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

This post (and commentaries over the next few days) presents some important new thinking by my research team colleague, Kate Kate Raworth mugshotRaworth. It summarises her new Discussion Paper, published by Oxfam today. 

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, in a new Oxfam Discussion Paper, for a global compass to point us in the right direction (Fig 1).

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

Raworth donut

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 identifying the top priorities is the focus of debate over renewing 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 deprivations comes from the issues raised by governments in their submissions to Rio+20: they prioritised 11 dimensions of human deprivation, and so these form the inner ring of Fig 1.

Between the social foundation and the planetary ceiling 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 and co. stuck their necks out when they had a first go at quantifying 7 of the 9 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. 

So I’ve stuck my neck out, too, suggesting indicators for 8 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% of people in the world are undernourished – that 13% is represented by the blue gap below the social foundation. Likewise, 21% of people live in income poverty and an estimated 30% don’t have access to essential medicines.

Fig 2: Falling far below the social foundation

social foundation progress

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: Meeting the calorie needs of the 13% of the world’s population facing hunger would require just 1% of the current global food supply
• Energy: Bringing electricity to the 19% of people who currently lack it could be achieved with less than a 1% increase in global CO2 emissions
• Income: Ending income poverty for the 21% of people who live on less than $1.25 a day would require just 0.2% of global income.

The real source of stress is excessive resource use by roughly the richest 10% 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.

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 – I’d love to know…

Kate Raworth is Senior Researcher at Oxfam GB. Download the full Discussion Paper: A Safe and Just Space for Humanity: can we live within the doughnut? A discussion paper does not necessarily represent Oxfam policy, but is intended to encourage public debate, in this case, in the run-up to the UN conference on sustainable development (Rio+20) in June.

And here’s Kate talking through her Big Idea:

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17 Responses to “Can we live inside the doughnut? Why the world needs planetary and social boundaries”
  1. Gary

    Thanks Kate – looks most interesting. Just one thought about the metaphors involved in social ‘foundations’ and the environmental ‘ceilings’. It strikes me that many of the social foundations are themselves sitting on environmental ‘footings/piles’. For example, we can’t feed the world unless agricultural ecosystems can function sufficiently well to enable nutrient uptake, pollination, etc. Similarly, making water available requires the water to be there and to be available and affordable, and this means making sure river catchments and groundwater systems function as well as they can; with minimal erosion leading to siltation, with minimal pollution, etc. So perhaps ecosystem services and natural resources are the footings on which the foundations sit. To stretch the metaphor even more, what connects the foundations to the ceilings? i.e. what are the ‘walls’ of the doughnut? (now this is definitely going too far!) For me it must the governance regimes for ecosystem services and natural resources that will enable us to sit our foundations on firm footings and ensure that we don’t crash into or beyond the ceilings. I must stop now! Best wishes Gary

  2. P Baker

    A brave attempt to visualize so many dimensions.

    But doughnuts go stale very quickly and I’m afraid this might too. For me doughnuts make me think of Homer Simpson so I’m not convinced about this particular metaphor. Especially when it is mixed with a compass and needle metaphor.

    It’s a little like astronomers’ talk of the Goldilocks zone which is the doughnut of the solar system we live within – not too hot, not too cold.

    You succinctly sum up the many problems we face but I’m left wondering if this really moves the debate on.

    I just wonder if you should be trying to manage expectations about how things are very unlikely to improve, the complete antithesis of the positive framing Duncan has discussed.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like the John Cleese character, “I can take the despair; it’s the hope I can’t stand.”

  3. Al May

    Thanks for this fascinating post. Bringing issues of social equity and environmental limits within the same conceptual framework has always been one of the great challenges for anybody thinking about the future of development, and until now I don’t think it’s been done adequately. But the doughnut idea does the trick – at least for me – offering a simple but profound framework.

    But I’m left with a few questions, especially about growth. Are you actually saying that the pursuit of economic growth should be a secondary priority for government policy (in both poor and rich countries) – while the primary priority should be getting us within the safe and just space of the doughnut? Or can these goals be pursued concurrently?

