By Helen Suich

With Rio +20 just weeks away, the attention of those in the environment and development sectors is increasingly turning to issues around the green economy and how to achieve sustainable development.

A recent discussion paper by Kate Raworth, Senior Researcher at Oxfam GB presents a visual framework that can be used to think about inclusive and sustainable economic development. In a recent interview, Raworth described the development of her idea.

In 2009, a number of the world’s leading earth system scientists identified nine planetary boundaries, which Raworth describes as "the core processes that we need to look after to keep us in a Holocene-like state." i.e. the relatively stable environment that the earth has experienced over the last 10,000 years.

The identification of these boundaries "speaks very strongly to the world of environmental policy makers about the safe operating space for humanity. It’s simple enough for any policy makers to get their head around, it’s visual and it’s become very powerful," she said.

The development of what she calls "the doughnut" followed: "if that’s what natural scientists are bringing to frame the space in which we should operate, I thought, what should development thinkers, and people working in poverty, justice and human rights bring too?" she said.

Raworth’s framework uses the planetary boundaries and adds a social foundation. "If there is an environmental ceiling beyond which lies unacceptable environmental degradation, so too, there is a social foundation below which lies unacceptable human deprivation, and that is an unacceptable space as well," she said.

Eleven social dimensions are identified, chosen from an analysis of  government submissions to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development – Rio +20 – being held in Brazil in June 2012. Scroll to the end of this article to see the illustration.

The dimensions are largely related to human rights, and relate to the planetary boundaries because to meet essential needs requires resources (e.g. food, water, energy, etc.). As there are tipping points or critical thresholds associated with the planetary boundaries, below which we stay within a safe operating space, so too are there thresholds associated with the social foundation. Below these thresholds lies deprivation – analogous to a poverty line for each of the 11 dimensions. Between these planetary and social boundaries lies the safe and just operating space for humanity.

Raworth notes that one of the main advantages of the doughnut is that "it is a positive vision of place that you do want to be. I think this is psychologically very important in an era where we are faced with crises, volatility, uncertainty and transition. When you add in the social side, it has immediate implications about redistributive imperatives, about the importance of redistributing resources towards countries and people living in poverty. But I think another reason why it’s getting some traction is because it doesn’t tell you any answers. If you look at the resources needed to meet people’s fundamental human rights, it’s a tiny fraction of the total resources that the world is using, but the framework does not dictate how to achieve this. I think that leaves it as an open platform – so people with very different views can come and debate it," she said.

Several things follow when environmental and social imperatives are joined in this way of thinking about sustainable development, "we start with the Holocene, and ask, what does it take to limit our use of resources to stay within the Holocene and to meet human rights. It doesn’t require the abstract notion of what do we need, what does the next generation need, will they be better or worse off, it just says these are the minima and maxima of resource use that we should have on the planet," says Raworth.

In her discussions about the use of the doughnut, Raworth says "planetary boundaries alone might make some governments say, "I see a limit on our development”, but when social boundaries are added to the picture, that perspective shifts to “I see a vision for our development”, because by putting place the social boundaries, it says that we recognise that everybody has a right to their minimum resource needs, forcing a major redistribution.

"Sometimes when we say we need to change our lifestyles in rich countries it can sound like it’s sacrifice and that it’s only about giving things up for other people. But if we have a positive vision of a world in which we want to respect the integrity of the planet and respect everyone’s human rights, we can be committed to this as citizens. If I can see a diagram that shows me that in a very simple way, it could be part of a move towards saying “I want to live a resource-smart, low carbon life."

"In addition, most people just don’t realise the extraordinary inequalities of resource use in the world, and perhaps making them evident will shift peoples’ behaviour. Also, it may help to identify policies and investments that can help achieve both human rights and bring us back within the boundaries, such as rolling out off-grid renewable energy in large swathes of rural areas of developing countries can both deliver energy for all, and reduce potential carbon emissions."

While the doughnut was originally designed at a global scale, it can be used to think about issues at the sub-global scale. Indeed several governments have expressed interest in seeing whether it can be constructed for a national-level analysis. Oxfam has also used the framework to map the impacts of initiatives such as biofuels policy.

Oxfam hopes that people will pick up the doughnut and run with it, using it to analyse issues either at a national level or by theme, like the biofuels analysis. Raworth concludes, "we really welcome people saying they want to use this, we want to try it out to see if it helps us ask new questions, come to new insights, have new conversations, and with people we weren’t talking to before. To me, that will be the power of it."

Helen Suich
Australian National University and Oxford University, Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation project

Rosie Cooney, Chair of the CEESP/SSC Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group (SULi), writes: “The newly formed SULi is an excellent place to ask questions like these, and start conversations about subjects like this. To share your thoughts contact me at rosie.cooney@iucn.org"

Photo: The 'doughnut' as a way of illustrating the link between environmental and social factors. Credit: Oxfam.