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

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?

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18 Responses to “From planetary ceilings to social floors: can we live inside the doughnut?”
  1. Kate and Duncan,

    What an interesting blog post. In fact, we’ve been thinking along the same lines at Forum for the Future, and recently produced a piece of work in partnership with Aviva Investors looking at what a sustainable economy looks like, within the framework of both planetary boundaries and social conditions.

    It’s available here, in case you’d like to have a look:

    This is big question to tackle, granted, and in doing so we were challenged by many of the things you outline above, including the systemic tensions between different issues, from nutritional outcomes, to land use, to biodiversity preservation. But it is critical to look at the environmental and the socioeconomic within the same framework (interestingly enough, ours turned out to be a doughnut too!), and we hope that what we’ve done can be a sort of ‘live document’ and a starting point for debate.


  2. Dave Innes

    I think this article raises important issues, but I don’t think the doughnut analogy is a good one.

    Take the planetary ceiling climate change boundary of 350ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere. To say that this would not be compatible with social goals is very plausible because such levels may bring about high poverty and geographical inequality.

    However, this is to say that social considerations mean there should be a lower upper bound. The doughnut analogy with social floors makes it seem like social considerations set the lower bound for these variables whereas ‘planetary boundaries’ set the upper bound.

    I think a better way to think of it is that planetary boundaries set levels consistent with any human existence, yet human existence shouldn’t be our goal; we want another circle of social upper bounds that really define where we want to be.


  3. Excellent concept that succeeded in making me thing about things from a new angle.

    The earth metrics are couched in consumption of resource hence the social ones that need to be created should be stated in rate of development of society not absolute levels.

    Floor may be the wrong concept. If, as the metaphor suggests there is a trade off between development and consumption then we need to be maximising human progress by pushing at the replenishment ceiling (but never going through it). Hence the need to trade off any given social advancement against its earth cost.

    Assuming we don’t want all consumption controlled then that might bring us back to a floor on the amount on consumption of a given resource that needs to be reserved to ensure social progress. The knowledge about where the donut is thin would give us an insight into the areas where the real fights for power needs to be.

  4. I think this is a really important piece of work. Integrating social and environmental into one framework is a bit like the holy grail of sustainable development – and the approach set out above sets out a potentially very powerful basis for doing with some actual numbers attached, rather than merely rhetorical declarations.

    Kate’s idea is extremely timely, too. It’s looking increasingly possible that Rio +20 will indeed fire the starting gun on a process of sustainable development goals (SDGs), as the post mentions. The framework set out above could provide a very elegant way of pulling that together.

    Lots more to discuss and work through, needless to say – but this concept sets a really excellent new agenda to work on.

  5. Richard Sleight

    Thanks for the guest post Kate.

    Perhaps most importantly for boundaries is how will they be possibly encouraged or policed?

    If human rights were realised then perhaps there would be no need for more social boundaries, or in fact planetary boundaries (as Kate writes land-use change – if indigenous and community land rights were respected then mass deforestation and oil exploration would be massively reduced in most peoples perception of reality) So where is the UNDHR lacking in relation to planetary boundaries would be an important question.

    The social boundary I would like included is a relative one based upon reducing monetary inequality and other forms of power inequalities – between employees, citizens, and states. Kate suggests ‘freedom from extreme income inequality’, and I think it is important to expand upon this in any doughnut. As planetary boundaries have been fixed the idea of unlimited individual and national economic growth seems harder to argue for and increased equality is necessary to avoid civil unrest and wars, amongst other things. Although this would possibly harm profits in the Arms industries I think on the whole such measures would be preferable.

    The second social boundary I would introduce is one upon speed – of investment flight – the ability of investors to quickly run away from any local or national situation (bring on the Monty Python sketch Robin). The result is that investors do not need to take any responsibility or care about what they invest within, although some of course do. If this speed was reduced or at least made less profitable it may encourage long-term investment planning. This relates to reducing the ability of companies and company capital to run away from a difficult situation, or imply that they would if the operating environment became less hospitable (e.g. taxes). This may create less competition between states and make international cooperation and negotiation in some way possible.

    The third social boundary I would introduce is upon the size and influence of any entity not controlled in some way through strong democratic principles. Monopoly Laws could be looked at.

    Re-reading what I have written I’m basically asking for economic boundaries as well as social and planetary. Like a doughnut within a doughnut…..

  6. Kate, interesting.

    One thought is that this is all related to the “right to sustainable development” debate, which by the way has its own acronym now — the R2SD. Thus, one approximation to the inner part of your donut might be a multi-dimensional definition that captures the ‘boundaries,” whatever they are, that define the R2SD.

    These, as you point out, cannot be defined primarily in economic terms.” But we are talking about a global analysis here, we may have a hard time doing better than PPP adjusted dollars, if for example we are interested in consumption inequality at the global level – rather than just between and within countries – which seems to me to be implied by this project.

