So I want to begin by framing this moment we’re in. It’s been a year of brutal intensity for a lot of people – environmentally, emotionally, physically, economically and politically. It’s also been an intense moment in the reckoning that change is needed more than ever to a system that was built to sustain itself. What has been coming up for you during 2020, and how have you been processing it all?
I think it’s been so disruptive and traumatic for a lot of people all over the world. It is a year of reckoning in that our lifestyles have caught up with us and the unsustainability of everything we’ve been doing has been exposed. I have always thought that just more energy, more work, more connections and more, more, more, being out more, being more visible, that’s what I needed to do. That was the only way that I could contribute. I had to just keep working and picking up projects. And when you hit a wall like this year, I think it’s what a lot of people would experience with an illness perhaps where they are forced to reevaluate how they live. It’s happened for me on a personal level, and I think it’s also happened to our society in that we’ve realised a lot of the practices we had and particularly the economy that we’ve had has been about endless growth, about extraction and also about drawing people from overseas to spend money. Being very outwardly focused has diminished all of the sudden. We’re having to turn to our inner reserves of strength, whether that’s as individuals, as families or as smaller local communities or even as a country. And we always knew that this way of life couldn’t last forever. But suddenly it’s gone from being this abstract idea that happens at a certain point in the future to something that happens overnight. I think despite the disruption and the trauma of that, we’re lucky in Australia that we get to take that moment and be more considerate about what the next phase looks like. Because so much of this is inherited and it’s just happening through inertia of the system that we have. We haven’t actively chosen this. And now we get a moment to decide whether we choose it, whether we’re going to opt back into it.
I want to hear about your journey to arriving at the glimpses of utopia you’re shining a light on today. Let’s rewind to a time that you were the age of the school children you now visit to talk with about a better future. You grew up with a mother who had fled from Chile under Pinochet and an Anglo-Indian father from Bangalore. What did utopia look like for you as a first generation Australian girl growing up in Fairfield, Sydney?
I didn’t really have much of a conception of how anything really worked. But I had a sense that decisions were being made and that I had to get somewhere else in order to understand how those decisions got made. I had the experience of seeing inequality when we lived in Chile when I was 10. Coming from Fairfield and Liverpool in Sydney, I realised there that not everyone gets the same opportunities and that not everyone gets the opportunity to have their voices heard and have a say in the decisions that are made on their behalf. When I got back I think I became more acutely aware of that divide in my own city. And realising that I was on the other side of that divide. I have the most distinct memory of being 13, my first year in high school. I went to a high school called Hurlstone Agricultural High School which is a selective agricultural school with borders. It was such an eye-opening experience because I came from this very multicultural background and suddenly was thrust into this very suburban context with a bunch of country kids from regional New South Wales who had their own completely different priorities and culture and ways of living. I realised how incredibly diverse the world is. So I have this really embarrassing memory from being a teenager, I think I was probably a little shit. I remember telling people, “Oh, I’m not going to go here for very long because actually I’m going to Sydney Grammar next year.”
And I didn’t know that Sydney Grammar was a boys school! But I’d heard the name and I’d driven past it at some point and saw this like sandstone thing in the middle of the city. And I was like, “I want to go there.” This little social climber was confidently telling people that she’s going to a boys school in the middle of the city. And it took me years to work out what I had actually been saying. What I think I was getting at was I wanted to have a voice. To understand how things worked and how decisions got made. I think that was one of the reasons why I studied law because I was like, “Oh that’s the rulebook.” If you just learn the rules then you can figure out how to change them! But I just had no idea. All I can think is that I had this really deep, embodied sense that not everyone was having their voice heard and not everyone got to have a say.
Big lessons for a little girl. So as a child then and as a mother now, and a partner and a leader, how would you describe the values most dear to you?
I think fairness. There’s this sort of traumatic moment in childhood that we never talk about which is the moment when you realise there’s no arbiter of fairness. And when you say as a kid, “That’s not fair!” You kind of expect there to be a resolution or a judge somewhere who’s meting out what’s right and wrong.
A fairness referee!
That’s it! Then when you find out that there isn’t one and it’s just people and we just have to work these things out and sometimes unfair things happen to people, it’s crushing. I think that’s something we need to spend more time with kids on. When I think about the stuff that I get really wound up about, it’s the unfairness of our lifestyles having an impact on people who have not had anywhere near the carbon footprint that we’ve had. And they’re the ones who are going to feel it the most. People in the developing world, people in the global south, people in the future, people who have lived closer to nature. They’re paying for my terrible shopping habits, you know. The unfairness of it is so grating. Then I think in a local context the unfairness of the way we have designed our systems to privilege those who already have access or to trickle up to those who already have wealth. I still haven’t quite worked out that there isn’t an arbiter there making decisions on fairness and unfairness.
You need someone to send them to the sin bin and say, “That’s enough for you. You’ve had enough. You’ve benefitted enough from this.”
Exactly! “I’m cutting you off!”
So I believe you and I were sipping whiskey sours in a bar in Chippendale when you told me you were going to soon meet with the mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore.
Ooo that was so good! Was that then?
Yeah, and I had a sneaky suspicion that meeting might evolve into a big new chapter for you. From working in music mag publishing, curating in the creative arts, founding the phenomenal success that is Vivid Ideas Festival Sydney and now being the deputy mayor of Sydney, it’s clear that public life is a huge component you embody in being of service to something greater. To being in service of this idea of fairness. I’d love to hear your reflections on your contribution to public life and how you think this platform and your proximity to both policy and people is affecting meaningful change, or has the potential to affect meaningful change.
