Even the world's small can stand upright

Here on Middle Earth what does 2015 hold? That we will still be hobbits at its end? Or that we will stand upright?

No wonder Australians sneer: Sir Peter Jackson, Air New Zealand (in its “safety” videos), Wellington airport (scrawled across its front), Wellington’s mayor, the Tourism Minister and many others sanctify the quaint Tolkien imagery of the stunted.

They each have reason. Sir Peter rolls in Hobbit film riches. Air New Zealand stacks planes with tourists, some even to Wellington where they quickly learn about weather.

Tourists spend and we in turn can spend on smartphones, cars and machines. Sir Peter’s enterprise sucks in top digital talent from around the globe.

New Hobbitland is thereby made richer.

So even a belittling fiction can have an upside — as the disingenuous “100 per cent pure” tourist enticement fiction did.

And we can draw a positive analogy from deep within that vexing fiction: hobbits could be enterprising, resourceful and courageous when pressed. They were peaceable.

On that last point, hear the Reserve Bank, always careful with words.

In its December 11 monetary policy statement, the bank said of services exports — mainly tourism and education of foreign students — that its contacts identified “relative safety in the face of international geopolitical tensions and terrorism scares” as one of foreigners’ three main reasons for wanting to study here.

In a disordered world (about which more next week) we have more security than most. As former Defence Secretary Gerald Hensley used to say, we are distant from tyranny.

There is a risk the National-Labour anti-muslim-terrorist law will prompt terrorists to lump us in with belligerent United States and Australia. In fact, foreign media now routinely label us a United States “ally”, the antithesis of our asserted “independent foreign policy”. But so far that makes us only a bit, not a lot, less safe.

And we have friends in high places. China for one. Most of Europe. The stunning vote for a Security Council seat in October attested to wide goodwill.

We have other big attractions: space, abundant water, energy and food and, despite being half-hearted on climate change and not clean-green, clearer skies and wider tracts of unspoilt or little-spoilt landscape than almost any other place.

We can be small-minded and defensive — we are small in number, after all. But we also have more imagination than we credit ourselves.

Recent creative arts examples include Wellington’s shower-of-words sculpture of Katherine Mansfield and The Luminaries’ exceptional craft.

Dunedin’s Marbecks delicatessen, Talbot Forest emmentaler cheese and Barker’s blackcurrant and red onion jelly are recent fine-food exemplars.

Bridget Williams Books’ superbly presented indigenous history, Tangata Whenua, is a landmark in our 30-year pioneering navigation through settler-indigenous tension to a unique cultural accommodation.

One outcome of that accommodation is renewed Maori strength. Drop in on the Ahuwhenua awards for an uplifting showcase of modern Maori agricultural enterprise. Look over Tuaropaki’s climb from post-forest-felling simple farms to University of California partner.

Most of those upward climbers keep under the radar. They won’t for too much longer.

Of course, our story is not all good. We drag with us into 2015 a quarter-century of now-ingrained wide inequalities of wealth, income and opportunity, which divide and undermine us and debilitate our economy.

In the 1890s, as Tom Brooking’s compendious new biography of Dick Seddon expounds, just such a division was fazing dreams of a new, freer society.

Seddon, William Pember Reeves and Jock McKenzie sanded off the patrician patina shipped in from Britain. New Zealanders (except Maori and Chinese, one must note) were to have a fair go to make the best of themselves.

That held for 90 years till the mid-1980s. Now many kids don’t get a fair go and we all lose.

Seddon and Co’s fair-go drive demonstrated that a small, open society can more flexibly imagine ways of doing things than a big, established one.

That is the 2015 challenge.

Rapid technological change is recasting production, value chains and sales channels, redefining education and ways of keeping and restoring health, sowing and vacuuming information, connecting people and things and destroying privacy.

That revolution plus global economic and political disorder have torn up political-economy texts.

The next texts will mostly be written elsewhere. But New Zealand has shown itself — in the 1890s, 1930s and 1980s — to be a place where new ideas can be tested in practice and enhanced. We can be flexible, open and quick-acting. We can innovate, as in our bicultural accommodation. And we have some fine minds.

Standing upright, we could make this a place the compilers of the new texts come to for a sparky idea or two.

That is one of many opportunities a disordered world opens for us in this safe, spacious, well-endowed place.

Small can be big.