Every so often, a simple idea catches people’s imagination. Complex concepts get distilled into a mantra or image that elicits an ‘a ha’ moment. World views can be changed. Perspectives shifted. And ideologies dented.
Such was the case when Oxfam GB published a report entitled A Safe and Just Operating Space for Humanity. Its author, Kate Raworth, introduced the now famous
‘doughnut’ (right) – a space below a planetary boundaries and above a social floor in which humanity can thrive.
It is a great image – it highlights that faster GDP growth without regard to its quality or distribution is not only unsustainable, but potentially (and often) disconnected to conditions in which people can build lives worth living.
Since its release it has been picked up by policy makers, civil society, businesses and academia. It offers a new goal, perhaps even a compass for the direction of our economy and goals of our policy making.
But, moving beyond that isn’t easy. The doughnut is great way of putting flesh on the bones of the term ‘sustainable development’, bringing together environmental and social considerations in a single framework. But then what? For starters, most of the decisions that matter are taken at a national, rather than planetary level.
So Oxfam has been exploring ways to downscale the doughnut concept to the national level – putting some numbers to the idea to see the extent to which a country operates within that safe and just space.
Inevitably there were some challenges in bringing the concept of Planetary Boundaries to the national level in a way relevant to the UK. So we tried to pragmatically find a way forward. We also sought to posit elements of the social floor that made sense in the UK context – and for us, this meant taking account of what people – not just experts – identify as important . To do so we drew on work that engaged with the public about what they identified as necessities in the UK, or what was needed to live well in the UK, or what sort of areas of life are important to wellbeing in the UK. The full report sets out all the decisions we took and the datasets we looked at, but we’d be keen to hear from anyone who can recommend improvements to our evidence base.
So how does the UK shape up?
The picture painted by the UK Doughnut model is stark. The UK’s impact upon planetary boundaries is far beyond what its population size can justify. The UK significantly outstrips proposed boundaries in nearly all of the environmental domains identified – by 55% in terms of biodiversity loss (measured via the decline of farmland birds); by 64% of in terms of ocean health (measured via the percentage of UK fish harvested unsustainably); by 250% in terms of land use change; and by 410% in terms of climate change (measured by emissions of MtCO2/year). There’s a bit of good news in terms of ozone depletion in that the UK does not emit discernable quantities – a reminder that when there is political will, change can happen.
At the same time, inequalities in the distribution of the UK’s wealth are causing deprivation across many indicators as people find themselves out of work, unable to afford to heat their homes and forced to visit food banks or simply go without enough food. The report shows that 23% of the adult population lack any formal qualification; over a quarter of households are in fuel poverty; almost two thirds (59%) of people feel they have no say in what the government does; and over half of people do not access the natural environment each week.
However, the situation we currently face is not set in stone. Choices can be made to develop a more environmentally sustainable future. And many of the failures on the social floor are the result of the way we currently organize our society. They are the result of successive governments’ policy choices on how we use the tax system and public spending, how we regulate and deliver services, what we expect of business, and how we provide support for our citizens.
So far, so good. The next step is to not only identify policies and actions that can help us step off the ‘growth at any cost’ treadmill, but encourage and facilitate them.