A call to creativity from Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’

Kate Raworth and Zoë Svendsen come together at this year’s Meaning to imagine possible futures in the context of climate change.

Post-growth economics has always played a guiding role at Meaning, and may even be the worldview that marks out any community’s membership as part of the ‘progressive business’ world. The 2016 conference, hosted by Paul Mason, could not have made the business case more strongly; and we see a further step this year towards innovation — what new, undreamt-of things are possible when we truly adopt this worldview?

It’s a question that economist Kate Raworth will address this year; contributing her theory of Doughnut Economics to a day-long ‘durational artwork’ aimed at exactly this act of imagining. Facilitated by Zoë Svendsen, it’s not theatre in its conventional form; but rather, perhaps, in its essence - the collective ‘suspension of disbelief’ we require to truly engage in experimental thought.

The beauty of involving Kate Raworth is that this is her project too — a bid to radically reframe the way we view economics and deconstruct the assumptions it gives rise to. The combination of theatre and economics turns this into an act of self-investigation — to what extent have we internalised the worldview, assumptions and behaviours of neoliberalism? For Kate, this means reconnecting to first principles and pointing out that economics as we know is inseparable from its major hubris — that it pretends to be a science.

For over 200 years, what we know as macro-economics has been inseparable from its Newtonian inspiration; entrenched beliefs that bring us all the way from Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand of the market’ via the Mont Pelerin Society’s 20th century laissez-faire to the post-Thatcherite economic order of today. The neoclassical tradition, in Kate’s words, is no more than “physics envy” and ignores the real economic complexity of the world, with all its “spiralling feedbacks, emergent trends and surprise tipping points.”

The pretensions of neoliberalism might have been exposed by the 2008 financial crisis, but it indoctrinates us to this day with its claim to be not only a law of motion, but a science of human behaviour. The dominant idea of ‘rational economic man’ claims a human nature that is self-interested, competitive and calculating — and this assumption is rarely questioned. We can best confront this entire edifice of belief through its first principle — the goal of endless growth; which brings with it an entire value system regarding who is a valid and who an invalid actor in our economy.

For Kate, the above model is the source of the conceptual problem: “so simple that it goes into the back of every economist’s head so quietly that you don’t even realise that it’s there.” The flow of goods and services is at the heart of macro-economics and yet it takes place on “a white background” — a social and ecological void — and asks us to accept rising equality and increasing concentrations of wealth and power. The objective that goes along with this model is, of course, the mission of endless growth (understood in terms of GDP) — a first principle that Kate believes must be replaced by that of “human thriving” and well-being.

One might argue that the diagram’s primary flaw is that it even requires a concept of “externalities” — a sign that neoclassical economics has failed in its professed science to accommodate the whole. Within this system, “environmental externalities” appear as no more than aggravators to the goal, and so it ignores the (scientific) processes of the biosphere — the fundamental flow of energy that make life itself possible. It also erases the social context — an entire world of women’s work in the “unpaid care economy”, which forms the real life economics on which each of these households exist. With such an outdated tradition behind it, it is no surprise that it also entirely omits the collaborative commons; which from our current standpoint of technological change is certainly the most dynamic and disruptive area yet.

These realisations came early for Kate, while an economics student at Oxford, and caused her to walk away from mainstream economics for two decades. She chose instead to immerse herself in real-world challenges, including long periods in Africa, four years at the UN and a decade at Oxfam fighting climate change. Her 2017 publication Doughnut Economics represents a return to the field but on her own terms — countering the claims of neoclassical economics as one who is schooled in exactly the social and ecological challenges it fails to incorporate.

Both her book, and the model she proposes, are groundbreaking in their simplicity; and as the most comprehensive modelling yet of the biosphere in which the journey of resources takes place. Using Rockström’s Nine Planetary Boundaries for its outer ring, the model puts planetary resources firmly in the realm of human rights, with its inner boundaries marking out the “safe and just space” necessary for universal wellbeing and “human thriving”. If we are to keep the planet in its benevolent state, we need to urgently retreat from its outer “tipping points”; currently breached on both sides of the diagram.

Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist has made a significant impact since its release earlier this year. It has been widely claimed to herald a new era of political creativity, with George Monbiot going so far as to name Kate Raworth “the John Maynard Keynes of the 21st century”. In answering why the doughnut has achieved such traction as a working model, Kate concluded an excellent talk at the RSA with the following:

“The framing of planetary boundaries is a very powerful one — it makes the complexity of earth systems science accessible to non-scientists and helps us to see the planet as a whole, as a system of interlocking processes that we depend upon for our wellbeing. Secondly, by putting that social foundation at heart brings into one simple picture the world of development and the world of environment — ending this false dichotomy that we face that either you’re for development and ending poverty or you’re for protecting the environment and these are separate concerns…It gives us a chance to rethink economic development. Instead of starting with economic growth we start with the fundamentals we all care about and ask how to get there.”

Kate’s second point might prove to be the most powerful — after all, if we are to end the perception of economics as being a closed system, we need to start by ending the assumption that an environmental agenda is somehow separate or opposed to the question of the distribution of resources. The culture of climate change has been forced into the frame of a ‘single issue’ for far too long — to such an extent that it was almost entirely absent from this year’s General Election, for example.

Zoë Svendsen, who will host the public dialogue with Kate this November, makes a similar point in regard to her own work in ‘imagining climate change’. She has been quick to point out that climate change is the context and not the explicit topic of her work; rather, “it is the occasion in which we are all operating.” The question that frames the day-long arts programme goes beyond “What is the best possible economic structure for climate change?” — it asks to experience how our creativity and decision-making would change under these new conditions.

Both thinkers seem to agree that we’re past the need to preach to the converted on climate change — the work ahead of us is conceptual and creative. For Kate, this is a reason to get excited about economics again and open it up to every discipline. Her call to creativity means losing a barrage of assumptions about what economics is, or who it is for, and asking: “What is the best economic thinking for our planetary household?”

You can hear more about Doughnut Economics at Meaning conference in Brighton, UK on 16 November 2017 — where Kate Raworth and Zoë Svendsen will join a line-up of diverse speakers exploring the role of business in creating a more sustainable, equitable and humane world. Find out more via the event website.