Kate Raworth, Senior Researcher, Oxfam GB.
In 2009, the Stockholm Resilience Centre brought together a group of leading Earth-system scientists to come up with the concept of planetary boundaries. They identified a set of nine Earth-system processes – like the freshwater cycle, climate regulation, and the nitrogen cycle - which are critical for keeping the planet in the stable state that has been so beneficial to humanity over the past 10,000 years.
Under too much pressure from human activity, any one of these processes could be pushed into abrupt, and even irreversible, change. To avoid this, the scientists drew up a set of boundaries below their danger zones – and they called the area in the middle of the circle ‘a safe operating space for humanity’.
Environmentally safe, yes, but that space could also be deeply socially unjust, leaving millions of people living in poverty. So how about adding the idea of social boundaries to the picture? This is an idea I set out in a recent Oxfam Discussion Paper. Just as there is an environmental ceiling, above which lies unacceptable environmental degradation, so too there is a social foundation, below which lies unacceptable human deprivations. What kind of deprivations, exactly? Well, human rights provide the cornerstone for defining that, but an early indication of 21st century priorities to be tackled comes from governments’ submissions to Rio+20 – and they highlighted 11 social deprivations which constitute the social foundation in Figure 1.
Figure 1: A safe and just space for humanity.
Between the social foundation and the environmental ceiling lies a space – shaped like a doughnut – which is the safe and just space for humanity.
The Earth-system scientists stuck their necks out and estimated that we have already crossed at least three of the nine planetary boundaries – climate change, nitrogen use, and biodiversity loss. So I stuck my neck out too, and estimated that humanity is falling far below the social foundation on all eight dimensions for which data is available. As shown in Fig 2, for example, 13% of the world’s population is undernourished –represented by the blue gap beneath the line of the social boundary for food.
Figure 2: Falling far below the social foundation.
So humanity is currently falling below social boundaries, while already exceeding planetary boundaries: it’s a sign of just how deeply unequal, and unsustainable, the current path of global development is. Will the on-going pursuit of indefinite GDP growth help reverse these trends? Current evidence from high-income countries, suggests it’s not likely.
For this reason, it is critical that any new global development framework agreed for the post-2015 period – including SDGs – is designed to reverse these trends. Standing back from a focus on GDP alone, we need a bigger idea of what constitutes economic development – with four big shifts in the way that economic activity is defined and measured. We need to define and measure:
- not only what is sold, but also what is provided for free;
- stocks as well as flows;
- distribution as well as averages; and
- natural and social metrics as well as monetary metrics
These four shifts would be a strong start towards defining the economic development needed to bring humanity within social and planetary boundaries. This approach also opens up interesting questions for the design of a potential set of SDGs such as:
- What would SDGs that were derived from the concept of planetary boundaries and social boundaries look like?
- What should be the agreed dimensions of the social foundation – and who should define them?
- If international equity in the distribution of resources, and efficiency in the use of resources, are both essential for enabling humanity to move within the safe and just space, does that imply a need for intermediate SDGs, which focus on improving outcomes in both of these?
These questions and many more will be discussed in a side-event hosted by Vitae Civilis, SustainLabour and Oxfam on Friday 23rd March, 1.15-2.45pm in Conference Room B in the North Lawn Building of the UN in New York, so please come and join the debate.
For a short video introducing the idea, and the full discussion paper: