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

13 February, 2012 | GROW

This blog summaries a new Discussion Paper published by Oxfam. It does not represent Oxfam policy, but is intended to encourage public debate in the run-up to the UN conference on sustainable devolpment (Rio+20) in June.

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 for a global-scale compass to point us in the right direction (Fig 1).

Fig 1. Planetary and social boundaries: a safe and just space for humanity

Graph1 showing Fig 1. the 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 it’s the question at the heart of revising 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 deprivation comes from the issues raised by governments in their Rio+20 submissions: they prioritised 11 dimensions of human deprivation, and so these form the inner ring of Fig 1.

Between the planetary ceiling and the social foundation 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 et al stuck their necks out when they had a first go at quantifying seven of the nine 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. 

I have stuck my neck out, too, suggesting indicators for eight 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 percent of people in the world are undernourished - that 13 percent is represented by the blue gap below the social foundation. Likewise, 21 percent of people live in income poverty and an estimated 30 percent don’t have access to essential medicines.

Fig 2: Falling far below the social foundation

Graph2 showing the social foundation within the donut concept

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: Providing the additional calories needed by the 13 percent of the world’s population facing hunger would require just one percent of the current global food supply
  • Energy: Bringing electricity to the 19 percent of people who currently lack it could be achieved with a less than one percent increase in global CO2 emissions
  • Income: Ending income poverty for the 21 percent of people who live on less than $1.25 a day would require just 0.2 percent of global income.

The real source of stress is excessive resource use by roughly the richest 10 percent 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.

Debate the doughnut

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 - we’d love to know…

Kate Raworth is Senior Researcher at Oxfam. Add your comment here, to her new blog - Doughnut Economics - and download the full Discussion Paper: A Safe and Just Space for Humanity: can we live within the doughnut?


stretching the metaphor too far?

Thanks Kate – looks most interesting.
Just one thought about the metaphors involved in social ‘foundations’ and the environmental ‘ceilings’.  It strikes me that many of the social foundations are themselves sitting on environmental ‘footings/piles’.  
For example, we can’t feed the world unless agricultural ecosystems can function sufficiently well to enable nutrient uptake, pollination, etc.  Similarly, making water available requires the water to be there and to be available and affordable, and this means making sure river catchments and groundwater systems function as well as they can; with minimal erosion leading to siltation, with minimal pollution, etc.
So perhaps ecosystem services and natural resources are the footings on which the foundations sit.
To stretch the metaphor even more, what connects the foundations to the ceilings?  i.e. what are the ‘walls’ of the doughnut? (now this is definitely going too far!)  For me it must the governance regimes for ecosystem services and natural resources that will enable us to sit our foundations on firm footings and ensure that we don’t crash into or beyond the ceilings.
I must stop now!
Best wishes

I agree that natural resources are the fundamental wealth

Hi Gary - I agree that natural resources are the fundamental wealth on which all life and well-being depends. Stating that in the language of nine planetary boundaries, you could say that the Holocene state of the Earth has been the ‘foundation’ that has enabled humanity to thrive. So the question is, how much pressure can be put on critical Earth-system processes before they are at risk of being pushed out of the Holocene state? Hence what matters is identifying the 'safe' upper limits of resource use, which I have called the environmental ceiling.

And I certainly agree that governance systems are crucial for holding this doughnut together...!

Implications for economic growth?

Thanks for this fascinating post. Bringing issues of social equity and environmental limits within the same conceptual framework has always been one of the great challenges for anybody thinking about the future of development, and until now I don't think it's been done adequately. But the doughnut idea does the trick - at least for me - offering a simple but profound framework.

But I'm left with a few questions, especially about growth. Are you actually saying that the pursuit of economic growth should be a secondary priority for government policy (in both poor and rich countries) - while the primary priority should be getting us within the safe and just space of the doughnut? Or can these goals be pursued concurrently?

