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Affirming, Critiquing and Enriching Doughnut Economics

Kate Raworth published Doughnut Economics, which she claims is an "optimistic vision of humanity's future" [p.286] in which the global economy "creates a thriving balance thanks to its regenerative and distributive design." It suggests that there is a band in which economic activity can flourish, its lower limit being "social foundations" and its upper limit being an "ecological ceiling", above which we damage the planet.

This article offers a summary overview of Doughnut Economics, along with an appreciative critique. Despite enormous strengths, we find seven weaknesses in Doughnut Economics, which might ultimately undermine it, especially in addressing the climate and environmental crises. The four most important weaknesses are:

The other three weaknesses are more philosophical or theoretical in nature.

Overview of Doughnut Economics

What seemed to motivate Kate Raworth was how ever more economic growth seems to be harming both planet (climate) and nature, and even society, but she disliked the doom-message of "No more growth". Especially since many still live in degrading poverty, especially in low-income countries. Surely, she thought, there must be a way to allow some growth, so as to reduce the poverty, yet without damaging the planet. So she devised the idea of [p.11]

Between them is a "safe and just space for humanity". A visual thinker, she depicts these as two circles, a doughnut. The doughnut is highly versatile in enabling us to depict various things. For example, one can show, by red wedges by element, how far a nation is below the social floor (e.g. the DRC) and how much above the ecological ceiling (e.g. Sweden).

This, however, was only one manifestation of her belief that seven fundamental things were wrong with economic theory and practice. She identifies (back cover of book): "seven critical ways in which mainstream economics has led us astray": the goal of ever-growing GDP, the assumption of a self-contained market, of rational economic man, of mechanical equilibrium, that growth will even things up, and will clean everything up, and an addiction to growth. She tells us that the "21st century economist" must think differently about all these.

She packs a magnificent lot of things together, and she is brilliant at packaging. However, while I generally agree with the things she brings together, I'm not totally convinced. I feel she might need a little bit more. In some ways, the doughnut still feels only half baked.

This page begins to discuss what "more" might be needed, especially in relation to Rethinking Economics with the Help or Philosophical and Christian Perspectives. This suggests we need to widen our understanding of economics in at least five ways and employs, as its conceptual framework to accomplish that, Dooyeweerd's philosophy especially aspects.

The Breadth Of Doughnut Economics

Kate Raworth identifies seven elements of the ecological ceiling and twelve of the social floor. This shows a magnificent breadth of understanding and concern, which can paint a richer picture than having just GDP, for example.

We may understand and affirm it via Dooyeweerd's aspects (a conceptual tool that helps analysts and practioners think widely) as follows.

In aiming to foster a global economy that "creates a thriving balance thanks to its regenerative and distributive design" we can immediately see several aspects: balance is of the aesthetic aspect, regenerative is of the formative, and distributive is juridical. Her "ecological ceiling," includes several things whose processes are governed by the physical aspect but are problematic primarily in the biotic aspect: air pollution, ozone layer depletion, climate change, ocean acidification, chemical pollution, nitrogen and phosphorus loading and freshwater withdrawals. The other two, biodiversity loss and land conversion are largely biotic in their meaningfulness, though land conversion is of course spatial and it involves some formative aspect. If we want to tackle these issues we need to recognise the laws by which they operate, which are given by the various aspects. Her "social floor" involves yet other aspects, as follows:

We can see most aspects represented there - which is not surprising since she tried to cover most of life. We also see that most elements are meaningful in more than one aspect, which is often the case. McGibbon [2018] suggests that such "cipations" may be considered in pairs and triples of main aspects to help us understand the meaningfulness and functioning of many things systematically.

However, there are also some concerns about Doughnut Economics. Does it need a little more baking?


Here are several critiques that may need to be addressed. Some of them are things wrong, but the most important are simply taken for granted, and not adequately discussed.

Critique 1: Is The Ceiling Above the Floor?

There is a presupposition that the ceiling is higher than the floor. Doughnut Economics says that we must not let the economy shrink below the 'social floor', nor rise above the 'ecological ceiling'. But we presuppose that the ceiling is higher than the floor. She does not seem to discuss that presupposition but takes it for granted.

