Can we live inside the Doughnut? Why we need planetary and social boundaries

Kate Raworth, senior researcher for Oxfam gives a powerful and persuasive presentation on the need for a ‘global compass’, a set of baseline  indicators that bring together the key environmental and social boundaries which we cross at our peril.

The environmental indicators are the outer ring of the doughnut and the social indicators the inner ring. Between the inner (social foundation)  and outer ring ( the planetary ceiling)  lies an area – shaped like a doughnut – which is the safe and just space for humanity to thrive in. As Kate says in her blog piece  “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”.

The Doughnut model is not a whimsical concept or passing fad dreamed up just to catch our attention. It is a deadly serious attempt to capture where we are now; our  location point on a map which shows some terrifying precipes towards which we are heading if we don’t pause, take stock and reconsider the direction we as a society want to take.  In some cases we are, as Kate says, already ‘far outside the doughnut’.

At the same time her presentation also  challenges the kind of  lazy thinking that we are all prone to fall into with regard to global development issues. One of these is that global poverty is just ‘too big’, it costs too much to rectify – and ‘there are just too many people anyway’.

In fact the calorie needs of the 13% of the world’s population facing hunger would require just 1% of the current global food supply. And bringing electricity to the 19% of people who currently lack it could be achieved with less than a 1% increase in global CO2 emissions. Not such a tall order after all!

So why can’t it be done? in a world of plenty, surely all that is required is a modest redistribution of resources. Not so, not if the richest 10% of the worlds population can help it (that’s us  by the way). Inequality both within and between countries is vast – and acting as a dangerous driver of social and environmental depredation as the aspirations of a rapidly growing global middle class seek to emulate the unsustainable lifestyles of the very rich.

Yet we cannot simply blame  the super rich. In the end we are all implicated in a globalised economy whose porous borders and extended supply chains of production and distribution render accountability and corporate social responsibility a sisyphean task.  We may wring our hands ,donate to Oxfam, declaim loudly about social and environmental injustice  and  yet  remain enmeshed in an  acquisitive individualism that is as much systemic as it is personal.  How our food and goods are produced, how our money is invested by  our banks, are all  personal l issues which each of us face – or refuse to face.

This kind of double vision that so many of us are locked into is best summed up by the Russian writer Tolstoy when he struggled, as a rich landed aristocrat, to come to terms with the wealth he gained from the system of serfdom:

 “I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means – except by getting off his back.”  from Leo Tolstoy, What Then Must We Do?

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