My Oxfam discussion paper on social and planetary boundaries – aka the Doughnut – has gained a striking degree of traction in the debates running up to Rio+20. It’s been picked up by commentators such as George Monbiot, Grist and by the UN . The idea, like its namesake, appears to be sticky. That’s probably because it captures, in a very simple image, a vision of sustainable development which combines the compelling framework of planetary boundaries with the demands of human rights.
(and if you don’t know what I’m on about, here’s a four minute video tour to fill you in.)
The planetary boundaries framework may be compelling but the run-up to Rio has also prompted several interesting critiques of the concept, such as the proposal that we should focus on planetary opportunities rather than boundaries, and critiques from the Breakthrough Institute, including that most planetary boundaries are not actually planetary in scale, but have critical national or regional thresholds, such as for freshwater use (more on that below…).
So the debate will be lively, and I’m heading to (and tweeting from) Rio+20 to join it – but the idea of thinking about sustainable development through the lens of planetary and social boundaries has a life far beyond Rio. Here are four issues that I’m keen to explore further:
1. Rethinking economic development. If we take the idea of planetary boundaries and social boundaries as a starting point in pursuing prosperity, what are the implications for what economies should be aimed at? And what’s the evidence that ‘green growth’ and technological solutions can or cannot get us there?
2. Who’s pressuring the planet? Humanity has transgressed at least three of the planetary boundaries – but where’s that pressure coming from? What can data tell us about inequalities in using natural resources, within and between countries? And what are the implications for achieving social equity in the Doughnut?
3. Determining the social foundation. The 11 dimensions of the social foundation are illustrative, and are based on the top 11 social priorities raised by governments in their submissions to Rio+20. But they are by no means perfect. Critical dimensions such as personal security, housing and transport are missing, for starters, and all of these have important relations to resource availability, distribution and stress. Other dimensions, such as gender equality, are better seen as characteristics of all the other social dimensions, rather than separate dimensions in themselves. And what level of achievement should be considered as reaching the foundation? Some people have rightly pointed out that $1.25 per day is too low as an indicator of a decent level of income – but surely so too is $2. So what should a 2.0 version of the social foundation look like? Who should draw it up?
4. National doughnut analyses. The Breakthrough Institute’s critique that most planetary boundaries are not planetary is correct – many make more sense at the national or regional scale. But this point was set out in the original paper on planetary boundaries by Rockström and the other authors. And that makes national and regional analyses of planetary and social boundaries all the more interesting. So what would happen if you took the doughnut concept and applied it at the country, or even city, level? What would be the dimensions of a national social foundation, and what are the main stresses on a nation’s critical natural thresholds? Would this approach open up new perspectives, and could it help move forward national debates and policymaking on pathways for sustainable development?
As part of exploring these questions, I’ve just started a new blog, Doughnut Economics, focused on rethinking 21st century economics and equity through the lens of planetary and social boundaries. If you’ve got suggestions, critiques, contacts, ideas, or even answers, I’d love to hear them.
And if you are lucky (or crazy) enough to be in Rio next week, come along and debate the doughnut at Oxfam’s panel discussion on planetary and social boundaries, supported by EXPO Milano 2015, on 17th June, 9.30-11am, in IIED’s Fair Ideas conference (we’ve got a great line-up of speakers including Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity Without Growth – it promises to be a great debate).
Kate Raworth is Senior Researcher at Oxfam – link here to her new blog, Doughnut Economics, and follow her on Twitter @KateRaworth