From planetary ceilings to social floors: can we live inside the doughnut?

October 24, 2011

     By Duncan Green     

This is a guest post and a request for comments and suggestions by Kate Raworth, Oxfam’s Senior Researcher, who is doing some really KateRaworthinteresting thinking on new economics and the ‘post 2015 agenda’ – i.e. what comes after the MDGs. In 2009, 29 of the world’s leading Earth-system scientists drew up a set of nine ‘planetary boundaries’: critical natural processes that we must not breach if we want to maintain Earth’s stable state of the last 10,000 years. Like what? Like climate change, ozone depletion, and biodiversity loss.  No small fry. They got bold and attempted a first quantification of these boundaries (eg setting a climate change boundary of 350ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere). And the area within these boundaries, they said, define “a safe operating space for humanity”. Nature environmental limitsHmm. Environmentally safe, yes, but would it be socially just? After all, an environmentally safe space for humanity could be compatible with a multitude of human conditions, some of which may be appalling. Are there not also social boundaries – perhaps freedom from extreme income inequality, or from illiteracy – that we must not breach if we want to achieve social justice and a stable international order? Superimposing these social boundaries onto the planetary boundaries would define a safe and socially just operating space for humanity: no longer a circle, but a doughnut, bounded by an outer environmental ceiling and an inner social floor. Planetary and social boundaries: can we live inside the doughnut? What if 29 (or so…) international development thinkers and doers got together to propose such a set of social boundaries. What would they come up with? Could they be quantified? And could this become a useful framework for developing sustainable development goals beyond 2015? The idea provokes questions. How should social boundaries be determined? They could, for instance, be derived from human rights, human capabilities, the Millennium Development Goals, multi-dimensional measures of poverty, a mix of all these – or some other source? And how many should there be? (nine would be neat, perhaps too neat…). But back up a minute. Can we really put Earth systems and social systems in one framework? There are obvious differences. Earth systems existed quite happily without humans, and have been in the safe space for 10,000 years. Social systems don’t exist without us, and have never been fully in the just space (though a lot of people are working on that). And while Earth systems can tolerate a degree of stress, human rights mean that the outcomes for individuals in social systems matter inherently, not only because of their cumulative implications for social dynamics. Kate's Doughnut Yes, there are differences – but there are surprising similarities too. Both planetary boundaries and social boundaries are part global, but also part regional, or even local. They both have thresholds or danger zones that are difficult to identify (until you cross them…). Quantifying the safe boundaries involves normative judgements about acceptable levels of stress and risk – whether planetary or social. And both sets have interdependencies: staying on the safe side of one boundary depends, in part, on staying on the safe side of others (eg climate change is shaped by land-use change, illiteracy is shaped by gender inequality). So if this idea has merit, what difference could it make? Three insights become clear: First, planetary and social boundaries together imply a purpose for ‘economic progress’: to pursue human well-being, while remaining or moving back inside the doughnut – below the environmental ceiling, and above the social floor. Ecological economists have long sought to situate the economy within environmental limits; feminist economists (and others) have highlighted the social (and non-monetised) consequences of economic activity. Planetary and social boundaries help bring these ideas together in a simple, visual way (is this the birth of Doughnut Economics?…). Second, how we get inside that doughnut involves careful balancing and timing between planetary and social boundaries. According to Earth-system scientists, we are three times over the global limit in our use of nitrogen (it’s polluting lakes, rivers and coasts, and the life within them, and contributing to climate change). But if we cut back by two thirds overnight, say by drastically reducing fertilizer use, the immediate consequences for global food supply, hunger, and poverty would be devastating. Looking at planetary and social boundaries together helps make these challenges starkly clear. Third, non-monetary metrics must clearly be given more weight in policy making. Economic progress cannot be assessed only – or even primarily – in monetary terms (such as incomes per capita and GDP growth rates). Where the edges are, and whether or not we are hitting them, matters for stability and justice. Policymakers must take more notice of, and be more accountable for, the impact of economic activity on planetary and social boundaries, defined in ‘natural’ and ‘social’ metrics, such as species extinction rates, and unemployment rates. So there’s the pitch. What do you think? Does the idea of social boundaries make sense, and does it make a difference? What should those social boundaries be, and could they be quantified? And could planetary and social boundaries help define Sustainable Development Goals for post 2015? Anyone for doughnuts?]]>