The problem with Doughnut Economics

Posted in: Comment, New Publications

Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think like a 21st Century Economist, by Kate Raworth, was published earlier this month.  This is a development of her paper for Oxfam in 2012 which I commented on a while back.  You can find details here – and the Resilience website has a quick summary.

I hope to write about the ideas in the book at some point, but, for me, there is still a flaw in the doughnut model.  This is that the boundaries that it embodies are fundamentally different.  This is what I wrote about the issue back in 2013:

"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."

Four years on, this remains a problem and no amount of wishful thinking can sweep it away.  However, this is only one aspect of what promises to be an interesting book – about which more later.


** This has already happened.


Posted in: Comment, New Publications


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  • I look forward to your next comments on the model and have already added a link to your above blog entry in my own blog at Thanks, as always, for your dedicated efforts to keep us updated!