What everybody needs to know about society: A Review of Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth

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Yasmin Ayture writes her views on Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth.

By Yasmin Ayture

In 2017, I was lucky enough to be invited to a London School of Economics event to hear economist Kate Raworth introducing her book ‘Doughnut Economics – Seven Ways to Think like a 21st Century Economist’ (also known as Doughnut Economics) and I was immensely impressed by her ideas. Raworth obtained an MSc in Economics in Development before working for the United Nations (UN) and Oxfam over the past 20 years. Despite feeling disheartened by the models and theories from previous decades that she considered inappropriate for the 21st century (such as the ‘circular flow’ of money between households and firms) she remained dedicated to studying economics and inspiring others to do so.

Through my attendance at several events this year, from those given by the Green Party of England and Wales (The Green Party), to other talks on sustainable development, I have been deeply pleased to hear Raworth’s book mentioned frequently. It was even mentioned by one of the guest speakers at the ‘Plato in the Modern World’ philosophy course that I recently took, which shows its wide-reach and importance. Only after seeing the influence it had was I able to comprehend the magnitude and gravitas of the event I attended that night, of who that economist was, and of what ‘Doughnut Economics’ represents.

The book begins with a sobering reminder that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050, and that human activity is putting unprecedented pressure on “Earth’s life-giving systems”. A “growing middle class” is described as having triggered an increased demand for consumer products and thereby for finite materials; however, by page 10, these ‘inconvenient truths’ (to reference Al Gore) are thankfully juxtaposed by Raworth’s first introduction of her ‘doughnut’ model. The ‘doughnut’ consists of an inner ring (representing critical human deprivations such as hunger and illiteracy) and an outer ring that symbolises the ‘ecological ceiling’ (here lies planetary degradation, the catastrophes of climate change and biodiversity loss). Humanity should exist neither in the inner or outer ring but within the ‘safe and just space for humanity’ – in the middle.

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It is within this middle ring where ‘inclusive and sustainable economic development’ can be brought about. Within this sphere, there is simultaneously the conservation for environmental conservation, and also ensuring that no person falls below the baseline level of wellbeing.The inextricability of social and ecological justice has been demonstrated before, with the UN’s Human Development Goals recognising the interconnectivity of global issues by being committed to combatting “poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation and discrimination of women”. Yet, Raworth’s ‘doughnut’ finally provides a visual representation of these interrelationships, helping to solidify and entwine many seemingly disparate and unrelated issues together.

However, rather than societal agents upholding such multi-faceted views or recognising economic models which “reflect the values we hold, and the aims we have”, their fixation has instead been on measuring gross domestic product (GDP). GDP is a monetary measurement of economic growth, recording the “market value of all final goods and services produced in a specific time period”, yet it is increasingly admitted that GDP is wholly insufficient at assessing citizens’ well-being. In contrast, Raworth emphasises how GDP measurements have been used to justify extreme inequalities of income and wealth, “coupled with unprecedented destruction of the living world”. Indeed, readers are prompted to reflect on how no model of GDP growth has ever been drawn, for it would be alarming to see a line increasing both exponentially and indefinitely.  

For the 21st century, then, Raworth states that a far bigger goal than GDP growth is needed, a goal meeting “the human rights of every person within the means of our life-giving planet”. Simultaneously, the rights and ultimate dignity and autonomy of nature, in and of itself, is expressed; Raworth shares how, in 2008, Ecuador stated within its constitution that nature, or ‘Pachamama’, has the “right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles”. Raworth also chooses to inform us that a British Representative in the UN acknowledged that many find concepts like Pachamama’s ‘rights’ to be “fluffy”. We are here brought face to face with two opposing viewpoints: one that values nature to the utmost extent, and one that subverts it.

The one who subverts nature fits the 20th century’s “portrait of rational economic man” that has us believe that we are “self-interested, isolated, calculating, fixed in taste and dominant over nature”. Yet several studies have found that this description of man is realised only as a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby without hearing opposing arguments to refute it, being exposed to this description of human nature can sink into our psyche and shape who we become. In truth, we are not “homo economicus” but homo sapiens, and many of the things that we value the most “are not for sale”.

I found it fascinating and heart-warming to learn that by living alongside people who are “beyond our next of kin”, humans are actually the most cooperative species on Earth, “outperforming [creatures from] ants [to] hyenas”. This entirely contrasts with the UK’s former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s statement in 1980 that “There is no such thing as society”; the collective efforts observed during the Covid-19 pandemic to be good neighbours highlights this misjudgement about human behaviour. If we perceive ourselves as optimally social beings, then Raworth suggests a shift can take place towards both concerted and consistent care being shown towards the entire ecosystem, not just towards ourselves or “immediate stakeholders”.

Doughnut Economics is a thought-provoking, important and enlightening contribution to the field of economics. It reminds us of our humanity, something that we can paradoxically and strangely forget, an act with perilous consequences for both Earth’s ecosystem and our social foundation. I wish to have conveyed a couple of the key points made in this book, but by reading it yourself, you will explore the nuances, complexities and additional depth afforded by this text.

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