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February 15, 2012

Is doughnut economics too Western? Critique from a Latin American environmentalist

February 15, 2012
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Apologies for the blog going offline yesterday – some server glitch which has now been rectified. On with the discussion on Kate gudynasvoces11bRaworth’s new paper. Here Latin American environmentalist Eduardo Gudynas takes on the doughnut from a deeper green perspective for uncritically accepting western concepts of ‘development’.

The discussion paper just launched by Oxfam, ‘A Safe and Just Space for Humanity’, has many positive aspects that can be shared with organisations and movements in the Global South. It also contains elements that are in line with Oxfam’s commitment to eradicating poverty and protecting the environment.

The document proposes a doughnut, which adds a pastry to the mix of sustainable development recipes, and we should review it thoroughly.

Let’s begin by pointing out that this approach is ambitious, since it claims to offer a new perspective on sustainable development: the articulation of human rights and environmental limits in a just and safe ‘space’.

But just how ‘new’ is this perspective? The idea of an environmental ‘space’ was first considered in the 1990s, by both academia (in the early work of the Wuppertal Institute in Germany) and social movements (in this case Friends of the Earth, a point acknowledged in Oxfam’s paper).

Furthermore, the idea of linking human rights and environmental issues is older still. To give you an example, in 1974, amid the hubbub of debate about development and the environment, a group of prominent academics and politicians issued the Cocoyoc Declaration. It was a very important contribution at that time, and held that the future of humanity lay in finding a balance between the environmental ‘outer limits’ and the ‘inner limit’ of fundamental human rights.

This type of problem, where the new is not so new, and the key background seems to have been forgotten, has become commonplace in the current cooking of sustainable development. My impression is that the discussions, about Rio+20 in particular, have great difficulty in recovering the long tradition of debates on development and the environment. I say this not because I am concerned about this tradition, but because in many cases it seems as if we are starting from scratch, and the trials and errors of the recent past have been forgotten. 

Many believe that it all started with the Brundtland report in 1987, which led to the disappearance of the fertile discussions of the 70s and most of the 80s. This amnesia is reinforced by many governments and by the way in which UNEP deals with sustainability.

These points are relevant, as the origin of the concept of sustainability was an environmental criticism of development. It was a questioning that forced a redefinition of ‘development’. Thus, any discussion of sustainability necessarily involves an intense debate about the ideas of development.

Starting with this concern, although there is a description of ‘sustainable development’, and that development in the 21st century must eradicate poverty, I’m not exactly clear on what the idea of ‘development’ is in the doughnut, At times the paper seems to suggest that it is not necessary to discuss the basic ideas of ‘development’, but rather that our notion of development should be reduced to the components of the doughnut.

But in my view, a discussion about sustainability requires the idea of development to be questioned, especially the Western conception of development. There are undoubtedly many ways of understanding development, and we have seen capitalist programmes with varying emphasis (neoliberal, Keynesian, neo-Keynesian, etc.), as well as socialist programmes (e.g. the Soviet model and all its variants), and even complex hybrids (like that of China). These tendencies have significant differences in terms of the role of state, the concept of property, and ways of redistributing wealth. The ‘right to development’ was also spoken about, which would greatly complicate the doughnut. But what is striking is that they all share a set of basic ideas, all of them Western, such as the belief in progress, the appropriation of nature, and the dream of material comfort. ‘Development’ involves common principles for organising society, production, and the relationship with the environment.

the offending pastry.....

the offending pastry.....

These different ‘developments’ may diverge in their instrumental management choices, but in the end they all share a common belief with regard to progress and the efficient appropriation of nature. This is plainly evident, in all its drama, with the position of the World Bank’s current chief economist, Justin Yifu Lin, a Chinese native who first trained as a Marxist economist in Beijing and later at the neoliberal Chicago school of economics. Lin advocates a mix of Marxism and Keynesianism, of State communism and corporate capitalism, in which there is no room for sustainability. This he does openly in public, and even more so, from the World Bank. [Guest post from Justin here]

This makes it evident that the ideas of development are deeply rooted in contemporary culture. A radical criticism must be aimed at these foundations, like that of sustainability. Without such questioning, there is a risk that the ‘doughnut’ version of sustainability will be branded as a new example of alternative development. It will join the list of other attempts at reform, such as human development, local development, endogenous development, etc., which started off with a certain radicalism, but ended up being co-opted by the conventional position. Would it be a success in the future if the UNDP published a doughnut index, as it does today with human development?