Also, is the implication of your idea that entering into the safe and just space is, in effect, a way of defining what 'green growth' or 'sustainable growth' really mean? These fluffy concepts have been crying out for more precise conceptualisation - and perhaps this is what your doughnut ultimately achieves.

That’s a whole area of debate in itself.…

Yes social and planetary boundaries have implications for rethinking the aims of economic activity – and that’s a whole area of debate in itself.…I think that green growth must (in high-income countries for starters) mean that GDP rises while absolute levels of natural resource use fall. But whether that is possible or not has yet to be proven – see Oxfam’s paper Left Behind by the G20? for an exploration of this.

The need for new governance

Kate, I think you have done a great service by integrating the planetary and social in this way. To my mind you’ve set out a framework for the development of policy that would genuinely try to grapple with both the intellectual and practical challenges of integration. We’ve had many years of the ‘mush’ of sustainable development and its ‘balance’ of environmental, social and economic dimensions. The planetary boundaries concept offers a new framing for sustainability and your essential combining of it with social aspects which the economy should help deliver, provide a much clearer sense of how these dimensions are, rather, sequential and complementary. And ‘hear, hear’ to Gary’s comments – the Draft Declaration on Planetary Boundaries is a first attempt at setting out how governance regimes should start contributing to a safe and just operating space:

Doughnut or ring? It's the concepts that are important.

Thanks for these interesting ideas and the picture. Your original presentation of idea of the doughnut confused me a little - I think it was because of the natural 3-d-ness of a real doughnut which didn't seem to fit the concepts. However, the graphics here bring out more of a 2-d aspect which, I think, is clearer for what you are trying to do. I would call it a 'ring', rather than a doughnut - and maybe people are more prepared to live in a ring rather than a dougnut (!) Then again, perhaps the name is not so important! In any event the concepts are clear and well-formed and that is a good point from which to start to build. AS these concepts are now well clarified in the above, there might be scope to add to the picture the challenges and problems we face in achieving the right width of the doughnut. For me, the greatest challenge remains the fundamental one that as humans we value low-entropy goods, and low-entropy for us means gradual degradation and destruction for the planet. In any event, perhaps you could work towards a 3-d graphic showing the fundamental challenges both 'in' and 'out' of the page, associated with each of your environmental and social metrics around the ring.

Human psychology

I agree, the fundamental challenge to getting anywhere close to within this doughnut is human desire to consume and aspire. It’s not economics or politics, but fundamentally human psychology that needs to be transformed – is it going to be possible? A number of people suggested making the doughnut 3D, with the third dimension being increasing human wellbeing – to make it clear that living between social and planetary boundaries doesn’t automatically imply limits on well-being. But I’m a bit reluctant to make it 3D – it risks getting too complicated, too fancy for it’s own good!


"Achieving sustainable development for nine billion people has to be high on the list of humanity’s great uncharted journeys."

 It would of course be easier to provide food, water and energy for all, whilst staying within planetary boundaries if we didn't hit 9 billion. The UN's medium and high population projections both go beyond 10bn, but we should be aiming for the low scenario of peaking around 8bn. Given that access to reproductive health tools also goes hand-in-hand (both ways) with increased income, health, gender equality, and education, it makes a lot of sense to prioritise meeting unmet demand for contraception etc..

 I do like the doughnut. It's a simple message but it's a good framework for new development goals.

 But is it possible to display both metrics at once?

 And might some misinterpret it to mean that we can't simultaneously be below the 'social foundation' and above the 'environmental ceiling'? Similarly, one should emphasise that high income and energy use etc. don't have to mean heading up to or beyond the environmental boundaires - we just need to decouple human development/prosperity from environmental damage (e.g. through cleaner energy).

Any ideas?

I agree a great deal with what you say.On showing both social and planetary metrics at once: it would be great to do, but when we had a go it looked too complex on the page. And technically it’s not yet possible because we don’t know enough about the scale of environmental resources required to meet the social foundation for all – ie how big should the ring of the social foundation be in relation to natural resource pressures?...But I’m still trying to think of ways to combine them – got any ideas on that?

