Why we need to transform Australia: leading public health expert

First published by Melissa Sweet on the health blog Croakey Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas writes: Earlier this month in Geelong, I attended a National Summit on "Transforming Australia". This was a three-day meeting of 60 invited activists from various civil society groups around Australia. We were united by a common concern that Australia will not be able to deal effectively with the problems that now confront the human world without transformative change in the way we manage our institutions, and especially our economy. The firm view of this group was that simply tinkering around the edges of "business as usual" is a formula for national catastrophe. The starting point for most of the participants was that we must urgently transform our governance, our economy and our culture in ways that will permit our descendants to live within the limits of nature's economy. Australia's political system is largely ignoring the seriousness of the gathering storm that includes climate change, peak oil, disastrous loss of ecosystems, increasing world hunger and inequity and continuing growth in the human population. It is currently incapable of addressing these issues because it is being corrupted by the special interests of the status quo. If our children are to survive to a ripe old age we must transform our political institutions, including especially the way they are funded. The Geelong Summit was the 5th meeting I have attended on this topic in the past 18 months. The Transform-Australia movement is still in its infancy but it is a growing network of thinkers, researchers, environmentalists and social policy activists. The summit was an opportunity for sharing understanding and assets and to explore together, the process of building a radically new way of thinking about Australia's future. Of course, similar movement are developing in other countries around the world. Ours is not the only political system that is proving incapable of dealing with the realities that threaten our habitat. But the consequences for Australia if we do not do so are more disastrous than in many other parts of the world. Already it seems from evidence presented by a national expert on the matter, our marvellous coral reefs are almost certainly doomed. There was much discussion about the factors that motivate change. Fear for the future is a strong stimulus to denial. Genuinely believing that a better and more attractive future is achievable is more likely to result in openness to radical change than lots of doom-saying. That being said, we can no longer ignore the scientific evidence that our human world has already crossed a number of critical natural boundaries, which means that we have exceeded already by about 50% the Earth's capacity to sustain us in our current use of resources and release of waste. Yet, still our population and the global economy are growing and eroding these precious resources. So, where to next? We are a smart species; too smart I hope to hasten our own extinction. Smart enough also I think to recognise that there are greater satisfactions in being alive then simply possessing more "stuff". Realistic enough to understand at last that limits to growth have been reached and that we are capable of designing a stable state economy that will work, not just for some people, but for all of us, and the planet's health as well. All of this will clearly take some time and those who are frightened of change will resist it if they can. A number of groups now exist in Australia, committed to the transformative task. The Transform-Australia Group, which helped to convene the summit, has a website and a Manifesto, which it invites ordinary citizens and community groups to endorse. The Transform Australia Manifesto spells out a vision, mission and values as well as aspirations for the evolving movement. Its current supporters include a group of 10 catalysts who see their task as promoting broad scale community understanding of systems thinking and the shift in mindset that is required in the special circumstances that we now face. The Vision for the Manifesto reads as follows: "Our vision is for a Transformed Australia, where the well-being of all humans and the health of the planet are synonymous; where we accept that nature is our provider and we are its stewards; where we acknowledge that our economy, ecology and ecosystem are interdependent; and where a sustainable future for our descendants exists". If you have read this far, I hope you will visit the website, consider the manifesto in its entirety and append your name as a supporter of the principles espoused there. Essential change will only come as a result of the will and insistence of people in the community. Leadership will not come from our politicians on this matter but they will respond to the community's lead. Bob Douglas is Chair of SEE-Change ACT and a catalyst with the Transform Australia group. He is a medical epidemiologist, and was formerly the Director of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at The Australian National University. Croakey This article was first published on 21st Otcober 2011 on the Crikey health blog, Croakey.