A more inconveniente truth
When Al Gore presented the economic and political challenge of climate change, in the movie An Inconvenient Truth (2007), the key message was that we need to dispose of the entire apparatus of fossil fuels on which modern civilization arose and replace it with non-polluting energy sources. It is a Herculean task, obviously, but it also signals a bright possible way out based on science and technology.
Since then, however, science has proven it is not only the boundary of climate that humanity has begun to breach. In 2009, a study led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre proposed the framework of nine planetary boundaries. In addition to climate change, the study shows that biodiversity and also the nitrogen cycle have already been push beyond the safe limit to avoid catastrophe. Phosphorus use and ocean acidification dangerously follow the same course.
This is the outline that inspired economist Kate Raworth, a senior researcher at Oxfam, to add the concept of social boundaries, in the paper A Safe and Just Space for Humanity: Can we live within the doughnut?. By presenting the doughnut diagram with maximum environmental limits alongside minimum social standards, Oxfam demonstrates that a “safe and just space for humanity” is one where everybody can fulfill their basic needs, while still collectively living within the means of only one planet. In other words, what we need is to address inequality.
Despite all the great possibilities of technology, "If we are ever going to manage to live within the doughnut, it’s going to take far greater equity of global resource distribution, within and between countries," says Raworth. The encouraging message is that, just as good health consists in respecting bodily limits, the global space of the doughnut is also where humanity can find the best conditions to thrive and to seek well-being.
Historically, social and environmental agendas were perceived as separated and sometimes even as adversaries. At the beginning of the 21st century, are we witnessing the definite blending of the two?
I agree, I thing that we’ve seen for too long different ministries responsible for environment and development, different journalists reporting on it, different NGOs promoting it, and so they’ve been seen as distinct. Of course, it was back in Rio-92 that the concept of sustainable development was really brought together. Twenty years ago, that generation said ‘come on, it’s time to recognize these things as interdependent’. At one level it is so obvious that human well being depends on natural resources. But it’s really striking that the debate has continued on separate paths.
My background is as an economist. Everyone who studies economics is introduced on the first pages of macroeconomics textbooks to the idea of the circle flow of incomes and goods. You see the monetized economy floating freely on the page and what is so obviously missing – and ecological economists have been pointing it out for years – is that the economy is not understood as based in environmental resources.
I really hope we are coming to the end of that and we are starting to recognize sustainable development. I’ve been amazed and pleased by people’s response to this doughnut, how widespread and enthusiastic it has been, to the concept of bringing together environmental and social boundaries. It seems to be that people are crying out for simple models that say “of course these things are related and interdependent, yes, at last, a very simple picture that shows how it is”.
This blending we are talking about can be seen in Oxfam’s own track record, since an organization that was originally designed to deal with social justice has more recently incorporated environmental thinking.
I think the real shift in Oxfam’s perspective has been over the last five to ten years, as country programs and staff have been saying the communities we are working with are talking about unusual floods, unpredictable rainfall and more and more people realized that the communities Oxfam is working with have already been affected by climate change and that this was beginning to undo 60 years worth of development achievements.
The climate impacts experienced by the communities we work with became impossible to ignore and I feel that was the way environmental awareness became very high within Oxfam. We have been campaigning on climate change for several years and have really put this at the heart of our work. Our Grow Campaign, which is about creating a world in which everybody always has enough to eat, is based on the idea of development in a resource-constrained world. So we’ve been moving much more into understanding land, water, climate change, energy and their interdependence with development. So it’s really exciting for Oxfam to bring a social justice lens into areas that were originally seen as an environmental concern. It makes our work much more powerful when we recognize that integration.
But the doughnut paper apparently presents us with an even more disruptive approach: is it saying that extreme wealth is something as critical as extreme poverty and thus must be a subject of debate?
That’s great that you saw this in our report - I think that’s absolutely right. The rise of the Occupy movement across the world made politicians realize that people really care about extreme inequalities and they see the damage done by extreme wealth whether it’s in terms of corruption or social inequity or, indeed, in terms of our ability to live within the means of one planet.
When you recognize there are limits at the planetary scale, that automatically has distributional consequences. And so it’s really important to recognize those consequences and to make them explicit. That’s what motivated me to put the social boundaries into the heart of planetary boundaries. Because if you are going to say there are limits to the resources we can use, that immediately raises the question of ‘will I get enough of it?’, ‘will our share be enough?’.
We have to put the claims of human rights, the claims of every single person to meet their essential needs, at the heart of that struggle for resources.
