Fair shares of Oxfam’s doughnut?

I welcome innovations in our thinking which move us closer to realizing  just sustainabilities and Kate Raworth/Oxfam’s A Safe and Just Operating Space for Humanity: Can We Live Within the Doughnut? is no exception. Its clarity and ease of visualization make it an excellent communication tool for students, academics, policymakers and activists alike.

The focus of just sustainabilities which I have articulated more fully elsewhere (Agyeman et al. 2003, Agyeman 2005), is the development of policy and planning themes that:

  • Improve people’s quality of life and well-being, both now (intra-generational equity) and into the future (inter-generational equity);
  • Are carried out with an intentional focus on just and equitable processes, outputs and outcomes in terms of people’s access to environmental, social, political and economic space(s);
  • Aim to achieve a high quality of life and well-being within the notion of environmental limits (that is they are focused on achieving ‘one planet’ lifestyles).

In November 2010, I wrote a blog called ‘Fair Shares in Environmental Space’, a concept based on the early work of Spangenberg and Tischner at the Wuppertal Institute in 1994. My friend and colleague Duncan McLaren (2003:22) argued in my book Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World that environmental space “can underpin the emerging concept of just sustainability” and it can “suggest how sustainable development policies can explicitly incorporate equity concerns” (34). I noted that the environmental space “implies equal rights to resource consumption for all peoples of the world within the carrying capacity of the planet” (Friends of the Earth International). In other words, as shown in the diagram below, it is that sustainable consumption space between the minimum resource use needed to ensure a basic quality of life and human dignity (the dignity floor), and the maximum use of the Earth’s resources without living beyond nature’s capacity and depleting ecological stocks (the profligacy ceiling).

The Environmental Space (Copyright Friends of the Earth International)

In the year I wrote the ‘Fair Shares’ blog, research by an international team of earth system scientists further developed our understanding of global thresholds and boundaries. Their focus was just how far above the profligacy ceiling we are really living:

“Nine planetary boundaries [are] identified … the global biogeochemical cycles of nitrogen, phosphorus, carbon, and water; the major physical circulation systems of the planet (the climate, stratosphere, ocean systems); biophysical features of Earth that contribute to the underlying resilience of its self-regulatory capacity (marine and terrestrial biodiversity, land systems); and two critical features associated with anthropogenic global change (aerosol loading and chemical pollution).(Rockström et al 2009:6).

This research found that three of the system parameters are in overshoot: the climate system; biodiversity loss and nitrogen loading:

While Rockström et al (2009) focused on living beyond environmental boundaries, on living beyond the profligacy ceiling, the recent, timely and welcome report by Kate Raworth at Oxfam adds a much needed  just sustainabilities dimension to Rockström et al (2009) by “combining the concept of planetary boundaries with the complementary concept of social boundaries” (p4). Unfortunately however, Raworth doesn’t seem to be aware of the great similarities between the earlier, environmental space concept and Oxfam’s ‘doughnut’ model, nor the seminal work of Spangenberg and Tischner, Spangenberg et at (1995, 1998), McLaren (1998, 2003), Carley and Spapens (1998), Buhrs (2004) and countless others whose work could have more firmly anchored and underpinned her own. Indeed, another striking thing on reading the report was that the only pre-2009 reference is to the 1987 Brundtland Report.

Consider for instance, Spangenberg et al’s (1998:9) description of the Environmental Space:

Environmental space is a normative concept which takes into account the physical as well as the social and developmental aspects of sustainability. Physically, environmental space is described as the capacity of the biosphere’s environmental functions to support human economic activities, the upper limit given by the carrying capacity. The social dimension of environmental space is given by the “global fair shares” or “equity principle” derived from the definition of sustainable development, assigning to all living people a right to achieve a comparable level of resource use, and to future generations a right to an equivalent supply. This is equivalent to the principle of inter- and intra-generational justice of distribution. Obviously, such a right cannot be implemented in a straight- forward manner – it is a human right to use a fair share of the common heritage of mankind rather than a piece of enforceable legislation.

In explaining the Safe and Just Operating Space, Raworth (2012:4) notes that:

“the social foundation forms an inner boundary, below which are many dimensions of human deprivation. The environmental ceiling forms an outer boundary, beyond which are many dimensions of environmental degradation. Between the two boundaries lies an area – shaped like a doughnut – which represents an environmentally safe and socially just space for humanity to thrive in. It is also the space in which inclusive and sustainable economic development takes place, “

and that:

“This framework brings out a new perspective on sustainable development. Human-rights advocates have long focused on the imperative of ensuring every person’s claim to life’s essentials, while ecological economists have highlighted the need to situate the economy within environmental limits. The framework brings the two approaches together in a simple, visual way, creating a closed system that is bounded by human rights on the inside and environmental sustainability on the outside.” (p15)

The Safe and Just Space for Humanity (Raworth 2012)

I’m not so sure that this post-2009 perspective on sustainable development is so new? The authors I mention above and others too many to mention, have like me, wrestled with the linkages between environmental quality and human equality. What is novel in the report however, is that based on social concerns raised in 80 governmental submissions to the Rio+20 process, Raworth (2012:15) notes that “the 11 dimensions of the social foundation are illustrative and are based on governments’ priorities for Rio+20. The nine dimensions of the environmental ceiling are based on the planetary boundaries set out by Rockström et al (2009).” [Note: the 11 dimensions are those inside the social foundation or hole in the doughnut in the diagram above].