Country flag icing will only make the donut more appetising

This paper is both important and timely. By observing the broad environmental parameters within which development must now operate, while sketching out the social floor that should underpin human development, you draw attention more easily towards the need for a more efficient distribution of a whole range of increasingly excludable core resources. I expect that concepts like the ‘social floor’ and a ‘safe operating space’ will only become more pertinent and fascinating as they are adapted regionally or nationally. This will be particularly true in G20 countries, because when viewed through the prism of the donut, it seems clearer than ever that stark intra-national inequalities in key advanced, emerging and 'emerged' economies could constitute a major political impediment to environmentally sustainable development. For example, if in the politically charged ‘no-money era’, Northern economies that enjoy high-GDP per capita ratios are set to struggle to reduce poverty and maintaining living standards at home even while pushing for maximum growth through their current economic model, then economic exclusion, and an unequal distribution of the proceeds of growth within rich economies may already effectively constitute a considerable headwind against global poverty reduction. I look forward to digesting donuts decorated with icing depicting the flags of G20 countries!

One of the most challenging questions...

You’ve hit on one of the most challenging questions, which is how could you depict the implications of planetary boundaries for individual nation states. It’s not clear how to do this yet – in part because some boundaries are more strongly defined by their regional, rather than planetary, thresholds, and also because, in the context of national sovereignty, there is no wide agreement on what constitutes a ‘fair share’ of the planet’s resources. I think it’s the most thorny question that is blocking progress in climate talks. Creating the international law and governance to handle this for other Earth-system processes too is a major challenge – but it’s the focus of work at

appreciating the reply and article

Supply chain as do nuts a preferred inclusive growth. Boundaries within closed system emphasizes smooth functioning a sensitive issue for a few. It's like an art to manifest many ideas from a single word. With the figure one I call that potters wheel axle for foundation a swirl Maslow’s a 3d shaped. Rays are the here are forming a reverse cone on building sustainable foundation. I think it's the axle here as digestive mechanism. Going further down the tip points of the proposed cone is the dead end of growth within human control system. Legal, Political, Social, Technological, "Moral” , financial , etc within governance faces inclusive and exclusive reforms to stabilize uncontrolled out of which as Human instincts opportunist take the advantage irrespective of how much income they generate 

The future: nine billion people and still one doughnut!

This is a very useful metaphor for structuring global and national conversations on environment and development - thanks very much indeed for the timely paper Oxfam.  One use will be to look deeper into the interactions between the fllors and the boundaries.  For example, you say that 13% of people who are currently malnourished could be fed adequately on just 1% of current food production.  Growing more food most likely means more climate change, less water availability for other uses, more land use change and more biodiversity loss... so it makes a big difference if we supply that 1% from current food production (which we could, through fairer distribution) or from additional food production.  These challenges will only multiply in future as there are more people alive and needing to eat.  The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change has taken on just this one bite of the doughnut (food availability under climate change) and, in nice synergy with your work, has come up with a a "safe operating space" concept: how we can eat adequately and equitably without further impacts on our climate.  This will be released shortly as an animation - anyone interested can keep an eye on the Commission's web page.  My guess is that many of us will find many opportunities to take these doughnut-shaped ideas forward - so thanks again!

RE: The future: nine billion people and still one doughnut!

 I’m looking forward to seeing this ‘safe food and climate space’ animation by the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change – please do post a link here when it is up for viewing!

