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Review of Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist by Kate Raworth. 2017. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing. 320 pages, ISBN 978-1 6035-8674-0 Cloth ($28.00)



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Review of Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century
Economist by Kate Raworth. 2017. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green
Publishing. 320 pages, ISBN 978-1 6035-8674-0 Cloth ($28.00)
Reviewed by Judith Krauss
University of Manchester
Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist pursues an
ambitious goal: formulating a new set of rules and insights to guide the global economy and help
in tackling present-day challenges. Its premise is as clear as it is justified (7): “The leaders of 2050
are being taught an economic mindset rooted in the textbooks of 1950, which in turn are rooted in
the theories of 1850.” This well-taken adage is but one of many instances in which Raworth
displays a clarity of vision that is as inspiring to academic readers as it is accessible to the interested
public. Her conviction that images are crucial in how we understand the world, and our place in it,
is manifest throughout the book: her metaphors range from a Polanyiesque embedded economy
nestled within earth and society to, most notably, the book’s eponymous model: the Doughnut.
The image is intuitive: in between planetary degradation on the exterior, and human deprivation
on the interior, wedged in between the “ecological ceiling” on the outside and the “social
foundation” ring on the inside, sits the “safe and just space for humanity”—thus, the Doughnut
(see Figure 1). If one manages to ignore that this baked good symbolises everything that is wrong
with the global North’s predilection for excessive, fatty, carbon-intensive diets, the Doughnut
provides an accessible model for framing the book’s key question: “If humanity’s twenty-first
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century goal is to get into the Doughnut, what economic mindset will give us the best chance of
getting there?” (10).
In reply to this query, Raworth sets out seven ways to think like a 21st century economist:
1. changing the goal, i.e. no longer using GDP as the predominant measure of progress;
2. raising questions about what the economy contributes to in the bigger picture;
3. nurturing human nature instead of the self-interested, isolated, calculating rational
economic man, i.e. the kind of people you would never want in your life, let alone running
the world;
4. getting savvy with systems, i.e. thinking in systems and feedback loops instead of
mechanical supply-demand equilibria;
5. designing to distribute instead of the debunked ‘growth will produce equality’ Kuznets
6. creating to regenerate instead of the equally debunked ‘growth will clean it up’
Environmental Kuznets Curve; and,
7. being agnostic about growth, i.e. not having economic growth irrespective of whether
people thrive, but prioritising thriving people irrespective of economic growth.
Kate Raworth’s intention is commendable. There is little about these goals with which I
would disagree; indeed, I wholeheartedly believe there is a dire need to move away from the
supremacy of infinite growth and ultracompetitive ways of organising the world. Building
carefully on existing economic thinking through broad referencing and novel ways to bring
different economists’ voices into conversation with each other, her book opens a much-needed
conversation space for where to go from here for a future worth living. However, despite the book’s
many strengths, the more I read, the more I began to question whether it fully succeeds in meeting
its own aspirations.
The first set of question marks arises regarding the book’s eponymous alternative model, the
Doughnut. The Doughnut builds on established research: its environmental dimension in terms of
the outer “critical ecological degradation” sphere and the ecological ceiling (i.e. the outer boundary
of the doughnut) draw on earth system science, utilizing Johan Rockström and Will Steffen and
colleagues’ respected planetary boundaries framework. To identify the social foundation of the
“safe and just space for humanity”, i.e. the Doughnut’s inner boundary, Raworth uses a boiled
down version of the United Nations’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a floor to
prevent “critical social deprivation” (the Doughnut’s inner hole). As is often the case, the premise’s
greatest strengthsimplicityarguably is also its greatest weakness as it throws into question
how much of a departure from conventional wisdom it really constitutes. While it draws on
arguably the most universally accepted governance framework we have in the SDGs, it also
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entirely ignores the SDGs’ environmental dimensions. Moreover, this also means that the
Doughnut makes no effort to account for and even replicates both frameworks’ blind spots. In the
social sphere, it ignores arts and culture, which the SDGs equally sideline. In the environmental
dimension, 2.5 of the nine planetary boundaries, even in planetary boundaries’ latest 2015 update,
are not yet quantified or measurable. Moreover, as in both frameworks, there is no
acknowledgement of trade-offs which will be required, e.g. between climate action (SDG 13) and
sustainable consumption and production (SDG 12), and no critical discussion of what goals or
boundaries should take precedence.
