I remember as a kid, on those rare occasions when you would ask yourself a question that went beyond your limited daily duties, that I became interested in what would happen to all those cars I saw on the roads the day they ceased to work. I also remember the answer, as vague in detail as it was emphatic in affirming nature’s almost infinite capacity to handle metals, tires or old car seats, no matter how and where they were abandoned. It was the eighties, and just as the world was coming out of its second oil crisis, a few years later the economy would enter a neoliberal decade led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, promising to solve all problems with the simple recipe of maintaining infinite growth.
A few decades later, with a world population of around 7 billion, and threatening to exceed 11 billion by the end of the century, we are now convinced, for the first time in the history of mankind, that human impact on the planet is a problem. The impact of our activities on the Earth is so great that the current geological era has been referred to as the Anthropocene, heir to the Holocene, a period that has lasted about 12,000 years since the end of the last glaciation. With this designation we recognize, for the first time, that our activity has acquired such relevance that its effects are decisive for the future of the Earth.
Capitalism was confirmed to be the only true economic system when, after decades of confrontation with the other ‘great model’ prevailing at the time, the Berlin Wall finally came down in 1989. The system based on uncontrolled growth, whose only God was the GDP, seemed to work and promised, after an initial phase of creating inequality and environmental destruction, to balance both society and the temporarily broken harmony with nature. But reality finally showed that the Planet’s resources are limited and the long-awaited redistribution and natural balance never arrived: the average temperature increased, resulting in a greenhouse effect, the oceans became more and more acidic, the concentrations of nitrates and phosphates continued to rise, and plastics invaded every corner of the Planet. And wealth, far from being redistributed, was increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, while a significant part of the population lacked access to the most basic resources. All this accompanied by a phenomenon that has not occurred since the era when dinosaurs disappeared 66 million years ago, a new mass extinction of species, both animal and vegetable: we are privileged witnesses of the Sixth Great Extinction…
The way the environmental movement is perceived by the general population has greatly evolved since its beginnings back in the early 1960s, when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. From being considered as a marginal left-wing movement to having its ideas used for the benefit of big corporations in what has been called ‘green washing’. Even recently, a great internal debate has opened up in the environmental world following the release on YouTube of the documentary Planet of the Humans produced by the always controversial Michael Moore. In this documentary, that garnered more than eight million views just a few weeks after its premiere, almost the entire environmentalist strategy of the last few years is questioned, in a documentary that casts doubt on a movement in which Moore himself has actively participated in recent years. This all means that the shadow of pessimism is beginning to overtake many people who doubt whether there is really time to stop what is beginning to seem inevitable.
Are we really at a point of no return or, on the contrary, are there grounds for relative optimism? Is there really a way forward that allows a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel? Well, I think that one of the most complete and best documented proposals that we can rely on is the one that the economist Kate Raworth presents in her book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. Kate Raworth’s idea is based on some very simple principles, and in order to put them into practice, the economist insists on the importance of transmitting them in an equally simple way: ever since the economist Simon Kuznets invented the concept of Gross Domestic Product in 1934, we have become addicted to this indicator and its growth. We have universally accepted it as the ultimate indicator of national prosperity, and all national economic policies have since revolved around measures to make it grow. But the GDP has great shortcomings and is based on premises that over the years have been proved to be wrong. To change this paradigm, Kate Raworth suggests a very graphic image, a new goal, in order to have a clear idea of what the new economy of the 21st century should be based on: the image would be that of a ‘doughnut’ whose center represents the ‘hole’ in which no human being should fall and whose outer edges define the limit that should not be crossed if we want to respect the fragile balance of the planet we live in. In other words, the actual ‘body’ of the doughnut represents the area where we must move in order ‘to ensure that all people can benefit from full rights within the means provided by our living Planet’.
To achieve this objective it is necessary to look at the big picture, to abandon the conventions that try to present the market as a mere interaction between companies and families, in which either they trade goods and services in exchange for money, or they trade labor and capital in exchange for wages and benefits. The State and the ‘commons’, understood as the economic force of the common talent made available to everyone (Wikipedia, or OpenSource could be two good examples), play a fundamental role in the economy, contrary to what is defended by the neoliberal discourse. Moreover, considering Nature as something independent from the market lacks all logic, since nature is the provider of resources and these are far from infinite.
The economy of the 21st century, according to Kate Raworth, must abandon the classic concept of the economic-rational individual, concerned exclusively about their own interest, and instead consider a social individual rich in values. These values must not only be taken into account, but they must be strengthened and considered as a fundamental part upon which the new economy must be based. The economy is now a complex system, far from the simplistic and mechanistic visions of the market seeking balance only at the point when the price of demand and supply met. It is time to search for new drivers and to comprehend that we are immersed in a system that is constantly evolving.
The new economy must once and for all confront its two greatest weaknesses: the first, which is not new, is the great failure of capitalism to distribute wealth fairly. The statement that a country’s economy must first undergo an initial phase of inequality and then distribute wealth more fairly is not true. Systems must be designed to be distributive from the beginning. This system must cover all aspects of the economy: control of land, companies, technology or knowledge, energy… even money. The second one, of which we have been fully aware since we entered the Anthropocene, is that it must be created to regenerate. It is no longer sufficient for a product to be recyclable at the end of its service life, but this product must be designed in such a way that its overall balance from the energy and material standpoints is practically zero. In this sense, there is much to learn from the designs and strategies that nature itself has adopted throughout its long history, through, for instance, disciplines such as biomimicry and the circular economy that integrates humans into the Earth’s cyclical processes.
Finally, Kate Raworth emphasizes in her book the importance of being agnostic about growth. She sums it up very simply when she states that ‘today we have economies that need to grow, whether they make us progress or not, but tomorrow we will need economies that make us progress, whether they make us grow or not’. And this is a great challenge at a conceptual level in a world addicted to infinite growth policies.
If we had to summarize the philosophy behind this ‘doughnut’, we could say that it is imperative and urgent to leave the current economy that, besides not being distributive, is highly destructive for the Planet, and move to an economy that ensures the distribution of wealth in the broadest sense of the word (income and work, education, health, housing, social equity…), and that it is a regenerative one, minimizing or even eliminating the footprint of our activity.
We represent the first generation fully aware of the effects of our activity on the Planet. We are the first human beings to know, from a scientific standpoint, the effects of our activities on the environment, and what is more important, the capacity we have to interfere in the delicate balances of Mother Earth. We are not the only ones responsible for this situation, but chance has entrusted us with the difficult task of changing the course of a path that, if continued, threatens to lead irrevocably to our own extinction.
Translated by: Paula Lis Carrera