Oxfam's barriers to understanding sustainable development

Posted in: Comment, New Publications

The latest Oxfam Discussion Paper, A Safe and Just Space for Humanity, by Kate Raworth, opens with this:

Humanity’s challenge in the 21st century is to eradicate poverty and achieve prosperity for all within the means of the planet’s limited natural resources.  In the run-up to Rio+20, this discussion paper presents a visual framework – shaped like a doughnut – which brings planetary boundaries together with social boundaries, creating a safe and just space between the two, in which humanity can thrive.  Moving into this space demands far greater equity – within and between countries – in the use of natural resources, and far greater efficiency in transforming those resources to meet human needs.

I quite like this model as it places "inclusive and sustainable economic development" firmly within environmental limits (Oxfam say: an environmental ceiling) which is where it's located today.


This visual framework is a model of sustainable development and is welcome for its attempt at realism, and as it stands it will give comfort to those who think it's the environment that gets all the attention in thinking about sustainable development, at the expense of social and inter-generational justice – a complaint that was apparent in the recent Guardian web discussions I commented on.  Indeed, it is a desire to bring some balance to all this that has surely inspired Oxfam’s thinking.

But the model seems flawed in a fundamental way.  In describing the doughnut, I shall say why I think this.

First, the good points: This model of sustainable development combines the concept of planetary boundaries with a complementary one of social boundaries.  Oxfam says: “

Achieving sustainable development means ensuring that all people have the resources needed – such as food, water, health care, and energy – to fulfil their human rights.  And it means ensuring that humanity’s use of natural resources does not stress critical Earth-system processes – by causing climate change or biodiversity loss, for example – to the point that Earth is pushed out of the stable state, known as the Holocene, which has been so beneficial to humankind over the past 10,000 years.”

Anyone who thinks about Sustainable Development acknowledges the conjoined objectives of poverty eradication and environmental sustainability in order to bring about widespread and sustained human well-being.

The Oxfam Doughnut brings these goals into a bounded framework where:

“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.”

It is, of course, a compelling image.  But it is also an odd one in that the terms used in it are not quite of the same order.  Oxfam says:

“The 11 dimensions of the social foundation are illustrative and are based on governments’ priorities for Rio+20.  The nine dimensions of the environmental ceiling are based on the planetary boundaries set out by Rockström et al. (2009b).”

Take the elements of the environmental ceiling; most of these are expressed as problems: climate change, chemical pollution, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, biodiversity loss, etc.  Others, however, are expressed more neutrally, as phenomena: freshwater use, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, land use change.  This is careless, but the problem may reside in Rockström, rather than Oxfam, thinking.

The problem is worse in relation to the social foundation as some of this is expressed in terms of social goals: social equity, gender equality, health, education; but most examples are just social phenomena of one sort or another: voice, jobs, energy, income, food, etc.  Again, there is a careless use of language.  For example, people want a good education, clean water, nutritious food, rewarding jobs, affordable, available energy (that doesn’t lead to climate change), etc.  Having said all this, I was also surprised that the actual "dimensions of human deprivation" were not exemplified: poverty, discrimination, racism, exploitation, malnutrition, disease, illiteracy, etc., etc.

Getting all this right, would have been useful.  It is not the main problem, however.

More fundamentally, this concerns the way that paper uses the idea of boundaries.  It does this in two ways: first as socially-constructed desired minimum levels, and secondly as thresholds above which environmental problems are likely.  But these social and environmental dimensions are not equivalent.  It's uncomfortable, too much so for Oxfam perhaps, but one (the environmental one) is not amenable to social construction in the same way that the social one is, and it is likely to be more absolute than relative.

For example, were income poverty (currently defined as <$1.25 / day) ever to be eradicated, it would immediately be redefined as, say, <$1.5 or <$2 / day.  Indeed, this would happen long before everyone in the world reached the $1.25 level.  In this sense, poverty levels (and hence poverty itself) will be re-defined such that the poor will remain with us for a long time, just as they always have.  Similarly, acceptable levels of child mortality will likely be politically adjusted, should they ever fall significantly.

Conversely, we cannot define for ourselves what the critical natural thresholds are for ocean pH, atmospheric carbon, etc, though we may come to learn what these are in time.  These are not socially constructed, except in the narrow sense that we create limits for ourselves in the policy process in order to increase our chances of staying within those limits – whatever they turn out to be.  Think of blowing up a balloon. We may caution not to go beyond a 30cm diameter, but there will be a limit set by the material-air system (not our wishes or thinking) at which the material will fail and balloon burst.  The 30cm diameter is likely to be our best guess / estimate at staying well below the material failure limit.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that Oxfam has decided that its two boundaries are equivalent in some fashion.  They are obviously both important (and loosely coupled); it's just that one is much more fundamental than the other.  We do ourselves or anybody else no favours by pretending otherwise.


Raworth K (2013) A safe and just space for humanity: can we live within the doughnut? Oxford: Oxfam

Rockström J et al. (2009) Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity, Ecology and Society 14(2): 32.  Available here.

Posted in: Comment, New Publications


  • (we won't publish this)

Write a response