Is doughnut economics too Western? Critique from Latin American

by Eduardo Gudynas – The discussion paper just launched by Oxfam, A Safe and Just Space for Humanity, has many positive aspects that can be shared with organisations and movements in the Global South. It also contains elements that are in line with Oxfam’s commitment to eradicating poverty and protecting the environment.

The document proposes a doughnut, which adds a pastry to the mix of sustainable development recipes, and we should review it thoroughly.

Let’s begin by pointing out that this approach is ambitious, since it claims to offer a new perspective on sustainable development: the articulation of human rights and environmental limits in a just and safe ‘space’.

But just how ‘new’ is this perspective? The idea of an environmental ‘space’ was first considered in the 1990s, by both academia (in the early work of the Wuppertal Institute in Germany) and social movements (in this case Friends of the Earth, a point acknowledged in Oxfam’s paper).

Furthermore, the idea of linking human rights and environmental issues is older still. To give you an example, in 1974, amid the hubbub of debate about development and the environment, a group of prominent academics and politicians issued the Cocoyoc Declaration. It was a very important contribution at that time, and held that the future of humanity lay in finding a balance between the environmental ‘outer limits’ and the ‘inner limit’ of fundamental human rights.

This type of problem, where the new is not so new, and the key background seems to have been forgotten, has become commonplace in the current cooking of sustainable development. My impression is that the discussions, about Rio+20 in particular, have great difficulty in recovering the long tradition of debates on development and the environment. I say this not because I am concerned about this tradition, but because in many cases it seems as if we are starting from scratch, and the trials and errors of the recent past have been forgotten.

Many believe that it all started with the Brundtland report in 1987, which led to the disappearance of the fertile discussions of the 70s and most of the 80s. This amnesia is reinforced by many governments and by the way in which UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) deals with sustainability.

These points are relevant, as the origin of the concept of sustainability was an environmental criticism of development. It was a questioning that forced a redefinition of ‘development’. Thus, any discussion of sustainability necessarily involves an intense debate about the ideas of development.

Starting with this concern, although there is a description of ‘sustainable development’, and that development in the 21st century must eradicate poverty, I’m not exactly clear on what the idea of ‘development’ is in the doughnut, At times the paper seems to suggest that it is not necessary to discuss the basic ideas of ‘development’, but rather that our notion of development should be reduced to the components of the doughnut.

But in my view, a discussion about sustainability requires the idea of development to be questioned, especially the Western conception of development. There are undoubtedly many ways of understanding development, and we have seen capitalist programmes with varying emphasis (neoliberal, Keynesian, neo-Keynesian, etc.), as well as socialist programmes (e.g. the Soviet model and all its variants), and even complex hybrids (like that of China). These tendencies have significant differences in terms of the role of state, the concept of property, and ways of redistributing wealth. The ‘right to development’ was also spoken about, which would greatly complicate the doughnut. But what is striking is that they all share a set of basic ideas, all of them Western, such as the belief in progress, the appropriation of nature, and the dream of material comfort. ‘Development’ involves common principles for organising society, production, and the relationship with the environment.

These different ‘developments’ may diverge in their instrumental management choices, but in the end they all share a common belief with regard to progress and the efficient appropriation of nature. This is plainly evident, in all its drama, with the position of the World Bank’s current chief economist, Justin Yifu Lin, a Chinese native who first trained as a Marxist economist in Beijing and later at the neoliberal Chicago school of economics. Lin advocates a mix of Marxism and Keynesianism, of State communism and corporate capitalism, in which there is no room for sustainability. This he does openly in public, and even more so, from the World Bank.

This makes it evident that the ideas of development are deeply rooted in contemporary culture. A radical criticism must be aimed at these foundations, like that of sustainability. Without such questioning, there is a risk that the ‘doughnut’ version of sustainability will be branded as a new example of alternative development. It will join the list of other attempts at reform, such as human development, local development, endogenous development etc which started off with a certain radicalism, but ended up being co-opted by the conventional position. Would it be a success in the future if the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) published a doughnut index, as it does today with human development?

The social and environmental crisis is so serious that it is now time to put aside minor adjustments and reforms, and instead address the root causes of resistance to the idea of development. We must adopt an approach whereby the term ‘sustainable development’ no longer requires the suffix ‘development’. The civil society programme in Rio+20 should not focus simply on fixing the superficial problems of development: it is necessary to look for alternatives to the entire body of ideas about development.

In this effort, the ethical dimension is key, and this point appears in the references to the norms of the doughnut. But here also it is necessary to delve a little further into the ingredients of this recipe.

If sustainable development strengthens its demands for change, it must abandon the traditional idea of development and thus break with the anthropocentric ethics that are characteristic of Western cultural tradition. Conventional development needs anthropocentrism, as within this concept, it is man alone who can give value and, as a consequence, man asserts his authority over nature, women, children, etc.

The solution to this position lies, among other things, in recognizing the rights of nature. This is an essential ingredient in the environmental components of a critical proposal on sustainable development. We cannot talk seriously about the environment without first acknowledging the rights of nature. In this area, Oxfam’s Discussion Paper must review recent experiences in South America, especially with regard to the recognition of those rights in the new Constitution of Ecuador. Under this new ethic, in these kitchens there would not be doughnuts separating environmental components from social ones, but rather some would be contained within others.

These and other examples show that sustainability also requires more multicultural recipes that do not rest so much on Western traditions. But these are matters for another post on this blog.

February 15, 2012.