Lessons from a Penultimate New Year’s Eve in Sydney

Temporal milestones are opportunities for reflection and renewal. Birthdays, Anniversaries, Graduation Reunions – we celebrate these festivities with fanfare, but also try to find a sobering moment to ponder what each event means. Yet the euphoria that surrounds the celebration around our most definitive temporal milestone – the advent of a New Year on the Gregorian calendar — often does not provide such reflection time. The stroke of midnight that marks the start of the New Year is completely overwhelmed by pyrotechnics and jubilation for much of the world. The build-up to this ultimate climax hour, which is past most people’s bed time, has also become a phenomenon to be reckoned with. I write this blog on New Year’s morning 2014, humbled by what we saw — and what we did not see — within the past 24 hours of our travails to witness the exuberance of human celebratory impulses.

The Penultimate 9 pm fireworks at Sydney Harbor Bridge Dec. 31, 2013 - Photograph by Saleem H. Ali
The Penultimate 9 pm fireworks at Sydney Harbor Bridge Dec. 31, 2013 – Photograph by Saleem H. Ali

This year my family and I ventured to Sydney to witness firsthand the fireworks extravaganza that has given Australia’s largest city the reputation of presenting the best New Year induction in the world. An estimated 1.5 million people were watching the display around dozens of parks and esplanades speckled around the magnificent natural harbour on a pleasant summer day.  The city administration had tried its best to provide advance information on venue capacity through online interfaces. We chose to go to North Sydney’s Bradley Park in the shadow of the great Harbour Bridge which was to be the centre-piece of the festivities creatively designed this year by artist Reg Mombassa. Indeed, having an artist provide some deeper context to such festivities is always a fine idea but I wonder how many of the observers in the park cared to think through such deeper matters. For example, there was an unusual 1-minute fireworks display at 10:30 this year between the usual 9:00pm family display and the midnight finale. This was meant to be an artistic tribute to Mombassa’s self-portrait titled “Cranium Universe.” Yet the focus of everyone’s attention was on the finale and the biggest, brightest and most “spectacular” display possible.

Another notable feature of this year’s New Year’s Eve celebrations in Sydney was the involvement of Engineers Without Borders as a partner charity — an international grassroots organization focused on the promotion of engineering education and cooperation. Given the history of the Sydney Harbour Bridge as an engineering marvel and the growing need for more trained engineers worldwide, this was a particularly opportune event to involve the younger generation on matters that will indeed transcend any momentary celebration.

I was accompanied by my wife and two sons, aged 15 and 12 and we too were initially planning to stay for the finale camped out at Bradley Park. We arrived at 3pm and found a shaded spot with a partial view of the harbour bridge and a direct view of the opera house across the harbour. Australia’s multicultural society was on full display from Aboriginal youth to sari-clad Indian grandmothers in all their chromatic glory. The choicest views were already taken with families guarding their turf with tents and blankets but at the start of the evening there was a congenial willingness to share in the joy of the experience. People waited patiently in long lines at portable-potties that formed a fetid blue curtain on one end of the park. As the hours went by there was a palpable restlessness in the crowd. Late-comers began to jostle their way towards the front of the esplanade, claiming to be returning to their families who were holding a spot for them. People frowned and grumbled but let them pass. Yet after the first round of fireworks, the crowds who arrived for the finale became so unmanageable that people began to resist movement forward. Terse words and some pushing and shoving began with our pugnacious impulses creeping into our conduct.

The longest line of loos and the queues to match - New Year's Eve at Bradley Park, Sydney. Photograph by Saleem H. Ali
The longest line of loos and the queues to match – New Year’s Eve at Bradley Park, Sydney. Photograph by Saleem H. Ali

Police remained at the periphery and perhaps prevented escalation by their presence but decided not intervene or enforce egress pathways that might dampen the festive mood to let the people sort things out themselves. After the 10:30pm display, we had a call to nature which necessitated movement towards the porta-potties near the exit from the park. The thought crossed my mind, should we use this as an opportunity to beat the rush and actually exit the park before the finale? We had seen the vista of the earlier firework display and the basic ambiance had been captured. Was a twelve minute experience of the finale there and then really worth it when we could watch multiple vistas of that display recorded later to our satisfaction? But then another voice from within said – “you’ve waited so long – why not stick it out and stay for the climax?” My family were ambivalent about the decision but eventually fatigue and the prospect of perhaps catching a glimpse of the finale from afar in our car got the better of us.

The morning after, there was some regret and some relief in our conversations and for me the episode had broader lessons that were perhaps the most important features of New Year’s Eve 2014. Not all experiences need to be “ultimate” and the act of ‘presence’ does not have the same meaning in a world of multiple ocular opportunities. Territoriality remains a triumphant human impulse, even in celebratory settings, which usually overcomes any initial sense of sharing and civility. Most consequentially, temporal milestones are important but their celebration must remain measured with a broader appreciation of our human connection to time and fortune. In cosmic terms our planet has just finished a circulation around the sun and returned to a point which we had previously endowed with significance as a milestone the last time it crossed this path in its orbit. Time goes on — even if life remains fragile and fragmented — for most our planet’s inhabitants.  Let’s hope that 2014 is not only ‘happy’ but meaningful to us in appreciating these complexities of existence.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.