So what are some of the take home messages from Raworth’s work?

1 She asks and answers the question: “would eradicating poverty put planetary boundaries under stress? No. Available data imply that the social foundation could be achieved for every person alive today with strikingly few additional resources.” (p5). She also notes “sustainable development can only succeed if poverty eradication and environmental sustainability are pursued together.” (p8). Similarly, much of my work has been on the inextricable links between environmental quality and human equality, and the need to work on both together, which has been borne out by the work of Wilkinson and Pickett (2010) on inequality.

2 Related, she argues that “moving into the safe and just space for humanity means eradicating poverty to bring everyone above the social foundation, and reducing global resource use, to bring it back within planetary boundaries. Social justice demands that this double objective be achieved through far greater global equity in the use of natural resources, with the greatest reductions coming from the world’s richest consumers. And it demands far greater efficiency in transforming natural resources to meet human needs.” (p5)

3 Finally, her $billion question, but one that needs to be asked: “Who should determine the dimensions and boundaries of an internationally agreed social foundation and an environmental ceiling, and how?” We’re better at assigning social minima like the $1.25 a day Poverty Threshold. I wonder, will we ever begin to truly define not only environmental, but other maxima too?


A day after I’d written this Post, I came across another critique of Oxfam’s Doughnut in Is Doughnut Economics too Western? Critique from a Latin American Environmentalist. In it Eduardo Gudynas makes a similar point to mine about Environmental Space.


Agyeman, J, Bullard, R and Evans, B. (eds) (2003) Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World. Cambridge, MA. MIT Press.

Agyeman, J (2005) Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Environmental Justice. New York. New York University Press.

Buhrs, T. (2004) Sharing Environmental Space: The Role of Law, Economics and Politics. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management. Vol. 47 No. 3. pp. 429-447.

Carley, M and Spapens, P. (1998). Sharing the World: Sustainable Living and Global Equity in the 21st Century. New York. St. Martin’s Press.

McLaren, DP, S Bullock and N Yousuf, 1998. Tomorrow’s World: Britain’s share in a sustainable future. London, Earthscan.

McLaren, DP. (2003). Environmental Space, Equity and the Ecological Debt. pp 19-37 in Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World. Eds J Agyeman, RD Bullard and B Evans. Cambridge MA, MIT Press.

Raworth, K (2012) A Safe and Just Operating Space for Humanity: Can We Live Within the Doughnut? Oxford. Oxfam Discussion Papers.

Rockström, J, W Steffen, K Noone, Å Persson, FS Chapin, III, E Lambin, TM Lenton, M Scheffer, C Folke, H Schellnhuber, B Nykvist, CA De Wit, T Hughes, S van der Leeuw, H Rodhe, S Sörlin, PK Snyder, R Costanza, U Svedin, M Falkenmark, L Karlberg, RW Corell, VJ 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.

Spangenberg J. et al 1995. Towards Sustainable Europe. Brussels, Friends of the Earth Europe.

Spangenberg, J Aldo Femia Friedrich Hinterberger Helmut Schütz with contributions from Stefan Bringezu Christa Liedtke Stephan Moll and Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek (1998) Material Flow-based Indicators in Environmental Reporting. Wuppertal. Wuppertal Institute. Environmental Issues Series No 14

Wilkinson RG, Pickett K. (2010) The spirit level: why equality is better for everyone. London. Penguin.

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One Comment

  1. Kate Raworth March 13, 2012 at 12:49 pm - Reply

    Julian, many thanks for this interesting and provoking blogpost about the discussion paper I wrote.

    My paper does actually note that the doughnut echoes the concept of Environmental Space (see footnote 24) and gives a weblink, via Friends of the Earth, to the same diagram of Environmental Space that you have posted here (although I now see that since my paper’s publication, Friends of the Earth have curiously taken that link down!).

    But you are right that I was not aware of several of the publications on Environmental Space that you mention, thanks for listing them – I will look them up.

    I was familiar with the Environmental Space concept in the 1990s, but for me, the concept of planetary boundaries has stepped into a new realm through quantification, and done it in a simple and visual way which could even make it relevant to policymaking. Hence my interest in complementing them with quantified social boundaries.

    I think that the circular depiction of nine planetary boundaries (rather than the parallel lines depiction of environmental space) is also important: it literally creates a bounded space in which human activity must take place, and that is appealing to anyone coming with the perspective of ecological economics (as set out by Herman Daly and others).

    As for the billion dollar question of fair shares – I agree this is the critical one, and the one that is the most politically intractable. I’d love to know what you recommend as the best approach to this at the moment. All best Kate.

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