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Book Review: Doughnut Economics

While it is sometimes argued that most of what we need to know was learned in kindergarten, it turns out that a few really important things were left out in our young school days. In fact, for most us these things kept getting left out all the way up through our whole education, no matter how far we went. We need a bit more schooling.

And so in the spirit of the back-to-school season happening around me, I suggest we back up a step and remind ourselves of some basics about how the world actually works. There is no better book to help us do so then Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist.

“But wait!” you protest, as you shuffle through your shiny new backpack trying to find your pencil case.* “I don’t want to be an economist. Am I in the wrong classroom?”

Only you can decide what you’d like to learn, but my feeling is that everyone should know the basics of how the economy works. Aside from the fact that it's the wider social construct that delivers on your and my everyday needs, it is also deeply flawed, something we're paying the mounting price for already through social and environmental systems failures that are becoming obvious, dangerous and worse (sorry to bring that up on the first day back at school…). So a review of the fundamentals might be a good idea.

Raworth has done an excellent job of coalescing the latest thinking about how a new and different mindset, as well as seven solid principles, can build on our current strengths as we let go of what's not working. She draws on many who have come before her (including someone who radically altered my sense of reality years ago, Marjorie Kelly) and her own fresh thinking to create an organizing framework and many examples to bring it all to life.

Her seven principles promote and integrate the best of systems thinking, guiding us to recognize how we need to operate within a “safe and just space for humanity” that respects both the planetary boundaries we live within (e.g. boundaries on fresh water withdrawals, biodiversity loss, climate change, etc.) and the social foundations which allow us to thrive (e.g. food, water, gender equality, etc.). This safe operating space is described diagrammatically as a ring — hence the doughnut.


While it may feel like a lot to take in — reconciling how the biosphere functions with how humanity goes about its business — I found it to be a very comforting read as the pieces fell elegantly into place, like a beautifully complex chord at the end of a tension-filled concerto. We have a job ahead of us to learn how to play these notes with the grace required, but Raworth's text offers a cogent manual to move us forward. If you’re the kind of student who wants the Coles Notes version before you commit, this quick sampling of her thinking, by way of a 2 min; 32 sec video, gives you a solid teaser. But the book itself is accessible and digestible in a couple of sittings — I strongly recommend you graduate to the full text sooner than later.

As the final chapter, We Are All Economists Now, notes: “The twenty-first century task is clear: to create economies that promote human prosperity in a flourishing web of life so that we can thrive …” Imagine that.

Any questions about what page we’re on? Good. Let’s get to work.


* Raworth includes a great line on the dedication page of the book: The most powerful tool in economics is not money, nor even algebra. It is a pencil. Because with a pencil you can redraw the world.

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