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Doughnut Economics author Kate Raworth on the century of natural data

Yancey Strickler
Yancey Strickler
13 min read

Interviewee: Kate Raworth
Background: Author of Doughnut Economics, Oxford economist
Subject: The century of natural data
Listen: On the web, Apple, Spotify, RSS


“These ideas are in the ether. There's this lovely quote from André Gide: ‘Everything that needs to be said has already been said, but since nobody was listening it has to be said again.’” — Kate Raworth


One of the most powerful new ideas of this century has an unexpectedly silly name. It’s called Doughnut Economics, and it’s an actionable framework that lays out how both humanity and our planet can thrive in the 21st century.

The Doughnut is already being used in governments around the world — the city of Amsterdam is one example — to rethink and redesign their vision for societal success.

The creator of Doughnut Economics is Kate Raworth, an Oxford economist who now spends part of her time helping others implement the model in the real world.

Last week I had the great fortune to speak with Kate about her work. As two food-based metaphorists exploring alternative models, we connected on many levels. And I was surprised to find Kate asking me almost as many questions as I asked her. This led to a remarkable conversation where, as she put it, the Doughnut met the Bento and the Bento met the Doughnut.

Listen to our conversation on Apple, Spotify, or on the web. Read the full transcript here. Below is an edited and condensed Q&A exploring Kate’s story, the Doughnut’s origins, the power of visual language, and why this is the century of natural data.


YANCEY: I recently re-read the first Doughnut Economics paper for Oxfam. I've read the book as well, but I was really impressed going back to the paper. The clarity of thinking, how specific the boundaries and the measures are that you talk about — it's both a significant conceptual shift and a very specific proposal. When you were writing it, did you feel that clarity?

KATE: I actually looked back over that paper the other day as well. What I noticed — it’s something similar to what you're saying — is that I would still put it like that: the core ideas, the core intention, the core examples. I was struck by that. I didn't at all think, “Oh, I would never have written it like that now.”

I was an economics student in the early 1990s, and then walked away from economics very frustrated because it didn't deal with or give respect to the issues I cared most about, like the integrity of the environment and social justice issues. When I was working at Oxfam I found myself working on economic issues, but we never did it as economics. We did it as social justice, as campaigning against environmental degradation, climate change, for workers’ rights.

Then I went on maternity leave. I had twins. I spent a year immersed in the care economy. I came back to work, and a colleague of mine showed me this diagram and said, “Here’s one of the things that's been happening while you were away.” This diagram of the nine planetary boundaries had been published by leading Earth system scientists like Johan Rockstrom and Will Seffen. The picture is this circle with the picture of the Earth in it, and then these big red lines radiating out, these overshooting lines of alarm.

The idea was the circle is the safe operating space for humanity. In there we can live well within the means of the planet. But we're in overshoot on climate change, on using too much fertilizer, converting too much land, and biodiversity. I remember being viscerally struck at my desk by this picture. When I was an economics student the environment was missing. It was unnamed. It certainly wasn't measured. It was called an externality — the environmental externality. And bang, here it was on the table in front of me.

It's Earth system scientists who put it on the table. I felt like they were throwing down a gauntlet to economists saying, “Right. Here's the environment. If you won’t put it in your theories, we're going to do it. And by the way, it's not in your metric. This is not in dollars. This is in parts per million of carbon dioxide. This is in tons of nitrogen in fertilizer released. This is in loss of species. These are in nature's metrics.” I was so excited at my desk. I thought, “This is the beginning of new economics. It's in pictures.”

I was literally sitting in this big open plan office in Oxfam. Across the office colleagues were fundraising because of a famine. They were campaigning for children's rights to health and education across the world. I remember looking at this circle, thinking, the whole of that circle is not a good space for humanity. It's not like whatever level of Earth's resources we use, everything is safe. Actually, if there's an outer limit of humanity's use of Earth's resources, there's also an inner limit. We've been calling them human rights since 1948. Inside their circle I drew a circle in the middle. If you don't want to overshoot that outer ring, you also don't want to fall short on the inner ring, because that's people's use of resources for food and water and housing and transport and income. So I had this doughnut-shaped picture.

I'll be completely honest with you. I thought, “Well, I like that, because I like representing things in pictures. But I don’t want anybody else to see!” [Laughs] I literally shoved it in the bottom drawer of my desk for about six months.

Because my colleague knew I'd been really impacted by the planetary boundaries diagram, he got invited to a workshop with some of these planetary boundary scientists. He said, “I can't go. Kate, you want to go? You like that picture, you go."

