to do about these problems, other than occasionally voting for someone who seems like the least awful candidate. Many people I know try to do small things — recycling, giving to charity — but they feel like droplets in an ocean. They feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems we face, and would love to do their part to improve our situation, but have no idea where to start.

Earlier this month, I gathered at the village of Cloughjordan, County Tipperary to learn how to do just that. There the organisation Cultivate held an intensive course in permaculture, drawing more than two dozen people from eight countries. Permaculture, strictly speaking, is a system of designing gardens, buildings and landscapes to re-use as much energy as possible and waste as little as possible. The courses, though, encompassed far more than gardens or architecture; they talked about how to local economies; to rebuild communities; to bury carbon to reverse climate change; to make food at home using everything from the garden; to skilfully transform waste into soil; and designing landscapes to work with Nature rather than against it. In short, it was a course in How Ordinary People Can Save the World.

Cloughjordan made a perfect venue for such an event, as it contains a community of houses designed and built to be sustainable. Many use cob walls, straw-bale walls, steel roofs and other building methods that make the most of natural materials, generate little waste, re-use as much energy as possible, and will last far longer than most of today’s houses. Many of the buildings use solar panels or passive solar design to catch the sun, or have green roofs covered with moss or grass, giving their homes greenery and insulation.

On the surrounding lands the members planted 17,000 apple trees of hundreds of varieties, allowing people to walk around their neighbourhood and harvest an abundance of food. Nearby fields produce food for the village, beehives pollinate the area and provide honey, and vegetables are grown in nearby fields. The “eco-village” has its own bakery, whose owner delivers bread daily to subscribers, and its members have formed other enterprises as well.

All these enterprises make the village far more ecological, less wasteful, and more resilient in the face of crisis, than most of our communities today. It’s still a work in progress, as is the permaculture philosophy — but as Davie Phillip of Cultivate put it, permaculture is an evolving, open-source toolkit, a body of knowledge that people around the world are constantly adding to.

One word most often used to describe such places is “sustainable,” but as guest speaker Albert Bates put it, sustainability is a low goal, as it implies just treading water. The goal of the organisation is not to sustain the world at its present levels of consumption and waste, but to reverse the trends of the last century or two, to return to a world that runs on low levels of energy while giving up the benefits of modern life.

Most of our human civilisation right now is based on huge constant inputs of new energy, which we get from fossil fuels. Burning them is disrupting our normal weather patterns – all to make products that we often don’t need, that don’t usually make us happy, and that are quickly thrown away. The Cultivate course brought together some of the world’s best minds to propose a new way forward for our civilisation.

Those seem like ambitious goals for people with modest means, but the people who gathered there are like seeds — we left the course armed with the knowledge and training to improve our small corner of the world, connected to a global network of others doing the same. Movements like this are the cure for feeling helpless.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing more about the course, but first, a request for help. After the course had ended the village suffered a fire, and their barn burned down. No one was hurt, but they are asking for help in rebuilding. Anyone wanting to help this worthy cause can make a donation at: https://gogetfunding.com/cloughjordanfarm/

Photo: Sunset over the Cloughjordan orchards