Living in a doughnut

A few years ago, the Stockholm Environment Institute released a paper on planetary boundaries. I failed to rouse much interest from friends about the paper, but it had me tremendously excited. It provided me with a much needed framework to describe how climate change isn’t the only major threat of our lifetimes, there are several others and each one can be considered to have a safety boundary. Together with climate change, there are two other planetary boundaries we have crossed: exceeding safe levels of nitrogen extraction from the atmosphere (to produce fertilisers for crops and animal feed) and biodiversity loss. By illustrating this (see picture below) we have a platform for talking more holistically about solutions, and can make sure we don’t miss gaping holes in our environmental policies.

SEI (2009), Planetary Boundaries: A safe operating space for humanity. Featured in the Nature Journal.

But there is one gaping hole that is continually exploited by corporations and journalists. This is the supposed incompatibilities of pursing environmental goals with social justice. I know that badly put together environmental policies can exacerbate social justice but is this idea really true in general? That’s exactly what Oxfam has been discussing in the run up to the Rio Summit.

Oxfam’s have just released a discussion paper that explores the dynamics of living within safe environmental limits and within acceptable levels of human deprivation, and illustrates the concept in a doughnut (see picture).

The social foundation forms an inner boundary, below which are many dimensions of human deprivation. The environmental ceiling forms an outer boundary, beyond which are many dimensions of environmental degradation. Between the two boundaries lies an area – shaped like a doughnut – which represents an environmentally safe and socially just space for humanity to thrive in. It is also the space in which inclusive and sustainable economic development takes place.

Individually, none of the ideas or data is new, but the report is a great step towards tying together some of the top-level discussions around social justice and the environment. It also does well to explain the all important question: what happens to the environment when poor countries start consuming more? Here’s what the data suggests:

  • Food: Providing the additional calories needed by the 13 per cent of the world’s population facing hunger would require just 1 per cent of the current global food supply.
  • Energy: Bringing electricity to the 19 per cent of the world’s population who currently lack it could be achieved with less than a 1 per cent increase in global CO2 emissions.
  • Income: Ending income poverty for the 21 per cent of the global population who live on less than $1.25 a day would require just 0.2 per cent of global income.

Meeting basic human needs such as food security, energy and income poverty must be done in tandem with a greater global equity in the use of natural resources. The greatest reductions have to come from the world’s richest consumers. Unfortunately, as George Monbiot writes in his blog:

“the politically easy way to tackle poverty is to try to raise the living standards of the poor while doing nothing to curb the consumption of the rich. This is the strategy almost all governments follow. It is a formula for environmental disaster”.

All this has motivated me to work for BioRegional and access:energy, two organisations that I believe understand the dynamics between environmental limits and global equity. BioRegional is an organisation that invented the One Planet Living framework, which helps people design sustainability action plans that are holistic and ambitious (in line with a sustainable and globally equitable level of consumption). access:energy is a social enterprise based in Kenya that designs and manufactures affordable, locally-made, clean energy technologies (focussing on wind turbines).