‘A SAFE AND JUST SPACE FOR HUMANITY’ – Kate Raworth (Oxfam Feb 2012)

by Victor Anderson, Senior Policy Officer, Green Economy, WWF-UK

This excellent discussion paper from Oxfam puts together the ‘planetary boundaries’ analysis with a view of ‘social boundaries’ coming from Oxfam’s more traditional concerns with hunger, poverty, and social justice.

The resulting picture is what the author, Kate Raworth, describes as a ‘doughnut’ – pictured as a ring bounded by the nine planetary boundaries on the outside and a set of social concerns on the inside.  The space in between is the proposed ‘safe and just space’ for humanity and human development.

This is a powerful picture because it summarises in a single graphic a whole mass of issues which it is otherwise hard to grasp as anything other than a chaotically interconnected mass.  Like the famous first photograph of the Earth seen from space, the ‘doughnut diagram’ helps us to see the planet as a whole, and therefore helps us think about overall context we live in, a necessary corrective when we can get so easily drawn into the multiplicity of separate issues and concerns which assail us every day.

The paper reminds its readers that whatever we do about individual separated off ‘issues’, we also have to contend with the big picture – which is one of human needs and environmental limits – an uneasy combination because one appears infinite in the potential pressures it could place on the planet, whilst the planet itself is strictly finite.

The doughnut makes it easy to see a number of key aspects of our predicament.  One is that there is a definite relationship between some of the planetary boundaries and some of the social ones, creating some apparent dilemmas.  For example, total freshwater use is a planetary boundary we should not cross, but at the same time access to water is a basic human need.  Disruption to the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles is a planetary boundary, yet fertilisers based on those substances help to feed the world.  We have some circles to be squared here, which the paper argues can only be achieved through a twin emphasis on distributional equity and greater efficiency in the use of resources.

The paper powerfully points out the significance of the distribution question.  Putting it right is a key to staying within the two sets of boundaries.  At present:

  • Providing the additional calories needed by the 13 per cent of the world’s population facing hunger would require just 1 per cent of the current global food supply.
  • Bringing electricity to the 19 per cent of the world’s population who currently lack it could be achieved with less than a 1 per cent increase in global CO2 emissions.
  • Ending income poverty for the 21 per cent of the global population who live on less than $1.25 a day would require just 0.2 per cent of global income.

Another important feature of the doughnut is that, although humanity has stayed within the planetary boundaries for more than 10,000 years, it has never lived within the social boundaries, in the sense that there have always been people living in poverty and hunger, in highly unequal societies.  The present moment may in fact be the time when humanity’s performance in relation to the social boundaries is at its best, whilst it is also the time when we are doing the worst ever in relation to the planetary boundaries.  The aim of the doughnut picture is to provoke us into thinking about how the two can be reconciled, so that we keep to the space in between.

The social boundaries proposed in the paper are about: access to water, access to energy, income, education, resilience, voice, decent jobs, social equity, gender equality, health care, and food security.  The planetary boundaries proposed are taken directly from the Rockstrom et al analysis (discussed elsewhere on this website).

These specific boundaries raise some further questions.  Are there other boundaries which should be added, for example access to transport or mobility?  Can the scientific understanding of some the boundaries be improved sufficiently for this analysis to be useful as a framework for international law and economic policy?  Does it make sense to talk of a global total freshwater boundary, when problems with water tend to be geographically very varied in different parts of the world?  How does the boundaries analysis relate to other metrics, such as ‘ecological footprint’?  And what follows from the fact that total world GDP is not one of the boundaries?

There are many questions which can be raised, and some people might see this as indicating the weakness of the analysis, and perhaps the futility of trying to grasp the state of the world in a single mental picture.  But I would rather say that the many questions this picture raises is a sign of its usefulness, its potential for helping us to think strategically.

As we approach the Rio 2012 conference, there is a further issue (touched on in the paper), of whether these boundaries can be used to set the framework for the Sustainable Development Goals which Rio is expected to agree to establish.  That would involve having some Goals on climate and biodiversity, neither of which currently feature on the conference organisers’ list of topics for Goals (in paragraph 107 of the Rio Zero Draft).

For the Planetary Boundaries Initiative, we have an extra question of our own.  We began in response to the Rockstrom analysis of “planetary boundaries”, as a way of seeing more clearly the meaning of what are more loosely referred to as “environmental limits”.  But now, in view of this Oxfam paper, perhaps we need to think about adding in the social boundaries half of the analysis – becoming the Doughnut Initiative?

Oxfam discussion paper:https://www.oxfam.org/en/grow/policy/safe-and-just-space-humanity

George Monbiot Guardian Environment article commenting on it: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2012/feb/13/protecting-environment-social-justice?INTCMP=SRCH

Oxfam space for comments: http://blogs.oxfam.org/en/blog/12-02-13-can-we-live-inside-doughnut-why-world-needs-planetary-and-social-boundaries

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