    Anyway, there are a lot of people in the climate justice world who feel that the R2SD should be defined in positive terms, and that this positive R2SD would have to be *higher* than the very low line set by the MDGs. It may be that such a positive right corresponds pretty well to the notion of a “development threshold” like the one in the Greenhouse Development Rights framework. Though GDRs, being a conservative system, does not assert any sort of positive right. A “floor,” by definition, does.

    Just a quick thought.

    Tom Athanasiou

  7. Kate Raworth

    Great comments (including the cream and the crust!)

    I like Dave’s suggestions of introducing another layer, in order to distinguish the minimal social floor from what we actually want to be as a global society.

    Likewise Chris’s idea of finding out ‘where the doughnut is thin’ is great – where are the critical tensions between human needs and environmental limits.

    Ivana, I’ve now read the summary of Forum for the Future’s fascinating report – and yes I see the ovelaps in how we are thinking! Maybe that means this way of representing the world makes good intuitive sense.

    Richard, see Ivana’s report link – you’ll like the ‘economic boundary’ used in their approach.

    Alex: great that you think this framework could help take develop the sustainable development goals concept – let’s figure out how to make that happen.

    I just ran a lunchtime discussion on this topic within Oxfam and the critical question that arose was whether the social boundaries should focus around issues that aggegrate the needs and rights of individuals (eg poverty, ill-health, malnutrition) or focus around the dynamics of social systems (eg income inequality, forced migration, population dynamics). Any views?

  8. CH

    Interesting. Should there be any discussion of optimum human population? I’m aware the population ‘debate’ tends to be highly charged and is often not really a debate at all but something rather ugly. A projection of 15 billion people by end of century sounds extreme ( but on current trends, I think, countries such as Nigeria and Pakistan will reach 200 million, 300 million+ in a few decades. What prospects for social justice and human flourishing in such circumstances? Any scope for discussion or is this just not useful?

  9. Lucy

    Reading through the comments I wondered where the issue of population was, that uncomfortable subject we shy away from (and we don’t want to distract from the inequality of consumption issue). Yet some question where the world would be today without China’s awful one child policy and the dreadful forced sterilization in India and Indonesia back in the 1970s when most INGOs backed off the subject.

    But it’s also about women’s reproductive rights to choose when and how many children they want and not watch them die plus the obvious issue that we can’t increase numbers indefinitely. Family planning is a woman’s human right yet contraception is not as widespread as we might think, indeed, 33 countries were applying for help from the UN last year, money for AIDS goes up, money for FP goes down.

    Whilst there is talk of world population reaching a plateau (Fred Pearce, Peoplequake) there are still scary scenarios in some countries and regions, especially Sub Saharan Africa (highest fertility, lowest contraception, highest unsafe abortion rate, high AIDS, high FGM) which has a ‘youth bulge’ coming through. However, there are also very positive examples in Iran and Rwanda where the government has recognized there are limits and decreed family planning is a must ie you must received FP advice when you get married, nothing forced.

    The Royal Society is currently looking into population growth and sustainability, LSHTM had a conference on it in 2010 and there is a UN report and a New Internationalist report.

    It’s got to be a factor.

  10. Kate Raworth

    More great comments – this is all really helpful feedback, thank you.

    Emily: thanks for the link to the GEC diagram, I love it. Staying with the food analogy, I’d say rather than a doughnut, it is a layer cake which elegantly sets out the 5 layers of transformation and investment needed to create a green and just economy.

    Tom’s point on the right to sustainable development: thanks, that’s interesting, I’ll look into whether and how that right has been specified in more detail.

    On Lucy and CH’s points about population: you are right, of course it matters and it has to be part of the picture. So if we have a planetary ceiling and a social floor, what are the critical variables between them which determine whether we can live within the doughnut? Surely three big ones are the size of the global population, the global distribution of resources, and prevailing technologies. Suggestions for any others?

  11. Coming to this a little late but thanks for the interestig post.

    A gogole search of Brazil’s ambition for Sustainable Development Goals brings up bizarely a briefing paper by the UK’s FCO for business – The Green Economy focus of Rio+20 runs the risk that the corporate world will shout loudest drowning out the concerns from the development field.

    For those of us concerned with both environmental and social issues, the challenge will be to maintain a focus on poverty eradication within a SDGs framework. Underpinning this through a focus on human rights will assist in this.

  12. Joe Short

    Hi Kate, I still really like this way of thinking since you showed it the other day. But one thing occurs. It would be a shame if the Donut Diagram implied that improving the lives of humans **necessarily** means moving outwards (closer to the planetary boundary) on each of the nine systems.

    I admit, on nitrogen, it is hard at the moment to think how it wouldn’t. But on aerosols and others, surely we hope to decouple the social benefits (transport, energy etc) from the emission?

    It’s important to avoid conclusions like “we need to emit a minimum of X amount in order to achieve social progress” when such conclusions might assume a business-as-usual method of generating that social progress (and assume a certain population of course).

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