Column: Donut economics or environmental devastation? – Albany Democrat-Herald

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Are governments obligated to protect people from climate change? If so, to what degree?
Between the doughnut’s social foundation of human well-being and ecological ceiling of planetary pressures lies the safe and just space for humanity. — Kate Raworth
I spend more on a latte than Abideen Khan, a brickmaker, earns working a full day in the hot sun. And I mean hot sun. Last week, during a brutal heat wave that could last a month, temperatures in his Jacobabad district of Pakistan soared to 126ºF. He was forced to cut his workdays short, losing half his subsistence wages.
With the advent of global warming, temporary summer migrations from Jacobabad to cooler parts of Pakistan have become the norm. Within a few decades the district, home to 1 million people, might have to be abandoned entirely.
Meanwhile, progressive economists are working on theories that someday could change both the outrageous inequality that separates me from Mr. Kahn and the environmentally destructive practices that threaten his livelihood and possibly his life.
One such theory has been proposed and explained, in readily understandable terms, in the 2017 book “Doughnut Economics: Seven ways to think like a 21st-century economist” by English economist Kate Raworth.
As an economics student at Oxford in the 1990s, Raworth became disillusioned with the field’s standard theoretical framework, especially the idea that endless growth is a prerequisite for a healthy economy.
Influenced by the ideas of American ecological economist Herman Daly (see my previous column online), she began to view the global economy as a series of energy and material flows, similar to those of an ecosystem where the solar energy captured by plants is converted to nutrients that are continuously recycled as animals eat the plants, die and become plant food themselves.
This is the opposite of the standard economic growth concept that views the biosphere’s forests, fisheries and so on as unlimited sources of “raw materials” which, once the economic value has been wrung out of them, can be discarded with little thought as to their remaining utility or embodied energy.
Raworth adopted the idea of a circular economy, where there was little or no waste and growth was limited by environmental constraints, but she took it a step further.
Representing the concept graphically, she drew not just one circle to represent economic flow, but two, one within the other, so the diagram resembled a doughnut. The inner circle represents what she calls the “social foundation” of the economy. Any economic activity that falls within that circle, the “hole” in the doughnut, exacerbates the “critical human deprivation” of poverty, homelessness and so on.
Any activity outside the outer circle causes “critical planetary degradation,” and is not sustainable, as we can readily observe in our growing environmental crisis.
Raworth’s “safe and just space for humanity” — where a designed economy ensures adequate sustenance for everyone while preserving the environment for future generations — occupies the space between the doughnut’s hole and its outer edge. It is in this “dough” of the doughnut that the economy should function.
(If this seems hard to visualize, simply draw two concentric circles on a piece of paper and label the inner one “social foundation” and the outer one “ecological ceiling.” The space for a healthy, sustainable economy falls between the circles.)
In her book, Raworth describes seven steps for reimagining and, ultimately, creating a sustainable doughnut economy. The first two — changing the goal (from GDP growth to the doughnut) and visualizing the economy as embedded in, not separate from, the biosphere, are fundamental to the rest. We will survey them in the next column.
But meanwhile we must consider whether Doughnut Economics is a feasible way for our current civilization to move forward, or if we all must suffer Mr. Kahn’s fate before deciding to create a sustainable economy at our ecological house.
Philip S. Wenz
Philip S. Wenz studies environmental trends and developments. Visit his blog at Firebird Journal (

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