    Also, is the implication of your idea that entering into the safe and just space is, in effect, a way of defining what ‘green growth’ or ‘sustainable growth’ really mean? These fluffy concepts have been crying out for more precise conceptualisation – and perhaps this is what your doughnut ultimately achieves.

  4. Konstantin Dierks

    It seems to me, admittedly not a professional in this field, that this is all incredibly important to think about, both urgently and sustainedly so. We need constant reminders to always connect the environmental to the human, and the human to the environmental. Even if there may be other hints to this effect circulating in certain circles, so much of what I read does not do so, far beyond the Rockstrom piece itself. For the environmental/human connection to become _broad_ second nature, it must be the starting point.

    One great advantage to Kate’s argument is that both the environmental and the human can all be given clear measures — even if in this tragic moment of human history those tend to expose human shortfall more than human progress. While those measures can be productively juxtaposed against each other, above all they can prompt necessary discussion about the common denominators underlying and causing the 9 environmental and the 11 human problems.

    That will not be an easy task, but the appeal of the “doughnut” is to make it easier to grasp the extent of the task, as well as easier to frame investigation in careful and effective fashion.

    Kate herself identifies two villains: i) “the rich” who have ostensibly benefitted from all the environmental and human damage marring our modern world, and whose privilege attracts an aspirational bourgeoisie around the globe; and ii) conventional notions of “economic growth” — which should, it must be said, lack all intellectual credibility for their spectacular failure over two centuries and ever more dramatically in the present day, yet somehow still hold extraordinary purchase.

    Conjuring up those two villains means yet more hard tasks to come: i) defanging and diminishing “the rich” who hold so much visible and invisible power in their host societies and in “globalized” corridors threading the world, and ii) crafting a broadly alluring alternative to “economic growth.” Will that be “sustainable development?”

    Kate’s scheme gives someone interloping from another professional field the leverage to insist, as a reader, activist, and voter, that these many conceptual and empirical connections be made, and for that fundamental and straightforward clarity I am grateful. I look forward to learning more.

  5. Peter Roderick

    Kate, I think you have done a great service by integrating the planetary and social in this way. To my mind you’ve set out a framework for the development of policy that would genuinely try to grapple with both the intellectual and practical challenges of integration. We’ve had many years of the ‘mush’ of sustainable development and its ‘balance’ of environmental, social and economic dimensions. The planetary boundaries concept offers a new framing for sustainability and your essential combining of it with social aspects which the economy should help deliver, provide a much clearer sense of how these dimensions are, rather, sequential and complementary. And ‘hear, hear’ to Gary’s comments – the Draft Declaration on Planetary Boundaries is a first attempt at setting out how governance regimes should start contributing to a safe and just operating space:

  6. Carl G

    Thanks for these interesting ideas and the picture. Your original presentation of idea of the doughnut (last October) confused me a little – I think it was because of the natural 3-d-ness of a real doughnut which didn’t seem to fit the concepts. However, the graphics here bring out more of a 2-d aspect which, I think, is clearer for what you are trying to do. I would call it a ‘ring’, rather than a doughnut – and maybe people are more prepared to live in a ring rather than a dougnut (!) Then again, perhaps the name is not so important! In any event the concepts are clear and well-formed and that is a good point from which to start to build. As these concepts are now well clarified in the above, there might be scope to add to the picture the challenges and problems we face in achieving the right width of the doughnut. For me, the greatest challenge remains the fundamental one that as humans we value low-entropy goods, and low-entropy for us means gradual degradation and destruction for the planet. In any event, perhaps you could work towards a 3-d graphic showing the fundamental challenges both ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the page, associated with each of your environmental and social metrics around the ring.

  7. jickemp

    If this was dynamic, so a user could test the boundaries by changing certain parameters and / or by testing the outcomes of a range of actual and recommended policies, this tool could provide valuable insights for many people. People could test various scenarios.

    Gathering and analysing the right data, and keeping it live would be a job and a half, but doable (he says with next to no knowledge of statistics).