The social and environmental crisis is so serious that it is now time to put aside minor adjustments and reforms, and instead address the root causes of resistance to the idea of development. We must adopt an approach whereby the term ‘sustainable development’ no longer requires the suffix ‘development’. The civil society programme in Rio+20 should not focus simply on fixing the superficial problems of development: it is necessary to look for alternatives to the entire body of ideas about development.

In this effort, the ethical dimension is key, and this point appears in the references to the norms of the doughnut. But here also it is necessary to delve a little further into the ingredients of this recipe.

If sustainable development strengthens its demands for change, it must abandon the traditional idea of development and thus break with the anthropocentric ethics that are characteristic of Western cultural tradition. Conventional development needs anthropocentrism, as within this concept, it is man alone who can give value and, as a consequence, man asserts his authority over nature, women, children, etc.

The solution to this position lies, among other things, in recognising the rights of nature. This is an essential ingredient in the environmental components of a critical proposal on sustainable development. We cannot talk seriously about the environment without first acknowledging the rights of nature. In this area, Oxfam’s Discussion Paper must review recent experiences in South America, especially with regard to the recognition of those rights in the new Constitution of Ecuador. Under this new ethic, in these kitchens there would not be doughnuts separating environmental components from social ones, but rather some would be contained within others.

These and other examples show that sustainability also requires more multicultural recipes that do not rest so much on Western traditions. But these are matters for another post on this blog..

Eduardo Gudynas is a senior researcher at the Latin American Center of Social Ecology (CLAES), based in Uruguay. His expertise is on sustainable development and alternatives to development. Read his blog here.

8 comments

  1. The writing of the economist Fritzt Schumacher echo Eduardo’s.The distortions between ‘wealth’ and ‘poverty’ essentially from a human centric perspective make the whole sustainable model questionable.Life centric models which respond to the equal place both man and nature have(if not man being placed beneath nature)may allow for a more inclusive ways of thinking that are not western centric and driven by post industrialisation thinking.

  2. Good points Eduardo!

    Sustainable development is dead and the combination of continued population growth + climate change + scarcer energy have killed it.

    It is no longer feasible to think that by, say, 2050 we can expect the global poor to be mostly ‘developed’.

    If we get to that date with roughly the same magnitude of problems as we have today, we will have done very well – but that’s not development.

    To start with we need some sort of basic survival strategy – holding the line – but that’s not an easy concept to sell to donors who are still programmed for industrial growth.

  3. A fascinating critique, Eduardo.

    On some points, I do agree. Yes ideas come and go, and come back again, just as this doughnut brings back ideas about environmental space put forward in the 1990s. But I think that familiar ideas come back in new forms because they are still worth discussing, albeit with a new generation of policy makers and civil society, and sometimes the old language doesn’t work (on that point, I’d be interested to know why Friends of the Earth don’t really talk much about environmental space anymore…).

    But I’m surprised that you don’t seem that keen on the nine planetary boundaries approach. In my mind, that approach – of identifying and protecting critical Earth systems for keeping the planet in the stable Holocene state – is one of the closest ideas I have seen in contemporary ‘Western’ thinking to the idea of Pachamama and the rights of Mother Earth. It’s certainly an ambitious call for delimiting the scope of human activity, on the grounds that it contravenes the ecological integrity of the planet.

    When I recently presented the doughnut framework to some European representatives at the UN, one said, “We hear the Latin Americans talking of Pachamama – I can see that the nine planetary boundaries are, in some ways, the same kind of idea”. Of course the concepts are not identical, but if it helps towards cross-cultural understanding at the UN, I’m all for that.