So I found myself on the train to Exeter to go to this workshop, thinking, “What am I going to say? I'm not a scientist.” I had this real social scientist/natural scientist insecurity, this classic thing — “they’re the real scientists with their hard numbers.”

I went to this workshop, and very early on somebody looked at me across the table and said, “I'm looking at our colleague from Oxfam here, because the problem I have with this planetary boundaries concept is there are no people in it.” I thought, “Why is this guy staring at me? What is it?” I had in my belly one of those thoughts: “Am I going to do this?” I hadn't even brought a picture of the diagram with me. But I thought, “I'm going to do this.”

I picked up a whiteboard marker and I drew it on the wall. “Okay, you draw this outer circle.” I drew it really quickly, because I was slightly embarrassed. “There's an inner circle too, and it's got health and education and food and water.” And, I honestly thought — I’m being totally frank — I honestly thought they’d say, “Yes, yes, sit down. That's nice. But come on. This is science.” But one of the Earth system scientists instead said, “That's the diagram we've been missing all along. It's not a circle — it's a doughnut.” For the rest of the workshop everybody kept pointing to this diagram on the wall.

At that moment this Earth system scientist said “that's the diagram we've been missing,” I got this fire in my belly. I said, “I'm going to write this up. I'm going to turn this into a paper.” That paper you read just flowed out. It had a force to itself coming out. I had this conviction because they'd said "that's what we've been missing” and the power of pictures. That was so exciting.

When the paper was launched, so many people said, "I've always thought of sustainable development like this, I’ve just never seen the picture before. This is so helpful.” It made people feel like powerful advocates. It made them feel like they could argue against the idea of endless growth. They could point to this and understand. It put me on the track of thinking about the power of pictures in the visual framing they do.

YANCEY: Did you discover the Doughnut? Did you create it? Did it combine in you?

KATE: In that moment I was doodling I had this very strong compulsion that I was throwing another hat in the ring, adding something. Once I’d drawn on that circle and figured out the relation, it felt very clear. In that moment it felt like a creation. But of course once I’d drawn it and then reflected — and it took months, even years for some of these things to come clear — of course I can trace it back to things I've seen.

Herman Daly, he's sort of the founding father of ecological economics, drew this amazing diagram that profoundly influenced me. Think of two circles and they each have a square inside. In one of them the square is quite small and in the other the square is quite big.

[The first picture] is the world of 19th- and 20th-century economics where the square is the economy. It’s quite small, relative to the whole ecosystem. We throw in some materials, we put out waste. It's quite small and the planet’s really big and the sky’s so wide and the ocean’s so deep, it can absorb the things we produce. This is Empty World economics. It's fine to go around talking about externalities.

But actually, we don't live there anymore. We live in the other circle where the square is touching the sides of the circle. In fact, it's almost overshooting the edge of the circle. This is Full World. What kind of economics is suitable for Full World where we're already banging into the sides of the biosphere? When I saw that planetary boundaries diagram, it was the square overshooting the circle. It's Herman Daly’s diagram brought to life in metrics.

I love your question, where did it come from, did you discover it, create it, find it. These ideas are in the ether. Some of them you've seen or heard, and some of them you've never personally seen or heard, but somehow they keep being transmitted. There's this lovely quote from André Gide: “Everything that needs to be said has already been said, but since nobody was listening it has to be said again.”

Maybe each one of us is a repository for these ideas that we encounter and think, “That's cool, but I don't quite know what to do with that.” We store it and hold it somewhere, or culture holds it. Then it pops up again, this time with doughnuts. Whenever I introduce this concept to the students I teach, I always tell that story. I remember when I was a student a concept looked like this pristine thing that was just there as an idea that existed. It's important to show that all ideas come from other ideas, and we're influenced consciously or unconsciously by others. This idea is just another input into your ideas. So what are you going to create? How are you going to take this journey forward?

YANCEY: It's almost like the Doughnut has always been true. It has always existed but needed to be found. It’s beautiful. You first had the idea nine years ago. Over those nine years you had the idea, you wrote a book about it, you've spoken everywhere, you've championed it, and now you’re implementing it. What’s been the hardest part of this?

