development social justice sustainability

Life inside the doughnut

A couple of years ago a group of scientists identified and named the nine planetary boundaries we need to life within. Mark Lynas picked up the concept as the basis for his book The God Species. They have also inspired Oxfam, and this week they released a discussion paper that adds a new dimension to it.

The planetary boundaries are the environmental limits that we must remain within, if we are not to destabilise the planet’s natural cycles. Climate change is the one we’re most familiar with, and the others are the nitrogen cycle, ozone depletion, ocean acidification, land use, freshwater use, biodiversity, chemical pollution and atmospheric aerosols. Lynas’ book goes into each of these in detail if you’re interested, showing how they can be managed.

You can map our environmental impact out from the centre, you get a simple picture of where we are pushing at the boundaries:

Oxfam’s innovation is to suggest that these boundaries represent an outer set of limits, but that there is an internal set of limits too. These are social boundaries rather than environmental ones, and represent lack rather than excess. Those criteria include health, jobs, energy, enough food and water, gender equality and a political voice. A healthy and balanced human life is lived within this range.

Add this social floor to the environmental ceiling, and you get a socially just and environmentally sustainable green zone, a ‘doughnut’ of enoughness:

That’s a useful way of picturing the challenge of the 21st century – ensuring that those who do not have enough are moving out from the centre, while those who have too much are moving inwards towards sustainability. (This website is named after the latter movement, since that’s the one that people find it harder to agree on.)

The question that follows is, of course, is it possible for all of humanity to live within that zone? Is there room in the doughnut for all of us? That’s another post – although you could read Oxfam’s paper and find out, or George Monbiot’s article about it, or click over to hear the author Kate Raworth introduce the idea here.


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