Almost every day I walk our dogs through the old bluestone laneways of our suburb. Huge trees hang over fences and walls. Through autumn and winter, I pick low-hanging fruit – persimmons, mandarins and oranges – and eat them as we go. What the birds don’t eat mostly falls to the ground. Now the trees are covered with bright new growth. It’s all so beautiful that it’s a shock to go home and see the news.
While Australia has turned a corner politically, and hope is in the air, times are catastrophic for many, with a severely stressed healthcare system, the impacts of successive climate-related disasters, housing shortages, rising living costs, and an insufficient workforce.
A café owner posts a sign: “There have been price increases due to the circumstances.” Reading it, someone suggests we begin referring to this period in history as ‘The Circumstances’. We might feel as if we live in a separate bubble in time; the truth is that we always exist within vast cultural currents.
Unfortunately, some political groups thrive on increasing societal fragmentation. I am bracing for further instalments in the culture wars. We’re already experiencing tired attacks on teachers and education, and opposition to the enshrining of an Indigenous voice in the constitution.
We do no not all need to agree on everything. But I prefer differences of opinion to be genuine, rather than cynical.
In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, historian Jared Diamond argues that the ways societies respond to internal, environmental and climate problems are significant factors leading to collapsed cultures. Successive floods in NSW are testing many. How much can people withstand, and how much protection and support can governments and communities provide?
We sometimes forget that society is not a thing we consume, but a state of being.
I would not be alone in watching the US with unease, grateful to be living in Australia. The average American citizen has access to actual weapons of war. Since 2020, guns have become the leading cause of death for American children and teens. There, violence is endemic, inequalities are extreme, and women’s rights are being eroded.
Some people fear that Australia might follow suit on the matter of abortion rights. “Not possible”, others say with great certainty. But older women, unwilling to take advances for granted, advise vigilance. As novelist Zadie Smith once said: “Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”
So much is up to us. We sometimes forget that society is not a thing we consume, but a state of being.
Being active in society is key to its existence, to social cohesion and, ultimately, to our wellbeing.
Some people embody this, quietly sustaining individuals and communities, ensuring their patch of the world doesn’t fall apart. My sister, for instance, is part of a loose-knit community of people who care for an elderly woman with special needs. Together, they keep an eye on her – and her cat – visiting and ‘picking up the pieces’ if she has a fall or a stint in hospital.
Educational institutions are among our essential ‘glue organisations’. They help hold communities, countries – indeed, the world – together. Our kindergartens, schools and TAFEs act every day to support their students and their communities more broadly. Alongside educating students, they provide material, practical and compassionate support – connecting students to social services if necessary and holding families together.
The dogs and I wander home one day and come across a large box of lemons attached to a fence. “Help Yourself!” a sign says. That night, I make some lemon butter and deliver a few jars to neighbours. It feels like community. Like civilisation itself.
If our parliament could behave more like my sister, more like my neighbour, more like our kinders, schools and TAFEs, I think we’d be in a much better position. Share the fruit. It could help save us all.