And then if we start looking at the statistics about why we are so far over the climate change boundary, that’s when it gets politically impossible to ignore that the problem. As you said, it’s wealth: 50% of the world’s carbon emissions are produced by around 11% of people. It makes it absolutely clear that if you want to tackle climate change you need to tackle the emissions of the wealthiest in the world, in the richest countries but also in the richest communities. It puts the question of distribution absolutely at the center.
If we are ever going to manage to live within the doughnut, it’s going to take far greater equity in global resource distribution, within and between countries. And that’s what the climate change negotiations are trying to achieve. Far greater efficiency in resource use is also necessary, so there’s transformation needed around technologies, but there’s also something very, very political around redistributing the world’s resources so that we all have enough to meet our needs. And that has implications for the rich as well as for the poor.
One of the most famous principles of business as usual is trickle-down, meaning that if the top of the pyramid gets even wealthier, they’ll make investments that eventually trickle-down to benefit the poor. Is this happening in reality?
The Occupy movement highlighted that, in many countries, instead of trickling down to the poor, wealth has been gathering up to the rich. As a recent Oxfam report showed, income inequality has been increasing in almost all G20 countries since 1990.
The doughnut helps to make it clear why trickle-down cannot stand as a long-term strategy for development. It has resulted in a situation of extraordinary global inequality, in which humanity has collectively exceeded several planetary boundaries, while still leaving many millions of people without access to the most essential resources. Far greater equity in resource use is clearly going to be crucial for bringing humanity into the safe and just space – and trickle down approaches cannot get us there.
The doughnut argument presents us with both bottom and top limits. Does it mean we should me paralyzed between the two? Do you fear at all this could be interpreted as limiting human development and aspirations?
Human beings thrive within physical limits. There is a limit to how fast we can allow our hearts to beat, or how high our body temperatures can rise, before we risk collapse. Respecting these bodily limits doesn’t restrict our potential - rather it protects us from danger, and so allows us to pursue our aspirations.
In a similar way, planetary boundary aim to keep humanity within the good health of the Holocene, the unusually stable and benevolent geological era of the past 10,000 or so years, which has given rise to agriculture, and which has allowed major civilizations to thrive. So it is precisely between planetary and social boundaries where humans have the greatest chance to thrive and pursue their well-being.
In Rio+20, there are talks about eradication of poverty and the green economy. At the surface, what we see the most from the official level and the business community is that green economy relies on efficiency and generating green jobs. Do you feel like we are missing the target of inequality?
Many of the leading advocates of green economy quite rightly recognize that tackling poverty and inequality must be at the heart of the concept. It’s unfortunate that the phrase ‘green economy’ appears to put economy first, environment second, and to be silent on social justice. That puts the concept at risk of being misinterpreted in a much narrower way, as a focus on rebooting GDP growth through green-sector investments. Such a narrow approach would certainly fail to address inequality.
I think one of the reasons why the doughnut is gaining interest in the run-up to Rio+20 is that social justice is very visibly at the heart of the concept. In the language of sustainable development’s three pillars, the doughnut sets out the essence of the environmental and social pillars first, expressed in ‘natural metrics’ (such as parts per million of CO2, or the percentage of people living in income poverty) and only then asks what economic development would have to look like in order to bring humanity into the safe and just space. I think this is the perspective from which every economics degree course should begin.
If this were to become a mainstream approach to sustainable development, how hard would it be to come up with an agreement, at the international community level?
It is of course a major challenge to get planetary and social boundaries governed at the international level – but that project has already been underway for decades. Over 60 years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights started defining the essence of social boundaries by putting in place international laws to respect, protect and fulfill every person’s rights. The contemporary idea of social boundaries adds a resource-use lens to this long-evolving human rights governance.
Attempts to govern planetary boundaries, by contrast, are relatively recent. The 1987 Montreal Protocol was an important success in reversing ozone depletion, showing that the international community can act together to pull back from boundaries it has already started to breach. But the ongoing challenges within the UN climate change negotiations make it clear that when governments negotiate over planetary boundaries, they are of course simultaneously negotiating over social boundaries and their distributional implications.
Furthermore, several boundaries – such as ocean acidification, and nitrogen and phosphorus use have as yet no global governance in place, despite it being much needed. A new organization, the Planetary Boundaries Initiative (PBI), has been set up to explore what it would take to create such legal governance frameworks. And as the PBI points out, the first and most important step in governing planetary boundaries is to recognize that they exist and need to be respected - just as the social boundaries do too.
Kate Rawoth will be attending a promising debate on planetary and social boundaries, on June 17th, 9.30-11am at the IIED Fair Ideas Conference at PUC Catholic University, in Rio de Janeiro. For further details see www.iied.org/fair-ideas