Why a Doughnut Now?

Kate Raworth Photo : IISD http://www.iisd.ca/

Kate Raworth is a Senior Researcher of Oxfam Great Britain. In a recent discussion paper she has proposed a metaphorical doughnut as a safe and just space for humanity to thrive (Full discussion paper can be downloaded here). ‘Can we live within the doughnut?’ Kate asks, presenting a visual framework – shaped like a doughnut – which brings the concept of planetary boundaries together with the complementary concept of social boundaries, creating a safe and just space between the two, in which humanity can thrive.

​Kate argues primarily from the perspective of social equity and the foreword of her discussion paper says, ‘Humanity’s challenge in the 21st century is to eradicate poverty and achieve a prosperity for all within the means of the planet’s limited natural resources. In the run-up to Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, this Discussion Paper is an exploration of what such a model of prosperity might look like.’ It also says, ‘Moving into this safe and just space demands far greater equity – within and between countries – in the use of natural resources, and far greater efficiency in transforming those resources to meet human needs.’

​In her hypothesis Kate was inspired by the Planetary Boundary framework by Rockstrom et all consisting of nine matrices, which she has adopted as an environmental ceiling and superimposed within it Social Boundaries consisting of eleven matrices leading to a visual framework in the form of a doughnut within which humanity, according to her, can and should live. Her blog post in Oxfam website is quite popular now and many are commenting to which Kate is answering generously.

​Kate’s hypothesis is elegant but risky in as much as it can lead to an over-simplification of a very complex problem. We are wary of politicians taking advantage of sensationalism in issues that should carry more scientific content than popular acceptance.

​It is seen in her blog that few commenters object to the topology of the metaphoric doughnut – despite dimensional inconsistencies, however, it’s a metaphor so need to be seen as one. What appears to be of more concern is that there are many cultures unfamiliar with a doughnut so may be a more culturally universal metaphor would have been better.​​​

Planet Boundaries of Rockstrom et all

Rockstrom’s Planetary Boundaries are anthropocentric since these boundaries seek to impose thresholds beyond which environment may degrade beneath Holocene standard, Holocene being a minuscule geological span of earth in which environment favored human civilisation.  The whole emphasis is on well being and growth of humans here, but homo sapiens are just one node in a huge network of billions of species and a blink of an evolutionary process. This can be seen as a general weakness of the hypothesis. In biological evolutionary progression planetary resources matter in a fundamentally different way – there is no scope of economic growth in that reality, except a few directed evolutionary trends under human civilization with uncertain consequences. So logically we have to accept that for humans to exist and grow in post modern sense of meaning some amount of transgressing into carrying capacity of earth is inevitable. Nobody can practically expect the anthropogenic appreciation of total terrestrial photosynthetic produce (now standing over more than 40%) to be reduced.   Moreover, the physical significance and interconnectedness of Rockstrom’s nine matrices are yet not fully understood; at best these are under examination and study. So building these into UN framework seems a bit hasty. At least this leaves suspicion that “…planetary boundaries question can be divisive as it can be perceived as a tool of the “North” to tell the “South” not to follow the resource intensive and environmentally destructive development pathway that rich countries took themselves… This language is unacceptable to most of the developing countries as they fear that an emphasis on boundaries would place unacceptable brakes on poor countries,” to quote High Level Panel on Global Sustainability.

​The doughnut hypothesis may add an extra layer of complexity on this. For example the ceiling here is an environmental standard of past 10,000 years and the floor is a social standard of the new millennium. There is acknowledgement of deep inequality of resource consumption between the rich and poor in the hypothesis but many argue that the issue is more about standardizing personal, ​​institutional and governmental consumptions. May be, setting a standard of consumption and then ensuring economic redistribution like ‘cap and trade’ can bring down social floor much lower creating extra space for the doughnut.​

Kate Raworth's Doughnut

Both Planetary and Social boundaries in Kate’s doughnut are normative but on different planes of reality; the former is physical while the later is social. There is scant little evidence in the human civilization of a compromise between the two.

