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The 60s folk troubadour is on an environmental mission, in tribute to Greta Thunberg. He discusses love, success, Brian Jones and how drugs became big business

Donovan, born Donovan Phillips Leitch in Scotland in 1946, was famous enough before he was 18 for the world to be on first-name terms with him. You dont have to be a boomer to remember Mellow Yellow, although it may help if you want to remember his famous stand-off with Bob Dylan in Dont Look Back, a really poignant moment of the old folk against the new (Dylan, new folk in this narrative, is actually older by four years, Donovan is keen to stress).

Now 73 and living in Ireland, he has wild grey hair and a gentle, thoughtful face; he looks, in real life, like an atmospheric black-and-white photo of a folk singer. His conversation is as wild as his hair, completely ungoverned by conventions such as sticking to the point or answering the bloody question. His mind comes into focus every now and then, when he wants to tell me what to write, how to write it and how to ask a question. I have actually since considered some remote therapy to try and figure out why this annoyed me so much.

Anyway, he is out of retirement with Eco-Song, a tribute album to Greta Thunberg that he has recorded with his wife, Linda. No, wait, its not a tribute album; its an album of songs from across his career with an eco theme, waiting to be turned into a stage opera. He and Linda want to take it to schools, to universities, want the youth performing it up and down the land. They have a plot strung around the songs four young students in Cork, meeting up on a Friday night, after a climate strike but, for the time being, the songs have been released as a standalone CD. A month ago, in an entirely different world, he was planning to take it on tour.

We met before the lockdown in a London hotel; the coronavirus crisis was serious enough then that we bumped elbows as I came in, unserious enough that we forgot not to shake hands at the end, serious enough that his roadie immediately handed him some hand sanitiser. Donovan wanted to explain why he and Linda have dedicated themselves to Thunberg.

It starts in quite an unlikely place, this explanation with Mary Shelley, who first sounded the alarm about the dangers of science while all the great poets were silent (She was the wife of the poet Shelley, we know that now, he says, in a tone of aching significance, though surely we knew that then). And her monster, science, is now raging throughout the earth. OK It was a young woman who sounded the alarm back then. And I rang the bell, 50 years ago, in 1968, alone among my song-poet peers. I think he means the bell for nuclear disarmament. His lyrics, from the start, often had a pacifist edge, along with social conscience; he performed at benefit gigs for striking shipbuilders, contributed two songs to Ken Loachs Poor Cow (which was to domestic violence what Cathy Come Home was to homelessness).

Mellow Yellow may be the song that floats to the top of the memory, but electrical banana / is gonna be a sudden craze is by no means the summit of his lyrical endeavour. We actually invaded pop culture with meaningful lyrics, he says. He was very anti-nuclear and still is but I could get no further detail on which bell he is talking about, that he rang and none of the other song-poets did. Never mind that now.

And then, 50 years later, in 2018, a wee lass called Greta rings the bell again. At first, shes alone. Linda and I waited to see if her generation would have their own songwriters. But they had none. (I would love to drill into this large statement, that there are no songwriters in Generation Z. But Donovan expressly forbade any questions until the tea had arrived.) Rebellions and movements need songs. And Linda and I found it extremely significant that it was Mary, not the poets, and its again a young woman, its Greta, pointing to the disaster approaching. The male domination of science and industry has meant that theres no nurture, anywhere, nature has been raped and pillaged by the male sensibility. Its always a woman who sounds the alarm although, in this timeline, Donovan appears to be an honorary one. Ah, tea. So, about this eco-mission

Donovan: The singer started off as a kid with a guitar, a bard in the old Gaelic tradition. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

In fact, it is a bit of a stretch to talk about retirement, since it is only five years ago that he was releasing a greatest hits album to celebrate 50 years since his first release, and even more years of being Donovan, a kid with a guitar, and a song, and a hat, and a harmonica, the traditional troubadour, minstrel, bard, in the old Gaelic tradition. He grew up in Glasgow, of Scottish and Irish descent, in a song-filled house that was also alive with his photographer fathers unpublished poetry. He has had periods of intense introspection, deepening his relationship with transcendental meditation with sundry Beatles, mainly George Harrison, and periods of hightailing it to Bhutan and Nepal to meet Buddhists in exile, but since he got his first contract in 1964, he has never really stopped releasing music. Its the mission, he explains. He has to go wherever the mission takes him. Nevertheless, youd call the 60s his heyday, the decade of Epistle to Dippy and The Hurdy Gurdy Man, often playing on his own, doors swinging open wherever he went.

