Doughnut Economics, Degrowth, & Climate Nuance

Mike Smith
June 6, 2023
A pink frosted donut on a pink background

It’s hard not to love a donut. Little sugar pills of decadence, there’s always a feeling of instant saccharine uplift when you bite into one. Lindsey works weekend shifts sometimes, so sometimes I’ll take the kids to get one from Voodoo Doughnuts as a treat. They love picking from them – one particularly loves the crème filled and the other loves the one in the shape of a Voodoo doll. I justify the activity to myself by making us all walk to get them. There are some particularly (ahem) irreverent ones, but one of my favorites is the Homer. So named after The Simpson’s character and his preference for a pink-frosted donut with sprinkles, it really is great in its simplicity.

There’s a bit of an irony that these little tokens of conspicuous consumption share a name with one of the underpinning concepts around the environmental and social justice movements – “Doughnut Economics”. Named after the shape of the visualization, it is one of my favorite concepts – that we have a social floor above which all humans have a right to live and an environmental ceiling above which we are mining our future for the present. It may seem intuitive, but one of the most common arguments against dealing with our environmental problems is to frame it as a false choice. That we can either save endangered species or feed hungry people. The answer, of course, is that we have to do both, and we have to do it across the spectrum of social and human problems.

An image of doughnut economics, with multiple environmental constraints on the outside like Land Conversion, Climate, and Biodiversity Loss and the inside having social constraints like access to water, education, and housing.

When I onboard new members of the Aclymate team, there are the mundane HR tasks, but I always give a presentation about the state of the climate. I will talk about how we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. The rock in this metaphor is a rapidly growing global middle class. It’s one of the greatest, somewhat unheralded success stories of the past 30 years. When I was in middle school, over one in three people lived on less than $1.90 per day. Now, even with a growing population, that is down to fewer than one in eight. That represents over a billion people. That’s a very good thing. Incredible, actually. Much work remains, but human suffering has been drastically reduced in our lifetimes.

While about 36% of that can be attributed to social safety net programs around the globe, most of this improvement can be attributed to the rapid growth of China and its middle class through rapid industrialization. And this is where we come upon the horns of the dilemma – China in the same timespan went from a relatively small climate emitter to the world’s largest. Historically, when one’s wealth grows, so does one’s energy usage and, as a result, so do one’s climate-related emissions. That’s bad. It’s a real problem. This is the hard place in our metaphor because we cannot repeat with those still struggling to leave poverty what happened in China. These are climate change facts that we must address.

One of my favorite factoids on energy is that the person reading this almost certainly has a refrigerator. That fridge probably uses more electricity in one year than the average Nigerian does in their entire lives. There is no moral argument about denying people access to refrigeration. None. And though the Global South will bear a disproportionate degree of negative impacts from climate, the Global North shouldn’t be surprised when Nigeria’s elected leaders tell us we’re all full of hot air.

Ok. That sucks. So now what?

We acknowledge that both problems are real, important, and must be solved. If stuck between a rock and a hard place, you have to avoid both. In other words…. Doughnut economics!

The Background of the Doughnut

When people decided that the problem wasn’t an either/or, but a both kind of scenario, they started working on sustainable development for the Global South, beginning with the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 and the release of Agenda 21. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) followed eight years later with a focus on global poverty, and then finally in 2015 was the release of the Sustainable Development Goals. Also known as the SDGs, they are 17 interrelated areas for us all to work on.

The 17 sustainability goals of the United Nations. Includes No Poverty, Climate Action, Quality Education, Affordable Clean Energy, and Gender Equality

While I’m a fan of the SDGs, the little ring as a lapel pin feels like a bit of virtue signaling and the SDGs are a little poorly defined and unregulated, so all sorts of greenwashing turkeys will grab one and attach it to whatever project and claim maximum impact, rather than thinking of them holistically across all 17 goals. Even within those engaging with the subject honestly, there’s frequently a lack of quantification about where we’re failing and where we’re succeeding.

About the same time that the SDGs were going through ideation, Doughnut Economics was going through formulation, too. It started with a 2009 paper in Nature titled “A safe operating space for humanity”, and it included several influential authors like James Hansen and Jonathan Foley, but its lead author Johan Rockström is an influential environmental leader in his own right. The paper started with a more human lens on the environmental problem instead of the more human focused MDGs and it is credited with the original illustration of a radiating bar chart of environmental metrics with several categories being exceeded.

A circular bar chart with the Earth as the circle and showing areas of environmental integrity that are being exceeded.

