Nick Rose, Executive Director, Sustain: The Australian Food Network

Editor, Fair Food: Stories from a Movement Changing the World

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair

- Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities” (1859)

What would Charles Dickens, one of the sharpest and most lyrical observers of human frailties and contradictions ever to have put pen to paper, have made of our contemporary predicament? He lived and worked during the tumultuous, turbulent and revolutionary times of the industrial revolution: the period in human history during which we laid the foundations for so many of current immense challenges with which we are now faced. These challenges include: abrupt and non-linear climate change, resource depletion, urbanisation, habitat loss and species extinction, and rampant waste and pollution, with ‘enough plastic thrown away each year to circle the earth four times’, critically endangering the integrity of the world’s oceans, which provide us with 70% of our oxygen.

Dicken’s introductory words to A Tale of Two Cities seem strikingly apposite for our present era. Certainly prescient; and almost prophetic, one could say.

The worst of times

For many, these are indeed the worst of times. There are the scientists who have made it their work to chronicle what they term ‘abrupt and non-linear climate change’, which is producing a cascading series of extraordinary phenomena, such as the destruction of tens of millions of acres of native pine forests in North America by a population explosion of pine beetles. For these scholars and those who follow them, we have indeed reached the ‘season of Darkness’ and the ‘winter of despair’, where our collective future looks bleak, if indeed we have one at all.

As we mistreat the oceans and ecosystems, so we mistreat ourselves. Every municipality in Melbourne – indeed, every municipality and every State government in Australia – is acutely aware of the growing burden of dietary-related diseases and ill-health. At the end 2015, the Fairfax-Lateral Economics Index of Australia’s Wellbeing quantified the total social and economic cost of obesity – which now affects nearly a third of all Australian adults – at $130 bn: a figure that has nearly doubled in the past decade.

And while our public health systems struggle to cope with the cost of this dimension of our food system, frontline providers such as the Salvation Army and St Vincent’s de Paul struggle to meet the demand from more than 500,000 Australians who are accessing emergency food relief supplies every month, and a further 60,000 being turned away. This is an extraordinary and intolerable situation in a country that exports two-thirds of the food it produces. When our Federal Government has just committed the current and next generation of taxpayers to $1 trn in military spending over the next two decades, to claim that we don’t have the financial means to permanently eradicate the scourge of hunger and food insecurity which, it must be remembered, disproportionately impacts the most marginalised members of our society, indigenous communities, asylum seekers and children in low income households especially, is absurd.

Extreme inequality: the root cause of our troubles

The fundamental issue is that in our single-minded pursuit of short-term monetary wealth we have lost sight of what’s really important in our lives, both individually and in our broader society. What this means is that we tolerate incredible concentrations of wealth and extremes of inequality, in which, as Oxfam reported last year, the richest 62 people in the world have the same wealth as the poorest 3.6 bn, and the richest 1% of Australians have the same wealth as the poorest 60%.

Inequality doesn’t simply produce, perpetuate and expand poverty, hunger, food insecurity and obesity. It also drives pollution, waste, climate change and species loss. The ecological crisis mirrors the social crisis; they are two sides of the same coin. It is indeed the case that ‘more equal societies work better for everyone’; and this basic insight, on which Australia – the erstwhile ‘land of the fair go’ – was founded, should be the central underpinning value on which the Future Melbourne 2026 exercise is based. If it is not, and we continue down the current trajectory, all the other objectives will be a largely academic exercise.

We are truly at a critical turning point, not just in this history of this city, but in our collective journey as a species. As philosopher Thomas Berry puts it:

The Great Work now, as we move into a new millennium, is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.

And, I would add, being ‘present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner’ also means being present to each other in that manner. We are not separate from ‘nature’ or from the ecosystems that sustain us; and indeed overcoming this conceptual separation, which saturates so much of our contemporary thinking and policy responses, is a critical part of the paradigm shift with which we are faced.

