Back in 2009, when I first saw the diagram of planetary boundaries, I knew I was looking at something important. Having trained as an economist—and frustrated at being taught to view the environment as an "externality"—I felt I was seeing an important rebalancing between the disciplines: Earth system scientists were stepping in where economists had failed to go, to draw the circle of the biosphere within which the economy sits (as Herman Daly had pointed out many decades ago, but to little mainstream response). Moreover, they made a first quantification of that circular set of boundaries with natural, not monetary, metrics.
Visualization matters: our visual intelligence is more powerful and influential than we often realize. So—as an Oxfam Senior Researcher at the time—I wanted to add to what I saw as this visual reining-in of economics, but from a social justice perspective. Hence, I drew in a set of inner social boundaries (crowdsourced from the world’s governments) to complement the outer ring of planetary boundaries, so bounding the economic space on both sides.
The circular "safe operating space for humanity" instantly turned into a "safe and just space for humanity."1 Just as there is an environmental ceiling to humanity’s use of natural resources, beyond which lies unacceptable ecological degradation, so, too, there is a social foundation of resource use, below which lies unacceptable human deprivation.
I later discovered that these ideas—of inner and outer limits—had been around at least since the 1970s, and that the doughnut diagram gave visual representation to the concept of environmental space developed by the Wuppertal Institute and Friends of the Earth in the 1990s. But again, visualization matters, and by putting these long standing concepts into graphic form, with metrics against the dimensions, the idea gained greater traction.
Since Oxfam first published my discussion paper on the doughnut of social and planetary boundaries in 2012, I have been nothing short of gobsmacked by the traction that the idea has gained in international policy debates on sustainability, among companies and within social movements.2 It is in good part due to the power of the planetary boundaries framework in making Earth systems science accessible to non-scientists, but it is also a clear sign that people are in search of a new vision for the future.
GDP is outmoded as a goal—that is widely acknowledged—but the alternative of “well-being” needs a vision and metrics to give it substance. Planetary boundaries, coupled with social boundaries, give something to bite into—and in the process, implicitly tell us that progress no longer lies in an ever-rising line of GDP growth, but in achieving a dynamic balance in social-ecological systems.
You can increasingly hear the gist of that new paradigm of progress in international debates. In 2012, the EU Commissioner Janez Potočnik gave a speech simply titled “Towards Universal Prosperity and Wellbeing within our Planetary Boundaries.”3 When the UN ran its largest ever online consultation, “A Million Voices: The World We Want,” in 2013, the response called for “improving human wellbeing within planetary boundaries.” And in the final negotiations of the draft Sustainable Development Goals last year, I am told, the image of the doughnut was literally on the table in front of the negotiators, serving as a reminder of the social and environmental priorities that the final text should broadly be aiming to address.
The doughnut image depicts a vision of the world we ideally want: meeting the human rights of all people within Holocene-like conditions on the planet. As Richard Heinberg points out, it is looking increasingly difficult to believe that we can achieve. But I am not ready to opt for doomerism yet.
I see a generation of students today choosing to study economics—the discipline of “household management”—because they can see the challenges that are coming and they are hoping that economics will equip them with the mindset needed to address them. Instead, they are taught theories that are at least a century—often two—out of date, along with a mindset that risks further entrenching the situation. I find this appalling.
So before resorting to doomerism, I am taking a shot at possibility. If the aim of the twenty-first century is—in the broadest sense—to get into that doughnut space, bringing all of humanity between social and planetary boundaries, then what is the mindset that you would want today’s economics students to be learning?
I think we owe at least one generation of students (and perhaps they will be the last generation who still have the opportunity to do something about it) the chance of being economists who see the economy (including the financial sector) as embedded in society and the biosphere, understand the workings of complex adaptive systems, have a clear goal—far beyond GDP—to aim for, and are focused on redesigning the economy to be regenerative and distributive.
1. Kate Raworth, “The Doughnut,” accessed March 30, 2015, http://www.kateraworth.com/doughnut/.
2. Kate Raworth, A Safe and Just Space for Humanity: Can We Live within the Doughnut? (Oxford: Oxfam International, 2012), https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/safe-and-just-space-humanity.
3. Janez Potočnik, “Towards Universal Prosperity and Well-being within our Planetary Boundaries” (27th Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi, Kenya, February 19, 2013), http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_SPEECH-13-137_en.htm.
As a forum for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.