Anyway, the tea is here and I am allowed to ask a question, except: First Im going to read you something. It takes four minutes. Ive measured it. Its the mission that has brought Donovan and Linda back in the saddle. If you want me to expand, I can. Tell me more, you should say. He then reads me the speech, which is essentially a longer version of what he had already told me about the young-women-plus-Donovan bell-ringers before the tea.

As the encounter turns into something more like a recognisable conversation, he circles again and again back to the start of his career, meeting Linda, losing her, finding her again. He is the most fantastic name-dropper, but if you ask him for any more detail Ah, celebrities, he says, knowingly. You want to hear about the celebrities. Its amazing, isnt it, how that connects with hell begin, before haring off to the absolutely least connected thing. He is delightful and maddening, although maddening can get the upper hand. Sod it, lets start where he wants to start at the beginning, with his unholy talent.

While the Beatles were doing their famous 10,000 hours gigging in Hamburg, he didnt need to do all that (although he did play Hamburg once, in 1965 It was like a Popeye cartoon: the street was like madness, sailors and tourists and police. Halfway through singing my first song, the wall behind me collapsed and the club behind broke into mine, and everybody was fighting).

I realised television was for me; I picked it up very quickly. Everything jazz, blues, folk, pop music, literature, feminism, ecology I just absorbed it like a sponge, and I was prepared, because I had had poetry of noble thought read to me as a child. He was recording a demo in London when Brian Jones, the founder of the Rolling Stones, walked in. He knew that I was something that was going to happen, and he said to Ready, Steady, Go [like a 60s Top of the Pops, only bohemian]: If you dont have him on, youre going to be sorry.

He thus got his first TV performance before he had even released a single, and slips into the third person, awestruck. And suddenly, he connected with millions of people. How did he do that? And the cameraman loved it, and the directors loved it, and the producers loved it. How did I learn it so early? Because, what Im about to sing to you, you already know. The Gaelic singer-songwriter tradition is actually four: poetry, music, theatre and radical thought.

Or perhaps it was astrological: Im a Taurus, and the Tauruss area is the throat, and Im very highly skilled with vocalising. I can really impress and project a very special feeling. And then he veers into reincarnation: Did I learn this before I was born? Or is it a continuum, that you are actually not a person, but a force, you are an energy, and this energy is manifesting itself in a character called Donovan, but I dont own it, its part of a tradition?

A portrait of the song-poet as a young man: Donovan in the late 60s. Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns

That night on Ready, Steady, Go was fateful for another reason he met a woman called Linda Lawrence in the green room, all dressed in black, pure, white, blanched face, a bohemian girl. My dream. They were both just 18, but things were already quite complicated. She wanted to marry Brian Jones, with whom she had a child. She wasnt his first girlfriend he had two or three kids already. He was like the god Pan; he was spreading kids around every six months. Thats one way of putting it, I guess. Jones drowned in a swimming pool at the sadly young age of 27 in 1969, although not before he had counselled Linda that, even though where he was going, she couldnt follow, she should choose someone other than Donovan as her next partner, someone mature.

Whether heeding this or for some other reason, she went to Los Angeles on her own (later moving her young son over to the US to be with her), and Donovan, bereft, went to Japan. Because, can you believe that in 1969 the government were taxing the Beatles and I and others 96%? Why, yes, I can believe it, because I recall a whiny Beatles song about it. Taxman, he croons momentarily. But still, we were rich. I dont think we ever saw any real money, because we were moving so fast and doing exactly what we wanted to do. We never had a purse. Ah, hippies; too cool to have a wallet, never so cool as to forget about money altogether. As long as I didnt put my foot on UK soil, I didnt have to pay any income tax. It wasnt the money, it was the principle.

