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