appreciating reply and article

you got to search with them

appreciating reply and article

If it's the voice than implementation gaps remains producing more gaps with ongoing innovations though it's a futuristic secondary database. With the poorest class it's the job counterfeiting the gaps as its like storing of grains are eaten up by the mouse or dampened. Tangible Energies are essential while resourcing those underprivileged humans. Taxable Income slabs as increasing variable % alike vote pressing a button may be on online payment using palm code reader than any swapping documentation with the poor; even on barter here merging SI on equal plain is significant even on excess production output. GNP@ input raises of the input indeed the depreciation of quality expectancy @ individual related growth. Overall HDI contributing what WDI may be Human Nature Economies than traditional. Pareto rule is balancing from 80 to 20, added 

resolving disputes

True to Raworth-form, this analysis and resulting framework provides an intelligent, empathetic and informative means of understanding the contemporary challenges of sustainable development. One of the issues the doughnut highlights is that there are clear tensions between the environmental ceiling and social foundations that will arise and that will need resolving. I would be interested to hear more about whether either the human rights law regime or the environmental law regime in their current forms are capable of handling such disputes or whether a somewhat silo-ed approach both at the national and international level may hinder access to remedies for individuals and communities whose human rights have been violated (advertently or inadvertently) as a result of environmental protection, or vice-versa i.e. where environmental degradation has resulted from attempts to protect human rights. A number of countries has recently established environmental courts (Malaysia being the latest one in January 2012), and these have been lauded for being staffed with judges who are capable of interpreting and applying environmental law.  I wonder if such courts have the capacity and capability of handling probable clashes between human rights and environmental issues and produce judgments that are "doughnut-esque' in meeting the sustainable development imperative, or whether our laws as they currently stand are too unmalleable, in which case, courts bat these disputes back to the government as "issues of policy" or "political questions" which are beyond their jurisdiction. 

RE: resolving disputes

Really interesting. On the governance of planetary boundaries, take a look at the work of – they plan to grabble with some of these questions. But on the potential for clash between human rights law and environmental law, I’d be really interested to learn about specific cases that might make clear the dilemmas involved.

appreciating reply and article

It's the well administered flexible job offerings for the unorganized sector to reduce unemployment a positive balancing of GNP and HDI. In any transition positive economy relocation for growth is from the achieved based points otherwise it’s undefined. Management ethics says Right proposal & fair expression, a judgment of others behaviors. Benefit to one is denial of an obligation to others is wrong rather it's appreciation.                              

 Are this Boundaries : 

Simplifying Ethical fights on statuesque from value measures are significant to eliminate collusion, bribery in business. Immortal act to check widespread is like at freezing cold the cost to urinate outside …substituting benefit for cold. Issues are much complex than this…. Right proposal & fair expression, a judgment of others behaviors. Benefit to one is denial of an obligation to others. COMPANIES merging process with reassign of duplicate managers who are more efficient than firing them. Simplifying Ethical fights on statuesque from value measures are significant to eliminate collusion, bribery in business. A subsidiary could engage in forward planning and order supplying repairing parts far in advance of actual need so that the lengthy delays in customs could be tolerated and the need to pay bribes could be eliminated. Simplification of the issue on social performance with NO to waste or YES to recycle of limited waste , 

Natural Resources and global fiscal and monetary systems

Hi Kate 

Thank you for a very worthwhile summary of how the inter-relationships work between man and his environment, and the limiting factors that create problems.

I have been thinking a lot since my retirement from owning my own glashouse strawberry business, from which I have learnt a lot about the interaction of plants and their environment to maximise yields and quality.

Also as a businessman , I have learnt about the relationships of man and his dependance on money and how it shapes the way we think and spend  on services and goods.

To be brief , I think we need to relate the cost of the enviromental impact of using "free" Natural Resources in our everyday living , and in so doing will change our perpective on how we all consume and use all the goods and services we all so desire and need.

Natural resource tax or duty to replace all existing taxes,  collected as near to source as possible and levied at a rate  based on their environmental and social damage to both man and nature, and collected at a rate depending on local and states needs.

This will change the mindset of all mankind towards his use of natural resouces and combined with little grants, subsidies and blackmail, will create a new attitude to the preservation of the environment and subsequently man and his position on the planet.

It would also help reduce the overall burden of taxation due to higly expensive tax collection sytems and reduce fraud also. Thes combined saving could well be upwards of 50% of the total tax take when one considers all the accountants and highly expensive finacial advisors used for thr sole purpose of tax avoidance.To my mind we need to rethink the whole way we collect the taxes and the way it can turn around the whole way mankind thinks and uses the earths free natural resources.

