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Mallorca: Island of Possibilities, Rob Hopkins

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Mallorca, until 30 years ago, was what you might think of as a ‘Transition Island’.  Largely self-sufficient in food, this beautiful place, the largest of the Balearic islands, with its 5 distinct bioregions, features lemon trees, vineyards, avocadoes, olives and enough similar delicious tree-based produce to leave this particular UK-based permaculturist feeling rather jealous.  In more recent years though, much of this has been brushed aside by mass tourism, which has become the island’s monoculture.  The island’s population of around three quarters of a million people is swollen every summer by the addition of around 9.5 million tourists.

This brings its own impacts and challenges, not least the impact on the island’s water supplies, which are becoming dangerously depleted to the degree where salt water intrusion is happening.  Fresh water is brought in during the summer in tankers from Spain.  Also, the Spanish government imposes a tax on solar panels, meaning that in spite of 9.5 million people visiting the place due to its sunshine, virtually none of it is captured for energy.  In this context, a remarkable annual event, ‘Education for Life’, has run for the last 12 years, bringing together the majority of the island’s teachers to explore new thinking and new ideas.

I was met off the ferry by Mandy Merklein, one of the founders of PermaMed, the island’s permaculture group.  Her and her family’s house is the island’s permaculture training centre.  We sat on their terrace and ate breakfast in the morning sunshine, and were joined by some other friends.  We looked at some of the work they are doing there, their fascinating garden with its perennial vegetables, fruit trees, edible cacti, and experiments in different ways of irrigating landscapes.

With Mandy and Bruce.With Mandy and Bruce.

Discussing local currencies with a local magazine. Discussing local currencies with a local magazine.

A reporter from a local magazine turned up and we did an interview.  After a little downtime, we headed to the venue for the evening’s event.  A beautiful old Mallorcan house complete with old stone foundation, it was just gorgeous.  There I met Guillem Ferrer, the organiser of ‘Education for Life’, and my host for the weekend.


Across the fields. Across the fields.

We were joined by some of the event’s other speakers and other friends of Guillem’s, we sat in the most simple and gorgeous room (enough to keep any ‘A Pattern Language’ fans deeply contented) and ate the most exquisite meal.  One of the courses was the most delicious plate of ravioli of my entire life: handmade pasta with porcini mushroom and parmesan filling, with truffle oil and shavings of truffle (first time I have ever actually eaten truffles).  So delicious that words are insufficient.  But here’s a photo anyway.


After the meal, I did a couple of interviews and then with Satish Kumar, Teresa Forcades and Jose M. Fabregas, did a press conference.  The evening’s event, outdoors in the grounds of the place, was really very lovely indeed.

The audience at the evening event.

The four of us spoke, the evening concluding with some beautiful local music. Here’s a taste.  Olé!

I stayed the night at Guillem’s place, a beautiful home up in the hills in the wilds of Mallorca.  So beautiful.  In the morning we headed in to the conference, held in a 15th century Domenican church, the monks known as the ‘Black Friars’.  Horrible bunch they were, responsible for much of the torturing and burning of the Spanish Inquisition.  So to be filling the place with such an event, and opening each day with a meditation led by Satish Kumar, felt especially appropriate.


Images from previous years' 'Educacion per la Vida' events. Images from previous years’ ‘Educacion per la Vida’ events.

Most of the over 600 people attending were teachers, from across the island and the wider region.  It’s a great model – teachers get credits for attending, part of their ongoing professional development.  The format was that several of the speakers spoke 3 times each spread across the weekend, with a few other shorter single talks and films interspersing the talks.

The hall filling up.

I will condense my capturing of each speaker to a brief sense of what their 3 talks covered, otherwise we’ll be here all day.  All the talks were filmed but haven’t been uploaded yet.

Theresa Forcades. Theresa Forcades.

Theresa Forcades is a nun and an activist for Catalan independence.  Her first couple of talks were more focused on theology and its approach to change, and to feminism.  In her last talk she reflected on democracy and the signs carried by the 15M movement in Spain reading “They Call It Democracy But It’s Not”.  True change has to always come from the bottom up, she said.  She described herself as a nationalist but wanted to argue that we need to reclaim the term ‘nationalist’ from the right, describing left-wing nationalism as “a real driver for change … being about a love of land, aromas, tastes” and linked to the idea of “rooting”, of putting down roots in a place.

Jose M Fabregas. Jose M Fabregas.

