10 people 2014 (and the future) should be thankful for

If you're like me and hoping to one day see a world that values honesty, integrity and equality, 2014 has been an interesting rollercoaster ride.

It hasn't been all sunshine and roses, but I think it is important to remind ourselves of all the good stuff that's going on in the world as we tiptoe into the new year. And so, I've compiled a list of people I think have made incredible contributions to the global community here.

Interestingly, none of those I've listed here hail from Australia - that's not to say there isn't awesome work being done locally, but it seems that those who are leading in Australia are doing just that - leading, in Australia, and that is no small feat given the current political dynamic. Anyone who can persist in applying their passion for change to the local environment despite what our leaders are doing deserves a medal in my opinion. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this list, I'm looking at people who have set the bar high and contributed to change on an international level. So in no particular order, the people we should (and will) be grateful for are:

Naomi Klein

Canadian activist / author Klein has long been celebrated for her best selling critiques of globalisation, neoliberal economics, and the vastly insufficient global response to the climate change crisis. She even placed the blame squarely on Barack Obama at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit. This Changes Everything, her novel published in 2014, argues that the climate crisis presents an opportunity for us to examine the pressure our economic system is placing on the natural environment we rely on, and use this as a chance to build a better world - exploring in detail the links that we know exist between capitalism and climate change. A documentary film based on the book is scheduled for a 2015 release.

Thomas Piketty

French economist Piketty had spent 13 years researching his book Capital in the Twenty First Century (a nifty play on Marx' Das Kapital) prior to its english publication earlier in the year. The 800 page novel's central thesis is that wealth inequality and concentration are not an unintended consequence of capitalism, but a feature of it, and that this becomes a risk for a functioning democracy. It shows that when the rate of return on capital is greater than the rate of growth, inequality is inevitable. The book became an unexpected best seller, a prompted unprecedented discussion of a global wealth tax, greater investment in education, or other measures to curb wealth concentration, and ensure the spoils of economic advancement are shared. For a book that has been claimed to have been the most unread book of the year, it sure has prompted debate, and Piketty and his adorably thick french accent have been part of these debates all around the world. (Read this handy 4 paragraph summary by The Economist for the shortcut.)

Jose Mujica

Uruguay's outgoing President has been in the top job since 2010, and since that time has created amazing change in his tiny South American country. A former member of the leftist revolutionary group Tupamaro that formed following the Cuban Revolution, Mujica (who is commonly referred to by the diminutive Pepe) spent over a decade subjected to torture as a political prisoner. He's a vocal critic of senseless consumption and needless growth. Since he was elected to power, his government has overseen incredible reform including legalisation of abortion, a huge upswing in renewable energy and in power export, and amazing results in bringing Uruguayans out of poverty. He's also legalised cannabis, breaking the destroying cycle of illegal drug trafficking so common to South America. Even with this incredible record, the way he lives his life is even more remarkable - simply, frugally, and with a three-legged dog, saying he should live like the majority of people he serves. His unusual living conditions have led to him being called the world's most radical President and the world's poorest President - he donates most of his salary to charity and drives a beaten up Volkswagon beetle. In a recent profile he said, "Living light is no sacrifice for me - its an affirmation of freedom, of having the greatest amount of time available for what motivates me. It's the price of my individual freedom. I'm richer this way." 

Russell Brand

Following on from his interview with Jeremy Paxton in October 2013, British comic/actor Russell Brand has refashioned himself as the voice of a disillusioned, dissatisfied and disengaged public who want to see real economic and political alternatives, and real change. This year he published his fourth book, which is like a handbook for revolution, aptly titled Revolution. He's copped his fair share of flack, been called a hypocrite and has more than a few dissenters, and he certainly doesn't claim to have all the answers, but few can deny that those he speaks for are joining together, and that the revolution he speaks of is gaining momentum. His YouTube channel and his regular "The Trews" (The news if the news were true) updates are edging close to 1 million subscribers. I certainly don't agree with everything he says, but to me he's like a strange cross between a court jester who gets away with sharp critique because it is said with a sense of humour, and a canary in a mine who acts as the warning that could avert disaster. And you certainly can't fault his passion.