If man is to survive this present global civilization, then we must learn from past civilizations that have grown to big and fat with top heavy ruling elites and governments ,that cause the demise of those very civilizations due to the fact that they had reduced the capacity to fend off any disasters , as they all were in government or ruling elite clas that it was beyond them to to the actual work to solve the problems on the ground. To many bosses and not enough workers! 


Gross Domestic Product as an obsolet indicator

 As we know, untill recently, GDP was considered the most relevant indicator of economic performance and social progress.

However, due to the energy crisis, and, principally, to climate change, we have witnessed an increase in interest among governments in relation to the problem of environmental sustainability. It is already generally recognized that GDP confuses a quantititive concept, that of growth, with a qualitative concept, that of development, and one can note that the concept of "sustainable growth" is an oxymoron, this because capital made by man does not substitute natural capital, and we cannot have sustainability that is above the resilience of nature in order to reconstitute reserves of natural resources. On the other hand, one can see that the market, on its own, does not have the conditions to limit the supply of energy to the reserves of natural resources, and to the capacity of the environment to absorb and recycle the waste that is generated. This is why growth has to be contained within a state of equilibrium,

especially as development does not necessarily depend on growth, but rather on other factors such as improved education, better products, maintenance of infrastructure, rationalization of transport systems etc., with priority given to the quality of life of society as a whole.

The effective compatibility of the growth of the use of natural resources, with the capacity of the environment to renew them and recycle waste, is an essential condition for sustainability. And we cannot hope that the market, alone, will create the necessary conditions for this compatibility. In order to achieve this, one should proceed with a decoupling between economic growth and the use of natural resources, so that production remains limited to reserves of natural resources, and by the capacity of the environment to reconstitute these natural resources and to recycle the waste that is generated. 


The present models of development are based on unlimited growth and are seriously flawed in decoupling the profitability or returns of the economy from the value of natural resources and labour. A consequence of this has been the proliferation of financial assets, which have provoked the present global economic crisis. In this context, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as an indicator of economic performance and social progress becomes obsolete.

On the other hand, as sustainability becomes an increasingly critical question, it would be most interesting to substitute

GDP with a strong index of sustainability, one that is affected by parameters linked to a quantitative definition of sustainability related to measures of the physical production of goods and services, combined with the existing indices of quality of life. To avoid market forces opposing a restructuring of productive sectors aimed at shifting from the present global economic model, which is unsustainable, to a sustainable model, using renewable sources of energy available on our planet, it would be necessary the establishment of aggregate national accounting of input (and waste) flows used (and generated) not only by productive processes, but also by consumption and final disposal of waste. These Material Flow Accounts must be based on the masses of physical inputs and outputs of productive processes

. The materials with a greater entropic (environmental) impact must be included in the flow with a greater weighting. For example, the impact of a kilogram of aluminium is much greater than that of a kilogram of timber.  




Continuing Growth ?

Great article on the problems of economic controls on GDP and the environment, of which I agree with you. As you may see I have tried to address this by direct linkage of natural resources and taxation, I agree with you new legislation would need be placed to control the,"aggregate national accounting of input (and waste) flows used (and generated) not only by productive processes, but also by consumption and final disposal of waste". This control would also help in the decision by the scientific community to decide on how much to levy, on each natural resource.

Tinkering with an already unfair and highly complicated tax system will fail, and will only help to feed the rich still further with more ammunition to avoid and evade taxes due. This system treats all citizens fairly and equally.

The establishment of a single tax or duty on Natural Resources to include all Natures "Free Resources of not only minerals and fuels , but eventually of land and its use.

Land should be incuded as it is misused in all countries to more or lesser extent and dependant on its ability to recover, ie, Roads , buildings and carparks which destroys all bioacivity and total death of all natural activities should attack a higher tax than residential urban areas, and conventional farming should attrack a higher tax than organic. The sustainability of all land used has to be studied and catagorised dependant on how the biodivesity and soil micro organisms are affected and the subsequent effects on the carbon, nitrogen and phosphourous cycles.