The best of times: transformation through food systems

Yet, to return to Dickens, these are also the best of times, suffused as we are in a great and flourishing wave of innovation, creativity and passion that is being generated by so many people and organisations through our wonderful city and across this beautiful country and beyond its shores. It was heartening, and delightful, to read Darren Sharp’s post on the Sharing Cities movement, with his discussion of the rise of the new sharing economy that presages a transition to economic democracy, through forms of collaborative exchange such as community-supported agriculture.

Through its invitation to the broader public to get engaged with generating the vision and ideas for Future Melbourne 2026, the City of Melbourne is showing commendable leadership. Just as it has done with the development, in 2011-2012, of the Food City Food Policy, which has inspired the creation of similarly holistic and integrated food policies in numerous other local councils in Melbourne and beyond. The Food City framework identifies five themes to support the overarching goal of a ‘food system that is secure, healthy, sustainable, thriving and socially inclusive’, namely:

  1. A strong, food secure community
  2. Healthy food choices for all
  3. A sustainable and resilient food system
  4. A thriving local food economy
  5. A city that celebrates food

The City of Melbourne’s role in advancing each of these themes embraces:

  • Education and community development
  • Partnerships
  • Advocacy and leadership
  • Regulation, and
  • Research

Given that a flourishing food system is so integral to the current and future wellbeing of Melburnians, myself and 20 other colleagues joined staff from the City of Melbourne’s Health Team in order to brainstorm some high priority ideas for incorporation into the Future Melbourne 2026 vision. The ones we developed – and voted on as the highest priorities – were:

  • The People’s Food Taskforce – which ‘would promote a shared understanding of the food system, identify key challenges for action, support grassroots initiatives, and develop strategies and policies for a more sustainable and resilient future’
  • Simplifying Good Food Innovation – a thorough review of policies, regulations and planning documents that currently impede innovation and sustainability in the City of Melbourne, including by-laws, permit applications, tenders and procurement
  • Watch our Waste – a campaign to progressively educate businesses, residents and organisations to reduce waste, through micro and commercial-scale composting and worm farms, leading to legislation by the mid-2020s to ban food waste from landfill
  • A Sustainable and Fair Food Innovation Hub – a dynamic centre of micro-food entrepreneurship, information and idea-exchanges and sharing, hosting events, workshops, accelerator programs, providing co-working spaces and more.

Taken together, these four initiatives – and there are many more ideas on the Future Melbourne website – set out an integrated and comprehensive strategy to move towards whole-of-system transformation.

Ultimately, as I have argued above, that is the scale of change that’s required, if we are to meet the challenges of the early decades of this century, and if we are to fulfil our historical responsibilities to our children and the generations to follow.

This is the challenge to every one of you reading this post, and engaging with the City of Melbourne’s invitation to re-imagine the future of our great city. This is the choice facing every one of us alive today. Do we continue to allow our culture and our society to become ever-more destructive, and ever-more violent? Do we choose to remain in a paradigm which says that the Earth, and indeed ourselves, only exist for endless exploitation so that a tiny fraction of humanity can enjoy obscene levels of wealth?

Or do we choose to be part of the great challenge of our times – the greatest challenge of all times? To create a shared vision of a wonderful, bountiful Melbourne, and world, where there is no hunger and no poverty; where soils are thriving, rivers are healthy and forests are abundant; where animals roam freely; and where all of us are healthy and flourishing.

Do we choose to see ourselves as victims of processes and powers beyond our control, and simply walk away and do nothing, resigned to our fate? Or do we choose to see ourselves as subjects and shapers of our own history, as creators and narrators of our own story, as powerful beings with the capacity to effect great changes?

Because I’m here to tell you, that’s who we are. We are powerful.

It’s time for us all – individually and collectively – to realise our potential. The situation demands nothing less. We are, as Dickens wrote nearly 160 years ago, in a great paradox: the best of times and the worst of times; the spring of hope, and the winter of despair. What happens next is up to us. I leave you with the wisdom of the Sufi sage and poet, Rumi:

You were born with potential.
You were born with goodness and trust.
You were born with greatness.
You were born with wings.
You are not meant for crawling, so don’t.
You have wings.
Learn to use them, and fly.