UnNeutral | Rethinking endless growth with Doughnut Economics

Rethinking endless growth with Doughnut Economics

It’s 2012, and University of Oxford economics professor Kate Raworth sits at her desk. 

She’s re-assessing her views on the world humanity aspires to live in to help shape a better paper. Putting pen to paper, she goes through countless iterations until… finally… she lands on something that looks both novel and strangely familiar. 

Taking a step back, she reviews her hours of toil and in-between the scribbles and crossings out, comes the form of a much-loved deep-fried pastry: the humble (American*) doughnut.

OK, perhaps we slightly dramatised the situation. But the essence of the story is true — Kate went on to coin the term ‘Doughnut Economics’ which has since grabbed headlines and formed the basis of multiple studies to help us build a better world.

The principle of Doughnut Economics lends itself to two concentric circles that for the outer and inner boundaries of the climary delight: 

  • the inner ring is the social foundation, which includes basic fundamental rights;
  • the outer ring is the ecological ceiling, which cannot be exceeded if we are to guarantee the prosperity of humanity;
  • the middle is the space in which humanity can progress if the planet’s boundaries are respected—a balance that is fundamental to our collective survival, or as Kate puts it, “A healthy economy should be designed to thrive, not grow.”

Both circumferences coincide with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Ubuntu | Thoughts | Rethinking endless growth with Doughnut Economics

Kate developed the concept further in her book ‘Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist,’ where she went on to propose a new humanist economic model — a tool which many cities worldwide are starting to use. 

When we think about our current version of capitalism, it’s clear that much weight is put on the notion of growth being a key success indicator for nations and economies alike. Think about it — right now, top on the agenda of every business meeting held in the upper echelons of skyscrapers around the world is the fundamental question; “How do we make more and grow our profits?” 

The term “GDP” (Gross Domestic Product) was invented in the 1930s and calculates the total amount of services and goods sold in a given year. Since its origination, the term has become a key economic benchmark used to determine, shape, and create policies — however, it assumes that the solution to economic problems lies in more growth, a fundamental assumption that has regularly been challenged but to no avail. 

In her acclaimed Ted Talk, Kate explained how we are “flying into the sunset of mass consumerism over half a century on, with economies that have come to expect, demand and depend upon unending growth.” The reason behind this expectation, she cites, is because we are “financially, politically and socially addicted to it.” 

In truth, this probably comes as no real surprise; our Western political and financial systems are built on the very concept of more. From business to individual countries, anyone entering themselves into the rat race measures success on who can grow economically faster. The aggressive rivalry between China and the US optimises this desire, with both countries in a constant competition to be the world’s biggest and fastest growing economy. 

Proponents will voice how this should be seen as a good thing, helping to grow healthy innovation and development that has propelled us into the digital age; however with it has come a dramatic increase in inequality, with the vast share of wealth falling to just a few known as the “global one percent”. 

Aligned to inequality, the economy has also become degenerative, rapidly destabilising our already precariously and delicately balanced planet. As greenhouse gases (fueled by increased industrialisation and the oil and gas industry) continue to be pumped into the atmosphere, they are gradually heating up the planet, resulting in further imbalance and yet more climate-related disasters that disproportionately affect the global South. 

Years and years of consumerist propaganda has convinced us that we transform ourselves everytime we buy something new, and politicians are still hanging on to the idea of growth, offering solutions such as “green growth”, “inclusive growth” amongst others. As Kate rightly argues, “it’s time to choose a higher ambition,” one that doesn’t put personal gain above the collective. 

Truth be told, we cannot let our resource use overshoot any further, less we suffer the consequences of a cataclysmic planetary breakdown. And if we let ourselves face the true reality of the situation, one of the biggest losers will be us. 

*For our international audience, an American doughnut has a hole in the middle; the British jam-filled equivalent doesn’t. An important distinction not to be underestimated.