Albert Einstein once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” a lighthearted quote now unfurled into a million metaphors — none more accurate than our legislative efforts since the 1970s. In the fifty years since the second wave of environmental regulation began, our ecological challenges have grown larger than ever. From toxic chemical usage to biodiversity loss to unbridled greenhouse gas emissions, our natural world seems to be a room collapsing from every wall. In veiled attempts to prop that room back up, politicians have politicked and created solutions that, while well-intentioned and even marginally successful, have failed to tackle the issues they intended to.
It all started with our infatuation with human development, a Gatsbian green light to bring downtrodden places from poverty to prosperity. In 1950, global average life expectancy stood at just forty-six. By 2015, it had reached seventy-one. According to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, in 1990, almost 50% of those in developing regions lived on less than $1.25 a day. By 2015, only 14%. These gains are truly spectacular, but this development, for all its glory, has not been a global panacea. Environmental pressures have risen in recent years, exacerbated by a modernizing and industrializing world. Political remedies have brewed, and while helpful, these programs amount to piecemeal fixes trying to stop a speeding train by blowing on it.
In the United States, chemical pollution has long been seen as a major environmental and human health hazard. We use chemicals in almost everything we do, from cleaning to manufacturing, but chemicals that enter a freshwater body may render it unsafe for consumption and kill native species. In 1976, amidst a flurry of environmental legislative action, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed, endowing the EPA with chemical marketplace regulation. Forty-five years since its passing, it has banned a grand total of five chemicals.
Declines in our natural biodiversity have long been the subject of marketing campaigns and public policy efforts. While the US Endangered Species Act has helped some species recover, only 5% of plants and animals receive adequate conservation funding, and today an estimated one-third of all species in the United States face extinction. Globally, it is estimated that — at best — 200 to 2000 extinctions occur annually, with harsher estimates placing the ceiling around 100,000, over one thousand times higher than the natural rate of extinction. Our ecological world, despite our best efforts, continues to be hollowed.
The Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997, targeting rapidly increasing carbon dioxide emissions. The United States refused to ratify. China and India had little limits. Today, global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels sit at over 419 parts per million, while methane, a gas twenty-five times more potent than carbon dioxide, has gained 250 parts per billion since 1960. Much like failed policy efforts of the past, we continue to produce legislation and sign monumental treaties that give glimpses of hope for a better future, yet our emissions continue to rise unabated.
So, Einstein was right; repetitive failures spurred by repetitive actions dazzle with insanity. As mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, legislative halls dotting the globe continue to fill, continue to debate, continue to champion environmental efforts, all in the name of insanity. To break our insane streak, we may just have to stop our infatuation with gradual changes and learn to love a new system entirely.
Enter, Kate Raworth. In 2017, she published her version of a remodeling of our economies in Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist. While politicians flail attempting to hold the room up with temporary fixes, Raworth has looked deeper, espousing a new room entirely, one where sustainability and social equality can coexist. This space — the Doughnut — is the place where we can “meet the needs of all within the means of the planet”, continuing that twentieth century accomplishment of human development, with added speed brakes to stop our runaway train. She proposes six meaningful vehicles for change: change the goal (of economics), see the big picture, nurture human nature, get savvy with systems, create to regenerate, and be agnostic about growth.
In 1937, Simon Kuznets developed a new measurement for national income: Gross National Product (GNP), the precursor to Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For the first time, economists and politicians peered statistically into the fruits of their growth-inducing policy efforts. GDP growth soon became the sole economic goal. Now, amidst an environmental crisis, our modern world — according to Raworth — “demand[s] a very different goal”, a recalibration to modern metrics that foster a more sustainable, happier, and resilient world. In light of the environmental challenges collapsing our room from every wall, questions have mounted over that shimmering mirage of growth twentieth century economics has sought. In order to answer them, a wholesale redraw towards human welfare and ecological sustainability is needed.
Another twentieth century creation, circular flow — the idea of money cyclically flowing from consumers to producers to households — has become our lens for examining how money winds through an economy. The trouble with circular flow lies in “what it leaves invisible”, the assumptions it has long brushed aside. We live in a finite environment, yet circular flow believes in infinite economic movement. The model also leaves out key economic players like the commons, domestic household work, the Earth, and society — all facets that influence how our world functions today. By embedding our economy into its environment and by adding players beyond purely the market, society gains a more dynamic understanding of economic transactions. Instead of focusing on where money is, we can focus on how that money impacts its location. Through this kind of systems thinking, impacts of monetary actions on the environment can more easily be connected. Investments in organic agriculture can be linked economically with successful shrimp farmers in Louisiana. Donations for improved sanitation in the Congo can reveal their impact on the nation’s literacy rates. A more modern, interconnected, green economy emerges.
