Bring on the social engagement


    Earlier this week, we ran out of water. Again. I should have known better. We’ve lived here for nearly 40 years. Unfortunately, so has the piping. Nor does it help that the kahikatea saplings are now 25 feet high and shedding inches of solid loam into my gutters every season.
    Fortunately, the prospect of borrowing water by the jerry can, having to make unreasonable requests of friends with washing machines to deal with the children’s clothing and generally gearing up for a prolonged wait was mercifully brief.
    But not so brief it hadn’t sparked a useful awareness of the sheer ease of our daily lives with hot running water – and the loss of communal living.
    Its loss globally is one of the unbearable facets of 2016’s history. In the remaining tiny remnants of earlier civilisations in the Middle East and Africa where the collective is essential, it’s increasingly stamped out by modern armaments in the hands of the reigning ‘strongmen’ of their ancient geography.
    Waiheke’s ‘community’ is generally acknowledged as part of our undoubted charm as a destination and it still has the subtle glue of having a high proportion of people who have known each other since their children were small and life a lively struggle. We still emerge from various bush-bound fastnesses for the island’s many festivals, robust debates on local affairs, street parties, occasional school prizegivings that involve the offspring and any feisty local play.

    Social connection is over-whelmingly the single biggest source of human happiness.

    Even so, we can hardly be unaware of the increasing social isolation that modern global living has spawned and that is now frequently deplored as a western epidemic of loneliness.
    Even, and sometimes especially, among the richest – a demographic where social advancement leads to increasingly solitary and competitive recreation and life choices. It’s an unforgettable point made by Nobel Laureate in Economics Daniel Kahneman in his seminal Thinking, fast and slow.
    If there is an already powerful shift in the wake of the past year’s wholesale trashing of established political and global balances and mantras, it will be a good thing.
    In an orgy of emotional individualism, Americans spend around $1bn a year on self-help books, $4bn on mindfulness products and therapies and a further $10bn a year on yoga classes and accessories. Judging by bookshop shelves in New Zealand, I doubt we are much different.
    But this level of self-focus has come at the expense of outward engagement, as Ruth Whittman said in the Guardian this week.
    “Our narrative of wellbeing has become divorced from community, social justice or wider political responsibility.” But while we have been locked in this mindful, downward-dogging bubble, she says, “we failed to notice a profound disaffection and rage growing within society”.
    There is no guarantee that 2017 will be any fairer but it feels as if we are now heading in a more useful direction as a race.
    Our occasional columnist Mark James, commenting during the American presidential election, pointed out that the populist and wildly disturbing Republican candidate would, if elected, hate being president – odd but proving true.  On the other hand, with him in the room, all bets are off. There’s a good chance 2017 will have a new frontier for naked greed as crocodile-smiling buddies Trump and Vladimir Putin lock wills over the ‘growth’ opportunities of the Arctic’s 20-degree temperature rises, melting icecap and the obvious opportunities for both mineral extraction and new trade routes.
    However, it would be the last gasp of capitalist exploitation of the social commons, conducted in the glare of an appalled world sick of a sense of impotence in the face of overwhelming disparities in power, status and property ownership.
    The improbable promise of unending growth on a finite planet would hardly start delivering now, just when it is blindingly obvious that opportunity is rigidly reserved for the very few and globalisation has not delivered equality or fairer and stable societies. With growth slowing to a standstill anyway.
    I’m for 2017 being a year in which we all stand for a fairer world, starting from first principles – as America’s Founding Fathers did, while mindful of the shocking inequalities on the European continent behind them.
    Whether it’s liberty, egality, fraternity or life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we need to devise a radically new base for humanity and start to rebuild structures in which everyone has an inalienable stake in the planet’s commons. One where we do not allow populations to be emptied out as if they are livestock.
    As Whippman, the author of The Pursuit of Happiness, points out, social connection is overwhelmingly the single biggest source of human happiness. Reclaiming our social selves would be a good start.
    Liz Waters

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