That must have been four or five years ago now? What I want to do is tell people who are not the usual suspects, people who aren’t independently wealthy, people who aren’t already enmeshed in the system, who don’t look like the usual suspects, I want to tell them this is for you too. Having a say in public life or in politics is for everyone. It’s a responsibility and it’s also an opportunity. I’m hopeful that by just being there I can help show people that that is real. That you can be nine months pregnant and become deputy lord mayor. That you can be a mother of a young child and be doing this work. It’s going to be really hard but actually everyone benefits by having a new perspective in that role. I also think it’s really important that we have people who are from the creative world involved in more of the policy-making and decision-making roles in our society. For too long we have privileged a very narrow band of human enterprise, which is about making money, as the people who are most qualified to make decisions about how we run the world. That’s how we’ve ended up with the world that we have. What if we had more people making decisions whose goal was the creation of beauty or telling stories or growing food or caring for older people? We would have a richer public life. A richer discourse. And we get better decision making because suddenly you wouldn’t have this very narrow financially-driven set of decision makers making decisions with that possibly invisible bias colouring their vision. So I think what I bring to that just by what I’ve done before and who I am is really powerful. I came up with a mission statement for my career maybe like 10 years ago, and it’s helped me explain and make choices for myself for a very long time. It’s to move Australia from an extraction to a creative and knowledge economy.
As soon as I came up with that, so much more of my life made sense. It’s made it so much easier for me to make decisions about what I would put my time and energy into. And it’s this insanely over-the-top ambitious thing to say. I’m sometimes astonished at the audacity of the statement. Imagine if we believed more in ourselves, that we had more to give the world than just some old rocks and some stuff that might be lying under a water basin? Imagine if we said, wow, the people who live here have amazing stories to tell, incredible skills, global connections. They have a diversity and a depth of storytelling and range of storytelling that goes back 60,000 years. So part of it is about an attitude and mindset shift to reassessing what our strengths are and what resources we have to exploit. What our primary industries really are. That’s the thing I want to contribute. I’m also passionate about cities and I think cities have the potential to be an engine of inclusion and an economic opportunity for people, as well as places that can make environmental change and have impact.
The dedication you have in Glimpses of Utopia is for your daughter Elinor and the future her generation deserves. I understand entirely the new sense of urgency for a better future that motherhood brings. It’s something about a shift from personal to collective legacy. I’d love to hear your thoughts on your rite of passage into motherhood and how it compelled you at this time to be shining a light on the glimpses of hope you see happening around the world.
So I’ve been having all of these really predictable revelations where you’re just like, “Oh my gosh! The future we make today will be passed down to future generations, and she’s part of that!”
And she’s so cute!
And she’s so cute! I just instantly felt this tremendous sense of responsibility, and then you start to see risks outside your door. The first three months of Elinor’s life we could barely go outside because the air quality was toxic from the bushfires. So it all was incredibly real incredibly fast. The idea that she wasn’t going to be facing these challenges in 20 or 30 years from now, she’ll be facing them from the day she was born. And that is already a reality for kids all over the world. It just hit me in the face. You’re both more energised and also more frustrated because you think, Oh no! This is really urgent! We must do something about this right now! Then you realise people have been urgently trying to do something about this for 30 years or more. What makes me think that I’m going to have more of an impact? For me the process of writing this story was to help people have something to opt into, not just opt out of. Naomi Klein describes it, when she talks about the Green New Deal, as a big bold “yes” to go with the climate movement’s “no.” And that’s what I want to offer. Are there are alternatives already in place that we can opt into? That makes the goal of systems change that feels sometimes impossible more tangible. Because I’ve seen it, I’ve touched little pieces of that systems change.
You’re calling out for a 21st century operating system, to upgrade our policies, our processes and our public sphere. From that idea of utopia you talked about before from your own childhood, what does it look like for you now as we step into a new operating system? What is your utopia? Is it that mission statement?
It’s that mission statement but it’s more lived at a local level. It’s about people feeling like what they have to contribute is important. We’ve all got the right to question policies and interrogate them, and to have an opinion on how money is spent on our behalf. Utopia for me is everyone feeling empowered and engaged. And that they have something to contribute to solving the problem. It also looks like people being able to contribute and make decisions at a local level but with an eye to the world. It is shifting our value system to be more human and holistic. Because our value system today disregards such a huge part of what it means to be human, to be physical beings who care for each other and need care, who are part of an ecosystem.
The idea of eudaemonia is something Aristotle talked about in terms of the individual flourishing. But what you’re talking about is eudaemonia on a societal level. The idea for interdependent flourishing.
Absolutely. And you know what, we can’t flourish alone [laughs]. Like, we’re social animals, and I’ve never known any person who was perfectly happy while everyone around them was miserable. It’s just not possible. I wish I’d actually written that in the book. That actually it’s not just about individual flourishing, it’s about what we owe each other. Eudaemonia has an aspect of that because there’s an element of living a life with meaning and purpose. I think it’s very rare to live a life of meaning and purpose that doesn’t touch other people. Or have a responsibility to other people. One of the things that makes a lot of people feel happy and valued is if they are in service to other people or they have a connection to, or they’re needed by other people. So it’s really easy Eleanor! You just have to, like, shift our value system!
It’s easy when there’s someone as audacious as you! I think your audacity is a bridge for people. And that’s what you’re offering – a bridge for involvement and participation, which is an enormous gift.
That’s nice to hear. It’s really hard to fight against imposter syndrome or a feeling that you’re not qualified or entitled to have that view. There was more than once as I was writing this that I would stop and say, “How dare I? Who am I to say these things? And to make these prescriptions for society?” I guess the way I framed it for myself was that I have the privilege of having access to more visions, and I have the privilege of being able to research things and dive into them and spend time wrestling with ideas in a way that many other people in the world don’t. So I have a responsibility to put that privilege to work.