KATE: It’s not the hardest, but the place where we feel that most could go wrong would be in the space of business. The reason I know that is because some companies have come to me and said, “We love the idea of the Doughnut.” One company said, “We've created our own Doughnut.” And they'd actually taken out the center, which is the social foundation of human rights, and replaced it with business needs. They had the world's needs on the outside and business needs in the middle. I had to say: “You see what you did there? You just took out human rights and put business wants and needs in the middle.” It was totally unintentional. They hadn't intended to co-opt it for their own business purposes. They hadn't seen what was happening because they put their very business mindset at the heart of it rather than asking how business can be in service to this. Then there were other companies, very big, powerful companies, that would love a cool little tool that would endorse them or make them look good — greenwashing and co-opting. So the place where we're paying most attention is around the way business can use it.

Our current principle is any company is welcome to use it. We’ve actually published a tool on the Doughnut Economics Action Lab website called “When Business Meets the Doughnut.” We ask you that you use the whole thing. Look at the design of your company, including how it's owned and financed. Go into questions that might not be comfortable. Use it as an internal reflection tool. Don't rush out and put it on your website. Don’t go talk about it. Don't try and associate it with it publicly. That risks turning it into a branding. That's this balance we're trying to make between openness and integrity. The hardest thing for me would be if it got greenwashed or co-opted and misused by business in a way that undermined its credibility and value to everybody else.

YANCEY: In the original Doughnut Economics paper you talk about moving beyond GDP as a core metric of success. You've also written about how markets put a price on everything, and they exploit the things that aren't priced. How do you think about addressing this question? Is it about putting prices on things that don't have prices? So we use finance to, say, think differently about the price of a forest? Is it by creating new forms of value that price has to compete with, like other metrics? Is it about tools that limit where the markets can go? How do you think about pushing back against the dominance of price?

KATE: It's a really big one. There are two big projects going on at the moment. One follows this logic that says what's priced gets protected. We value what we measure. The language of power is money. Treasuries work in dollars and pounds. We need to bring nature onto our balance sheets, and we need to express the value of natural capital along with financial and manufactured capital and human capital. We need to reflect the value of ecosystem services, like the value of bee pollination, so that governments ban chemicals that kill bees. That's one project.

I often say to people, “Tell me how you talk about the environment, and I'll tell you what your job is.” And if people say, “I talk about the value of ecosystem services, the value of natural capital, and how we need to bring it into our accounting,” your job is probably that you’re facing policymakers today and you're trying to get that wood protected, that bee protected, that toxic chemical banned, you’re trying to make change now, you're speaking the language of power to power for short-term security of the living world.

I totally know why you're doing that. I understand why you're doing that. But there's also a whole other project that's emerging. The people who work in that project will speak not of natural capital ecosystem service value, they will speak of the living world. They will talk about planetary boundaries. They'll come and talk, as the Earth system scientists do, in parts per million of carbon dioxide and tons of nitrogen. Instead of flattening all the information into dollar value, they're actually speaking in nature's metrics.

This is the century of Big Data and it's also the century of natural data. We can measure the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, day to day. We can see Earth breathing in and out through the months and the seasons. We can measure the toxicity of chemicals in the soil or the intensity of nitrates in the oceans. We've got data that no generation before has had, so it would be really weird, in my mind, to say let’s take this incredibly rich data and flatten it in something called GDP invented in the 1930s. It has one number that's insensitive to complexity or tipping points or horizons. Why would you do that?

My energy goes into this second project where, rather than trying to monetize everything until we’ve got this complete account and we've turned nature into an asset on our balance sheet, let’s just take a whole other framing and say, actually, we are part of the web of life. It's way more complex than we understand. We’re only beginning to understand that. But we can begin to measure and understand the natural world and her cycles and her tipping points and her interdependencies in nature's own metrics. I believe we're at the beginning of a big project to allow us to speak in her own metrics. We can combine that with social metrics. Understanding human wellbeing not through income per capita, but through people's access to education and wellbeing and social connection and their resilience and their sense of belonging. I'm all for that project.

The beauty of the dollar value is it seems like we can measure everything and add it up. This pile is bigger than that pile, so we do this one. And of course that's where all the danger lies, because it reduces the complexity that we knew was there. It financializes nature. If you put a dollar value on something economists often say, “No, it's not a price, it's a value.” But where we see a value, we smell a price. And when we smell a price, we spy a market. And where we spy a market the living world just got sold.

Keep it away from financial value. Keep it in the language of its own terms. I'm in it for the long project, which I believe is the 21st century project, rather than the 2021 project of putting money value on nature.

Continue reading my conversation with Kate here, or listen on the web, Apple, or Spotify.


Linknotes:

InterviewNew valuesData is fireClimate

Yancey Strickler

Sup y'all. I'm Yancey — writer, founder of the Bento Society, cofounder of Kickstarter, and author of "This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World." Subscribe to stay in touch.


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