Volume 16 Number 1
Working for a Small-Is-Beautiful World
01 February 2003
A narrow brush with death led Richard St George to devote his life to conservation. The Director of the Schumacher Society talks to Caz and Sandy Hore-Ruthven.
Not many people have one near - death experience - let alone four or five; and that fact alone makes Richard St George, Director of the Schumacher Society, quite remarkable. During his student days in Northern Ireland, glandular fever left him in a coma. His flatmates had gone home for the summer, and he lay helpless on the floor for three days.
'I remember being stuck to the ceiling and looking down at my body,' he says. 'I felt no emotional attachment to my human form, which just looked liked a heap of crumpled clothes. Then I was sucked up a bright tube, surrounded in white fog, and all my anxieties and worries fell away. Someone seemed to push the "stop" button and I heard a voice say, "OK, you can choose what to do now. You can go on, or go back. It's up to you." And I thought totally coldly, "Well I haven't done anything yet. I'd better go back and do something." The next thing I knew, my girlfriend was slapping me round the face, trying to bring me round.'
It was an amazing, life-changing event, but Richard tells his story in careful, measured tones. He gives the impression that he takes most things in his stride, without melodrama or exaggeration. 'Clearly for me it was a religious experience. But I'm told that in a glandular fever coma your brain can reach 108 degrees, so I don't make any claims for what I experienced.' Whatever the explanation, it fuelled Richard's desire 'to stay grounded and do something positive'.
After he had made the decision to come back to life, Richard joined others to establish the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Machynlleth, Wales. It was a practical step in helping show how a community can live in harmony with nature. They pioneered solar and wind technologies, recycling and sustainable farming methods. But St George saw that the centre was focussing more on the technology and technical aspects of sustainable development than on the spiritual side of life. So he and others set up an exchange with the Findhorn spiritual centre in northern Scotland to give members from each community the chance to appreciate and learn from each other.
Both CAT and Findhorn were created in places full of ironic significance. CAT was built in a slate quarry in the deprived mountain areas of North Wales; Findhorn at the end of a runway built for nuclear bombers. But this, says St George, 'is how life seems to work. We plant seeds in the most desperate places and it is often the best place for them to grow.'
After CAT, St George stayed in the environmental field, eventually leading the Schumacher society - an organization set up to promote the philosophy of EF Schumacher (who wrote the seminal book Small is beautiful in the mid-Seventies). 'It's all about making connections and the promotion of ecological and spiritual values,' he says. 'But often the spiritual values are more difficult to talk about.'
For St George, the links between respecting nature and spirituality are innate. 'You can't trash nature and claim to be spiritual,' he says. 'Everyone I have met who is doing something about the state of our planet has had some kind of change of heart sometime in their life - a sudden feeling of spiritual or religious conviction. For instance, the Schumacher Society Chairman, Herbert Girardet, was in a small plane flying over the Amazon. For miles and miles all he could see were clouds of smoke from the burning forest. It was a profound moment for him.'
With climate change becoming more and more pressing, it's important that we have people like St George to rouse our consciences. Every year, the Schumacher Society organizes a series of lectures to promote and explore environmental thinking. Speakers have included such green luminaries as Jonathan Porritt and George Monbiot. St George has also undertaken environmental work in his own right - and recently won an award for his eco-friendly home design kit (despite having no previous architectural experience).
However, none of St George's achievements would have been possible if he had not avoided death - not just once, but several times. 'One day I was walking down to Belfast to see if I could buy a motorbike,' he says. 'I turned down a side street towards the shop, but it felt like there was an invisible barrier, like a sheet of glass stopping me. For no apparent reason I turned around, and a car bomb went off behind me. The blast picked me up and threw me to the other side of the road. If I'd continued walking, I would have been shredded.'
'Another time, I was running for the train to get to the hairdresser's in town, but my legs got heavier and heavier. Eventually I was dragging one leg behind the other. The train left, and suddenly there's nothing wrong with me. So I walked instead, and when I was a street away from the hairdresser's two car bombs went off right outside the shop.'
You can't help but think that perhaps Richard St George was being protected. He shrugs off the suggestion. 'I try to avoid jumping to that conclusion. You have to be careful. Otherwise you even start to wonder, am I invincible?' His down-to-earth response to supernatural experiences sums up a man who is trying to 'balance the spiritual and the practical'. He says he is 'still on a journey of discovery' to find the sense of equilibrium he feels life moves us all towards, but he knows his experiences are quite unlike those of most of us. 'When things get rough,' he laughs, 'I can at least say I consciously chose to be here, so I've got nobody to blame'.
Caz and Sandy Hore-Ruthven