Can we live inside the doughnut? Why the world needs planetary and social boundaries

by Kate Raworth, Senior Researcher, Oxfam, 13 February, 2012

Courtesy of Oxfam

When crossing unknown territory, a compass can be pretty handy. Achieving sustainable development for nine billion people has to be high on the list of humanity’s great uncharted journeys. So here’s an idea for a global-scale compass to point us in the right direction (Fig 1).

Fig 1. Planetary and social boundaries: a safe and just space for humanity

Source: Oxfam, inspired by Rockström et al (2009)

What’s going on here? Start with the outer ring. In 2009, a group of leading Earth-system scientists (aka Rockström et al) proposed a set of nine Earth-system processes (like freshwater use, climate regulation, and the nitrogen cycle) that are critical for keeping this planet in the stable state which has been so beneficial to humankind over the past 10,000 years (that’s the Holocene, and it’s nothing to sniff at: it gave us agriculture, and all that has followed…).

Putting excessive stress on these critical processes could lead to tipping points of abrupt and irreversible environmental change, so Rockström et al proposed a set of boundaries for avoiding those danger zones. Together, the nine boundaries constitute an environmental ceiling – what their authors call ‘a safe operating space for humanity’.

That’s a compelling approach to environmental sustainability, but humanity is glaringly absent from the picture. After all, an environmentally safe space could be compatible with appalling poverty and injustice.

So how about combining planetary boundaries together with the concept of social boundaries? (now focus on the inner ring of Fig. 1) Just as there is an environmental ceiling, beyond which lies unacceptable environmental degradation, so too there is a social foundation, below which lies unacceptable human deprivation.

Like what, exactly? Well, human rights provide the cornerstone for defining that, and it’s the question at the heart of revising the Millennium Development Goals after 2015 and creating Sustainable Development Goals at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) this June. But a first glimpse of 21st century consensus on unacceptable deprivation comes from the issues raised by governments in their Rio+20 submissions: they prioritised 11 dimensions of human deprivation, and so these form the inner ring of Fig 1.

Between the planetary ceiling and the social foundation lies an area – shaped like a doughnut – which is the safe and just space for humanity to thrive in. The 21st century’s unprecedented journey is to move into that space from both sides: to eradicate poverty and inequity for all, within the means of the planet’s limited resources.

Where are we now? Far outside the doughnut

Every compass needs a needle – and boundaries need metrics. Rockström et al stuck their necks out when they had a first go at quantifying seven of the nine planetary boundaries (acknowledging huge uncertainties in doing so) and estimated that three have already been dangerously crossed: on climate change, biodiversity loss, and nitrogen use.

I have stuck my neck out, too, suggesting indicators for eight of the 11 social boundaries. Humanity is falling far below the social foundation on each one, as depicted in Fig. 2. Take food, for example: 13 percent of people in the world are undernourished – that 13 percent is represented by the blue gap below the social foundation. Likewise, 21 percent of people live in income poverty and an estimated 30 percent don’t have access to essential medicines.

Fig 2: Falling far below the social foundation

Graph2 showing the social foundation within the donut concept


So that’s the doughnut on a plate: planetary and social boundaries combined to create a safe and just space for humanity to thrive in.

But what does all this bring to the debate? Two messages for starters.

1. Who’s stressing the planet? The rich, not the poor

Bringing everyone alive today above the social foundation need not stress planetary boundaries.

Food: Providing the additional calories needed by the 13 percent of the world’s population facing hunger would require just one percent of the current global food supply

Energy: Bringing electricity to the 19 percent of people who currently lack it could be achieved with a less than one percent increase in global CO2 emissions

Income: Ending income poverty for the 21 percent of people who live on less than $1.25 a day would require just 0.2 percent of global income.

The real source of stress is excessive resource use by roughly the richest 10 percent of people in the world – backed up by the aspirations of a rapidly growing global middle class seeking to emulate those unsustainable lifestyles. Thanks to the extraordinary scale of global inequality, widespread poverty coexists with dangerous planetary stress.

2. Growth on trial

The aim of economic development must be to bring humanity into the safe and just space, ending deprivation and keeping within safe levels of resource use. Traditional growth policies have largely failed to deliver on both accounts: far too few benefits of GDP growth have gone to people living in poverty, and far too much of GDP’s rise has been at the cost of degrading natural resources.

If respecting planetary and social boundaries is the objective, then – in wealthy economies at least – the onus falls on those promoting unlimited GDP growth to show that it can bring humanity within the doughnut. The G20, among others, stand for the vision of ‘inclusive and sustainable economic growth’, but no country has yet shown that it is possible. If unlimited GDP growth is to have a place in doughnut economics, it has a long way to go to prove itself.

Debate the doughnut

Any verdicts on the doughnut? Are social boundaries a useful complement to planetary boundaries? Does the combination bring a useful perspective to 21st century challenges? And what is it missing? Take a bite or toss it away – we’d love to know…

Kate Raworth is Senior Researcher at Oxfam.

Add your comment here, to her new blog – Doughnut Economics – and download the full Discussion Paper: A Safe and Just Space for Humanity: can we live within the doughnut?

Post navigation