Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
The dominant economic model followed by virtually all major economies is inflicting severe injuries on the planet’s fragile ecosystem and causing glaring economic and social inequalities. Can a diagram of a doughnut offer us a key to resolving our predicament?
The human community today faces two momentous challenges that will loom ever larger in the years ahead. One is to establish the social and economic conditions necessary for everyone on this planet to flourish: to live with dignity and purpose and fulfill their life’s potentials. The other is to safeguard the natural environment on which we depend from the harm caused by an economy dependent on unrestrained extraction and consumption. These challenges to our collective well-being are bound to grow in severity and urgency over the coming decades. To meet them successfully calls for a transformation in the vectors that drive the economy both nationally and globally. Our current dominant economic system is pushing us toward a precipice, and we’re careening forward with hardly a thought for the plunge that lies ahead. It’s as if we’re in a car drawing ever closer to the edge of a cliff, and we continue to press down on the gas pedal while we argue over which station to listen to on the radio.
To resolve the double crisis facing us we must trace it to its roots, which means that we must look at the premises that ground the dominant economic system. The economic policies our governments pursue operate within the parameters of an economic model, which posits goals for the whole economy and prescribes what it believes to be the most effective means to realize them. This model is shared by the world’s major economic powers, whether they operate in capitalist or state-controlled modes. An economic model exerts a powerful influence over almost all our ways of thinking about our common lives, yet the validity of this model, its objective truth, is tacitly assumed, accepted almost as inevitable as the succession of day and night. Thus it’s left to stand unnoticed in the background, like the screen against which a movie is projected: omnipresent, indispensable, yet not seen in itself.
If the model conforms to the contours of the real world, the policies that flow from it will be realistic, constructive, and socially benign. But if the model is rooted in a distorted picture of the world—a picture that omits some crucial features while giving excessive weight to others—it will lead to unwise policies that damage both the social fabric of our lives and the natural environment. That the model we currently work within involves serious distortions of the actual world, distortions in both its human and natural dimensions, is the crux of our present predicament.
The model that reigns today is that of an industrial growth economy, which measures “development” in terms of expanded industrial production and increase in gross domestic product. The model is powerful, compelling, and logically rigorous, but as we can see from the global crises it repeatedly triggers, it is also terribly flawed, harboring inherent pathologies that infect both our social order and our relationships with nature. It fails to recognize that an economy that thrives by devouring the Earth’s natural resources undermines and debilitates the planet’s finite supporting capacity. And it fails to recognize that at the core of every economic model there are real people who are subjects of experience—people with hopes, fears, and aspirations who, by reason of their humanity, are entitled to the basic requisites of a dignified life.
The results of such oversights can be disastrous. In the social dimension of our lives, the model leads to glaring inequalities in wealth and income, to violations of basic social equity, to pockets of deep poverty in the midst of plenty. It consigns hundreds of millions of people to the edge of survival, perpetually struggling just to avoid destitution and premature death. It divides the world into rival military camps that spend billions on weapons of deadly power while millions in their own lands live in utter poverty.
Our relationship to the environment is just as vicious. This model promotes a purely utilitarian orientation to nature, an outlook that compels us to chip away at the fragile geophysical and biological pillars that sustain human civilization on this precious planet. If the destruction continues, everything we cherish is bound to collapse, and we ourselves will join the crash.
To successfully resolve these two problems—rampant social injustice and environmental exploitation—we need an economic model that can promote social equity and the protection of the natural environment. The model must be governed not by mere quantitative measurements of production, growth, and financial profitability, but by standards that reflect a moral point of view.
This calls for an expanded conception of ethics. It’s not enough merely to promote ethics as a code of individual behavior. Ethical principles must guide the larger systems in which our lives unfold, including the dominant economic model. This means that ethics must govern our relationship to each other at every level of our shared existence while also regulating our relationships with the physical and biological systems in which we are inextricably embedded.
But to invoke ethics as a critical factor in the economy, we have to ensure that ethics shapes economic and social policies that promote the common good. This is where the current system repeatedly falters. While individual companies and institutions may adopt codes of ethics for their members—and while some companies may adhere to codes of social and environmental responsibility—the dominant model operates with an ethics-neutral source code. The prevailing imperative for a corporation to succeed, especially one with a global reach, is to maximize profits, to increase returns on investments, and to provide higher dividends to its shareholders.
To meet these goals a corporation, even while espousing ethics for its workforce, may exploit the natural wealth of the Earth without constraint: clearing primal forests for timber and monocrop agriculture, polluting lakes and rivers with toxic chemicals, belching greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The drive for higher profits has profound human costs as well. It encourages giant companies to pay substandard wages, pressure politicians with lobbying campaigns, and transfer their bases of production to countries where labor is cheap and regulations weak and unenforced.
British economist Kay Raworth has proposed the outline of an alternative economic model that captures, in a clear visual image, the goalposts we must pursue to overcome the two interlocked hurdles facing humankind today. A Senior Associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, where she teaches Environmental Change and Management, Raworth has designed a model she calls “doughnut economics.” She has presented this model at various conferences, in YouTube videos, on her website, and in a full-length book called Doughnut Economics, which the Financial Times selected as the best work on economics for 2017.
The “economic doughnut” has gone through several iterations. Here is a version on Wikipedia:
Like an actual doughnut, the circular model has two circumferences: an outer rim and an inner rim. The outer rim is what Raworth calls the “environmental ceiling.” It consists of nine “planetary boundaries,” among them climate change, environmental pollution, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, and land conversion. To pass beyond these boundaries is to push environmental degradation to dangerous levels, to push the Earth’s geophysical systems along damaging trajectories. The inner rim defines the “social foundation” on which a just society rests. It involves a set of twelve essential social standards that include such material goods as nutritious food, potable water, adequate housing, and energy; social goods such as health care, education, work, social equity, and gender equality; and political goods such as political representation, freedom of expression, and peace. Between these social and planetary boundaries, Raworth writes, lies the doughnut, “an environmentally safe and socially just space in which humanity can thrive.” The task for the 21st century, according to this model, is to bring all of humanity into that safe and just space.
This task, however, is not at all easy. It clashes with a political system that permits corporations and their lobbyists to write laws and block inconvenient regulations. It runs up against the reigning economic model, which is relentlessly propelling us across both the inner and the outer rims of the doughnut. The policies that flow from this model have given us a world in which a privileged few enjoy enormous power and material wealth while billions struggle just to survive—indeed, where millions fall through the cracks, unable to escape degrading poverty, hunger, illness, and early death.
If we are to achieve the common good, a world of economic justice and environmental health, we must place Raworth’s doughnut at the center of economic and social policy. Any viable, sustainable economy must be built around the recognition that true human value does not lie in rising amounts of wealth and power for the few and misery, poverty, and crippling anxiety for the powerless many. It lies in a stable natural world, thriving and regenerative; in fulfilling human relationships based on trust and equity; and in the leisure and opportunity to pursue our cultural interests and spiritual callings.
These are the goods that enrich and dignify human life, yet it is these that are being ignored and expunged by the system that prevails today. If we are to recover, we must seek out and expose the malignant forces that have infected our societies and are tearing away at our planet’s delicate geophysical and biological support systems. At the same time, with courage and determination, we must strive to create a future in which all have access to the sources of true human value and can thrive together in harmony with the natural world.
Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is the founder-chairperson of Buddhist Global Relief.
An earlier version of this essay was published on Common Dreams. It is reproduced here under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).