Tony Abbott's "discovery'' of champagne is a worthy contender for the year's highlight. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen / Fairfax
December. Again. There are, thank goodness, three equally appropriate ways of coping with the impending approach of Christmas. If the past year's been good, really good, indulge yourself. Receive a well-earned pat on the back. Reflect on the way everything would have turned to dross if it hadn't been for that blend of acumen, wisdom and insight only you possess!
But if the year's only been so-so, still congratulate yourself. Without your particular combination of acumen, wisdom and insight a disaster would - undoubtedly - have ensued. Take a pat on the back!
If the year was, however, bad, why don't you blame the ignorant minions around you for the disaster while remaining confident that only your own unique mixture of acumen, wisdom and insight has enabled avoiding worse cataclysm. So hurray! Give yourself a pat on the back. Look forward to a well-earned Christmas! Sometimes, looking around at what's happening in the world, confidence and optimism might appear misplaced. Nevertheless it's all we've got. So this is a good moment to reflect on what's really important and it isn't money, technology or power. What counts is interacting with nature, people and ideas.
Thanks for reading this column through the year. I've enjoyed being allowed to write for such an educated, thoughtful audience. Whenever offered a safe alternative, I've attempted to be provocative. There's too much sitting on the fence. Writing should challenge consensus, not reinforce it. The danger is that we cascade like water, flowing without thought down the easiest path and not realising, until too late, that there's a dam ahead.
I apologise to readers I've offended. Gratuitous insult was never the objective. Neither, however, is complacency. I'm happy for example, that last week's column on Canberra provoked some controversy. There's more than enough boosterism around. Society will charge down an apparently preordained path unless people examine, test and occasionally dispute fundamental assumptions to ask if there is a better way.
It's easy to confuse technological development with progress. Despite the continuing problems in the broader economy, when we look at the baubles and trinkets that surround us it's possible to assume that our lives are so much better than ever before. I still occasionally incline to the belief that the last genuinely significant development that really altered civilisation was the invention of plumbing by the Romans. However, I'm willing to concede Abbott Dom Perignon's ''discovery'' of champagne - ''Come quickly, I am drinking the stars'' - is also a worthy contender.
Although even here, it's important to interrogate received wisdom. Monks near Carcassonne in France's south-west had been producing bubbly for more than a century before the merchants of Champagne came to the table. And it was Briton Christopher Merret who first added sugar to provide wine with sparkle.
Fortunately, Canberra is blessed with more than the usual number of people prepared to challenge the consensus. People such as the ANU's Professor Des Ball, an incomparable, world-renowned strategic expert. Instead of relaxing comfortably in his chair he has been using it to fight orthodoxy for more than a quarter of a century now.
And all the others, such as Emeritus Professor Tony Eggleton. Unable to answer some hard questions a friend put to him at a Christmas party three years ago, he decided to do some research. Eggleton has now written a brilliant book (published by Cambridge) comprehensively explaining climate change and putting to shame those who think this is not an issue that will ineluctably define our future.
You don't have to immerse yourself in science to understand what these changes will mean, either. Chris Hammer's wonderful book The Coast adds the human dimension that is so easily lost amid the sound bites of the politicians. The prophets - Tim Flannery springs to mind - should be allowed to wander in their wastelands of certainty. Treat absolutism on any issue (particularly from columnists - Ed.) is a red flag.
It's a warning signal that an individual hasn't really understood the complexity of what's occurring but, in this increasingly crowded media landscape, people assume that only a shouted message will cut through. The dumbing-down of civic discourse continues apace. There's little evidence Twitter's 140-character limit is doing anything to encourage intercourse as a genuine exchange of views. It's useful as a tool, no more. The human mind is a precious, vital organism. Exercise makes it finer.
Resist the blandishments, over the holidays, not to think or engage with broader issues and bigger questions, because there's no better time to solve the world's problems than while enjoying a lunch in summer. And, fortunately, the enjoyment you experience won't actually be affected by whether you're sipping a $1600 bottle of French bubbly on a mansion overlooking Palm Beach or a tinny of beer after pitching your tent at a national park. Pleasure isn't determined by the size of your wallet. It relies on your ability to experience the wonder of a sunrise or the laugh of a friend.
Not everyone will be able to experience joy. Twenty-one years ago, as a young teenager, my sister spent her Christmas visiting a hospital where her mother lay dying of cancer in one ward while her brother lapsed in and out of consciousness in another after a car accident. Not everyone wins Lotto. Now she has gone on to be a stunning, successful singer in her own right because she found the resourcefulness within herself to succeed in her own way. We should celebrate those who try; someone who hasn't just taken the easy route and lived a conventional life doing as they're told. Being prepared to stand apart is a real accomplishment.
I'm taking time off to complete a book on the death of journalism. Have a merry Christmas and happy new year.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.