The Japanese tour was flat, not for audiences, but for Donovan, who was miserable. It wasnt drugs and he wasnt overly crazy on alcohol, he just had a broken heart and its hard to stay interested in your mission through one of those. Without the mission, I wasnt in good shape, he says. Gypsy Dave was always with me. Gypsy Dave crops up a lot when he talks. He was there at the start, apparently, when they were sleeping rough in Liverpool (Well, on benches in graveyards, with a sleeping bag; but that was the rough. The smooth was in St Ives, sleeping on a beach under the stars). Dave makes sage remarks throughout the Linda separation (There are plenty more fish in the sea), but it remains hard, maybe because of his handle, to remember that he was a real person, the sculptor and songwriter Gyp Mills, rather than a kind of spirit animal.

Anyway, it was Dave who insisted that he couldnt keep on gigging in Japan when his heart wasnt in it, that he had to go home. My agent, Vic Lewis, said: As soon as you put your foot on [the British airline] BOAC in Tokyo, youre on British soil the whole tax plan is out of the window. I was about to earn more than any British artist had ever earned on a year dropout $7m. Today it would probably be a lot more. Vic was on his knees in the airport, because he stood to get 10%. I quite like this tableau, the mystic bard shuffling sadly on to a plane, foregoing his ancient principle of opposing a supertax, as his agent prostrates himself on the ground for his lost 700 grand. Wheres Hans Holbein when you need him?

Donovan with his wife Linda Lawrence on their wedding day in October 1970. Photograph: Bill Orchard/Rex/Shutterstock

So he was home, and Linda had come back to England, too, after life in the US got too dicey. The drug dealers were moving in, and he takes an interesting detour through the end of the psychedelic dream. The drugs were quite safe to begin with, but as the 60s progressed, it was becoming big business, and a lot of our songs were singing about it. So it became like we were the ones who were commercially promoting it. The pair reunited in 1970 in a touching scene involving a cow. We walked up to the woods, me with my guitar, and we sat in the field, and we didnt say anything. Until I said: Do you want to get married now? And she said: I still feel the same. And I started singing a song, and a cow came up and licked Lindas face while I was singing. Id never heard of anything like that happening. And you cant make that up. It must be a Taurus thing.

If his first decade of fame was all about love found and lost, its eventual resolution liberated both Donovan and Linda to delve into the deeper significance of the human condition transcendental meditation. Me, David Lynch, Paul McCartney, but dont focus on me, focus on what the teaching says. This might be part of your article. O K. There are three levels of consciousness, waking, sleeping and dreaming, and we move between the three of them. But there is a fourth level, superconscious transcendental vision.

If you never access that, you never truly relax, and this in a roundabout but mainly non-verbal way, explains why the world is in such a mess and we stockpile nuclear weapons. Yet why have we not already destroyed ourselves? Why has it not already happened?

Go on then, wise guy Well, its extraordinary in itself.

On the plus side, everything you need to know is already inside you you just need to access it. Will our self-awareness come too late to halt the climate crisis? Greta says no. Her generation is saying no. It is an extraordinary mission, and the mission is eco. And I think thats it.

Encounter completed. I dont know what Greta Thunberg is going to make of this intervention. But I hope Donovans tour goes ahead in the future, if only because I am hoping for a future in which all tours go ahead.

Donovans album Eco-Song is available to download at The rescheduled show at Cadogan Hall, London, will take place on 12 October.

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We cant all go and live in the woods, of course. But if we resist debt, resist gadgets, and reconnect with nature, the world might just change, writes Mark Boyle

Having once been an early adopter of tech, I was an unlikely early rejector. But it has now been over a year since I have phoned my family or friends, logged on to antisocial media, sent a text message, checked email, browsed online, took a photograph or listened to electronic music. Living and working on a smallholding without electricity, fossil fuels or running water, the last year has taught me much about the natural world, society, the state of our shared culture, and what it means to be human in a time when the boundaries between man and machine are blurring.

