Huon Valley Mid-Winter Fest

Searching for critical mass

One of the magic things that happens when a group of people build cohesion around values and/or aspirations is that the critical mass builds upon itself, attracting more of the same. We all see this throughout our lives when we’ve worked in great teams, or been involved with a group of people working to a common purpose. It might be a team at work, a group of musicians or a community organization. It’s a great feeling and is an incredible attractor, making others want to join in – to be part of the magic. We all want that feeling of belonging, of being part of something bigger than ourselves.

I sense that happening across Tasmania, both at the local level around towns and regions but also collectively across the state. As I wrote in the last feature, Tasmania represents a dream for many people and what’s happening now is that magical moment of critical mass is arriving, as the dream becomes reality for enough people to make the trend self reinforcing.

One of the results is a boom in tourism as people come to visit, wanting to find out what everyone is talking about, wanting to taste the magic – in the case of the food producers literally. But what is that magic about? What are we searching for?

Staring at the fire, at Huon Valley Mid-Winter Fest.

Staring at the fire at Huon Valley Mid-Winter Fest (photo by Callan Back)

I’m convinced that a major driver is the growing sense that, for those of us in the rich world, the Western model of human progress is starting to look a bit empty of personal satisfaction. That working hard to make more money to buy more stuff to convince ourselves we’re successful might have worked for while but now we’ve started to wonder what the end game is. How much is enough? What makes a life well lived?

I would argue that consumption and “having stuff” is a natural and understandable state for humans. As we’ve developed our society over the past few thousand years we often haven’t had enough stuff – things like a reliable food supply, safe places to live, being comfortable and warm, having clean water. So we became wired to get stuff and hold on to it when we could. Getting from there to where most of us in the West were by the 70’s or 80’s – having our basic needs met – made sense.

But then we got way too carried away, slowly but surely unwinding the communities we had built while, seeking to replace the resulting emptiness, surrounding ourselves with mountains of crap bought by climbing up mountains of credit card debt. As the writer Clive Hamilton describes it, our credit fuelled global economy had been built on the idea that we should “spend money we haven’t got, to buy stuff we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like!”

I think people like Tasmania because it feels like it’s different to that. Of course people here buy stuff, go to work and have credit cards! But there’s something deeper going on here, as people rebuild communities, explore food that feels real and share their lives and journey’s in festivals, cafes and local markets. Some dismiss this as the luxurious navel gazing of the financially comfortable. But that idea doesn’t bear scrutiny against the reality that Tasmanians are not wealthy in the financial sense, with a per capita income and wealth lower than the Australian average. And they tend to work for their living rather than living for their work. One of the things I notice here is how many people don’t have full time jobs but instead manage multiple sources of income, running small farms, while working in local cafes, doing odd jobs and selling some art work to collectively make enough to make ends meet. They buy second hand clothes, they get building materials and furniture from the “tip shop” (a charity run second hand shop at the local waste station) and they fix things. Many of them, by the way, are real characters with great stories and I’ll introduce you to many of them over the coming months.

They talk to each other, they know where they belong and they help each other out. Sure, it’s not like that for everyone here but you can feel it building, a critical mass of people looking for something more and many of them finding it. While their bank balances might be low, their lives are rich. And they’re getting richer every day.

Kids playing in the hay, at Huon Valley Mid-Winter Fest.

Kids playing in the hay at Huon Valley Mid-Winter Fest (photo by Callan Back)

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