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Discussing doughnuts (not the edible kind)

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In the last couple of years a new ‘doughnut’ concept has emerged, that purports to link two existing sets of ideas about how to meet human rights without degrading the environment.  The outer edge of the doughnut relates to the idea of ‘planetary’ limits - for example, limits to freshwater use - whilst the inner edge of the doughnut relates to minimum human rights.  In between the outer and inner edges lies a safe and just space (i.e. the tasty body of the doughnut) where sustainable and equitable survival is possible.  The idea of the doughnut is described as a “playfully serious approach” by its originator Kate Raworth – and you can read more about it at the original a 2012 Oxfam discussion paper at author (who now works at Oxford University) has used her personal website to provide a brief overview of the concept, lots of related and interesting thoughts, and links to lots of other commentaries from others.  From this website you can see that the idea has gained a lot of traction.  For example last week I noticed a paper that has applied this concept to 2 case studies.  It is interesting – and provoking – to consider if the doughnut really represents a possible living space for humanity.  Even though this is a new concept, there has been a lot of discussion around it, and this is very heartening and stimulating for those of us of who work on related subjects. An image of some tasty doughnuts

However, I do wonder if the intuitive appeal of the concept might eventually stand in the way of some important and critical debate.  Firstly, do we really understand and agree where the ‘edges’ of the doughnut are?  Probably not; although large amounts of natural and biophysical research indicate that we have a good idea about a few of the planetary limits that form the doughnut’s outer edge, other limits or boundaries are rather more uncertain, or contested. This pinterest board on the "Limits to the Planet" debate provides links to lots of viewpoints and papers on this subject.  In contrast, real doughnuts have hard(ish), fixed edges so arguably using them to represent the concept could lend a false sense of confidence.  Going beyond this, do we even know if it is possible to meet all minimum human rights and stay within the outer limits? Of course we all hope so, but if this is not possible, given the growing human population, how we would describe the unpalatable truth? With a negative doughnut of impossibility?!

No conceptual model can perfectly capture all details of all topics, and I greatly admire Kate Raworth for linking and communicating several complex topics with one concept.  I think the doughnut concept should spur all of us who work on complex topics to think if and how we can use conceptual models to communicate key ideas and arguments, albeit whilst maintaining awareness of the pros and cons that different approaches may offer. It will be interesting to see how this and other concepts develop in the future.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.



Good question: what if universal human rights make the hole bigger than the outside edge of the doughnut? Which edge is more important in the case of the negative doughnut?
And what if the edges are inter-dependent? That is, what if the degree to which human rights are achieved affects the extent of planetary boundaries?
In effect, this begs the question as to how these edges change over time. What we really need is a 4-dimensional doughnut extending into the past and future.

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Printed from /blogs/discussing-doughnuts-not-edible-kind on 28/02/24 04:03:36 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.