Today’s post is about the doughnut. I’m not talking about an ordinary sugar-glazed, jam-filled, deep-fried doughnut. No, this is a safe and just doughnut we can all live in together.
If safe and just aren’t the flavors you normally look for when buying a dozen fresh ones at your local grocery store or Tim Hortons, then please stay with me.
I’ve been reading a lot recently about how we can live more sustainably on Earth. A hotly debated question is whether economic growth is compatible with sustainability or whether we need to move to a no growth or even a de-growth model. One thing does seem pretty clear though; to build a sustainable future we need to set broader goals for ourselves than just GDP growth. But what exactly should those goals be?
If we’re concerned about the environment and sustainability, if we want to preserve the Earth for our kids and their kids, then we need goals aimed at protecting the environment. You’ve probably heard about one of these goals: limiting global warning to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, preferably 1.5 degrees. That’s a good goal, but is it enough? What about other problems like deforestation, ocean acidification, and mass extinction? Should we have goals around those problems too?
Yes, we should. We need a comprehensive set of environmental goals that we can use to measure and guide our activity on the planet. Fortunately, we already know what they are.
Back in 2009, Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Center gathered together a group of scientists and came up with a set of nine “planetary boundaries” that we should not cross. These boundaries correspond to critical ecological systems or processes that scientists think are necessary to preserve the stable Earth environment that humans have been living in for about the last 12,000 years, a geological epoch known as the Holocene.
The nine planetary boundaries establish thresholds for:
- Climate change: primarily caused by CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions.
- Biodiversity loss: the number of species becoming extinct each year
- Stratospheric ozone depletion: thinning of the Earth’s protective ozone layer
- Ocean acidification: Earth’s oceans absorb most of our CO2 emissions but in so doing become more acidic. This harms coral reefs and other marine life.
- Nitrogen and phosphorus overloading: nitrogen and phosphorus leaching into the water supply, primarily from excessive use of chemical fertilizers.
- Fresh water consumption: the amount of global runoff humans use each year
- Land use/Deforestation: the fraction of ice-free land under cultivation or development
- Aerosol loading: discharge of soot and other particles into the atmosphere
- Persistent chemical pollution: manmade chemicals like plastics and heavy metals that persist in the biosphere
These nine planetary boundaries form what Rockström called a “safe operating space for humanity.” Crossing these boundaries could destabilize critical earth systems and push the biosphere out of its current equilibrium into an unpredictable and far less hospitable state.
To learn more about planetary boundaries, you can read Rockström’s 2009 paper published in the journal Nature, or you can read his fabulous 2015 book called Big World, Small Planet, which I reviewed here.
There are about 7.5 billion people on Earth today. We’ve made enormous progress in the last 50 years against hunger, poverty, disease, illiteracy and many other social development goals. But nearly 800 million people still live in extreme poverty and billions don’t have access to safe drinking water, sanitation or handwashing facilities.
How do we make further progress?
Meanwhile, population is still increasing. Growth rates have fallen, but our population is not expected to level off until around 2100 at about 11 billion.
How are we going to accommodate all those additional people? How will we feed them, clothe them, shelter, educate and employ them?
It seems like we need social development goals too; goals that will help us ensure that everyone on the planet can live safe, healthy lives with dignity and opportunity.
Here too we already have a good set: The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs.
Adopted in 2015 by the UN General Assembly, the SDGs are a set of 17 goals for the year 2030. They include:
- No poverty
- Zero hunger
- Good health and well-being
- Quality education
- Gender equality
- Clean water and sanitation
- Reduced inequalities
- Peace, justice and strong institutions
Together they provide “a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.”
You can think of these goals as social boundaries. If the planetary boundaries form a ceiling that we should not exceed, then these social boundaries form a floor, a foundation built on human rights that we should not fall below.
Kate Raworth a “renegade economist” and research associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute first put these two concepts together to form “the doughnut” in a 2012 paper called “A safe and just space for humanity” published by Oxfam. Here it is.
The nine planetary boundaries are the “safe” part of the doughnut. They form its outer circle. The social boundaries are the “just” part, forming its inner circle. Raworth’s original social goals line up pretty well with the UN SDG’s.
Our task, according to Raworth, must be to find ways to live within these boundaries, to live within the doughnut.
We need to tackle both sets of goals at the same time. Why? Because poverty can exacerbate environmental stresses, she says. For example, billions of people still people burn wood, coal and biomass for cooking and heating. This contributes to CO2 emissions, particulate pollution and deforestation. Similarly, the effects of climate change, such as droughts, severe storms, and changes in seasonal weather patterns will severely affect people’s food security, health and access to clean water and sanitation. The poorest will be hit hardest. We can’t successfully address environmental issues without solving poverty and we can’t solve poverty without addressing the environment.
Traditional GDP growth, if it is to continue at all, must be harnessed to help us move into the doughnut.
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What does all this mean? Why is it important?
For me, the doughnut and the work of Johan Rockström and Kate Raworth and countless others, shows us what sustainability might actually look like. I haven’t studied all these goals in depth so I can’t say with certainty that every detail of every goal must be met. In fact, some of them are in tension with each other. And it is true that meeting them will require significant changes to the way we live and work, produce and consume. But these goals and boundaries paint a picture and set out a course of action that gives shape and direction to achieving sustainability. I think that’s helpful and hopeful.
So how are we doing? Are we meeting these planetary and social goals? Are we moving towards the doughnut? I’ll be looking into that in an upcoming post.
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We’ve been talking about sustainability for 30 or 40 years. Many of these ideas are not new. Maybe I’m just catching up. If this post has helped you catch up too, that’s great. If there are questions on this topic that concern you, or books and articles you’ve read that have inspired you, please leave a comment. Thanks.
A safe operating space for humanity
Paper by Johan Rockström, September, 2009
A safe and just space for humanity
Paper by Kay Raworth, February, 2012
5 transformational policies for a prosperous and sustainable world
TED Talk by Johan Rockström, September 2018
A healthy economy should be designed to thrive, not grow
TED Talk by Kate Raworth, April 2018