Jose M. Fabregas was, for me, the most thought-provoking speaker of the weekend.  Jose is a psychiatrist, and he spoke about the crisis in the Spanish schooling system and it’s connection with the use of marijuana.  It was so interesting I will write it up as a stand-alone blog.  Spain has one of the world’s worst performing education systems, and Mallorca is one is the bottom two.  Two out of every three children of school children in Spain now smoke marijuana.  The deleterious effects are far worse in those under 20, and are manifesting in an inability to concentrate and study, to feel life satisfaction, reduced memory, more paranoia, more depression.  “Learning is absolutely compromised by smoking marijuana” he said.

I did three talks.  The first gave an overview of Transition and the deeper shifts that it speaks to.  The second told some of the 21 Stories of Transition, and the last one was a kind of ‘How to do Transition’, drawing on stuff from our forthcoming online guide ‘The Essential Guide to Doing Transition’.  Stand by.

Cesa Bona.  In biro.

Cesar Bona is a teacher (see my sketch of him during his talk, above), who talked about some of the challenges facing teachers and students, including a great talk on bullying.  What matters, he said, is to be the teacher we would want for our own children. “We stop learning not because we grow up”, he said, “but because we lose our curiosity”.  He said that in his experience, in spite of dealing with many cases of bullying, he has yet to come across anyone who is truly bad.  “Deep down their essence is not bad”, he said.  “We have to believe in their fundamental goodness and bring it out from within”.

Anna Fores

Anna Fores talked about the human brain, and the role of imagination in education.  It has been shown that imagination activates much more of the brain than just thinking and doing.  She talked about neuroplasticity, resilience and the need to consciously build resilience in young people.  “It is said”, she told the audience, “that when we take away hope from our enemies, they’ve lost.  But taking away hope is just what our current education system does”.  Her last talk introduced the Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi’, the idea of appreciating the beauty in imperfection.  “Nothing is permanent”, she said.  “Nothing is complete.  Nothing is perfect”.

Satish Kumar.

Satish Kumar gave two talks.  The first was about his call for ‘Soil, Soul and Society’, a reprise of the TEDx Exeter talk he gave a few years ago on the same theme.  He also reflected on the story of when he walked from India many thousands of miles around the world for peace, in the 1970s, reflecting on the experience and the learnings from it.  In his second talk he reflected on joy, and ingredients for a happy life.

One rather lovely surprise was that on the Saturday night, Manu Chao called by to play a set to bring the evening to a close.  The church was filled with music, laughter and dancing. Here’s a clip:

Had the real honour to go for supper with him and some other people afterwards, and ate far too much amazing local cheese.

With Manu Chao.

Sunday morning I was able to have a bit of a look round Guillem’s place.  Forest, food gardens and all manner of edible trees.  I picked fresh Arbutus unedo berries (known as ‘Strawberry Tree’) from the tree and very nice they were.  It was wonderful to be up in the mountains  where early in the morning the only sound is that of cockerels and the bells around the necks of the sheep across the valley.  Delightful. Here’s what it sounded like…

Picking fresh 'strawberries'.Picking fresh ‘strawberries’.

The brilliant addictions-busting priest. The brilliant addictions-busting priest.

There were some other great shorter talks.  A priest (whose name I didn’t write down) who works with people in addiction, running a centre that treats about 500 people a day, said “drugs destroy possibilities”.  A wonderful older man, who had to finish on time as he had to go to do a Mass later that afternoon, he talked about how he was now being asked to design programmes for 10 year olds suffering from addictions.  He said the most important thing to teach addicts is now to live. Rather wonderful he was.  There was also someone who talked about seeds, and work happening on the island to protect seed diversity.  During breaks, everyone ate together at long tables in the courtyard outside.


Getting some of my slides translated into Spanish. Getting some of my slides translated into Spanish.

The atmosphere of the whole event was lovely, very positive, thoughtful, constructive, and I met many lovely people.  It drew to a close with all the speakers on stage for a Q&A session. Here are the videos of the talks at the conference in 3 blocks.  I appear once in each:

Once it concluded, I went with Mandy and her family to Palma to get the ferry home.  We ate delicious pizza and drank local beer sitting by the harbour while below us, people were doing jive dancing to a live band (see the short video below for a taste) in the evening air.  Rather wonderful and lovely it was.


Then I got on the night ferry back to Barcelona which was delayed, which meant all my follow-on travel plans were thrown out, meaning it took me two days to get home rather than one… grrr.  But that’s another story.

At the conference, many people talked about imagination and about possibility, and how vital they are to education.  But they are also vital to everyone else.  While there, I got a real sense that Transition Mallorca could be amazing, and could be a real showcase for the rest of the world.  Perhaps this weekend could be a spark.  Let’s see.



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