Figure 1: The Doughnut
Source: “Kate Raworth: Exploring Doughnut Economics”;
Secondly, the Doughnut’s universal aspiration risks inapplicability to any one specific
context. In the book itself (chapter 1, pp. 38-44), there is very little information on how Raworth
has identified the Doughnut’s “social foundation” inner ring and the twelve factors which
constitute it, with details only provided in a 4.5-page appendix. One might argue that the lack of
information regarding the source of data for individual indicators (though the table as a whole is
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referenced) is further evidence of the book being predominantly aimed at the interested public
rather than a more narrow academic audience. Upon closer investigation, however, it becomes
evident that Raworth has taken some liberties with both the Sustainable Development Goals and
the planetary boundaries framework without explaining how and why.
The author provides no account, for example, of how she derived the twelve factors
constituting the Doughnut’s “social foundation” from the 17 SDGs. Similarly, the indicators for
measuring the twelve factors, some of which are also split into two indicators without explanation,
oscillate between industrialized- and developing-country contexts—a balancing act that the book
in general does not always pull off successfully. For instance, while the housing indicator builds
on a 2012 figure of the urban population living in slum housing in developing countries (how
reliable can that count be?), one might ask why the aggravating shortage of affordable housing in
the global North, which has contributed to the rise of populism in several industrialized countries,
does not feature. For education, the Doughnut’s two indicators reflect adult illiteracy and the
percentage of children ages 12-15 not in school—the rationale underlying either selection as a
proxy for educational attainment worldwide would equally have merited an explanation. Similarly,
why is an undernourished population a good indicator of food availability, rather than
malnourishment, food security, etc.?
On the environmental side, Raworth relies exclusively on Rockström and colleagues’
planetary boundaries framework yet ignores their differentiation between functional diversity
(which is not yet measurable) and genetic diversity in favour of a lumped-together “biodiversity
loss”; she also replaces some of their terminology: “novel entities” becomes “chemical pollution,”
and “atmospheric aerosol loading” becomes “air pollution,” for example. Again, none of these
choices is clearly explained.
The final, perhaps most fundamental question mark arises regarding the Doughnut’s strict
separation of the social and environmental spheres without any discussion of political linkages.
This delineation is all the more unusual since their intertwined nature, particularly for food or
water, cannot be overstated. As Perreault (2009) points out, development is always and necessarily
an environmental project; questions about justice involving disadvantaged contexts intrinsically
encompass both social and environmental considerations (cf. Joan Martinez Alier’s
environmentalism of the poor, 2013). In some ways, the Doughnut replicates a much-questioned
feature (e.g. Adams 2009) of the Brundtland definition of sustainable development, which is
unashamedly anthropocentric while insufficiently acknowledging that the way we meet socio-
economic needs is inextricably bound up with how we use environmental resources. What is more,
this strict separation between the Doughnut’s inner social and outer ecological sphere ignores that
the distribution of environmental resources is subject to socio-political struggles.
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Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the political dimension is severely underrepresented
throughout the book. Since Raworth herself reports witnessing first-hand “barefaced power games
block progress in international negotiations” while working at UNDP (8), it is even more surprising
that power and politics are virtually absent from her book overall. Would one key prerequisite for
reality-checking economics not be to force it to incorporate power, a disciplinary blind spot she
herself acknowledges?
These questions recur to the reader throughout: the issues of being captive to conventional
wisdom, universal aspirations equating to inapplicability to any one context, and underplaying the
links between social, environmental and political considerations, are emblematic of some of the
larger concerns I have about the book. If the core objective is to overhaul a discipline, why write
a book that appears to be aimed at a general audience and/or students to achieve it? It is neither a
textbook nor an academic tome, but seems to be aimed at the interested layperson, which I
ordinarily welcome. Yet if the objective is rewriting the rationales of economics, will it reach the
relevant audiences if economics professors do not put it on reading lists?