    What I’d like to understand better is how the rights of Mother Earth interact with human rights – if you could draw their relationship, what would it look like? Would it really be so very different from the doughnut? I’d love to see!…

  4. Thanks for all comments and feedback on my commentary about OXFAM’s doughnut.

    Those that are interested in further reading about “alternatives to development”, may found of interest the last issue of the journal Development. Among several articles, you may found a review of current South American alternatives that are “beyond” development, currently named “Buen Vivir”. See http://www.palgrave-journals.com/development/journal/v54/n4/index.html

    About Kate Raworth reactions, first, many thanks. Second, I do not disagree with the nine planetary boundaries (although perhaps we need ten, or eleven, etc). But I do not feel comfortable with sustainability evaluations focused on the “planet”. Environmental and social problems have always local / regional roots, and sometimes those planetary statistics filter the diversity of situations.

    It is also impressive that you refer to the “Pachamama” and the “rights of Mother Earth” as related to that planetary approach. There is a widespread confusion, particularly in the north, but Pachamama is always local. In its strict sense this concept / feeling is rooted to social and environmental communities in specific territorial settings. Pachamama is strongly linked to the idea of the ayllu, the community in some Andean regions. Also, the Pachamama is not closely related to the idea of “rights”, which is also a western concept. Pachamama is more easily understand under the context of reciprocity with Nature. So, under Pachamama there no rights of mother “Earth”, because the scale of this concept / feeling is always local. Intensive debates and discussion around these ideas are now underway, but … most of this is only available in Spanish.

    The confusion in using Pachamama for biospheric rights was in part promoted by the Bolivian government, particularly in its campaigns on climate change at the international level. But as was pointed out by many NGOs, the national environmental policy inside Bolivia does not follow the Pachamama mandates, even at the local level.

    Nevertheless, Pachamama does support the idea of the rights of Nature, in the sense that there are intrinsic values in the environment (in living and non living things, beings, etc.). To deal with the rights of the “Earth” is not the same that the rights of “Nature”. This is not a minor difference; it is a critical difference.

    Thanks again for all comments.

  5. Thanks Eduardo for these clear distinctions – but surely both the local and the planetary matter for sustainability? We can’t ignore either.

    By coincidence, on the point about what happened to the concept of Environmental Space – I bumped into someone from Friends of the Earth last night so asked him why that concept disappeared in the 1990s. He gave three reasons: 1) the funding for the research ran out, 2) one of the key people involved in the project very unfortunately passed away, 3) when they tried to identify how much space each person had per capita, they ran into big debates over determining international fair shares. That’s the same rut that the UNFCCC has been stuck in for years, and it’s the elephant in every room talking of environmental limits. I think it’s time for this idea to return…

  6. ” The Vision thing” will always hound us.

    Every representation of the reality will be a simplification. Starting from a simplified vision, you will run into serious problems implementing, because of the omissions in the vision.

    This is one of the reasons why Human Rights (with capitals) stand each on their own. You don’t make an index, where you can get a good score where you can put some more dissidents in goal on condition that you educate a few more children.

    This is also why activism works, picking a point and going for it, until it becomes less important because the public feels it has been solved enough (or there is a soccer game coming up).

    This is also why these kind of visions disappear or become a nightmare.

    The lack of human rights (except for woman) in the doughnut will come back to hound Oxfam.

  7. Gudnyas calls all recent debates and concepts of sustainable development ‘Western,’ poses China among others as a hybrid (implying this is a ‘non-Western’ alternative?), but later suggests that the Chinese aspiration is even further from your ideal path than ever. He labels Chinese — and I guess all developing country people’s aspirations of which he does not approve ‘Western’ again (‘Belief in progress, appropriation of nature, and dream of material comfort.’)

    The claim to be offering a ‘non-Western’ perspective is a flimsy screen through which to generalise about all the world’s nations, misrepresent scientific Chinese history, or dismiss the material aspirations of people less fortunate than himself.

    I am not sure where an esoteric, philosophical critique of all past debates, along with a criticism of the doughnut’s attempt to frame and relate urgent arguments for a broader audience, is really leading — especially when his concrete alternative proposals are thin and vague.

    I’m not sure that the proposal to drop the word ‘development’ will go down any better in ‘non-western’ Africa than in ‘non-western’ China.

    It is always easy to take a purer theoretical position than the person next to you – as true on the left as it is with the greens. But the likelihood is that this leads to the margins, not to change.

    We face twin challenges of stopping our children dying of curable diseases, and reversing the damage we do to our planet. The doughnut pictures both. Gudynas jousts with his western straw man in a small part of the arena.

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