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New Zealand, Old Soul

Freedom camping is ubiquitous in New Zealand. Pull up in a “verified self-contained camper” (meaning a camp ready vehicle) and voila— you can camp in most anywhere in the country. While it does not sound particularly exciting, for a Californian like myself, it is surprising to be in a place where the campsites are not all booked months in advance, not to mention the fact that all California campsites are in specified and controlled zones. During my three weeks in New Zealand over Christmas break, I saw many people freedom camping since it was the peak holiday season. There was very little trash and all the hiking (“tramping”) trails were well managed throughout both the North and South Islands. This element of cleanliness was no small part of fully experiencing the spectacular landscapes the country had to offer. Blessed by geographic isolation and stupendous natural beauty, New Zealand now holds a special place in my heart. Reflecting on my trip, I believe New Zealand to be a last refuge of Western civilization as yet unsullied by mass consumerism and urbanization.

If one could imagine modern Western civilization as a body, I would describe America as the heart, Europe as the head and New Zealand as the soul. America is the heart because her foundational thesis of accountable government and post-ethnic unity (the E Pluribus Unum ideal) still remain legitimate elements of American culture, albeit weakened. Europe is, or possibly was, the head because the economic, scientific and intellectual home of Western civilization was Europe. Finally, New Zealand is the figurative soul. Because of her small population and aforementioned isolation, the country still relies heavily on agriculture, most of which is managed by small family farms as opposed to the mega-farming of the United States. This family farming is typical of the pre-industrial West. Because of the ubiquity of this style of farming, most private land is conserved in a scenic and fundamental sense. Conservationism (as imagined by Theodore Roosevelt) had a head start in New Zealand as compared to the rest of the West, and publicly owned lands are abundant. Land managed as conservation reserves accounts for about 30 percent of New Zealand’s land area.

This “soul” of New Zealand is supplemented not only by the beauty of the landscape but by the large number of social clubs. Social clubs covering the range of human interests is a signal of a healthy civilization, as is extensively written about in de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. For example, there are a number of surfing clubs in nearly every region of the country, something that was common in 1950s California but absent today. At least 13 percent of Kiwis, or 300,000 people, are members of some form of social club. I mean there is even a New Zealand clubs app so you can stay involved in club life if you take a road trip away from home. Are there 42 million Americans involved in organized social clubs? I highly doubt it. To help explain this through anecdote, only 4.6 percent of college students in the United States are in Greek life (see cited figure of 750,000 out of 16 million college students). Obviously there are colleges with no Greek life, but it is arguably easier to get involved in Greek life, which is a particularly American form of organized social club, than social clubs in general.

In conclusion, I think that many of the lessons New Zealand has to offer on an array of social issues can be instructive for California, a state that in some ways resembles the Pacific Island nation. We could definitely use an injection of bucolic soulfulness in the state that is the home not only of shallow mass entertainment but also the screens by which the former is transmitted. The West is facing a coming fight over whether our culture (or soul) and political systems (or heart) can survive in the face of societies that have opted to just download our economic practices (or head in some sense) and forget all the rest. For the rest of the year, I will occasionally discuss how we can make New Zealand more like California (and vice versa). However, in the meantime, I will first return to coverage of California-specific issues. Stay tuned.

Contact Max Minshull at mminshul ‘at’ stanford.edu

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