It might be a reasonable presupposition, but we cannot take it for granted. I guess that most readers of her book would, like I have tended to, assume that the "social floor" is somewhat akin to low-middle-income living in the affluent cultures.

However, given that the average Ecological Footprint of people in the USA and UK is two-and-a-half to three Earths, That assumption must be severely questioned. What would the "social floor" have to be like to be less than the "ecological ceiling"?

Indeed, Eduardo Gudynas asks Is doughnut economics too Western? Critique from a Latin American environmentalist.

Moreover, he makes the interesting argument that it should not be a mere balance between social and ecological but that each is within the other.

We should look at each component of the social floor, and of them all together, to estimate what ecological and planetary footprint each imposes. The real question, which should define the social floor, is "What kind of lifestyle may all humans aspire to, which this planet can support?"

On what grounds do we even begin to make such a calculation? To Whom are we responsible for deciding those things? In our Rethink we tentatively suggest: to low-income nations, future generations, to fauna and flora, to biodiversity, and even - if we allow it - to God the Creator, Owner, Judge and Saviour of it all.

Critique 2: Responsibility, Attitudes and Beliefs

I find nothing much about responsibility in her book. It's not even in the index. It might be implied, but leaving responsibility implicit will not make us responsible.

Why is that important? One reason is that if we have to define the social floor as half or one third of average European living, then many people are just going to ignore it and reject her idea of Doughnut. We need a sense of responsibility among people across all affluent cultures in order to do that. And it needs responsibility at all levels: individual aspirations and expectations, households, businesses and governments.

I find very little about the selfishness of humans - as a reviewer pointed out. There's "Nurture human nature" yes - But does that mean nurturing people's selfishness, and desire for unjust ends? By "unjust ends" I don't mean obvious injustice, but rather than collateral damage that our seemingly innocent desires do. "Nurture humans" might mean that we give a lot of emphasis on the arts, film, etc. especially ensuring that all kinds of people have these. But the ecological footprint of the film, entertainment and arts sectors is huge. So, we need to ask, What does "nurture" mean? All these things are about attitude, selfish versus self-giving, which have a huge impact on what we do and the question are we willing to change?

There is little recognition of beliefs, aspirations, expectations, commitments, assumptions, etc. This aspect of human beings and society has an even deeper and more profound impact on what we do and whether we are willing to change.

We need a way to undergird the topics that are there and also suggest ones that are not.

Reading her book, it feels still a little too restricted to the economic aspect rather than fully embracing all other aspects of meaningful reality.

Critique 3: Should we not Differentiate Harm from Good?

There seemed to be no explicit discussion of the harm that much economic activity does. Some is done directly, others is done indirectly. Harm includes things like:

Such things reduce overall good, overall value. Yet GDP treats as positive any economic activity (where money flows) that results in these. Instead, should it not subtract these from economic activity that does real good?

Moreover, some economic activity is non-essential or wasteful. Non-essential activity that does some good might be tolerated, but non-essential activity that brings harm should be actively reduced.

Doughnut Economics, though it implies a need to reduce some kinds of harm (implied by ecological ceiling and some elements of social floor), it does not make explicit the difference between good and harm of various kinds.

Critique 4: How Will This Be Achieved

Doughnut Economics suggests some norms by which the economy should be guided. But how are we going to get the vast bulk of people, politicians, pundits, etc. to commit to those norms?

Four things are needed for it to be achieved that the numerical size of our economies are not above the ecological ceiling and do not fall below the social floor.

1. We must define social floor in a way that makes is below the ecological ceiling. This is linked with the idea of ecological footprint - the number of earths that would be needed to support our lifestyle if everyone in the world lived as we do. Currently, most European countries have an ecological footprint of around three earths, and the USA of around five earths. What we, in these affluent cultures, take to be our social floor is likely to be well above the ecological ceiling. So, we need to define the components.

2. We must all agree with that definition of social floor.

3. We, in affluent cultures, must be willing to 'reduce' our aspirations and expectations to such a social floor (three earths to less than one).

