Our secret weapon for a better tomorrow

September 2015

- Dr Alessandro Demaio - Humanity is currently at a crossroads. We are at a moment in time where future generations will likely look back and either judge us for delay, or recognise the courage in our conviction.

Our three greatest global challenges today are problems we created ourselves. The very success we associate with the technological, social and economic progress made over the last few centuries now threatens our health and the planet we inhabit. 

The first great challenge is, of course, climate change. As the world passes the critical 400PPM concentration of atmospheric carbon, this year is once again on track to be the hottest on record. Unmitigated, rising sea levels will mean more conflict, displaced populations and more severe natural disasters. Serious threats which overwhelmingly and disproportionately affect the world’s poorest, and those communities least prepared or able to cope.

The second is Non-Communicable Diseases: heart disease, diabetes, cancers, mental illness and respiratory disease. These diseases share common causes and despite, therefore, being collectively preventable, together they constitute some 68% of all global deaths. These are not diseases of rich, lazy, old, white men. These are diseases that cause, deepen and entrench poverty; with the world’s poorest populations and the poorest in our community bearing the brunt of the NCD morbidity and mortality.

And the third is the disintegration of social contract: the trust and connection between us in society. The very ‘glue’ we need to overcome these great, collective challenges. Because it is only through truly caring for one another that we will act on threats that face a future generation, which will bring suffering to families we have never met, or that cause a widening of social inequality and the economic marginalisation of foreign populations.

The good news is that just as we are the cause of these challenges, we, too, can be their solution. The question must not be if we can or will make tough decisions for a better 2025, but how - and when.

A single voice cannot bring about this change alone. Only through a chorus of many can we achieve a great shift in mentality. In the coming years we must create platforms for collective thinking, rethinking and – most importantly – action.

With this in mind, I have been struggling with a question: how do we bring all communities together and restart the conversation about our biggest collective challenges?

What do climate change, global health and social contract have in common?

Through my work as a doctor, epidemiologist and social impact founder, the answer to me has become clear: food.

What we eat is a leading risk factor for disease worldwide. More than 800 million people continue to be undernourished, while almost 2 billion are overweight or obese - and our food system contributes some 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. What is truly exciting, though, is that the reverse is also true. A smarter food system could be the silver bullet to improve both planetary and human health.

In 2015, with the political and rhetorical landscape we have in Australia, we desperately need a new narrative in order to address our biggest global challenges. Very few of us want to talk about climate change or obesity, but we will talk endlessly about food.

How do we combine this all?

A few short months after the Melbourne Festival of Ideas was cancelled, we assembled a pro bono team and found ethical, independent philanthropy to run an unprecedented festival of thinking – a gift to Melbourne and Australia. festival21 will be a massive, free, one-day celebration of community, our culture and our future. Exhibitions, a youth event on social change and an evening concert with world-renowned speakers, musicians, comedians and social impact philanthropists; a chance to come together as one and to rethink the path our society is currently taking. Hosted by the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, a 5000-strong audience is expected on December 11, to coincide with the last day of the United Nations climate meeting.

In the face of unprecedented challenges, we are seeing new and important platforms aiming to inform, engage and drive change. Beacons of new thinking are springing up across Victoria, led by a new generation of hyper-connected, global thinkers wanting to enact local change for international effect. The Foundation for Young Australian’s Unleashed Festival (unleashedfestival.com) and the Global Ideas Forum (globalideas.org) are two such examples. Focused on harnessing a generation thirsty for social impact, the teams behind these initiatives understand where we need to be heading – and are fully focused on getting us there.

Looking ahead, let us be under no misconceptions. It is only through an unwavering sense of collective solidarity that we will overcome the social and political inertia to achieve change, and mitigate our greatest threats. As a community, we must protect and support community platforms that catalyse this. Ensure that we not only maintain and grow those that already exist – but also use our democratic collective voice to call for more.

A decade from now, it is my hope that we will look back on this year as a moment of shared awakening. A crossroads that saw us tread a new path, towards a healthier, more equitable world.