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Cambridge Forum for Sustainability and the Environment


At the Parallel Forum meeting in March 2015, Dr Kate Raworth from Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute joined us over Skype and we asked her a series of questions about her Doughnut Economics model.

Introducing doughnut economics

As Kate Raworth explains on her website, "Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer."

She goes on to say: "The environmental ceiling consists of nine planetary boundaries, as set out by Rockstrom et al, beyond which lie unacceptable environmental degradation and potential tipping points in Earth systems. The twelve dimensions of the social foundation are derived from internationally agreed minimum social standards, as identified by the world’s governments in the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. Between social and planetary boundaries lies an environmentally safe and socially just space in which humanity can thrive."

Since it was first published by Oxfam in 2012, the Doughnut has had traction in a range of very diverse places from the UN General Assembly and the Global Green Growth Forum, to Occupy London. On her website, Kate says that this is because "The doughnut is based on the powerful framework of planetary boundaries but adds to it the demands of social justice – and so brings social and environmental concerns together in one single image and approach. It also sets a vision for an equitable and sustainable future, but is silent on the possible pathways for getting there, and so the doughnut acts as a convening space for debating alternative pathways forward."

Progress in this model does not exclude the need for the advancement in the economic well-being of the billions of people in the world living in a state of poverty, who will need to move from their ‘state of depravation’. Progress is about finding and keeping the balance between economic and ecological boundaries. This requires a paradigm shift, where progress is not only measure in terms of GDP but also incorporates measures of both environmental and social well-being. 

In our interview, Raworth predicted that this century will be about creating these new natural and social metrics. However, she recognises that this will be a difficult and slow process, as outside money, there are currently no universal metric of measuring progress. The doughnut model does not solve these problems and in her words, she sees it is a "playfully serious approach to framing the challenges we are facing, and acting as a compass for human progress this century".

Interviewing Kate

During the Parallel Forum meeting in March 2015, we asked Kate a series of questions about her model over Skype and these, together with her answers, are below:

What are the gaps in knowledge that are needed to better understand and adopt tools like the doughnut model? Who or what can you use the doughnut model for?

You can use the model to deal with industry, to present ideas about the effects of their practices. But the challenge lies in how to use the natural and social metrics versus money when engaging with industries? It is quite difficult to engage with industry and directly use the natural and social metrics based on the current dominant paradigm. As it is, you can use the implication in terms of the monetary value to gain access or attention and incorporate the natural and social metrics, but this leads to a divide. Money works for the short to medium term purpose, but it moves the environment to a monetary mind-set, where value is measure in terms of dollars, but there are many things that can be measured in this manner, or at best are undervalued. 

Should we have green growth, no growth, or post growth?

I am agnostic about GDP, but there is a strong belief that we will have growth. I will therefore contend that we need growth in low income countries, as this is necessary to move the billions of people who live in depravation and poverty. For high income countries, I will say that there should be post growth, although this will happen in many diverse ways under different conditions. We will need green growth to propel certain parts of the ‘new economies’. Having said that, I think we have not yet understood how to have growth without crossing the planetary boundaries.

GDP metric only shows a small slice of what is value; is there a difference between an economy that is thriving and one that is growing?

Under the current dominant economy model, there is a compulsion to expand, and it is part of the credit based system where we need to increase expenditure. The 1940s -50s finance for trade deficit, growth became necessary and the financial institutions that we have make this possible. We therefore need significant institutional change that is part of post consumerism. In all of this, to change the mentality from the current growth model, language is central as it can denote a particular image. For example, no growth seems a challenge as issues of redistribution makes it less acceptable. Growth is not the purpose of the economy. There is little evidence that we need to decouple, and we need more open debate and research to understand these issues

How do the answers to these two questions link to the steady state economy?

It means we need to reduce what we are doing to the planet, and comes back to the planetary boundaries. We need to keep things within that steady state (circular economy), by looping things around (recycling). Ellen MacArthur circular economy butterfly model does a great job in explaining this principle.

GDP does not reflect well-being, but all the analysis has been in a vicious cycle about what will happen to GDP. How do we dislodge this narrative?

The temptation is to bring the idea of natural capital in the debate, but it is better to separate natural capital from monetary capital. In this case then using terms like ‘footprint’ can be effective as it captures many things that falls outside GDP (e.g. climate change and carbon). On the positive side, there is a drive to monitor the natural capital of the planet by making use of technologies like mobile phone and GPS. Ultimately though there is the need for a big mind shift in people, especially the politicians.

In terms of ideology, how do you communicate social balance for people who are deprived?

In the Doughnut Model, it is clear that people need to be lifted from their states of deprivation. The key then will be to say that balance means a move from the center of the model to the space that provides a safe and just space for humanity – where there is no child growing up hungry.

What is the difference between the middle (local) and outer (global) part of the Doughnut model? How do we achieve the movement of people across the continuum?

It is important to note that the inside of the diagram relates to human conditions, while the outside relates to the planet. To achieve the movement of people across the continuum, we need to look at the relationship between the social and ecological conditions and draw feedback loops that look at the positive and negative conditions and try to understand them better.

We have talked about the need for the introduction of new metrics that falls outside money, so what are examples of the new metrics?

You are correct to point out that monetization is the current metric as it is the current indicator of progress. In terms of the new metrics though, natural metrics need to be fundamental. This can for example relate to Carbon footprint, water usage, land, or even nitrogen produced. However in defining these metrics, it will be important to account for the complexity of the world and incorporate a myriad of things. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was a good starting point in this direction. It is important to admit the revolutionary role that money have played in the development of the human t condition, so at times we will still need some comparative translation. In the current condition though, money is still key and powerful in communicating ideas.

The diversity of natural capital and the interconnectedness of our actions mean that our well-being depends on everyone. This might mean that metrics alone might not be enough, and we must be willing to embrace the complexity of the system we are dealing with. For example imagine a car or an aeroplane; these are complex machines and we wouldn’t want to be on any of these with only one indicator. The Earth is much more complex than any of these, and we need to be aware of this when deciding on metrics and the like.

How do we get technology to small farmers to help them make the transition?

Enough food will have an impact on everything, because as the model shows, an impact on one item inside the circle will impact everything outside. For example, this can relate to agriculture efficiency (food) and land use change or even energy efficiency and climate change.

Concluding statement:  We need to find an effective metric for growth and development that moves beyond GDP and money. The Doughnut can therefore be seen as growth for the bottom billion.


The original planetary boundaries model was published in 2009: Rockström, J., W. Steffen, K. Noone, Å. Persson, F. S. Chapin, III, E. Lambin, T. M. Lenton, M. Scheffer, C. Folke, H. Schellnhuber, B. Nykvist, C. A. De Wit, T. Hughes, S. van der Leeuw, H. Rodhe, S. Sörlin, P. K. Snyder, R. Costanza, U. Svedin, M. Falkenmark, L. Karlberg, R. W. Corell, V. J. Fabry, J. Hansen, B. Walker, D. Liverman, K. Richardson, P. Crutzen, and J. Foley. 2009. Planetary boundaries:exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2): 32. [online] URL:

The model was updated in 2015: Steffen et al. 2015. Planetary Boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science Vol. 347 no. 6223