I am an independent researcher and writer on progress, sustainability, culture, health and wellbeing.
My research approach – transdisciplinary synthesis – is unusual. I range across many fields of knowledge to develop new, common frameworks of understanding. Synthesis strives for coherence in the overall conceptual picture rather than precision in the empirical detail. This work has been undertaken initially as a sideline to my main career, then through a series of short-term, part-time or unpaid appointments.
My main contributions have been in advocating:
- better measures of national progress and human development.
- health and wellbeing as a benchmark for progress and sustainable development.
- the importance of mainstream culture in shaping population health.
- a new narrative of young people’s health and wellbeing.
My research challenges several, powerful scientific and political orthodoxies, including that:
- young people have never been healthier;
- the most important social determinants of health are socio-economic;
- western liberal democracies represent the best model of progress and human development;
- environmental and economic matters define and determine sustainability.
These issues have a critical bearing on humanity’s future.
My work has been brought together in a book, Well & Good: Morality, Meaning and Happiness (Text, 2004, 2005), available on the first ‘Books’ page. I have also edited or co-edited and contributed to three other books: The Social Origins of Health and Wellbeing (CUP, 2001), Measuring Progress: Is Life Getting Better? (CSIRO, 1998) and Challenge to Change: Australia in 2020 (CSIRO, 1995).
I have published about 180 journal papers, book chapters, monographs and specialist magazine articles, and written many articles for leading Australian newspapers and for broadcast on national radio. I speak to a wide range of audiences, and have served on many boards, committees and advisory groups. Recent positions include: the board of Families Australia, the ACT Community Inclusion Board, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ expert reference group on measures of Australia’s progress, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s national youth information advisory group, and a government expert working group on science engagement (chair).
I am a co-author of a national index of subjective wellbeing, introduced in 2001 and the first of its kind in the world, and of the Australian Wellbeing Manifesto, published in 2005. My work has influenced a range of national initiatives, including: a national youth suicide prevention strategy; Government ‘green jobs’ and ‘regreening’ programs; and the Australian Bureau of Statistics report series, Measures of Australia’s Progress (and, through the ABS, the OECD’s global project, Measuring the Progress of Societies.
In June 2013, I was made a member of the Order of Australia (AM) for significant service to the community as a researcher, analyst and commentator on population health and well-being in Australia.
I studied zoology and later completed a masters degree in the history, philosophy and sociology of science and technology. My former positions include: science reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald; head of the media liaison office of CSIRO, Australia’s national scientific research organisation; senior analyst with the Australian Commission for the Future; ministerial consultant to an Australian Government minister; senior specialist, strategic analysis, at CSIRO; and fellow and visiting fellow at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University. From 2001 to 2016, I was a founding director of Australia21 Ltd, a non-profit, public-interest, strategic research company.
Before settling into a career (and family life) in my 30s, I worked as a labourer and professional fisherman, and travelled abroad for two years. My travels had a profound influence on my life and work, allowing me to see more clearly Western culture’s assumptions and values, strengths and flaws.
From Well & Good, p. 43:
‘In the 1970s, I spent two years travelling overseas, through Africa, Western and Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and Asia. Like many long-term travelers, I found that the most difficult cultural adjustment I had to make was on my return home. My first reaction on flying into Sydney from Bangkok was one of wonder at the orderliness and cleanliness, the abundantly stocked shops, the clear-eyed children, so healthy and carefree. However, my initial celebration of the material richness and comfort of the Western way of life soon gave way to a growing apprehension about its emotional harshness, social ‘distances’ and spiritual desiccation.
In a way I hadn’t anticipated, the experience allowed me to view my native culture from the outside; and in ways I hadn’t appreciated before, I realised ours was a tough culture. I became acutely aware that the Western worldview is just one of many, defined and supported by myths like any other. We tend to see material poverty as synonymous with misery and squalor; yet only with the most abject poverty is this so. We see others as crippled by ignorance and cowed by superstition; we don’t see the extent to which we are, in our own ways, burdened by our rational knowledge and cowed by our lack of superstition – of spiritual beliefs.’
My work is a wide-ranging inquiry into progress and wellbeing, including:
- measures of progress.
- the relationships between economic growth, quality of life and ecological sustainability.
- social and cultural influences on health and happiness.
- visions of the future.
- young people and their world.
This site provides a selection of my writing for scientific journals, specialist magazines and popular media. My book, Well & Good, can also be downloaded from the site.
I think it is the defining question of our times.
The answer may seem obvious, or the question so broad as to be meaningless. But there are good reasons why we should take it seriously.
The question reflects a coherence in our lives, socially and personally, that needs greater acknowledgment. How we answer the question bears on almost every issue on the public and political agenda. However, public and scholarly debate rarely reflects this connectedness.
In fragmenting our consideration of life into separate issues, policies, portfolios, sectors and disciplines, we dodge the hard questions of how all these things interact with each other to shape the life we lead and the societies we live in.
A central tenet of modern culture is the belief in progress, the idea that life should get better. Is this the case? If our answer is ‘yes’, we can continue to assume that human history is on the right trajectory, and needs nothing more than periodic course corrections – the task of governments.
If the answer is ‘no’, then the most fundamental assumptions about our way of life – assumptions that have long been broadly agreed and taken for granted – must be re-assessed. The task we face goes far beyond the adjustment of policy levers by government; it demands an open and spirited debate about how we are to live and what matters in our lives.
The answer to the question is not as obvious as it may seem. I approach it from a perspective of human health, wellbeing and happiness. I emphasise the importance of culture, values and stories, and challenge some of our most powerful beliefs about progress, including that we are getting healthier because we are living longer, that the ‘west is the best’ when it comes to human development, and that past life was wretched.
It is not clear, for example, that greater wealth, health and happiness – as we measure them – constitute a better life. This is especially so in developed nations (on which I focus), but it is also increasingly relevant to the developing world as globalization and modernization continue apace.
And however elusive a definitive answer might be, the question is still worth posing because it generates other questions about life today that would otherwise not be asked.