• Matthew Murphy

Hungry to Take on Capitalism? Try This Doughnut

Doughnut Economics provides a new way of examining economics and what constitutes growth in a society. We speak to Roisin Markham of Irish Doughnut Economics (IDEN) to see how the new economic model can fit into an Irish context.

“Neoliberalism’s triumph” — wrote George Monbiot, investigative journalist, in a 2016 Guardian article — “reflects the failure of the left.” As neoliberalism came crumbling down after the 2008 financial crisis, he continues, what alternative economic system was there to pick up the pieces?. None. That’s why the “zombie walks on” — because “The left and centre have produced no new general framework of economic thought for 80 years.”

Fast forward one year on and Monbiot’s left eating his words. The headline reads: “Finally, a breakthrough alterative to growth economics — the doughnut.”

Of course, Monbiot was right — there was no alternative way of thinking about economics other than the market-orientated growth system that’s dominated since the Regan and Thatcher era and for so many years thereafter. That was, at least, until Kate Raworth, British economist and author of the 2017 book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, came along.

“What if economics didn’t start with money — but started with human well-being?.” Raworth asks the audience at a TedxAthens event.

“For sixty years now economics has told us that we can measure progress with economic growth and that what it looks like is a line, ever rising as the global economy grows — but the doughnut tells us something different. It tells us progress looks like balance between using resources to meet our rights and protecting the planets life support systems.” Kate Raworth

Not a sugar-coated fried treat that you can find on almost any street in Dublin, this doughnut represents a new way of thinking about economics and how we organise society in such a way that allows both the planet and humans — not just to grow — but to thrive. It starts with an inner ring, the “social foundation” — where lies “shortfalls in human-well being” of those lacking access to “essentials such as food, education, housing” and other social fundamentals. Beyond this is the outer ring, the “ecological ceiling” — where lies “an overshoot of pressure on earths life-giving systems, such as through climate change, ocean acidification and chemical pollution.”

Scrapping the notion that endless GDP growth is an indicator of a successful society, the doughnut model instead aims to fit humanity into that “sweet spot” — between the social foundation and ecological ceiling, where societies have what the need for a good life (leaving no one falling short), without taking more than they need from the planet.

The Doughnut Economic Model. Photograph. DEAL

“And if it’s that balance that matters” she continues, “Then the fundamental question is where are we now in relation to that balance?”

The answer, she says, “is not for the faint-hearted”. “Millions of people live below that social foundation. 1 person in 8 doesn’t have food to eat, 1 person in 5 has no access to electricity, and more than 1 person in 5 lives off of less than one dollar and 25 cents a day — and yet we’ve already pushed ourselves over planetary boundaries. According to the earth systems scientists we’ve gone over on climate change, we’ve gone massively over on the amount of nitrogen and over on biodiversity loss.” Raeworth says — demonstrating just how far we’ve travelled outside each of these boundaries.

“if you look at those two pictures together — it’s a pretty strong indictment of the economic development path that we follow to date, and we have to figure out how, for the first time in human history, to get all people out of poverty at the same time as bringing ourselves back within those planetary boundaries.”

Current Social and Planetary Boundaries. Photograph. DEAL

It almost sounds too good to be true, a little… utopian. But the ideas are gaining traction among governments, policies makers and businesses alike as they try to navigate the current climate emergency and re-imagine what society will look like post-covid. In fact, in April 2020, Amsterdam’s city government announced it would be embracing doughnut economics as a way to recover from the covid-19 crisis and steer clear of any future crises. Copenhagen, Brussels, and the city of Dunedin, New Zealand, have all followed suit, rolling out their own version of doughnut economics. Even President Micheal D Higgins — the first head of state to publicly advocate for doughnut economics — has shown his support for the “new paradigm”.

At the beginning of September 2020, Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL) launched its online community platform that provides tools and resources for teachers, policymakers, entrepreneurs and activists — helping them put the ideas of doughnut economics into practice.

“We opened the doors and all these people starting joining and thinking ‘What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen? And of course one of the first things that happened is some brilliant folks in Ireland said “right! We’re going to hold a virtual cuppa!” And they just advertised an event — ‘anybody in Ireland want to talk about doughnut economics?’ and a hole bunch of people turned up.” Kate Raeworth said on the David McWilliams podcast.

Irish Doughnut Economics Network. Photograph. IDEN

Who were these “brilliant folks in Ireland”? Enter Roisin Markham, founder of Irish Doughnut Economics Network (IDEN).

“I’m Irish — and it’s like — what do you do the first thing somebody comes into your house? You offer them a cuppa.” Says Roisin Markham. Setting up the virtual cuppa — which would be the first action taken on the DEAL site — centred around “this idea that we get people into action about doughnut economics”, and would later lead to the creation of IDEN.

IDEN now acts as an online community group for anyone interested in joining the doughnut economics discussion and bringing the model to life in a domestic context.

“I feel very strongly about that social foundation. I think Ireland has weak points in it but I think we’re not as bad as other countries. But in that outer perimeter (ecological ceiling) we are failing massively and we’re greenwashing it too...I mean out of the nine eco indicators we are exceeding our limits in all but one.” Roisin says.

But just because we’re not as bad as other countries does not mean that we’re not exceeding our social boundaries in Ireland, she stresses. “I look at the very fact that we have homeless people living on the streets. When I used to commute to Dublin, I would be horrified at the amount of people that were living on the street — visibly living on the streets — and it almost being an acceptable thing that has happened.” Doughnut economics, she believes, is a step forward to addressing that issue.

Comparing Ireland with EU Using Doughnut Model. Photograph. IDEN

In a business context, she believes that “The very idea that we’re about scale or growth has to be questioned because in doughnut economics you can’t have this continuous growth. I understand we need an economy but I also understand that the principles of the current economy that we’re in are not serving us well.”

Putting regeneration and sustainability at a business’s core is difficult but necessary for society to not exceed ecological boundaries.

“I think the business model has to include sustainability as its core. Right now we’re in this buffer zone where sustainability is an add on, a tack-on, right? — it needs to be central.” Roisin Markham

Roisin hopes that, if the current covid pandemic brings us anything, it should be a new way of thinking about how we organise society and the individuals living in that society.

“What does Covid bring us if it’s disrupting us as humans? How do we step from this present moment to create and move into a future that’s worth living in?. That’s the real question.”

Naomi Klein, in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, quoting Milton Freidman wrote: "Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.

And now we find ourselves face to face with not one but multiple crises, the pandemic, arguably being the most pressing — but this time, we do have an alternative to pick up the pieces of the fallout. Let’s not slip back into old ways. Let’s use the fresh ideas lying around that cater to the demands of the 21st century. Let’s remember that surely, what got us into this mess — will not be the solution out it.

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