An abiding Christmas lesson: risk to hope

God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform, the hymnist William Cowper wrote. So it has been with the Powelliphanta Augustus snails in Happy Valley.

The Happy Valley snails are unique. They are large. They have evolved their own special way of life in their own special habitat.

When Solid Energy, the company greens love to hate, more even than McDonalds and sugar-drink killer-fiends, came to Happy Valley hungry for coal, conservationists fretted for the snails — as we all do now, in retrospect, for the huia, whose food and shelter colonists ravaged.

To disturb the snails would, they feared, be one more blow against Gaia, the complex system of interdependencies of which we are part and which nourishes us and which, if we destroy too many of the parts, James Lovelock tells us, will cease to function — and then, obviously, so will we.

Conservationists worried that the snails were too slow to get out of the diggers’ way and couldn’t survive outside their special valley.

Nevertheless, the Department of Conservation (DoC) talked to Solid Energy boss Don Elder and he stumped up $2.5 million to scoop up snails and put them up them in plastic containers in fridges at 7deg C until they can be resettled nearby, complete with a transplanted original habitat. Forty have so far made that journey. The rest are still in Fridgeland.

DoC thought there were about 250, which would have priced them at $10,000 each — too pricey even for a Paris gourmet, large as they are.

Turns out so far that there are more than 2000 and counting (and counting, too, for Solid Energy, in dollars spent) and some were pregnant on arrival. Turns out that fewer than 1 per cent have died in Fridgeland of natural causes. Turns out that far from pining, they initially got fat (and presumably even slower) on DoC’s supply of worms before the dieticians got in on the act.

DoC is going to stop hunting them when it has 3000. And after the big resettlement it will keep some in Fridgeland just in case.

The upshot is that West Coast whitewear trade has waxed fat, supplying coolers for Fridgeland, Solid Energy gets its mine and you and I, its taxpayer-owners, have the prospect of a bigger dividend and DoC has learnt valuable lessons about estimating wildlife populations (though whether snails qualify as wildlife is a matter for disputation over the barbecue).

If the snails are sending us a Christmas message it is not that the conservationists’ fears appear to have been misplaced. It is that there is hope in human activity.

We don’t get all of it wrong. Worst fears aren’t always realised, despite the worst jihadists, rapists and murderers, ruthless capitalists and drug-addled celebrities can do. Television images can terrorise us but they cannot take away the truth.

It is near 100 per cent certain that the plane you board tomorrow would not have a suicide bomber on board even if you were not to be treated as a criminal on your way to the gate.

It is near 100 per cent certain that you will not be raped or murdered this evening on your way home from the movies.

It is near 100 per cent certain the shop in which you got your retail therapy today is not run by crooks and thieves itching to rob you.

Everyday living rests on an unthought faith — a faith that today everything will mesh and interact in our complex physical and human environment in much the same way as it did yesterday.

We might feel we need an explanation for that faith — God or a god, Gaia or a common spirit of which all humans are part. That explanation might have been chosen for us or we might have chosen it or just found it there with us one day.

But if we close our minds around our explanation we turn belief into doctrine.

Doctrine excludes, confines and at its worst imprisons. Doctrine denies girls an education, drives believers to kill.

Doctrine kills more than people; it kills the pursuit of ideas. It is that pursuit which distinguishes our humanity and furnishes hope. We are richer because of the pursuit of ideas, we understand more of ourselves and others, we can believe we will do better next time despite the daily evidence of mayhem and inhumanity.

But to pursue ideas is to embrace risk, the risk of damage unknowable in advance. Electricity might have irreparably disoriented the immortal soul. Nuclear fission killed huge numbers but also created a valuable mutual fear of war between the two most deadly nations of 1945-90. The snails might have died out.

So perhaps, in celebration of hope, we might risk more. If we got on planes with our little flasks of liquid, a few of us might be killed but we would live freer. We would deny jihadists their joy at the sight of infidels humiliating themselves in their honour. We would proclaim our everyday-faith.

And we would proclaim a core Christmas lesson too often forgotten: that we can be free of doctrine and fear, that we can have faith and hope in human activity.

The snails, were they humans, would surely agree.