Moreover, does the book go far enough in questioning economics’ current blind spots?
Firstly, Raworth does not address sufficiently Aristotle’s distinction between oikonomia and
chrematistike, and the problem that chrematistike, the desire to acquire wealth, is scuppering
oikonomia, sound household management. If one does not sufficiently question the world’s desire
to acquire wealth, is a sufficiently alternative mindset even possible? If one argues (well) against
the primacy of growth, but does not address the underlying problem of insatiable pursuits of
wealth, how suitable is the resulting blueprint for the 21st century likely to prove? Secondly, if a
book is unwilling to challenge economics’ ability always to find the best answers, does it not
impede its own ability to run far enough away from the walls which have built economists’ empire,
but also blinkered their thinking for so long? To my mind, the book’s painstaking efforts to retrace
and reinterpret existing thinking by key Northern economists implicitly upholds the primacy of
economics and economists from the global North. Incidentally, this same mindset has also become
apparent in the top ten list of development thinkers published by Oxfam, Raworth’s former long-
time employer, which is equally heavy on economists active or trained in the global North (usually
This brings us to one final key non-sequitur. The book appears predicated on current systems
shifting towards Doughnut thinking of their own accord, convinced by the manuscript’s (sound)
arguments. That ignores not only that those in power currently appear to be feeling insufficient
pressure from investors, governments or universities to shift towards Doughnut thinking, but also
that this paradigm-shifting groundswell did not even materialise after the 2008 financial crisis
which Raworth discusses. It is odd how far away that calamity, despite its ever-present tentacles,
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feels even ten years later, especially as some current crisespopulism and xenophobia, terrorism,
migration, women’s underappreciated (re)productive work—feel oddly underaddressed by this
book. This recalls the prior observation that Raworth seeks to speak to all contexts equally, but
thus inherently struggles to acknowledge the extremely uneven conditions that those seeking to
champion people and planet in Manchester, Manila, Maputo or Mississippi face. How can the
Doughnut overcome industrialised countries kicking away the ladder? How does it enable citizen-
led, gender-equal, context-specific efforts through grassroots thinking?
The book’s pitch, as explained above, appears to favour a broader audience, which by
extension means that the intended change in the world is expected to come from bottom-up,
groundswell Doughnut activity. But if that is the case, instead of reinterpreting economics’
conventional wisdom, would it not be far more essential to provide a plethora of practical socio-
environmental examples to guide supporters in creating a safe and just space for humanity at micro,
meso or macro scales? While Raworth’s promotional YouTube videos reference local government
efforts to operationalise the Doughnut, the book itself is light on examples of how individuals,
local businesses, municipalities or national governments could implement Doughnut thinking in
everyday decision-making. This is particularly disappointing given Raworth’s own wealth of
experience working in global North and South and, would to my mind, be the key weakness to
rectify in any potential second edition. The examples that are given, such as terraced farming in
Ethiopia that restores desert to arable land, or Swiss time-banking for a sharing economy, are
encouraging gems. However, there could have been far more focus on how committed readers
could translate this book into action, whatever their context.
Kate Raworth raises a diversity of highly relevant points in a well-written and thoughtful way,
meriting a read for anyone worried about the current state of the world. Nevertheless, her book’s
above-discussed issues recall certain biases and blind spots which in my view plague broader
current thinking. Indeed, I might argue that jettisoning economics-centred conventional wisdom
and universally applicable, Northern-conceived solutions, while acknowledging and addressing
the inequalities and unevenness perpetuated by socio-environmental dynamics, are fundamental
prerequisites for moving into Raworth’s “safe and just space for humanity.”