Professor Kate Raworth, then an economist at Oxford, followed this up in 2017 with her important book, “Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist”. Like I said, it may seem intuitive now, but it really is pretty revolutionary and if I ever meet her, I’d love to shake her hand. The book won awards from The Financial Times and McKinsey and Professor Raworth went on to Amsterdam University, where they created an institute around the concept and the city adopted Doughnut Economic-led thinking into its planning in 2020.

The Doughnut Economics graph, this time categories being exceeded in climate, biodiversity, food, shelter, and others

It can be a little dispiriting to think that it took 30 years to get here, but minds are the hardest things to change and the competition between the very real needs of the present and looming cataclysm of our climate future is the single hardest policy problem that humanity has ever faced. So I was very excited to see that a team of climate experts with 10 pound brains, led again by Johan Rockström and including my friend, the estimable yet hilariously snarky Dr. Lauren Gifford, released a paper last week. Also in Nature, the paper talks about “Safe and just Earth Systems” and changes the narrative slightly again, from one where doughnut economics appear to be in opposition to one another to one that shows more alignment. Back to only radiating outward, the doughnut is gone, and replaced with two thresholds, one for a just world and another for a habitable world. I think it’s an important view of the world that we should all digest.

doughnut economics graph

Doughnuts and Degrowth

Though I’m not an expert, I could clearly talk at length about all of this with some enthusiasm, but we keep coming back to the tension between a just world and a habitable one. It remains the core problem and I think we’re approaching the end of changing minds and moving into the realm of changing behaviors. We have done the think-work of developing SDGs and Doughnuts and now need to move very rapidly into implementation. For context, it has been 31 years since the Earth Summit. We have 27 years remaining to reach Net Zero. The time for action is now.

For many, that leans heavily into concepts around “Degrowth”, or about the jettisoning of the animating force of capitalism. This is heady stuff, speaking of a revolution in norms and standards. I can see the intellectual appeal. For reference, the per capita allotment of emissions globally is probably around four metric tons of CO2. The average American is responsible for over 18 tons. The rest of the Global North is also well above their fair share, some to an even greater extent. No wonder we feel like Homer Simpson, stuffed on doughnuts and eating ever more.

But I think it also misses a few things – we’ve spent 30 years getting academics to think conceptually that we must navigate between Scylla and Charybdis. How much time do we have to convince everyone else that they must live so much more simply than their wealth would allow them? Not enough, in my estimation.

A painting showing a small sailing vessel on unsettled seas, approaching a slot in a rock face. Hanging from the rock face is a six-headed dragon.

The real problem isn’t growth, per se. The problem is consumption. If growth can work within the human and environmental constraints of the system, then it is fine by me. The term consumer is very common in English and is mostly free of pejorative, but that did not used to be the case. Social mores used to look disfavorably upon the concept – to consume without thought is to be a glutton, sloth, and pride. If that sounds familiar, it’s because consumerism is an embodiment of Christianity’s seven deadly sins! Other faiths share similar disapproval for the behavior.

This isn’t to suggest that we can have our cake and eat it, too. Remember, we have to acknowledge both problems, so there is likely at least some degree of limitation in growth, like in fossil fuels. Scylla will eat her six. But the companies of our climate future not only should be able to grow, they must grow. They must replace those who won’t evolve.

Anyway, I think the path forward is not to change mindsets into an unknown future, but to restore them to a comforting past. To leverage the stories of collective and recent past and to return to one focused on a modest use of resources. That may be nuanced, but I think we’re capable of it.

Consuming Less is More Fulfilling

Lost in the false-choice narrative is that by consuming less (at least those of means), people are usually happier and mentally and physically healthier. That the growth in consumption has not corresponded to a growth in well-being.

Where do you get started? In my opinion, the first thing you do is to take an honest assessment of your own consumption. On climate, I know a company that can help. Remember, your employer’s impact probably greatly outweighs yours, so include them in your efforts.

Talk about what you’re doing. Not to preach like Rainn Wilson ‘changing’ his name, but to share your own lived experience. Living your values and sharing your experiences are very powerful social cues. We are very social little monkeys.

At home, make a small change – any change – and see if it is something you like. You probably will. If you need to buy something, consider tools like Finch to find the better product, Simple Switch to browse a curated marketplace, or AskBelynda for a little of each. The three founders – Lizzie Horvitz at Finch, Rachel Kois at Simple Switch, and Irete Hamdani at AskBelynda – are all friends of mine and doing things to make it easy for you to take these steps. You’ll be surprised how far little steps will take you.

Keep at the forefront of your mind that it isn’t meant to limit joy, but to find more of it. So, walk that path as best you can, even if it takes you to the doughnut shop upon occasion.

Mike Smith
June 6, 2023

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