Doughnut Economics: Linking Environmental and Human Concerns with the Economy

By Jackie Burns

There is a new idea among some modern economists that should be of interest to those of us long concerned about the environment.  This idea recognizes that endless growth, using and discarding the earth’s resources, not recycling them, is not sustainable on our limited planet.  Instead, this new idea proposes that economic growth should stay within the limits of what our planet can sustain, and resources used should be recycled.  Imagine an economy growing outward from a center.  It reaches the limit of sustainability, that is the outer edge of the doughnut.  It doesn’t just stop, it changes direction, reusing resources in new, imaginative ways.

But doughnuts have holes in the center too.  So, what defines this inner boundary?  Well, each of us, each human on earth, has basic needs.  We need food, water, shelter, space, etc.  The inner boundary defines where these basic needs are met for all of us.  If the needs are not met for someone, we might say they have fallen through the hole of the doughnut.  

The space between the outer and the inner edge of the doughnut is the space for a safe and just humanity, with an economy that is regenerative and distributive.  Resources, like the silicon in our solar panels, are recycled and reused.  While some still have more than others, benefits are distributed in ways that ensure everybody has enough.

It’s a simple idea really, this doughnut economics idea, but incredibly complex to accomplish.  The question is, should we work towards accomplishing it?  Will working towards this help our environment?  Can it help us explain to others what we support, what we are for?  How do we define and measure the limits?  Can and should your WV Highlands Conservancy play a role in this?  We can’t answer all these questions today, but let’s start by discussing how the limits are defined and measured.

In 2009, an international group of Earth-system scientists, led by Rockstrom and Steffen, identified nine critical processes to define the ecological ceiling that will enable earth to maintain conditions where life like ours will continue and thrive.   These are the processes used to describe the outer edge of the doughnut.  For each process an indicator is measured, and a planetary boundary is defined to determine how we are doing at being sustainable.  

For the social foundation inner boundary, the author looked at what the international community seeks to promote.  “They are all included in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals – agreed by 193 member countries in 2015 – and the vast majority of these goals are to be achieved by 2030.” (Raworth, 2017).

How are we doing so far?  Well, the results are mixed.  We have exceeded the planetary boundary on three of the nine processes.  We have yet to define the measure of two processes, and we haven’t yet exceeded the planetary boundary on the remaining four processes.  Overall, we have work to do to get within the doughnut’s planetary boundaries.  

On the social foundation end of things there is also much work to do.  There are still many places where sewage is untreated, available water is not clean, health care is far away and/or too expensive and people have little or no political voice.  

Let’s get a more specific example.  The measurable control variable for climate change is atmospheric carbon dioxide, measured in parts per million.  The planetary boundary is thought to be 350 parts per billion.  Currently the measured value is 400 parts per billion and rising.  Consequently, we are experiencing more frequent severe storms, sea level rise threatening the existence of island nations, and more.  What can we do to get within the planetary boundary?  Burn fewer fossil fuels.  Find more sustainable forms of energy.  We, the people of earth, are working on this, but many still have much to gain from continuing the unsustainable path, and the political will to support the needed change is hard to find.  

Climate change is an issue your WV Highland’s Conservancy is and has long been working on.  So, what might Doughnut Economics add?  Perhaps it as a possible way for us to describe what we are for, the world we would like to see emerge in the future.  Perhaps it is a way we might to evaluate future potential projects, that is, does this project move us into the doughnut, or outside it.  And when we have concerns about a potential project, the doughnut can be used to help us describe our concerns, not only with details, but also linking those detailed concerns with a big picture view.