Q: Is a good life for all within the planetary boundaries possible? A: We have a lot of work to do.


We have been covering the idea of Doughnut Economics, as promoted by Kate Raworth, for some time now. It's a scientifically-founded metaphor to help us think about how we can live sustainably on the planet - and it's quite simple.

The inner ring of the doughnut represents the basic needs of flourishing human society - which we often fall short of. The outer ring represents the limits of planetary resource use - which we often overshoot. The gap in-between the rings is the zone where we should be aiming for - what Raworth calls "the safe and just space for humanity", powered by a "regenerative and distributive economy". 

In all Raworth's graphs this looks as if it may be a decently-sized zone to occupy. The trick of it is understanding that to meet all the factors of "social foundation" does not mean intensifying consumer society to the max. Beyond a certain level of income and consumption, our sense of satisfaction flatlines out, no matter how much more we earn and buy. If we grasp that, and answer our social needs in a non-conventional way, we can easily live "inside the ring of the doughnut". 

Raworth presents us with an inspiring target. But a study from the authoritative science magazine Nature (which is based on an impressive project from Leeds University) indicates just how far away from managing to live within the doughnut the vast majority of countries currently are. (Assuming, that is, their present ways of using resources don't improve). 

Fig. 1

The headline of their research is that only Vietnam, out of 150 nations measured, gets anywhere near both meeting their social needs, and staying within their ecological limits. (See pic left. Where everyone wants to be is the (empty) top left corner. Where they all actually are is...) 

They also have a wonderful set of interactive maps which allow you to compare different countries, as they are currently performing in the doughnut zone - and where they are either falling short (socially) or overshooting (ecologically). 

We've done a comparison between Vietnam and the UK (which is, as you can see from Fig 1., is well over to the right - meaning we bust through many of our climate boundaries). The screengrab is below:

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

So: poorer, less consumerist, but perhaps pretty well-organised and well-motivated developing countries can live sustainably and sanely on the planet, according to the doughnut model. (Though see DQ, "democratic quality" - pretty low). 

But by comparison, and in a spirit of grim fun, let's look at Denmark (smart, Nordic, sustainable state?) vis-a-vis the United States (big, filthy, heedless polluter?):

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

Really, not that much different.

In a useful explainer piece in The Conversation, the authors  lay out their conclusions: 

Although wealthy nations like the US and UK satisfy the basic needs of their citizens, they do so at a level of resource use that is far beyond what is globally sustainable. In contrast, countries that are using resources at a sustainable level, such as Sri Lanka, fail to meet the basic needs of their people. Worryingly, the more social thresholds that a country achieves, the more biophysical boundaries it tends to transgress...

The relationship between resource use and social performance is almost always a curve with diminishing returns. This curve has a “turning point”, after which using even more resources adds almost nothing to human well-being. Wealthy nations, including the US and UK, are well past the turning point, which means they could substantially reduce the amount of carbon emitted or materials consumed with no loss of well-being. This would in turn free up ecological space for many poorer countries, where an increase in resource use would contribute much more to a good life...

If all seven billion or more people are to live well within the limits of our planet, then radical changes are required. At the very least, these include dramatically reducing income inequality and switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy as quickly as possible. But, most importantly, wealthy nations such as the US and UK must move beyond the pursuit of economic growth, which is no longer improving people’s lives in these countries, but is pushing humanity ever closer towards environmental disaster.

Well-made graphical presentations of data can have an effect on the public mind. But as our friend Jonathan Rowson at Perspectiva says, breaking down our resistance to changing our consumerist lives, in the face of climate change, is one of our great cultural and political challenges. The conversation continues.