4. And all that must happen within - probably - 10 years, i.e. by 2032.

How will any of these happen? I do not find discussion of how to meet these, anywhere in Doughnut. (It may be that they are, but I have not seen them.)

Critique 5: Why These Issues?

I find myself asking: Why does she select the things she does? And how do they relate to each other? The lists of components of the ecological ceiling and the social floor sound very reasonable. But why, and on what grounds, did she select those? Part of the answer is that the 12 social floor elements come from the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals - but why were five left out? The ecological ceiling elements come from some other source, but on what basis should we accept those sources without question? As we noted above, the question has been raised, Is doughnut economics too Western?

Several Social Floor elements seem very close to each other. Is not gender equality really a part of social equity? Are these not closely related to political voice? Are these three not really part of the justice part of "peace and justice"?

Such a critique may be secondary to the above ones, because it has to do with the detail of the theory, but it does need addressing, because I did not find any convincing answers to those questions. We need a basis for answering questions like How do they relate to each other? Are any components missing? How might we tell?

Raworth suggests seven ways to think as a 21st century economist.

[See short animations of these, which explain each very well.]

However, for each, I found myself asking, "Why is this included?" How do they relate to each other? It feels a rather heterogeneous list. Two of them seem to be norms (Design to Distribute and Create to Regenerate) whereas others (Get Savvy about Systems) seem to about mechanisms. I found no reasoning for why she picked those seven things, nor much of how they relate to each other. And are there other things that should be added, to make it all work?

Critique 6: Measurement

This, again, is arguably secondary to the first four. The ideas of "above" (social floor) and "below" (ecological ceiling), though expressed using spatial analogy, are in fact quantitative concepts, meaning "more" and "less". The major concept is of three numbers, expressing social floor, ecological ceiling and current economy. The obvious measure of the latter is GDP or some similar. Raworth rightly urges us away from this, but it will be difficult to shed the implications of GDP, while we remain with the ideas above and below.

We discuss the problems of measurement, recognise the multi-aspectual nature of reality, and that some aspects are qualitative rather than quantitative, and suggest a way to plan and make decisions on this basis.

Critique 7: A practical problem

Because Kate Raworth encourages people to have fun drawing circles and seeing what thoughts emerge, economic policy will be devised by those who like drawing circles. This might offer a benefit of stimulating new ideas; we need new ideas. But will these be really thought out? Several of them will be more attractive than others. Will there be a danger that economic policy might be too influenced by attractiveness than by validity? What we need, is not to denigrate new ideas, not even to discourage circle-drawing, but a clear foundational understanding of economics that is deeper than currently, one that is allows questioning of current presuppositions rather than working within them.


Affirming, Critiquing and Enriching the Seven Ways To Think Like a 21st Century Economist

Addressing Critique 1: Ensuring the Ceiling is Above the Floor?

How can we ensure the ecological ceiling is above the social floor? Or, put it another way, how can we reduce the ecological and planetary footprint of the affluent cultures, and allow those in degrading poverty to become more prosperous?

The ecological footprint of people in the USA, UK and Europe is 2.5 to 3 Earths. So, what is assumed of the social floor in these cultures is still not sustainable. How do we address this?

First we must recognise that much of what we deem necessary in affluent cultures is not so - nor is it truly conducive to full happiness. Some economic activity does harm as well as good - which is recognised by Kate Raworth in the ecological ceiling. But there are other kinds of harm she does not recognise, such as addictions, or instilling a self-centred, me-first attitude thoughtout (affluent) society. Harmful economic activity needs to be reduced, and we need incentives to do so, because many of us do not understand the harm done.

What we seek is the true prosperity, wellbeing, Shalom, Salaam, Eudaimonia, with which all would be truly satisfied, and which is sustainable over the long term. As mentioned above, we believe that Dooyeweerd's aspects can help, if taken as deep norms and, together, as an indication of what both defines and enables this. For example, we find multiple aspects of poverty, beyond the economic. These aspects may define the social floor in more than economic terms. Conversely, the aspects can define what is Good.