... Between the ecological ceiling and social foundation lies the safe and just space where both biophysical systems and human well-being can be maintained. While the social foundation is based on human needs, understanding the context-specific nature of how these are understood and met according to different cultural expectations is a challenge for translating the model across spatial scales [21]. Furthermore, social domains are multidimensional and may be open to competing interpretations or numerous potential indicators for monitoring progress [18]. ...
... Understanding complex inter-relationships within and between environmental and social domains remains a challenge for pursuing a safe and just space [21,41]. While research has sought to address this, for example, by modelling social and biophysical processes together [42], downscaling poses the additional complexity of understanding place-based dynamic systems to identify pathways that are safe and just over time [26,37]. ...
... Limited availability of disaggregated data and difficulties of engaging marginalised communities pose difficulties in addressing this heterogeneity [9]. Though the planetary boundaries and doughnut models offer powerful visual frameworks that illustrate an ambitious vision, neither easily lend themselves to an examination of social differences and inequalities [20,21]. ...
Full-text available
The concept of ‘doughnut economics’ is attracting growing attention from policy-makers and has the potential to unify stakeholders around a holistic vision of sustainable development. The ‘safe and just’ space within the doughnut is framed at a global scale, based on human needs that represent a foundation for social wellbeing, and planetary boundaries reflecting biophysical limits. However, the geographical division of political power between and within nations means that its ability to stimulate change will depend upon its application at national and subnational scales. This paper examines the challenges facing local institutions in downscaling doughnut economics for planning, decision-making and leadership; draws on wider literature from previous efforts to localise sustainability governance to help illuminate these challenges; and outlines a future research agenda to support local governance for a safe and just space.
... The levels of integration in the sustainable wellbeing literature are vastly different, from excluding the environment in standard wellbeing literature, to shallow integration by including it as a resource to be exploited, to deep integration in the transdisciplinary synthesis of Diaz et al. Raworth's doughnut has been criticized for shallower integration, by artificially separating the environment as an ecological ceiling -a resource for consumption in development-and also for arbitrarily selecting factors in its "social foundation" (Krauss, 2018). It is also important to question if conceiving wellbeing, based on needs, is sufficient? ...
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Visualising the involvement of humans within a process is powerful. Sustainability relies on decision makers to think about the systems around their problems ahead of time. The early considerations include how humans impact these systems. This study aims to show humans as stake-holders in the circular life cycle. The key research question sets the stage for how a social pillar in the framework can be included through utilising Systems Engineering (SE) tools, such as systems thinking and human systems integration (HSI). The qualitative research aims to develop the understanding of complex relationships, where the researcher and interview participants gain meaningful connections between the system and social elements in question. These social elements are clear when looking at any system, all industries, and every country. The study used semi-structured interviews for data collection and thematic analysis and causal loop diagrams to analyse the data with software. The two main findings from the study include causal loop diagrams showing the interactions of humans in the Circular Economy (CE) framework and a new conceptual CE framework showcasing several social elements.
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Policy coherence is key to ensuring that the wellbeing of society is achieved within an environment that guarantees sustainable production and consumption patterns. From a conceptual lens of the Barrow Framework, we examine governance lapses in extractive resource governance and explore mechanisms for integrating policy coherence, environmental sustainability and strengthening governance arrangements in Ghana and Nigeria. The Barrow Framework’s Index Score (BAR-X) employs Multi-Criteria Decision-Making analysis in a focus group discussion and Policy Coherence Analysis to identify policy gaps and prioritize institutions, socioeconomic and environmental themes. Policy coherence analysis of Ghana and Nigeria from the BAR-X showed an overall performance of 34 % and 30 % respectively falling far below the minimum expected score of 80 %. We demonstrate that resource governance policies of Ghana and Nigeria do not adequately address the tripod of institutional efforts, developmental load and the biospherical pivot. Under extremely limited resource conditions, it is recommended that civil society/non-profit organisations, financial institutions and regional institutions are supported with proceeds from extractive resources to particularly promote agroecology, technology and innovation towards maintaining ecological balance through preservation, protection, conservation and the reduction of ecological and carbon footprints.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.