LIFE

Why The State Of Our Nation Starts In Our Streets

Know your neighbours.

01/02/2017 1:44 PM AEDT | Updated 01/02/2017 1:45 PM AEDT

Across the Western world, the state of our nations is being tested by widespread fragmentation and a declining respect for the institutions that are leading us.

Social commentator Dr Hugh Mackay has dedicated years of research to unpacking how and why this has occurred -- and what we can do about it.

Addressing a full auditorium at the University of New South Wales' annual 'Gandhi Oration' on Monday night -- an evening that commemorates India's Martyrs' Day, the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's assassination in 1948 -- he said it, in part, comes down to "loss of community".

The only way we will transform our society is by enough of us deciding to be more committed to it and to each other.

"In spite of all of the wonderful things we can say about Australia, we are an ill-at-ease nation. We have an epidemic of anxiety, of obesity, of depression. And although there are many causes, I believe that a primary contributor is the loss of a sense of community and the increasing social isolation that is happening in our society," Mackay told The Huffington Post Australia.

"When we lose sight of our role as neighbours, the health of the neighbourhood suffers, and when the health of the neighbourhood suffers, we all suffer.

"This is of course not unique to Australia -- it is a bit of Western disease."

Mackay is the founder of the St James Ethics Centre, social research quarterly 'The Mackay Report' and author of 17 books, including his latest, 'Beyond Belief'.

His 60-year career in social commentary has seen him awarded honorary doctorates by UNSW among other universities and institutions. Mackay was appointed a Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society and an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2015.

And he points to a range of "clear" economic, social and technological causes that, accumulatively, have pushed Australia towards a concerning state of individualism, aggression and anxiety.

d3sign
A no-brainer.

What are the causes?

Changing patterns of marriage and divorce

"We now live in a society where about 35 percent of contemporary marriages will end in divorce. That is disruptive, not just for couples, but for their families and their community," Mackay said.

"There's a fallout for kids as well. We have one million children living with one of their natural parents, and half a million regularly migrating between their custodial and non-custodial parent."

A falling birthrate

According to Mackay, children play a vital role in society through acting as a "social lubricant".

"Networks are traditionally established through communities starting with kids," Mackay said. "We are raising the smallest generation of kids, relative to our population, that Australia has ever produced and that means social lubricant is in short supply."

Shrinking households

"We are down to an average household of 2.5 people, and the biggest and fastest growing house type is the single household," Mackay said. "That doesn't guarantee loneliness but it increases its risk, which can often lead to feelings of exclusion and alienation."

And to this the rise of the two-income household, our increasing mobility and our "love affair with high- density buildings" that are leaving us with less time and energy to invest in our local community.

Technology

This one's a no-brainer.

"The more time we are spending on our screens, the less time we are spending with each other," Mackay said.

Pull all of this together and there's a cumulative effect in the direction of fragmentation.

Getty Images
The pursuit of happiness can often lead us down the wrong path.

The weight of social propaganda

According to Mackay, various sources of propaganda add up to the same message.

It's all about me.

"One source is consumer mass marketing, which feeds our materialism and the underlying message that we are entitled to more stuff for our comfort and prosperity," he said.

"Another is the happiness industry and its message. I am not against happiness, but this message is very individualistic and it almost guarantees that the pursuit of happiness will elude us and set up false expectations," Mackay said.

The happiness industry incites a message that is not about the wellbeing of the community, but of personal happiness.

"Add to this three big threats -- climate change, international terrorism and the fear of global economic disruption -- that, in appearing beyond our control, force people into a self-protective shell."

MoMo Productions
When was the last time you popped your head over the fence?

What is the result?

According to research conducted by Edith Cowan University and NCLS, only 35 percent of Australians say trust their neighbours.

And it is a statistic that resonates with Mackay.

The big challenge for us is that we are losing our sense of human connectedness and human compassion.

"Clearly, that could not possibly mean that 65 percent of neighbours are untrustworthy -- what is must mean is that most people in our society don't know their neighbours well enough to have learnt to trust them," Mackay said.

"This has become urban cliche of contemporary life. That is never said with pride or pleasure: feeling like a stranger in your own street is bound to fuel your insecurities," he said.

As a result, "we are not living as if we need each other, though we do".

What can we do about it?

Mackay extended a plea for Australians to act locally.

"If you're worried about the state of the nation... do something," Mackay said. "By acting locally within our own household, own street or our own suburb, we can help to create the kind of society that we want to live in.

"Let's start committing to the idea that if society is becoming more ruthless and aggressive -- and more fragmented -- we begin to act. We become the kind of people who devote ourselves to a more compassionate and respectful attitude to those around us."

Brook Mitchell via Getty Images
Around the world, communities have mobilised against the orders invoked in the first week of Donald Trump's presidency.

The state of our neighbours

We need to look no further than the first week of Donald Trump's presidency -- and the level of community mobilisation that has transpired.

"When people become disillusioned, socially fragmented and lose respect for the institutions that govern them, sanity prevails," Mackay said.

Our fundamental nature as social beings, who need the emotional and physical sense of security and belong, will assert itself.

"I believe the logical -- and almost inevitable -- step is that people do start to take matters into their own hands to create the sort of society that we want to live in. And it will gradually become that. We just need to be patient."

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