books sustainability

Doughnut Economics, by Kate Raworth

You may remember the doughnut, an innovative framing of social and environmental challenges that I’ve written about a number of times over the last few years. It’s the brainchild of Kate Raworth, who saw that if the planetary boundaries form a kind of upper limit that we shouldn’t exceed, there’s also a social foundation that we shouldn’t fall below. When put together you get a doughnut, a ‘safe and just space for humanity’ (see image at the bottom of the post for a reminder).

It’s an influential idea that has been discussed in NGO circles, governments and the UN, and Kate Raworth has now written a book unpacking the idea and its implications. It’s called Doughnut Economics: Seven ways to think like a 21st century economist, and it’s smart, imaginative, and full of accessible routes into complex issues.

Raworth’s particular target is the economics profession, which she considers unfit for purpose. It has failed to keep up with today’s questions, hasn’t addressed long-standing blind spots, and is perpetuating its errors into the future through current university curricula. Since “economics is the mother tongue of public policy”, the way that economics is understood and taught affects us all.

The book sets out seven key insights that Raworth feels were missing from her own training as an economist, and that she had to discover for herself. Put these seven points into economics degrees, and we’ll have graduates much better equipped to tackle 21st century challenges.

Each chapter begins with a picture, a common graph or diagram from economics textbooks, foundational ideas that are taught to students. They are then redrawn to show the elements that are left out in the interests of simplicity, but that permanently close down certain ways of thinking. A basic understanding of self-contained markets is redrawn to show the role of energy and unpaid work. Principles of market equilibrium are redrawn to show dynamic complexity.

That sounds technical, but Raworth manages to add nuance to over-simplified ideas without sacrificing clarity. The book is full of creative ways of explaining things, it’s easy to read, and understands the importance of visual language. It is pluralist and resists the temptation to take sides in an ideological war. “Rethinking economics is not about finding the correct one (because it doesn’t exist), it’s about choosing or creating one that best serves our purpose – reflecting the context we face, the values we hold, and the aims we have. As humanity’s context, values and aims continually evolve, so too should the way that we envision the economy.” That approach makes this a much more generous and satisfying book than many others that set out to ‘debunk’ or pick holes in mainstream economics.

Some of the ideas here have been thoroughly explored elsewhere – critiques of ‘rational economic man’ for example, the Kuznets curve, and the limits of GDP as a measure of progress. But even where ideas are familiar, they are combined or taken a step further. Do not assume you have heard this all before.

I particularly appreciated the chapters on designing the economy to distribute wealth better, rather than relying on redistribution. The book explains how a genuinely regenerative or restorative economy needs a combination of social reforms and circular economy thinking, which I haven’t read elsewhere. I also like the notion of being ‘growth agnostic’, which feels like a more grown-up take on postgrowth economics. (These are all ideas I’m exploring in the book I’m working on with Katherine Trebeck, and this is useful reading to feed into the next draft.)

Given the book’s accessible and creative presentation, it looks like the doughnut is going to continue to be influential, so there’s no better time to pick this up and investigate a “new big picture for the 21st century economist”. You can find out more from Kate’s website, and I’ll be sharing more insights from the book in future posts.


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