My reasons for unplugging, during that time, havent so much changed as shifted in importance. My primary motives were and still are ecological. The logic was simple enough. Even if used minimally, a single smartphone (or toaster, internet server, solar panel, sex robot) relies on the entire industrial megamachine for its production, marketing and consumption.

The consequences of this ever-intensifying industrialism are clear: widespread surveillance in our pockets; the standardisation of everything; the colonisation of wilderness, indigenous lands and our mindscape; cultural imperialism; the mass extinction of species; the fracturing of community; mass urbanisation; the toxification of everything necessary for a healthy life; resource wars and land grabs; 200 million climate refugees by 2050; the automation of millions of jobs, and the inevitable inequality, unemployment and purposelessness that will follow and provide fertile ground for demagogues to take control. I could go on, but youve heard it all before.

While this matters no less to me now, one person living without technology in the middle of somewhere unimportant doesnt matter a damn to the machine economy. There are now 7.7bn active phone connections on Earth thats more phones than people so one fewer hardly makes a difference on its own.

Im now more interested in keeping the best of the old ways alive, preserving a link from our ancient past and its crafts, perspectives, stories into our future, so that when the industrial apparatus collapses under the weight of its own junk, these long-serving ways can point us towards the back roads home. For, as a computer quit screen message once said, everything not saved will be lost. We would do well to heed it, lest we lose ourselves.

This way of life is often described as the simple life. Looking at it head-on, its far from simple. This life is actually quite complex, made up of a thousand small, simple things. By comparison, my old urban life was quite simple, made up of a thousand small, complex things. I found industrial life too simple, and thus repetitive and boring. With all of its apps, switches, electronic entertainment, power tools, websites, devices, comforts and conveniences, there was almost nothing left for me to do for myself, except that one thing that earned me the cash to buy my other needs and wants. So as Kirkpatrick Sale once wrote in Human Scale, my wish became to complexify, not simplify.

When youre connected to wifi youre disconnected from life. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Yet there remains a timeless simplicity about this way of life. Ive found that when you peel off the plastic that industrial society vacuum-packs around you, what is left could not be simpler. Theres no extravagance, no clutter, no unnecessary complications. Nothing to buy, nothing to be. No frills, no bills. Only the raw ingredients of life, to be dealt with immediately and directly, with no middlemen to complicate and confuse the matter. Simple. But complex.

In the bloody, mucky, sweaty reality of living in direct relationship with a particular place, Ive learned that while death is an essential and beautiful part of life, industrial-scale cruelty isnt; and that while veganism is an urban myth industrial food and goods are wiping out life en masse, regardless of whether they contain animal products the protection of the natural world and its breathtaking creatures is more important than ever.

Though living without technology sounds sacrificial and austere, Ive found the gains outweigh the initial losses. When youre connected to wifi youre disconnected from life. Its a choice between the machine world and the living, breathing world, and I feel physically and mentally healthier for choosing the latter.

People regularly tell me that 7.3 billion humans cant live as I do. On this I agree. But 7.3 billion humans cant continue living as the mass of people do now, either. I dont claim that this way of life is a solution for all the worlds people, for the simple reason that I dont think there is some magical panacea to the convergence of crises our culture is bringing on itself. People wont voluntarily go back to wilder times or cottage economies, yet progressing forwards probably means techno-dystopia followed by ecological meltdown.

While I dont believe in one-size-fits-all solutions, there are important things that most of us can do. In my last book, Drinking Molotov Cocktails With Gandhi, I argue that the three rs of the climate-catastrophe generation reduce, reuse, recycle need a serious upgrade. In their place I propose resist, revolt, rewild.

Resist debt. Resist careers. Resist chasing the dollar. Resist being sold that mass-produced gadget that will distract you from life and the people youll wish you spent more time with when youre on your deathbed.

