Review: Can we live within the Doughnut?

This article is written by the University of Oxford economist Kate Raworth in 2012 and describes a framework for sustainable development called the “Doughnut”. Raworth went on to write the book “Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist” in 2017.

Raworth’s framework is an attempt to reconcile human development goals with environmental sustainability. Humans should focus on “ensuring every person’s claim to life’s essentials” but have to make sure to “situate the economy within environmental limits”. The name Doughnut derives from the shape of the visualisation which puts environmental challenges outside a circle and human development goals (essentials) in the inside.

The environmental ceiling consists of topics such as “freshwater use” or biodiversity loss”, whereas the inner circle includes topics such as access to “education”, “health” or “energy”.

According to Raworth, humanity is consuming Earth’s resources in an unsustainable way but at the same time fails to provide for the basic needs of a large part of the world population. She explains this paradox with policymakers’ obsession with GDP growth and the lack of political power of marginalised communities and the earth itself.

Raworth provides many examples that show how ecological sustainability and human development are interlinked. For instance, carbon markets designed to increase sustainability drives land and water grabs from poor communities. A switch to biofuels can end up increasing food prices. The opposite can also be true: “Policies aimed at tackling poverty can exacerbate resource stress.” Subsidies for fertilizer use can help increase food production but also increase pollution.

However, it is possible to promote both “poverty eradication and sustainability” at the same time. She gives the example of reproductive rights for women that slows population growth, that makes it easier to feed families but also decreases the need for additional resources. If this sounds too anti-natalist she also mentions how insulating homes or improving harvesting techniques and storage facilities can create positive outcomes.

There are some weak points: Raworth claims that international competition for resources will increase food and water prices and end up harming the poor. In reality, food prices have been decreasing as the human population grew. Moreover, she wants the rich world to decrease consumption but fails to recognize the impact on the developing countries. These emerging economies would collapse without demand from richer countries. The framework also lacks any kind of prioritization between factors, as if everything has the same importance.

Verdict: Raworth’s concept is useful for visualizing the inter-dependency of environmental and development policies. It motivates us to develop policies that help humans without harming the environment. It is certainly incomplete and simplistic, yet it provides a good starting point for discussions.

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