  8. Externalities

    “Achieving sustainable development for nine billion people has to be high on the list of humanity’s great uncharted journeys.” It would of course be easier to provide food, water and energy for all, whilst staying within planetary boundaries if we didn’t hit 9 billion. The UN’s medium and high population projections both go beyond 10bn, but we should be aiming for the low scenario of peaking around 8bn. Given that access to reproductive health tools also goes hand-in-hand (both ways) with increased income, health, gender equality, and education, it makes a lot of sense to prioritise meeting unmet demand for contraception etc.. I do like the doughnut. It’s a simple message but it’s a good framework for new development goals. But is it possible to display both metrics at once? And might some misinterpret it to mean that we can’t simultaneously be below the ‘social foundation’ and above the ‘environmental ceiling’? Similarly, one should emphasise that high income and energy use etc. don’t have to mean heading up to or beyond the environmental boundaires – we just need to decouple human development/prosperity from environmental damage (e.g. through cleaner energy).

  9. jickemp

    Perhaps this could serve as the basis for a version of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock (minus the Dr Strangelove branding).

    With the right designers, it would be a neat app too (containing fundraising / more info / get involved features at the touch of a button or boundary).

  10. Malcolm W

    The paper makes a cohesive summary of the perilous state we are in but leaves me with an empty feeling about the future we are leaving to the planet.As economic progress brings our intermingled lives come closer to each other, the future prospect for us becomes a scene from hell. There is no political party in power that is seriously engaged in a policy to resolve the social and environmental issues that you identify. The nation state system we have for the planet sets up the problem by dividing the planet into nations as silos to be defended to Armageddon. This crazy system has to be radically changed before any real attention will be paid to social and environmental issues .
    . The task of making this change is fpivotal and requires a fundamental change to the concept of democracy before there is any hop e of success. Your paper underlines the need for social and environmental change,the necessary mechanism for that to be accomplished is an even bigger challenge to be met.
    On a more mundane note,I think that you are limiting the scope of the vision of our predicament by using a doughnut. THe details of how we perceive,examine and establish solutions will be much better corelated if they can be related to the basic vision statement. Also a linear representation of by two lines is a more practical way of representing the social target and the planetary limit and does not require skills in reading upside down text.

  11. Sonja Vermeulen

    This is a very useful metaphor for structuring global and national conversations on environment and development – thanks very much indeed for the timely paper Oxfam. One use will be to look deeper into the interactions between the fllors and the boundaries. For example, you say that 13% of people who are currently malnourished could be fed adequately on just 1% of current food production. Growing more food most likely means more climate change, less water availability for other uses, more land use change and more biodiversity loss… so it makes a big difference if we supply that 1% from current food production (which we could, through fairer distribution) or from additional food production. These challenges will only multiply in future as there are more people alive and needing to eat. The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change has taken on just this one bite of the doughnut (food availability under climate change) and, in nice synergy with your work, has come up with a a “safe operating space” concept: how we can eat adequately and equitably without further impacts on our climate. This will be released shortly as an animation – anyone interested can keep an eye on the Commission’s web page at My guess is that many of us will find many opportunities to take these doughnut-shaped ideas forward – so thanks again!

  12. Steven McQuinn

    Look at this and think in two ways about it simultaneously: how it will play out over the next decade and how it will play out over the next several centuries. The thoughts in this essay provide a sound foundation for building a new civilization from the ashes of the current one. I vote for the Long View, and ashes are fertile. The power to shape humanity’s fate belongs to those who can envision the span of millenia, and who act now upon that vision knowing they will not live long enough to see the tree bear fruit. In the long run, only a long view can prevail. We can bring to bear the full force of generations to come, if we dare.

  13. Steven McQuinn

    The essay to which I am referring is Kate’s, not Rajan’s. Kate provokes thought. Rajan instills numbness from pseudo information overload, a typical denier tactic. Just skip down to the last paragraph about lap dogs and clowns to understand the real message. Pretty much voids the author’s credibility and saves you from parsing the rant.

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