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Australia’s duty of care to collectively re-imagine and re-design our nation

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By Nathan Kinch, Mathew Mytka, Adrian Hindes, Samuel Wines

· 7 min read

Our shared story: the case for radical change

Australia faces unprecedented challenges, from existential ecological overshoot to social inequities. All of this, the story of where we’ve come from, where we are today and where we are headed, is situated within a rapidly changing environmental, sociopolitical and socioeconomic landscape. We are not, nor can we be, separated. We are part of an interconnected and interdependent whole across human and ecological systems.

Problematically, as alluded to above, our current trajectory as a nation is one that is destroying the habitability of our unique ecology. Whilst Australia is only one of many countries on the planet responsible for global climate change and ecological overshoot, we nevertheless have a responsibility to clean up our backyard. A future where all human beings on the planet can live healthy and dignified lives, although possible and deeply desirable, is not something we can attain without a radical and collective cultural reorientation.

An unliveable future for much of the biosphere and most disadvantaged populations in our society is not a far-fetched trajectory described in a statistical model. In the 1970s, Donella and Dennis Meadows published Limits to Growth, which warned of resource constraints to our global future. Four decades onwards, in 2011, Ugo Bardi revisited Limits to Growth in a follow-up publication, which confirmed many of the fears and the core message that we are in ecological overshoot. Recently, a number of experts in Earth System Science published the article Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries, confirming without a shadow of a doubt that we are now in an existential ecological and climate crisis of proportions never seen in recorded history.

Unlike our neighbours in the Pacific and the United States, Australia has refused to publicly release a report on climate-related security risks to the nation. As such, the public is not currently privy to the degree to which Australia is facing an existential climate and environmental disaster. We are now in what Dr. Robert Glasser, the head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) Climate and Policy Centre, has termed the “Era of Disasters” and we are unprepared.

This crisis is here, and now. The upcoming summer may, unfortunately, be the critical wake-up call that changes how we relate to ourselves, our environment and our economy. It is now up to us to collectively decide whether we step up to the most important responsibility of our time and act responsibly for the benefit of ourselves and all future generations on our planet.

For many years, Australia has operated far beyond our ‘fair share’ of planetary boundaries. This failure of national duty of care to our own population has resulted in devastating bushfires, more frequent and consequential floods, and longer and more brutal droughts. Due to our inability, and unwillingness, to responsibly act as the only species on this planet capable of ecological custodianship, our natural ecosystems are reaching what climate and Earth system scientists commonly refer to as tipping points. The relationship we refer to is, quite simply, how we relate to ourselves.

Now is not the time to further ponder whether we can and should act. Now is the time to come together as a nation and collectively craft a pathway towards a healthy, balanced and prosperous future. Based on the preponderance of evidence, nothing short of a radical reimagining and redesigning of society will do.

Our proposal: the Australian Government Department of Collective Futurecrafting

Collective Futurecrafting is an integrative and transdisciplinary approach aimed at collaboratively envisioning and co-creating preferable futures.

It combines elements of participatory governance, collective intelligence, systems thinking, transdisciplinary action research and various forms of expertise - ranging from scientific to indigenous wisdom - to address complex societal and existential overshoot challenges as represented in Australia's draft National Science and Research Priorities.

Collective Futurecrafting may enable us to regeneratively transform the national economy and innovation ecosystems across states and territories towards a safe and just existence for all living systems in Australia.

Due to the nature of the situation, a federal department with oversight on matters of environmental security for future generations must not only be put in place, in some form but also have a proportional amount of funding and legislative backbone to the extent of the problem it would face. Various other reports support the observation that incoming risk to capital assets across government, private and residential areas are extraordinarily high. 

According to the “Uninsurable Nation” report by the Climate Council, approximately one in every 25 properties (>500,000) will be “high risk”, with annual costs from extreme weather making them “effectively uninsurable” by 2030. Given that one estimate places about 55% of global GDP as dependent on nature, and therefore vulnerable to ecological overshoot, the statistic “1 in 25 properties…” is almost certainly an underestimate, as to the best of our knowledge, no organisation, government or research lab has attempted to do true cost accounting of latent risk from the exceedance of planetary boundaries across national bioregions, much less in Australia. Given the extraordinary degree of plausible capital asset loss and destruction due to climate risk and existential ecological overshoot, a proportional governance response is warranted in order to secure the resilience and livability of Australia within the bounds of an equitable and just society.

Implications for Australia’s draft national science and research priorities

The model we propose to begin addressing the zoology of risks must operate at the macro, meso and micro scales.

The macro-scale should focus on the high-level goals of the Collective Futurecrafting initiative, driven by national policy and supported by state and federal governments. This is where large investments and resource allocations are made commensurate to the challenges we face as a nation. A macro-level framework would consider global models like Doughnut Economics to align Australia's national goals with planetary boundaries and the social foundations to enable a preferable future.

At the meso scale, different sectors (public, private, civil) should engage in multi-stakeholder partnerships to implement the high-level goals set at the macro scale. This could involve regional policy, localised and place-based R&D, community-driven projects, and sector-specific innovations.

This is where the rubber meets the road. At the micro-scale, it's about translating those big, societal-level ambitions into day-to-day actions, decisions, and small-scale initiatives. From helping people to contribute to participatory governance and budgeting, to being involved in community workshops on Indigenous knowledge, initiatives creating local food forests, or being directly involved in local bush regeneration.

This comprehensive multi-scale model includes: 

  • First Nations' wisdom which offers valuable insights into living and stewardship of land and resources. 
  • Action innovation, drawing from the discipline of action research to develop real tangible solutions. 
  • Collective intelligence through citizen engagement platforms. 
  • Open Innovation 2.0, encouraging participatory governance and co-creation. 
  • Challenge-based learning to develop crucial knowledge and skills simultaneously. 
  • Concentric collaboration for conceptualising, operationalising and innovating collaboration.

All of the above can and must be integrated into the structural governance architecture around Australia’s research priorities. Applied scientific research must ultimately be for the common good of society. As such, the only existential hope we have in addressing the unfolding interconnected and interdependent crises described above is if we collectively start steering the ship of Australian innovation to safer waters, and away from an otherwise deadly maelstrom of cascading disasters.

Call for action!

We cannot build a stronger or more resilient nation without earnestly tackling existential ecological overshoot. Collective Futurecrafting is not just another plan; it is a call to relational action. It advocates for a collaborative effort in redesigning a future that acknowledges the interconnectedness of all life, respects First Nations wisdom, and leaves no one behind.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the authors

Nathan Kinch is a specialist in sociotechnology ethics, action research, and social entrepreneurship, who has spent his career designing trustworthy organisations. He's the co-founder of Tethix, a social venture helping people (re)imagine and create technology that enables human and planetary flourishing.

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Mathew Mytka is the Co-founder & Chief Vision Shaper of Tethix, focusing on designing systems that support human and planetary flourishing. He’s worked at the intersection of ethics and digital technologies for over a decade, working with startups and not-for-profits through governments and Fortune 500s.

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Adrian Hindes is a research analyst at Civilization Research Institute, working on drivers of global catastrophic risk, and avoiding worst case scenarios of existential planetary overshoot. He is also a PhD candidate with the Institute for Water Futures at the Australian National University, studying the ethics and governance Earth System Interventions such as solar geoengineering.

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Samuel Wines is the cofounder of CoLabs Australia, a transdisciplinary innovation hub and co-working laboratory, exploring the intersection of biology and technology through a systemic and ecological design thinking lens, based in Melbourne, Australia

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