​Kate foresees three perspectives that her doughnut hypothesis can open up, namely:

​a)      An integrated vision – rights based approach towards establishing a social foundation while remaining below environmental ceiling and she hopes that economies must be structured and managed to do that.

b)      A refocusing of economic priorities – inclusion of social and environmental stresses within economy instead of considering them as ‘externalities’.

c)       Metrics beyond GDP – devising yardsticks of measuring human well being beyond economic product and she proposes to consider measures such as natural metrics (tonnes of carbon emitted) and social metrics (the number of people facing hunger).

​​​With or without the doughnut all these three perspectives are in existence. Why will we need a doughnut, other than, possibly for a popular understanding? Moreover, if humanity decides to look for the resource questions, which are certainly limited now, why the historical realities be suppressed by a datum imposed on today’s conditions?

​In Rio+20, where the doughnut hopes to offer a framework of discussion and debate, Sustainable Development will be a central focus. Kate’s doughnut attempts to link two of the pillars of SD, namely Environmental and Social. It is not clear what role Economic, the third pillar, may play in this visual framework – because it is demanded now that Economy or Green Economy will play a vital role in Development. Green Economy and Low Carbon Technology are proposed as saviors, with expectation that these may redefine the social boundaries. These make the social boundaries or the floor ever-shifting, quite unlike Rockstrom’s boundaries or the ceiling.

​There is a marked silence in the world where the ethical and perhaps sustainable limits of​ personal and institutional consumptions are rarely questioned. The sustainability approach, through Green Economy is fraught with questions like whether it is merely greenwash of business as usual – unless the very driver of such economy, that is, the necessity-greed dichotomy is examined transparently. Such examination may change Kate’s doughnut’s topology altogether.

​In the end Kate puts forward six questions that a debate on her hypothesis may distill down into. Here is a standard set of answers.

​1. Who should determine the dimensions and boundaries of an internationally agreed social foundation and an environmental ceiling, and how?

As far as the environmental ceiling is concerned, hard and credible science. Though there is much work to do, there is also enough evidence and a consensus that there is such a ceiling for a Holocene stability of earth conditions – so scientific communities will hopefully determine it, if they are not bugged by political and corporate lobbies. As far as social foundation is concerned, in the present system of political anarchy, unfortunately none can determine it. In the summits and conventions societies are not represented; what are represented are Political Nation States and their obligations to aspirations of the burgeoning middle class who aspire to graduate into the 10% of the Global Rich. This is truer for developing countries than the developed and they are more numerous.

​2. What are the implications of this framework for drawing up new global development goals beyond 2015, as part of the MDG and Rio+20 processes?

As answer a question will be more fitting. What about the MDGs till 2013? Are we trashing them? How far these were achieved and with what uniformity these achievements have been measured? The assessment leaves more questions than answers. A set of new development goals in this institutional set up will be putting a proverbial cart before the horse.

​​​3. How could the framework be adapted regionally or nationally to reflect the importance of regional thresholds for many planetary boundaries?

For those who will even admit such a framework, one guess is, it will be modified with so much local reality that it may be hard, if not impossible, to recognize it as one original.

​4. How could inequalities in global resource use be represented graphically within the framework?

It is hard to imagine the inequalities be incorporated in a 2-D metaphor like the doughnut.  The geo-local inequalities can be roughly incorporated into it by introducing two 3-D envelopes like geoids, one for the social boundary and another for the planetary boundary (imagine atmospheric layer around earth) but popular visualization of such models seems difficult.

​5. How could this framework be extended to explore the fair shares of effort needed, between and within countries, to bring humanity into the safe and just space?

Considering the complex inter and intra country mass and energy flows in terms of earth resources, country or region specific doughnuts look improbable. There is no consensus between countries about the safety and justness as well.

​6. What are the major policy shifts required to achieve economic development that brings humanity within social and planetary boundaries?

There is a strong belief at some quarters that Economic Development needs to be redefined first and pending that redefinition, attempt to plan for well being of humanity within any framework of social boundaries may be futile. Planetary Boundaries, however will dangle precariously over humanity’s head – that is a numbing reality of Anthropocene.

Feature Image courtesy: The Contemporary Caveman

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