Doughnut economics, an emerging theory that hit upon a sustainability sweet spot—where all peoples’ needs are met without hurting the planet—is gaining acceptance in the first Canadian city to embrace it, despite initial challenges and opposition.
Nanaimo, British Columbia, was one of the earliest cities to embrace the idea economist Kate Raworth first proposed [pdf] in 2012, when city council passed a motion to adopt it in December, 2020. At the time, councillor Ben Geselbracht saw the doughnut as a means to address the port town’s complex, chronic problems, writes Douglas Magazine.
Less than a year later, “the province was still deep in COVID-19 restrictions,” Douglas writes. “Calamitous storms had flooded Fraser Valley farms and demolished portions of the vital Coquihalla Highway to become the most costly natural disaster ever experienced in B.C.”
A subsequent attribution study found that human-induced climate change made those impacts 60% more likely.
“Add to that housing unaffordability, homelessness, and a toxic drug epidemic that was killing nearly 2,000 British Columbians per year, and Geselbracht was convinced it was time for a civic reboot.”
That’s when he first heard about Raworth in a tweet, then picked up a copy of her book, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist.
What is the Doughnut?
“Raworth challenges mainstream economic assumptions about limitless growth that don’t square with the reality of living on a planet with finite resources,” Douglas Magazine writes. The “doughnut” consists of two concentric rings.
The inner ring represents the minimum essentials that every person should have to live a decent and fulfilling life, including essentials like access to clean water, food, healthcare, education, gender equality, and social equity.
The doughnut’s outer ring represents the ecological limits of our planet, including factors like climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, and other environmental challenges.
The space between the two rings is referred to as the “safe and just space for humanity.” The aim is to strike a balance where human needs are met without overshooting the planet’s ecological limits, creating a sustainable and equitable world for all.
In late 2020, Geselbracht and fellow Nanaimo councillor Tyler Brown introduced a motion asking city council to adopt the concept. It passed by a narrow vote, putting the doughnut “at the centre of all civic planning,” affecting how the city procures bunk beds for its new fire hall and where it puts walking and biking paths, the feature story states.
Geselbracht gained supporters including Kim Smythe, former CEO and president of the Greater Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce, who believes the doughnut brings opportunities for Nanaimo businesses. He learned about the model after city hall asked him to chair a working group on how to put the theory into practice. Smythe now believes that everyone—businesses, non-profits, and citizens—can find their place within the doughnut’s safe space.
It’s a way to ensure that Nanaimo looks at “both sides of the coin,” he said. “We can’t grow a healthy economy in an unhealthy environment.”
One of the recommendations of Smythe’s working group was to develop a program recognizing businesses that put social and ecological sustainability at the core of their operations, Douglas Magazine writes.
Among dissenters, some of whom contend “globalist interests are driving the doughnut agenda,” is councillor Sheryl Armstrong, a skeptic who says the model lacks measurable goals. But Geselbracht disagrees, arguing that Nanaimo is preparing an integrated action plan to set concrete targets.
Another skeptic, Mayor Leonard Krog, had voted against Geselbracht’s motion in 2020, but then voted in favour of the proposed official community plan in 2022, “a de facto endorsement of doughnut economics.”
Council officially adopted Bylaw No. 6600, renamed Nanaimo Reimagined, as a blueprint for the next 25 years. The plan outlines five goals: a green Nanaimo, a connected Nanaimo, a healthy Nanaimo, an empowered Nanaimo, and a prosperous Nanaimo. And the document states in the introduction: “Nanaimo’s vision of its future is based on a sustainability model called Doughnut Economics.”
‘Unrolling the Doughnut’
For other places looking to taste the doughnut, Raworth’s Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL) has created Doughnut Unrolled, tools to find the starting point for neighbourhoods, cities, districts, or nations.
DEAL suggests a guiding question: “How can our city be a home to thriving people, in a thriving place, whilst respecting the well-being of all people, and the health of the whole planet?”
The unrolling process calls on all citizens to study their city through four lenses: the local-social, local-ecological, global-ecological, and global-social, to compose a city portrait or vision.