Fundamental change in the the way we all take for granted all the cheap resources we have availableat present , but will soon become in short supply if we do not take care quickly to conserve all resources for our children.

Donut or washer?

Although I agree with Kate that there are many things that we in rich countries could do to improve the lives of our brothers and sisters who live in poor countries, I have three major criticisms of the Discussion Paper, "A Safe and Just Place for Humanity".

First, what you describe is two dimensional not three dimensional. The space is an annulus, not a torus. Thus the "safe and just place" is a washer, not a donut.

Second, although you touch on reproductive rights and mention that a proportion of women worldwide do not have access to modern methods of contraception, you sidestepped the real problem--there are too many humans for the world we live on. Sustainability is just a pipedream with seven billion people!

Finally, although you do mention the loss of biological diversity, your world is very anthropocentric. We humans are guilty of destroying species at an alarming rate.


Reply to donut or washer...

Hi Richard, thanks for the good comments - in order:1. You are technically right, it is an annulus not a torus - but there's no common term I know to describe that (and even the humble washer has a third dimension). I road-tested the word 'doughnut' and people understood that the diagram was a 2-D representation of one. That said, there is a third dimension waiting in the wings: many people said it would be good to add well-being as the third dimension, to make it clear that limits on planetary resources implies no limit to human well-being. I agree, but  the graphic would have been over-complicated. But the torus is intuitively a great shape for this well-being enhanced version, because human well-being would probably be greatest (ie the doughnut would be 'deepest') when we are not too close to either social or planetary boundaries.2. Is the 'real problem' that there are (already) too many humans? If that is *the* problem, then it's one we all just have to live with and deal with, because we 7 billion are already here. If it's population growth to 9 billion plus - then I agree, that's an important issue (and tackling it demands investing in women's livelihoods, education and empowerment). But I'd argue that at least as important as population growth is each human's consumption, and consumption aspirations. Global population is rising, but it's tending to a plateau, and may even fall after that. By contrast, individual income and consumption growth shows no such abatement: it just keeps on rising. Our desire to have more children appears to have limits, but our desire to consume more shows no sign of stopping. Both population growth and consumption growth matter, but it's consumption growth that really concerns me.3. Is this an anthropocentric framework? For sure the inner ring is all about human rights, so yes. But the outer ring is about what it takes to keep the planet in a Holocene-like state, and protecting a rich biodiversity is a critical part of that. Yes, the argument given for staying in the Holocene is also an anthropocentric one: it's probably the best state for humans to thrive in. But it makes sense to me to put the case in this way because I have never seen a non-anthropocentric framework had real traction at the level of international policy. If it takes anthropocentric arguments to get action on protecting the planet's ecological integrity, it seems wise to me to use them.

Doughnut or maybe a LifeBelt, thank you from a New Zealander

Thank you Kate for this inspiring and easily read paper which I have shared amongst my climate and health networks here in New Zealand. I think of this doughnut as a 'lifebelt' to sustain our world, both our people and the planet we live on. My perspective is as a well-off westerner and longterm Oxfam supporter aspiring to 'second world' lifestyles for all, and I'd like to see feedback from the diversity of this world's citizens.

Considering environmentalist Eduardo Gudynas's blog, perhaps the word 'development' could be replaced with 'sustainable living' - what it takes to sustain us as humans which is sustainable within natural planetary limits. 'Living' also has the sense of the here and now, 'being' now rather than 'developing' later.

To integrate the diagram with a sense of the disproportionate use of resources, what about varying intensities of the colour used for environmental indicator wedges? These wedges stretch beyond the outer limits of the lifebelt/doughnut in the case of climate change, nitrogen and biodiversity - and for other indicators, will fill up the proportion of the sustainable space inside the lifebelt/doughnut according to proportion of the limit we've reached. At the same time there are wedges inside the lifebelt/doughnut hole which reflect the varying inadequacy of human sustainability factors such as food access, social voice etc

Lifebelt/doughnut diagrams could be created for each region of the world, and each nation. These human and environment sustainability indicators could replace GDP growth for national, regional and global planning.