Malala Yousafzai

In 2012, when Pakistani teenager Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban for daring to insist on an education for herself and her fellow female classmates following the First Battle of Swat, I thought it would be yet another tragedy that we'd hardly hear about again. But this incredible woman has gone on to be the youngest ever Nobel Laureate after being awarded a shared Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. With ongoing support from her father (himself an education activist), she has blogged about her life in Taliban occupied Pakistan for the BBC, written a book, been listed as one of TIME's 100 Most Influential People, and been awarded Pakistan's first National Peace Prize, and set up a fund in her name - all before her 18th birthday. Having fully recovered from her earlier injuries, Malala is now a fully fledged political activist, speaking before the UN, meeting world leaders and campaigning for the rights of children globally, and leaving people everywhere speechless at her maturity and compassion. She gives a human face to what often feels like an abstract political crisis, reminding us that there is hope in the humanity we don't see.

Elizabeth Warren

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren is a force to be reckoned with. Once a Harvard Law Professor and a specialist in bankruptcy law, she led the team that oversaw the banks bailout in the 2008 Financial Crisis. She is a champion of consumer protection and has been relentless in her interrogation and critique of the US banking system, lack of regulation and need for reform. She is whip smart, and far more concerned with justice and integrity than her own reputation. Having only been elected to the Senate in 2012, she is already recognised as a leader among the Democratic Party, and despite her insistence that she has no desire to run, she has been hotly tipped as a contender for the Presidential election. I say it could make for a very interesting race, and could be the one thing that brings real reform to the US and international financial system.

Umair Haque

London business consultant, economist and writer Haque is one of my top tweeters of 2014. He's unflinching and scathing in his takedown of what he calls "The Bullshit Machine". He writes often and honestly (sometimes for Harvard Business Review) about how we're completely missing the point, with some of our generations brightest minds applying their intellect to incremental innovation (apps that help rich white people do rich white things), rather than the real creative and strategic problems of the world that have the potential for real change. He's an advocate for thinking outside the box and doing exactly what other people aren't, and for abandoning our obsession with ourselves in favour of serving others around the world. He talks about a future of business and humanity that actually helps us (the global community) live a life of true meaning. My kind of guy.

George Monbiot

English journalist Monbiot is like the squeaky wheel of the mainstream press. He's been doing his progressive investigative journalism thing for many years now, but in 2014 I feel like the rest of the press finally woke up to all the things he's been parroting on about for quite some time. He consistently produces clearly considered writing for The Guardian on everything from corporate regulation to Zoology (he trained as a zoologist), and manages to walk a fine line between urgency and hysteria. His latest book Feral advocates "rewilding the land, sea and human life" as a new way to live and bring wonder back to our lives. Amen.

Pope Francis

Those who know me know I'm not a big fan of organised religion (or indeed, any religion), but I'm a big fan of Pope Francis nonetheless. He's had a good year. With his message of compassion, the Pontiff has already gained a reputation for reform - of the church, of catholic attitudes, culture and lack of empathy, of the way we deal with global slavery and people trafficking, of politics and economics, and now of how we approach climate change. He has helped to facilitate the thawing of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US, and will now turned his influence to the UN Climate talks in Paris in 2015. So far he has succeeded in diplomatic challenges where money others have failed, so perhaps he is the wildcard non-politician this global problem needs.

Lena Dunham

The amazing Ms Dunham has been a breath of fresh air and a burst of sunshine in the past few years of my life. I'm so glad that someone like her - young, informed, female, and not the typical blonde-haired doe-eyed Hollywood-skinny type - has found a mainstream audience, if only for some diversity of perspective and experiences, but also certainly for the quality of her creative output. It is so refreshing to see the way she handles herself with such humour, honesty and humanity, and also the way she is unapologetically open in presenting the full spectrum of her own existence - mental health issues, body image issues, crazy family experiences and all. I read her book Not That Kind of Girl while travelling this year and felt by the end of it that I had just made a new best friend, it is so direct, unflinching and intimate, but also funny, engaging and comfortably conversational. Unsurprisingly, as a young woman in the public eye she has her detractors who brand her narcissistic, ugly and humourless, and for someone of her age to handle the critique and scrutiny with grace and such joyfulness, gratitude and good humour make her an absolute pleasure to watch. What an incredible and rare role model for young women and people everywhere. More please.