The local-social lens asks: “How can all the people of this place thrive?”The answer: it depends upon “recognizing the full diversity of their histories, cultures, opportunities, and aspirations,” recognizing that leaving no voice unheard and no needs unmet “will vary from place to place, generation to generation.” As Canada’s Green Resilience Project demonstrates, Hinton, Alberta’s requirements for thriving will be different from those of Montreal’s. (Disclosure: Energy Mix Productions is one of the two lead partners behind the Green Resilience Project.)
The bottom line is that “every place must transform to make thriving possible for all.”
The local-ecological lens is guided by the question: “How can this place be as generous as the wildland next door?”
By recognizing “that every place is situated in a unique habitat,” be it a floodplain, a forest, or a desert, all habitats that have learned over millennia how to “survive, thrive, and be generous.” The local-ecological lens asks us to imagine how we might redesign the places where we live to match the “ecological generosity” of the natural world by doing things like harvesting solar, cleaning the air, sequestering carbon, restoring soil, and protecting biodiversity.
The global-ecological lens asks: “How can this place respect the health of the whole planet?”This requires a community to reflect on how its local habits, demands, requirements, and associated waste products all affect the Earth’s atmosphere, climate, water sources, and ecosystems.
And finally, asking “how can this place respect all well-being of all people,” the global-social lens focuses on the many ways impacts of local actions on people and communities worldwide. Is a city alert to the use of child or slave labour within its supply chains? Does it welcome migrants or shut its doors? More positively, what cultural connections exist in the city that could be nurtured to build global solidarity in sports, education, and the arts?
Participants involved in unrolling the doughnut take part in a series of workshops to create a “community portrait of place”. A complementary data portrait adds quantitative, community-specific indicators and targets to the community portrait.
Infographics and other materials round out the DEAL toolkit.
Insights from the Doughnut
More than 275 “doughnut” stories now populate the DEAL website, with Barcelona the latest to post, and the first city in the world to generate its data portrait. In what they describe as a “mixed bag,” the authors trace progress on indicators like employment, political voice, and peace and justice, but serious problems relating to social and gender equality, access to energy, and health. They are especially worried about declining mental health amongst Barcelonians.
The authors write that their city seems to be exceeding the “safe and just space for humanity” in all indicators, most obviously in energy use, air quality, and food security. Energy use in the city overshoots the safe limit “by a staggering seven times,” while air quality misses the World Health Organization limit by four times. Food production and consumption processes exceed the goal by about three times, pointing towards the intertwined issues of carbon dioxide emissions and land use changes.
In a powerful illustration of what can be revealed when the global-social lens is applied to a city, Barcelona discovered that as of 2021, the city depended “heavily on 12 other countries for 90% of its resources,” many of which are “in more precarious situations than Spain.”
As for the global-ecological lens, the profile reveals a city in serious breach of multiple indicators—from phosphorus application to crops, which is seven times higher than the per capita limit, to its “material footprint”, which is five times higher. “Regarding carbon dioxide emissions, the city would need to slash its consumption-based emissions by a massive 400% to respect the planetary limit and meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of stabilizing global temperature rise at 1.5ºC,” write the authors.
One silver lining: Barcelona’s “Blue Water Extraction” indicator “sits comfortably within the ‘safe and just space for humanity’,” though maintaining this bright spot will require “vigilant and sustained effort.”
Unrolling the doughnut can lead participants to new understandings of the linkages between the global and the local, as illustrated by two initiatives conducted under the auspices of Donut Brasil. A November, 2021 workshop in Penha, an outlying municipality with one of the lowest human development indices in Brazil, saw participants prioritize expanded community gardens to foster healthier relationships between the community, green areas, and the city. The measure was also meant to promote food sovereignty, improve health, generate educational content, boost incomes, and occupy degraded spaces.
Donut Brasil also facilitated an April, 2023 workshop in a public library in Medellín, Colombia.
The Brazilian volunteer who directed the workshop reported that the people involved had “never seen themselves” as possible agents of local transformation. For the volunteer, “this was the biggest gain from the workshop, planting that seed.”