Community: the true meaning of Christmas

Whatever we may say about our neighbours, they’re an essential ingredient in our future. [24 December 2013 | Peter Boyer]

Climate action begins at home, in our local communities. PHOTO WIKIPEDIA COMMONS

What will you be doing tomorrow? Visiting relatives, or being visited by them? Going out with the family? Or perhaps you’ll dine with neighbours or friends when you’d otherwise be dining alone.

Whatever it is, even if you’re working, it’s more than likely you’ll be with others. It’s how we’ve always celebrated festive occasions, and always will.

Many of us, especially us males, sometimes like to dream about managing on our own, in the romantic tradition of solitary, strong silent types living out of a covered ute or in a world of our own, shut off from outside in some sort of fortified retreat. But it’s just a dream.

Humans are social animals for good reason. We need each other to keep the wolves at bay, but also because we’re nourished by the company of others. By ourselves we can do only so much, but when we get together the unmanageable becomes manageable, the unbearable bearable.

Extended family, neighbourhood, village, town, city are all aspects of what we call community. The word’s two Latin roots mean “together” and “gift”, which goes a fair way to explaining why a community is greater than the sum of its individual parts. How do you measure such things?

In our own times, “community” has come to mean much more than something local, a neighbourhood or suburb that you can see, touch and be part of. It’s become something neither visible nor tangible and often far bigger, even global.

The “international community” isn’t a community at all. Though sometimes it’s applied to gatherings with both government and non-government participants, like the annual UN climate meetings, it usually means just government representatives debating world affairs.

Then there are “virtual communities”, whose membership may number in the millions or hundreds of millions. Think internet chat rooms and message boards, or their progeny, social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace.

Like real, physical communities, social networks involve connections between people who may have little in common besides the network itself, and deal with a variety of social needs. You can get so completely absorbed that you relate to it as if it were a real community.

Social networks aren’t real communities, but they can be an invaluable adjunct to them, greatly enhancing their ability to connect to like-minded groups and movements at all levels, local, national and global.

A couple of classic instances of the real-virtual connection are Transition, seeking to make towns and suburbs more self-sufficient in energy, and “350.org”, aiming to galvanise local action to create global-scale statements about the urgent need to change our fossil-fuelled ways.

Transition began as a community project in the English town of Totnes, but became a global movement through use of the internet. The 350.org campaign moved in the opposite direction, an idea on the internet that took on physical form as local activities.

The value of such worldwide movements is in their connection with real communities. Crossing national, religious and ethnic boundaries, they enlarge the experience of local and regional groups and help them to build the confidence every community needs when it seeks to transform itself.

In the end it all comes down to real life. For all its exceptional ability to draw us in, virtual reality isn’t reality itself. Carbon emissions may be invisible, as our prime minister has reminded us, but they are physical, measurable entities that really are changing our lives.

We can twitter away to our hearts’ content, use the internet to promulgate ideas and policies and reports, but to make a difference we actually have to do real things in the real world.

That’s why our community life is so crucial to the success of any action to mitigate the impact of climate change. International agreements and government policies count for little in the absence of strong, functioning communities to support people through transition.

On the whole, communities aren’t a result of any planned, conscious process. They come about because their members give up something of themselves, tacitly accepting things that they might otherwise reject, for the sake of a harmonious whole.

We can choose our friends, but unless we own all the real estate we don’t get to choose our neighbours. Most of them will probably not be close to us in a personal sense. You’d think that this might cause a community to fracture under stress, but oddly enough the reverse is true.

The paradox of a community is that its strength lies in this unplanned, cobbled-together quality. A community is most effective when its membership is reasonably diverse and when, consciously and otherwise, members have come to see the value of differing positions and opinions.

There are some in the Tasmanian community who disagree with the position I hold, based on years of exposure to science and scientists, that continuing to burn fossil fuels at today’s rate is (to borrow from a religious childhood) a pathway to hell on Earth.

I accept their disagreement. While I will continue to do all I can to persuade them that we need to change the way we do things, I acknowledge that they have every right to contest what I say. It’s the price I pay for being a member of this community, and I wouldn’t have it otherwise.

This festive time that closes out our year is an appropriate time for reflection. While you’re enjoying this Christmas in the company of family, friends, or perhaps neighbours, reflect on the value of these people and how, together, they make our lives better.

Celebrate your own neighbourhood, with all its disagreements and diversity, and consider how you could help make it stronger. In whatever we might need to do to safeguard the future of humanity, it’s our number one asset.

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