Adam Smith, the founder of modern capitalism, believed humans held “humanity, justice, generosity and public spirit, the qualities most useful to others.” His theory of humans has unfortunately been corrupted into Homo economicus, the rational economic character at the heart of microeconomic policy. This human has one major flaw: he is simply non-representative of actual humans. We are irrational. We are myopic. We are giving and fickle beings. By nurturing human nature, we concoct a novel human unit, one that is approximating, reciprocating, irrational, and interdependent. Through this rebuild of our self-image, humanity can remodel our systems after our modern selves, aligning us closer with a reality beyond mundane growth.
In 1948, scientist Warren Weaver described problems of simplicity and disordered and organized complexity in “Science and Complexity,” codifying the goals of modeling. Economic models have long attacked organized complexity, producing assumed variables to simplify operations — including infinite resource inputs. In reality, stocks of resources are finite and flows can increase or decrease their volume, while feedback loops can lead to “explosive growth or to collapse” if unchecked. Our modern models of circular flow and production simply do not account for these ideas. By embracing systems thinking, however, we can increase resiliency in our systems, smoothing out our economy and improving the tracking of how we utilize our resource sinks.
The final twentieth century theorist in question is Walt W. Rostow, whose magnum opus, The Stages of Economic Growth, laid out the economic development every nation has and will undertake, from traditional to the era of mass-consumption. This era of consumerism has embedded itself in Western culture since World War II, creating immense social and economic growth. However, today we see how damaging mass consumerism can be, producing waste in our oceans, feeding chemical pollution in our air and water, and spurring destruction of fragile habitats. A new Rostowian condition, one that avoids our degenerative future, may be on the horizon. Post-consumerism, an economy that “makes us thrive, whether or not it grows”, is a necessary invention to fit inside the Doughnut, where we constrain ourselves to keep our room standing. Underpinning this new era is a shift from policies designed to add value to ones designed to maintain it, including via regenerative investment. If the growth of a century past has added fuel to our runaway train, an embargo for the future may represent society’s best speed brake.
For all the hope of a better future Raworth’s Doughnut provides, it simply cannot be pragmatic without global implementation. Around the world, no country has publicly committed itself towards the Doughnut, instead falling victim to the trap of piecemeal changes, ever so slowly ripping off the bandaid. It is here we see its pitfalls: It is still, in a world increasingly green-minded and wary of our collapsing room, far-fetched. Much needs to be done — and quickly — to meet our planetary boundaries, but this presents opportunity. In Amsterdam, the birthplace of capitalism, a scaled-down, city-level Doughnut was baked, seeking to answer four questions about the city. The first is “What would it mean for the people of Amsterdam to thrive?”, and focuses on policies and lives of its citizens. The second — “What would it mean for Amsterdam to thrive within its natural habitat?” — embeds the city within its environment through local green efforts, a rework of circular flow. “What would it mean for Amsterdam to respect the health of the whole planet?”, seeks to reduce the city’s carbon footprint and decrease its hand in global environmental problems. The final question, “What would it mean for Amsterdam to respect the wellbeing of people worldwide?” builds a new Amsterdam as the world’s city, a globally outreaching metropolis. Through these four questions, Amsterdam seeks to enter the Doughnut — helping its citizens, the world’s population, and our planet concurrently.
Amsterdam committed itself in 2020, amidst a pandemic shedding light on various social and political questions around the world. Soon, Brussels, Belgium “formally embraced the model” and adopted it by September. Across the Atlantic, Portland, Oregon has prepared a Doughnut for its post-pandemic recovery, while grassroots efforts in Costa Rica aim to apply it nationally. We now see places around the world adopting this model as a paradigm shift in political and economic thinking. If success sweeps these petri dishes, Doughnut Economics may grow larger and larger, going beyond its roots in ecologically-minded areas. For now, though, the model remains a distant but approaching idea, a long way out — but certainly a light at the end of the tunnel.
In the twentieth century, we saw how our economic policies improved the lives of millions. In the twenty-first, we are now witnessing the dark side of those actions, the catastrophic fall of a facade of wonder and beauty. Our environment is collapsing from all sides, plagued by human-driven pollution, water withdrawals, biodiversity losses, ozone depletion, and anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. But we are an industrious and ingenious species, always looking for solutions to our problems. Kate Raworth’s Doughnut seeks to move beyond our modern solutions of disconnected policy efforts, transforming the world of economic thought with wholesale and sweeping updates. We are a solutions-based species. We can do this. We have hope. We have a Doughnut.