However, the social floor cannot be cast in purely quantitative terms of more and less. Dooyeweerd's aspects enable us to think out what is really important to cherish and ensure.

One example: Dooyeweerd's ethical aspect makes generosity, goodwill and self-giving love meaningful, along with their opposite dysfunctions, meanness and self-centredness, and postulates the former as norms that contribute to wellbeing. It is the aspect that enales trust. Not only life but even the economy would benefit from these. In a lifestyle, culture and society in which this aspect is important, there might be a lower GDP, but most people would prefer it - and money cannot buy it. Likewise, with each aspect, there are some characteristics of a good life that people would prefer, and which money cannot buy.

The ethical aspect is 'orthogonal' to the economic aspect - and so are all the others. Then cannot be reduced to the economic without reduction and impoverishment, by which all of us would sacrifice and harm the other aspects.

Instead, we see the economic aspect as serving all the others, by enabling our functioning in the others to be resources more efficiently-effectively. Dooyeweerd showed us a way to understand how each aspect relates to others. This helps clarify how the economy both helps to contribute to ("serve") the components of the social floor and to harm the components of the ecological ceiling.

Addressing Critique 2: Responsibility, Attitudes and Beliefs

In saying there is a "safe and just space for humanity", Doughnut economics is referring to more than safety and justice. For example it refers to education etc.

We see this as true prosperity, wellbeing, Shalom, Salaam, Eudaimonia, with which all would be truly satisfied, and which is sustainable over the long term. This is planet-wide and embraces all humans and all animals, habitats, etc. (Christians, Jews and Muslims would see it as All Creation.)

Each of Dooyeweerd's aspects defines a distinct deep norm that guides us towards achieving that. Each however also enables our functioning, and in most aspects humans have freedom to go against the norms, resulting in dysfunction in various aspects. Dysfunction in any aspect undermines this sustainable wellbeing. With some aspects the effect is immediate (e.g. physical, biotic, psychical) while in others it is long-term (e.g pistic commitments, aspirations and expecations in society, and society's attitudes (ethical aspect) change over years or decades).

Humans have responsibility to function well in all aspects, so that all Creation may be blessed rather than curses. Each aspect defines a distinct kind of responsibility. Without functioning in accordance with aspectual norms, we will not achieve the healthy state of affairs that Doughnut economics envisages.

But we don't. So we need to change, and change fast. How will be do this? Selfish attitudes breed selfish attitudes; self-giving, self-sacrificial attitudes breed self-sacrificial attitudes. Nothing will change while everyone is self-protecting and self-justifying. We need courageous people who are willing to sacrifice.

This in turn requires deep belief and commitment, a deep understanding of the meaningfulness of life and mandate of human beings as 'shepherds' of the rest of Creation. What can do this, on a widespread scale? Inspirational seminars? Inspirational leaders? Ultimately, I believe, only religious revival. That Christian perspective is one that offers that and has a track record.

Addressing Critique 3: Differentiating Harm from Good

Dooyeweerd's aspects each inherently differentiates harm from good. Each aspect defines a different kind of good and harm. e.g. biotic health (individual and ecological) versus disease; social friendship and togetherness versus enmity, juridical justice versus injustice, economic frugality versus waste, and so on. This offers a sound basis for understanding and analysing the various kinds of good and harm and perhaps then doing something about them.

Our Christian perspective also offers some solutions, including repentance and forgiveness and transformation by the Spirit of God.

Addressing Critique 4: How to Achieve This

What evidence is there that, even if the ecological ceiling is above the social floor, even if responsibility and selfishness are woven into the theory, we will actually achieve what Doughnut Economics suggests, sufficiently to prevent climate and ecological disaster without impoverishing billions of people? What evidence is there that people will accept the kind of social floor that is less than the ecological ceiling?

On what does Kate Raworth base her hope?