Revolt. If you dont like the geo-social-eco-political consequences of fossil fuels, fracking, mining, quarrying, bottom-trawling, deforesting and general skullduggery, then stand up to the industrial system that demands them.

Rewild. Start playing a part in rewilding our landscapes. Support groundbreaking projects, such as the Cambrian Wildwood and Rewilding Britain, which are doing some of the most important work of our time. If you have land a small garden, a farm, an estate let as much of it as you can go wild and attract birds, insects, bees and other wildlife. Stop manicuring. Stop controlling. Stop spraying insecticide. Simply stop doing. As you stop these, start the long, fascinating road to rewilding yourself. As the wheel of life relentlessly spins full circle, the skills of the past will become the skills of the future.

Life is an unceasing trade-off between comfort and feeling fully alive. My experiences have taught me that perhaps the law of diminishing returns might apply to comfort and the technologies that promise it too.

I love the simple, complex life. While it is not a realistic solution for the mass of people now, unless we curb our addictions to more stuff, more growth, more dehumanising, distracting technologies and more of the same it may well be a solution for those who live through whatever comes next.

This article was written by hand and posted to an editor at the Guardian, who transcribed it to go online. Get in touch with Mark Boyle here or in the comments below, a selection of which will be posted to him

Mark Boyle has lived without technology since December 2016. He is the author of books including The Moneyless Man and Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi

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Environmental lawyer James Thornton says Chinas ecological civilisation concept is the best response to the worlds environmental crisis

James Thorntons specialty is suing governments and corporations on behalf of his only client the Earth and hes very good at it. In his four decades of legal practice across three continents, hes never lost a case.

Acknowledging this in 2009 the New Statesmannamed him one of the ten people likely to change the world; ClientEarth, the public interest environmental law firm he started in London in 2007 now employs 106 people.

Thornton has been in Australia to talk about his work and his new book, Client Earth, which he co-wrote with his partner Martin Goodman. When I met them in Sydney, Thornton was keen to discuss his unlikely adventure in China, while Goodman, usually a reserved Englishman, enthused about the unexpected hope he found while writing Client Earth.

First invited to Beijing in 2014 to help implement Chinas new law allowing NGOs to sue polluting companies for the first time, Thornton has seen how serious the worlds biggest polluter is about addressing its environmental problems. He believes their concept of ecological civilisation is the best formulation hes heard for the new environmental story we must tell.

Facing the ruin of their environment, the Chinese looked hard and amended their constitution. This core document now calls for the building of an ecological civilisation, he says. We built an agricultural, then an industrial, and now must build an ecological civilisation.

I have no cynicism about whether they mean to do it. My job is to try and clean up the environment for future generations. The Chinese really want to do that. This task, apparently insurmountable for the west, is made possible by Chinas 2,500-year tradition of centralised government.

They said, we have a long-term vision, we want to be here in another 2,000 years and that will only happen if we clean up the environment. So we have determined that were going to deal with our environmental problems and were going to do so in a very thoroughgoing way.

Thornton said it helps that most of the politburo are engineers, rather than political scientists, lawyers or economists as in the west. So when they actually decide that there is a problem and it takes actual evidence to get them there they define the problem and then their next question is: whats the solution? How can we afford it, how quickly can we do it, and how can we marshal all forces in society to get there?

At first Thornton thought this was rhetoric. And then I realised it wasnt rhetorical. So by the time we got deep into conversation and I first heard the notion of ecological civilisation, I asked several very senior officials, Is this serious? And they said Yes, absolutely serious. Its been central policy now for some years.

Chinese workers prepare panels that will be part of a large floating solar farm project under construction on a lake caused by a collapsed and flooded coal mine in Huainan, Anhui province, China. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

With a group of Chinese experts and five other westerners, Thornton spent 18 months analysing how to create the legal structures for an ecological civilisation. They then gave recommendations for how to create the rule of law to deliver it. Thats typical of what theyre doing. Theyve thrown hundreds of their best intellectuals at designing the theoretical framework for each of the pieces of the architecture of ecological civilisation. These include economic, industrial and agricultural policies for an ecological civilisation.

