True prosperity is doughnut-shaped

Dr Trevor Hancock

26 January  2021

701 words

It will come as no surprise to fans of the British satirical fantasy writer Tom Holt that economics has something to do with doughnuts. In his YouSpace series, a doughnut is the wormhole to an alternate reality, a parallel universe inhabited by elves, goblins, gnomes, dwarves and other fairytale characters who are ripe for exploitation.

In The Outsourcerer’s Apprentice, for example, entrepreneurs discover they can outsource work to these folks and pay them next to nothing, buy property very cheaply and generally make a pile of money on the backs of the powerless and economically uninformed. Sound familiar?

But back here in the real world (where economics can seem just as mystical, magical and nonsensical as over there), we have our own very different version: Doughnut Economics. What’s more, it is being applied locally, in Nanaimo – so why not here?

The concept is the brainchild of Kate Raworth, who describes herself as a ‘renegade economist’. With a Masters in Economics for Development from Oxford, she spent a couple of decades working in international development, including 10 years as a Senior Researcher at Oxfam.

However, as she comments in a recent interview with Time Magazine, she was frustrated by conventional economics, which “emerged from an era in which humanity saw itself as separated from the web of life” and harm to that web of life is seen as an ‘externality’, something she calls the “ultimate absurdity”. In reality, as she realised from a 2010 report on planetary boundaries, we are exceeding what she calls the environmental ceiling

But she also knew from her work in development that a certain level of economic activity is need to ensure basic human needs – shelter, clean water, sanitation, food, education, good basic health care and so on – are met. She calls this the social foundation.

So she drew two circles and thus the Doughnut was born. Inside the inner circle is the social foundation, and that circle has to be large enough to meet everyone’s basic needs. The outer circle defines the environmental ceiling; exceeding that puts us into an unsustainable ecological overshoot.

Between the two – in the body of the doughnut – is what she calls the “sweet spot”; an economy which is neither too big (as it is in high-income countries) nor too small, as it is in low-income countries. This is an economy fit for the 21st century, one that will “meet the needs of all people within the means of the living planet”.

While originally published in a 2012 paper, the concept really took off when her book was published in 2017. Now a Senior Research Associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, she has created the Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL) to turn “Doughnut Economics from a radical idea into transformative action”. 

One of the five core themes for DEAL’s work is ‘Cities and Places’, and in 2019 DEAL collaborated with the C40, a network of 97 of the world’s largest cities  that is focused on climate action, and Circle Economy to launch the Thriving Cities Initiative and apply the Doughnut Economics framework at a city level.

The process begins with a single core question that is essentially the same as the focus of our One Planet Region work: “How can our city be a home to thriving people, in a thriving place, whilst respecting the wellbeing of all people, and the health of the whole planet”? This is explored in more detail in four areas – social and ecological requirements at the local and global scale – and results in the creation of a ‘City Portrait’ that “invites a city to create and pursue a more holistic vision of what it means to thrive”.

The City of Amsterdam has really taken this on, adopting the Doughnut Economy framework as the basis for its post-Covid recovery, Meanwhile closer to home, on 14th December 2020 the City of Nanaimo adopted the framework as “a cohesive vision for all city initiatives and planning processes”, the first Canadian city to do so.

So next week, I will explore in more depth what this might mean for this region and what we can learn from Amsterdam, Nanaimo and other cities that are starting to adopt this approach.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.


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