Biting the Doughnut

why you should care about the model causing a paradigm shift in economic policy-making.


It is common knowledge that gross domestic product does not measure what matters to human life. As is commonly touted in the media, “growth,” from a certain point and especially in the Global North, reflects neither improvement in the wellbeing of ordinary citizens nor the ecological breakdown occurring at a frightening pace. 

Yet, these two great challenges demand a response that tackles both and sacrifices neither, as well as innovative measurements. One interesting attempt to frame this balancing act in recent years is Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics

It is common knowledge that gross domestic product does not measure what matters to human life.

The “Doughnut,” as referred to colloquially, asks the question: is it possible for everyone to have a good life within our planet’s limits? On a global scale, it visualises the safe and just space for humanity to thrive while respecting environmental boundaries and social foundations. The nine upper limits are comprised of the Earth’s biophysical processes, which if continually crossed could lead to catastrophes. These biological processes are are adopted from critical research done by the Stockholm Resilience Centre. On the other hand, social foundations are crowdsourced from the Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations. This accessible combination of social and environmental concerns refracts our view on the success of a nation and allows us to make unprecedented comparisons. A comprehensive resource on this to peruse would be the University of Leeds’s Good Life Project, in which one doughnut is created for each nation. 

The “Doughnut,” as referred to colloquially, asks the question: is it possible for everyone to have a good life within our planet’s limits?

In a local context, the model deepens its emphasis on the needs of specific communities within specific biomes. Via mechanisms such as citizen assemblies, locals can define what it means to thrive and how their living place can exist in symbiosis with its natural environment. Amsterdam, actively adopting the Doughnut, is examining how their city can match the ecological function of its surrounding landscape. However, these communities also must be aware of their place within global history, geography, supply chains, and on Earth. They must be in touch with how, as Susan Sontag wrote, “[their] privileges are located on the same map as [other’s] suffering.” They cannot be nonchalant to the terrible working conditions that uphold their high quality of life, in fashion or the coffee cup. Furthermore, what are the impacts they have on a global problem like climate change? Their activities must be in the context of a warming planet.

One can imagine applying the Doughnut to a business or corporation. Local businesses are essential to community well-being. Big companies are often a mini society within themselves. Large industrial factories can use the model to balance their use of natural resources, profitability, and social concerns of their workers. Could we apply this model to our very own Students’ Association? Regardless, it is as if we are witnessing a paradigm shift: there is an abundance of work being done from diverse places towards ensuring an economy that works for everyone. 

Scotland is adapting to this balancing act in its own way with clear similarities to the Doughnut model. Wellbeing is at the heart of the National Performance Framework. This framework contains a mixture of conventional and unconventional indicators such as access to housing, access to green spaces, the happiness of children, loneliness, and income inequality. Driving all this is the idea that the quality of government is measured by the happiness of its people. 

The positive effects of this focus are evident in the report by the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery (AGER) on post-COVID economic recommendations is titled: “Towards a more robust, resilient, well-being economy for Scotland.” Certainly, a large portion of the text still aims at businesses. Nonetheless, environmental and social concerns feature significantly. The report recommends the prioritisation of a green recovery. Attention was paid to the Third Sector or voluntary sector and its lack of support despite providing satisfying work and solidifying the local community.  

Our challenges are immense but we will bite through them, one Doughnut at a time. 

There are sure to be roadblocks to this shift in perspective. Concentrated wealth is a form of power that can protect and reproduce itself. This is one problem with Big Oil and Big Tech. More mundanely, owners of ordinary companies still look to GDP as an indicator of the business environment and the likelihood that the company will prosper. If so, in their eyes, people as consumers may precede people as community members. In turn, employees inherit this perspective and perpetuate it. I know this because I have seen it in my own parents. 

Nonetheless, what we choose to measure matters. It gives us context to our actions and goals to strive forward. It drives our conversation and shifts our perspective. Kate Raworth’s model, I believe, is apt for the moment we find ourselves in. Our challenges are immense but we will bite through them, one Doughnut at a time. 

Article by Long Tran

Art by Alex Rive

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