In November 2019, before the terrifying realities of COVID-19 were known, Oxford economist Kate Raworth gave an interview where she explained her model of sustainable and equitable development called “doughnut economics.” Over the course of the interview the conversation briefly shifted to board games to accentuate a point. She remarked “don’t play Monopoly, play Pandemic.” What she meant was, don’t play a game of winners and losers driven by greed that characterizes our current economic system. Instead, play a cooperative game where everyone comes together to solve a dynamic problem for the common good. As governments begin to ease restrictions and Canada tiptoes into the economic recovery phase, we would be wise to heed this advice.
Raworth’s doughnut theory is critical of traditional economic models that use GDP growth as the primary measurement of success. She rejects the notion that growth can go on forever without exceeding earth’s capacity to sustain it. She also asserts that modern societies tolerate unacceptable levels of inequality where too many people fall through the cracks or, to use her imagery, fall into the doughnut hole.
In response, she provides an alternative model that gives more prominence to different indicators. Ones that constrain growth based on the earth’s ecological limits (the outer ring of the doughnut) while also doing a better job of caring for people (keeping them out of the doughnut hole).
Raworth’s model is impressive and credible while remaining accessible. That being said, she’s not the first person to identify these flaws. The harder part is finding the political courage required to implement policies that subordinate growth to different priorities. The status quo is a mighty force with powerful vested interests.
In April, the municipality of Amsterdam officially embraced the doughnut model. The experiment is in its infancy but, for now, Raworth’s theory has been elevated to a higher level of legitimacy. The fact that a cosmopolitan world capital adopted this set of policies is a powerful symbol of how conventional wisdom about responsible public administration is changing. When confronted with a complicated web of problems, now more than ever, citizens want a nuanced and forward-looking response.
Canada, like Amsterdam and every government everywhere, is coping with a unique and unprecedented convergence of problems. On top of COVID-19, its economic fallout and an impending climate crisis, the price of oil has bottomed out and our public infrastructure is crumbling. The scale of response required is comparable to the mobilization efforts of World War II and the Marshall Plan that followed.
In spite of the magnitude of today’s problems, there is also space for optimism. After the war, the large-scale investment, coordination and international cooperation vaulted the global economy from the great depression into an era of shared prosperity. Today, low interest rates and low levels of federal debt mean Canada has the capacity to spend without a practical limit when considering solutions. Looking forward, there is hope but success is not guaranteed. Powerful forces will seek a return to business as usual.
The economic recovery phase is slowly beginning. All levels of government are starting to ease restrictions and chart paths to normalcy. We know governments are going to spend a lot but we don’t know what it will look like. As soon as the public purse strings loosened, a factious and gritty battle of ideas commenced. On one extreme, we have the Monopoly-playing industrialists. They are guided by self-interest and a narrow definition of wellbeing. On the other, a much broader coalition with an ambitious vision for a better world.
We are living through an unprecedented moment. The impact of public policy decisions made in the next few years will be felt for generations. Let’s not screw it up. Success means protecting people while also acknowledging ecological limitations and accelerating the transition to a sustainable future. There is no single right path but the odds of success improve if the right framework is in place from the beginning. Canada has a lot to learn from doughnut economics.
Originally posted on National Newswatch on May 6, 2020.