Given the increasing power of multinational corporations relative to nation states, I wonder if the lifebelt/doughnut indicators could be used to evaluate the impact, for example, of the 50 biggest global corporations? And ultimately, whether corporation law could be modified internationally to free corporations to focus on these human and environmental global indicators, rather than the current primary legal requirement to maximise financial profit to shareholders? Perhaps there is also scope to weave the indicators into trade agreements too?

This paper is inspiring for New Zealanders. Here in NZ, the incumbent government was returned for a three year term several months ago, with a narrow majority reputed to be 10,000 voters and the support of one-third of New Zealanders of voting age, with one of our lowest voting turn outs ever. The objective of international aid has shifted from 'poverty elimination' to 'economic development'. The NZ government has stated they do not need to create a low carbon development plan, is relying almost solely on an emissions trading scheme which the IPCCC review team has reported will produce just a third of our promised (meagre) emissions reductions, is opening up fossil fuels exploration which will accelerate emissions (especially Southland lignite), and proposing international carbon accounting rules which will increase global emissions for NZ's short term financial gain.

Proposed partial sales of significant state assets this year including four energy companies and the state owned coal mining company further threaten NZ's capacity to create a low carbon future, together with the proposed signature of the Trans Pacific Partnership free trade agreement with the US and others mid-year. The irony is that NZ already generates three-quarters of our energy from renewable sources and we have the natural resources to easily create a low carbon future and support other nations in sustainable living that sustains their citizens.

One of the arguments of our main export sector agriculture is that NZ is needed to feed an expanding world and although half of emissions are from agriculture (predominantly dairy), we can not be expected to reduce these. This is despite nitrogen fertiliser run-off destroying almost half our rivers. Being able to produce urea fertiliser for ever expanding agricultural demand is proposed as one of the justifications for digging up high emissions lignite. This discussion paper is valuable in integrating human sustainability (in this case, food production) with environmental sustainability (climate change, nitrogen and fresh water) for New Zealand - thank you.

Reply to NZ lifebelt...

Liz, thanks for this fascinating application of social and planetary boundaries to what you see going on in New Zealand. I agree, it would be really interesting to produce national or regional assessments of social and planetary boundaries. Doing that would require another level down of ecological analysis - ie determining what should be the national or regional boundaries for  nitrogen / phosphorus use, or water use, or CO2 emissions and so on. And of course that would take us right to the political hot potato question of international fair shares of natural resources. But that hot potato won't cool down simply because governments refuse to pick it up...

Twin objectives of inclusive and sustainable development

Thanks for the paper Kate. I found it interesting and I think the use of the doughnut metaphor is novel. I agree with the notion of a normative floor, based on human rights, beneath which is it is unjustifiable for society to allow individuals to live. I also agree that the planet has resource constraints, thus effectively placing an (albeit porous) ceiling above which life as we know it is threatened. And the concept of living somewhere between these two is appealing. However, it is the interaction between the twin goals of living above the floor as well as below the ceiling that I have had to wrestle with. In particular, it’s hard to see how lifting a substantial number of people out of poverty (that is, lifting them above the normative floor) can be done without drawing significantly upon planetary resources (that is pushing out toward and possibly beyond the ceiling). You rightly point out that both environmental stress and policies aimed at addressing sustainability can exacerbate poverty. You are also right in pointing out that poverty can exacerbate environmental stress. However, surely also important (indeed, fundamental) is that poverty alleviation also gives rise to environmental stress. Simple Kuznets curves illustrate that as a community develops (i.e. lifts itself out of poverty) then environmental degradation increases until a critical threshold is reached beyond which development and pollution become negatively correlated. Given these relationships, I suggest that lifting people out of poverty and remaining within the planet’s ecological boundaries may, to a certain extent, be mutually exclusive – unless this is also accompanied by a concomitant redistribution of resources away from the developed world and toward the developing world (or a fundamentally new perspective on how the development process works).

