Why a donut is the solution to visualising a thriving, sustainable future


As sustainability or innovation practitioners, we can sometimes get bogged down in the detail of the particular project we’re working on, or a particular, specific issue we’re trying to address. I find it really useful to take a step back every now and again to remind myself of the bigger picture; I have a secret weapon to help with this and it’s a donut!

This donut is particularly useful when trying to represent in a simple way the twin challenges of environmental and social sustainability.  I particularly love the way that these are not presented as a trade-off between choosing one or the other, but as two facets of the same future that we’re shaping.

To get started it’s important to have a clear understanding of the reality of the big challenges we are facing. It’s human nature to avoid thinking too much about the future or to play down risks and dangers that are intangible or can’t be perceived directly. This is particularly true when change is incremental, taking place gradually over a longer time-span or when social injustices are long-established and accepted as being normal. So before we get to the donut, a quick recap of a useful way to think about the environmental challenges we face and a useful way to think about the social challenges we face – I’m sure many of you will have seen these before, but no harm in recapping how they present complex challenges in a clear and understandable visual metaphor.


In 2009, a group of 28 internationally renowned scientists identified and quantified a set of nine planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come. Crossing these boundaries could generate abrupt or irreversible environmental changes. Respecting the boundaries reduces the risks to human society of crossing these thresholds.

Planetary boundary Human causes of Earth-system stress Expected consequences of crossing planetary boundaries
1. Climate change Releasing greenhouse gases through: burning coal, oil, and gas; fertilizer and cement production; deforestation; livestock management; agriculture; and producing soot and black carbon. Global temperature rise; loss of polar ice sheets and glacial freshwater supplies; rapid sea-level rise; bleaching and mortality in coral reefs; increases in large floods; abrupt shifts in forest and agricultural systems; potentially challenging the viability of contemporary human societies.
2. Biodiversity loss Destroying habitats; expanding urban land use; agriculture and aquaculture; introducing invasive species; mining, building dams and transport routes. Reduced resilience of land and marine ecosystems, especially in the face of climate change and increasing ocean acidity; large-scale biodiversity loss may lead to sudden and irreversible consequences for ecosystems.
3. Nitrogen use Producing fertilizers for crops and animal feed; manure and human sewage management; burning fossil fuels and biomass; and growing leguminous crops. Raised acidity of soils, and algal blooms in coastal and freshwater systems that deplete oxygen levels, pollute waterways and kill aquatic life – so threatening the quality of air, soil and water, and eroding the resilience of other Earth systems.
Phosphorus use Putting excessive phosphorus into the environment by producing fertilizers, manures, detergents, and pesticides. Depleted oxygen levels in freshwater bodies and coastal waters, risking abrupt shifts in lake and marine ecosystems.
4. Freshwater use Altering river flow and extracting water for irrigation; capturing rainfall for use on crops; extracting water from water tables, for agriculture, industry and household use. Shifts in regional rainfall and climate (e.g. the monsoon); reduced biomass production and biodiversity, decreasing the resilience of land and marine ecosystems, and undermining human water supply, food security, and health.
5. Land use change Converting natural forests and other ecosystems into agricultural land, plantations, and urban settlements. Serious threat to biodiversity and to the regulatory capacities of the Earth system, by affecting the climate system and the freshwater cycle.
6. Ocean acidification Producing CO2 (which becomes dissolved in sea water) primarily through burning fossil fuels and through land use change. Loss of calcifying marine organisms; serious impacts on the productivity of coral reefs with likely ripple effects up the food chain.
7. Stratospheric ozone depletion Producing chlorofluorocarbons for use in refrigerators, air conditioners and aerosol cans. Severe and irreversible ultra-violet radiation with especially damaging effects on marine ecosystems, and on the health of humans exposed to radiation.
8. Atmospheric aerosol pollution Releasing fine particles into the air, primarily through burning fossil fuels and biomass. Changing global rainfall patterns including monsoon systems; damaging crops and forests, and killing fish with acid rain; human health impacts and premature death due to respiratory disease.
9. Chemical pollution Releasing and spreading radioactive compounds, organic compounds (such as DDT), and heavy metals (such as mercury and lead), through industrial production and waste disposal. Reduced abundance of species, likely to create bioaccumulation of effects up food chains, with impacts on human immune systems and neuro- development; likely to increase vulnerability of organisms to stresses such as climate change.

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So how are we doing? Seven of the nine boundaries have been quantified and measured to date and we are already outside the safe operating limit for biodiversity loss, climate change and the nitrogen cycle. We are due to exit the save operating space for ocean acidification and the phosphorous cycle if current trends are not reversed. A growing global population, consuming more, is putting freshwater use  under pressure and is driving massive changes in land use.




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In 2012 Kate Raworth from Oxfam put forward the social foundation framework to summarise the eleven top social priorities identified by the world’s governments in the run-up to Rio+20. Below this foundation of resource use lies unacceptable human deprivation such as hunger, ill-health and income poverty. So how far below the social foundation are we globally?

Social foundation Extent of global deprivation                                       (illustrative indicators) % Year
Food security Population undernourished 13% 2006–8
Income Population living below $1.25 (PPP) per day 21% 2005
Water and sanitation Population without access to an improved drinking water source                                                                    Population without access to improved sanitation 13%               39% 2008          .            2008
Health care Population estimated to be without regular access to essential medicines 30% 2004
Education Children not enrolled in primary school                                                           Illiteracy among 15–24-year-olds 10%        11% 2009       2009
Energy Population lacking access to electricity                                                         Population lacking access to clean cooking facilities 19%      39% 2009       2009
Gender equality Employment gap between women and men in waged work  Representation gap between women and men in national parliaments 34%      77% 2009       2011
Social equity Population living on less than the median income in countries with a Gini coefficient exceeding 0.35 33% 1995- 2009
Voice E.g. Population living in countries perceived (in surveys) not to permit political participation or freedom of expression To be determined
Jobs E.g. Labour force not employed in decent work TBD
Resilience E.g. Population facing multiple dimensions of poverty TBD



So we simultaneously face the challenge of reducing the number of other people currently living in unacceptable human deprivation while also creating new ways of living and consuming that bring us back within a safe operating space for humans to continue being able to survive and thrive on the planet. Kate Raworth visualises this space as a ‘donut’ shape above the social foundation and below the planetary boundaries. Watch her talk here to get the full picture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqJL-cM8gb4

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A donut representing the safe and just operating space for humanity


Facing into the reality of all this can be really dispiriting. Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone’s book Active Hope offers a toolkit of useful approaches to help innovators, change-makers and anyone who thinks about the future we face stay resilient in the face of the huge challenges outlined above. They talk about three stories that people chose to be part of to understand the future we face. They talk about the three stories being like three concentric circles. At the centre, the inner circle is the story of Business As Usual; all we need to do moving forward is to keep the economy growing and everything will be fine. The story in the circle outside this is The Great Unravelling; the people who can see that business as usual is destroying the systems that support life on Earth at an accelerating rate. They call the story in the outside circle The Great Turning; the people in this story can clearly see the damage that business as usual is doing and the great unravelling that is looming, but instead of falling into despair or apathy they are taking action to prevent or slow the damage and create restorative solutions.

So let’s keep a sense of realistic optimism and tackle the challenges we face with renewed determination. This ‘donut’ may be just what you need to help other people get a clearer picture of the change that’s so badly needed.



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