Many are pessimistic. There is scant evidence that, when faced with longer-term disaster, that people and governments in affluent cultures change their ways. There are national leaders, and business leaders, who resist. But these come and go. What is more serious, perhaps, is resistance among the people. In affluent countries, there has been considerable opposition to climate and environmental responsibility among sections of ordinary people. Think of the anti-green lobbies in the USA and the Yellow Vest movements in France, and similar in the Netherlands. This resistance is likely to be greater than comes across in the press and media, because much of it is muted by political correctness and cancel culture.

There is considerable evidence that, in the affluent countries, social floor is defined in a way that takes it well above the ecological ceiling. We are too used to an ecological footprint well above the ecological ceiling of the planet. Currently, most European countries have an ecological footprint of around three earths, and the USA has about five earths. Insofar as these calculations are valid, the social floor, therefore, must be no more than 30% of what it currently is in Europe, and no more than 20% in the USA. (If they are not valid, then please do better calculations, and let us find out what the valid answer is - and then we can know what the social floor must become.) And that assumes that the rest of the world does not increase its ecological footprint.

People are not as logical and selfless as Kate Raworth seems to assume. So on what does she and her colleagues ground their hope?

The only hope, we believe are aware of is the Christian gospel, widely accepted and the Holy Spirit changing people's hearts widescale. See A New Revival ?.

Addressing Critique 5: Why These? Any Others?

Let us briefly go through each of the seven ways to think like a 21at century economist.

So, we largely agree with (affirm) Kate Raworth in these, but our Rethink offers a basis for taking them all further. It provides a systematic way to critique these and then enrich them Doughnut Economics. Our use of Dooyeweerd's aspects gives us a way to bring out into the open that which is hidden and notice that which is taken for granted. In particular, we emphasise attitude, of two kinds: hubris and disposition, and the need to move away from idolatry and self-centredness.

Her presupposition of the ecological ceiling being above the social floor may be addressed by our multi-aspectual approach, insofar as we focus not on components drawn from current experience, but

Addressing Critique 8: Measurement

We distinguish different degrees and kinds of difficulty with measuring things and totalling them together, so that they can be compared with (measures of) social floor and ecological ceiling. For those things that it is inappropriate to measure quantitatively, we advocate understanding the functioning and repercussions meaningful and possible in each aspect, and working from those to make decisions.

We also emphasise responsibility rather than merely measurement and logic.

Addressing Critique 7: Visual Metaphors

A metaphor, to Dooyeweerd, is made possible by an inter-spect analogy. But the warning is given that it is not the laws of the analogical aspect that apply, but those of the aspect in which the metaphor has been suggested. In this case, the analogy is with space and quantitative amount. But the laws that apply are not those of arithmetic (more, less) nor of space (inside, outside) but of all the aspects of the wellbeing we seek. That is, of all aspects.

Each might be tranduced to the quantitative or spatial temporarily to stimulate our thinking, but, having encountered an insight, then we should abandon the metaphor and focus on the laws of the aspects we have remembered.


In such ways we have sought to affirm, critique and enrich Kate Raworth's Doughnut Economics, affirming by reference to our Rethink and the widenings it proposes, and mainly employing Dooyeweerd's aspects to enrich it.


Ecological Footprint Calculator: "https://www.footprintcalculator.org/" allows each individual to calculate their own. When I put in my own rather abstemious living, I found my footprint was 1.8 earths. I tried putting everything at the lowest it could go, that gave me a footprint of 1.02 planets. Any meat, travel, goods, or services at all would increase that.

14 June 2021: Created by adding in my critiques from a recording of thoughts during walk. 28 September 2021 aspects and breadth. 8 October 2021 Rewritten, and links to xn.rethink; link to home page; better sections; conclusion. Separate section on how xn.rethink helps. 15 October 2021 ecol footprint better, linked with responsibility. 17 October 2021 put responsibility after presupposition, and added more in latter. 2 November 2021 spelling error. 2 December 2021 link to KW animations. 9 March 2022 Is DE too Western? 19 March 2022 three critiques added: harm, how to achieve, and measurement, and rearranged and reunumbered them; new intro, and add overview section. 20 March 2022 some changes. 28 March 2022 sp; SF elements. 12 May 2022 a few changes.