I think it’s useful therefore to flesh out that there are, in fact, two separate living standards functions in this analysis – one that encapsulates the developed world and the other that represents the developing world. The living standard of the whole planet is therefore the weighted sum of these two functions. By and large, the developed world lies outside doughnut’s outer boundaries – that is, while its citizens enjoy an adequate standard of living, they do so by drawing upon an unsustainable amount of resources. In contrast, the developing world largely lies within the inner boundary of the doughnut – as poor societies also tend to have a relatively modest ecological footprint. This is, of course, akin thinking of living standards in terms of per capita resource utilisation. Nonetheless, alleviating poverty (that is, by lifting the developing world’s living standards up into the doughnut will also necessarily push the developing world’s living standards closer to the planet’s resource ceiling. Therefore, unless poverty alleviation is accompanied by an equivalent reining-in of the developed world’s resource use (using fewer resources more efficiently), then society overall will necessarily press harder against the planet’s resource constraints.

The upshot is that pursuing the twin objectives of inclusive and sustainable development need not be mutually exclusive so long as it is clear that some reallocation of resources must occur form the developed world and toward the developing world. This, of course, is the crux of “common but differentiated responsibilities” and well as “special and differential treatment” clauses in international agreements. However, while platitudes such as these sound intuitive, convincing populations in the developed world of their need to give up some of their current resource allocation is proving to be a major stumbling block. Let’s hope that public campaigns such the GROW and metaphors such as the doughnut can help reaffirm the case.


Brilliant idea

HI Kate, I just got round to looking at this. It looks a brilliant idea. Here at Friends of the Earth we will look at it more closely. It would be great to bring people together from NGOs across development & environment to discuss this  and potentially 'adopt it'. Have you sent it to Rockstrom? Mike (Head of Science, Policy & Research)

Add a couple "learning categories"?...

I'm a natural systems scientist, and think new kinds of learning may be important to the "MDG" goals for ourselves.   

One of the big missing categories I see here is: "Self-education on how natural systems work, thrive, and come into conflict".   Understanding things like how increasing productivity in an over-stressed environment can solve a problem for one group, but cause disaster as soon as everyone else learns it... is really important in an over-stressed world like ours.    The unique thing about the subject is that each and every natural system you interact with is uniquely individual.   So only self-education by the people in its domain can help them see what is causing their efforts to succeed or fail, and for how long.   A very successful regional development strategy may fail to create a diverse social and economic ecology, for example, and so fail drastically because the community is not adaptable and versatile.

A second big missing category is: "Changing the nature of economic growth".   We all know that multiplying the scale of economies "can't go on".    We also know we still have an entire world with only that one business model.  Every government and financial institution promotes expanding by bigger steps the larger you get.   That model of "prosperity" is now a liability, though, as the central cause for the dark side of prosperity, causing impacts of all kinds to "go ballistic" and exceed sustainable limits.   There's another side of growth too, of course.    In life "growth is endless", a key part of living sustainably in a changing world.   So, we need to learn about changing our world from focusing on the one kind to the other.

As to "the other kind of growth", I've written quite a bit, as the 2nd phase of the natural succession of development.   "Phase 1" growth is "multiplying scale", and essential to getting any new development going.  "Phase 2" growth can go by various names, like "maturation" or "integration", and is the essential for healing growth strains and longevity.   One of my short essays on it is "Economies that Become Part of Nature" and another "Natural Climax".

My various writings on discovering the environmental systems around you and understanding your effects are rather  scattered, and mostly informal.   I have a group of blog posts on systems thinking that would be good for teachers, and some beginning lessons in systems thinking, such as "The bump on a curve notepad".   Like any new learning process, discovering the "organized happenings" around you starts rather slowly, and then only really develops as you bring your own creativity to applying it.