Thornton says that when he first went to China, hed only read the western media about it and had many of the same notions hes often challenged with, especially concerning democracy and human rights. And I understand where they come from. But I also know that the western democracies that we prize so much arent doing very well with respect to the environment. Weve elected somebody in the United States who seems really dedicated to the notion of contempt for the environment.

In the west, efforts to address environmental problems are fragmentary and not well funded. Whereas in China, he says, suddenly you have this direction from the top on down asking all of these top people over the course of the next few decades: How does everything have to change to deliver this?

Thornton is also a Zen Buddhist priest, which helps him to see intractable environmental problems with a commanding clarity and precision, and to approach them with admirable pragmatism, patience, tenacity and long-term strategy. Law becomes about saving civilisation, he says. Law is the answer to the question Im often asked: what can I do about global problems?

The extraordinary challenges Thornton overcame to bring environmental litigation to Europe are among the many inspiring stories Goodman tells in ClientEarth. Jamess first actions were therefore brazen, Goodman says. In the UK, he set out to change the cost rules. In Germany and at the EU level, the matter was one of standing: rights had to be granted for citizens to bring serious environmental concerns to the courts.

Thornton did change the legal system and ClientEarth flourished. In 2016 the Financial Times named this small non-profit firm in the top 50 law firms in the world. ClientEarth also won the most innovative law firm award and Thornton won a special achievement award.

It was then that Goodman realised ClientEarth was an ugly duckling story: The poor relation charity environmental law group that suddenly found itself among the swans of top global law firms.

ClientEarthis a rare thing: a hopeful book about the environment and a page-turner about the law. Goodman is professor of creative writing at the University of Hull and a lively storyteller. His chapters recount Thorntons life and work; Thorntons are meditations on the laws moral dimensions.

Thornton and Goodman have been together for 25 years and their conversation swings from Thorntons urgent stories about systemic change to Goodmans tales of hope. Despite having lived with ClientEarth for a decade, it was only when Goodman came to write the firms story that he began to fathom just how powerful its legal work really is.

I think its the most important thing going, he says. The environment no longer seems an intractable problem. We need lawyers, they bring hope, they can help you.

It seems this hope is contagious. Alice Garton, a lawyer from the Northern Territory, feels like the luckiest person on the planet to be working for ClientEarth. Ive spent years of my life being really depressed about climate change and pessimistic, she says. Since starting here, Im optimistic.

Client Earthhad a similar effect on Brian Eno, a long-time supporter and trustee of the firm. After reading the book to write its foreword, Eno was so inspired he told Thornton: I want to come and live with you in the office for three days to really see how I can help.

Thornton replied: Youre the worlds greatest producer, so what Id like you to do is produce ClientEarth. Something great will come of that.

Brian Eno and ClientEarths James Thornton talk about law and the environment.

When asked about his own most inspiring moments, Thornton names three. Preventing Poland from building a new generation of coal-fired power stations. Enforcing the first environmental laws in the US, introduced by Nixon in 1970 along with the Environment Protection Agency, but flouted by Reagan. When Reagan told the new head of the EPA to disable it, Thornton almost singlehandedly (with a scientist) showed them that somebody could do it better, embarrassing them into enforcing the law again. And his work in China.

Im tough and patient, Thornton says. This is an understatement. Aged eight, a spider-loving Thornton considered studying entomology but realised that wouldnt help the threatened natural world. So he decided to become a lawyer, to fight for its protection. But this was the early 1960s and there were no environmental lawyers then. So Thornton helped to found his vocation, including teaching the first courses on environmental law.

Now Thornton is looking to the next stage of the Paris Agreement. Paris was a turning point in history, he says. The next stage must be a legal framework and enforcement, otherwise citizens can go to court to accuse their government of not implementing the law, and we will help them do so. When the law is passed, the work begins.

But these laws are new and fragile and need our active support. As Goodman says: I think people have got to understand that these laws are around, theyre really vulnerable, and theyll die unless we pay them attention and demand that theyre held strong.

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