Introduction

The climate transition is challenging the relationship between economics and politics in liberal democracies. Spurred by the rising costs of oil extraction and the urgency of decarbonization, volatile energy prices are becoming more common and social contracts increasingly stand on unstable ground. States have resorted to ad hoc mechanisms, such as climate assemblies, to support climate transitions—with relative success. But democratic reflections on the climate transition have generally been limited in scope and ambition, failing to rethink governance, economics, and social contracts beyond the single issue of energy substitution. The stakes are nothing short of a societal transformation for which alternative visions are needed and have yet to come about. With natural, financial, economic, and political shocks testing the bounds of democratic resilience, trust between citizens and the state needs to be reinvented along with a new paradigm proposition for political economies fit for an age of climate disruptions. There is no template available, nor should there be. The transformations needed have to arise from new types of consultation and democratic processes that take stock of the changes already taking place as a result of climate transitions. These processes must also better define what open societies should evolve toward.

That’s why cities including Amsterdam, Brussels, Copenhagen, Berlin, and Cambridge are experimenting with Kate Raworth’s Doughnut model—a new framework for regenerative development—in their efforts to tackle the climate crisis and ecological collapse. Their focus on economic remodeling is opening up new areas of debate about the transition. However, it still falls short of what is needed to democratically usher in systemic transitions that go beyond decarbonization. One thing the Doughnut model gets right is how economic relationships need to change as part of climate transitions. It is on the back of this relational change that different political redesigns can take place and give birth to new reflections on democratic engagement and resilience combined with climate ambitions. 

Background

Social contracts have been on increasingly fragile ground in democracies over the last decade. Beginning with the 2007–2008 financial crisis and the Occupy Wall Street movement that emerged from it, deep unease turned into a profound democratic rift of confidence. People have grown increasingly skeptical of political institutions they perceive to prioritize financial interests over social resilience—thereby exacerbating the concentration of economic power and political decisionmaking in the hands of an unaccountable minority. 

These concerns were again on display during the Yellow Vest demonstrations that gripped France for over a year. The introduction of a fuel tax—however small it was—highlighted the ways that important segments of French society feel their standards of living have slipped and future economic opportunities have dried up. They worry that climate-related policies may leave a large majority behind—especially in rural areas. To be sure, the protesters were never against the transition; rather, they were against bearing the costs of an economic system they perceive to be working in favor of elites who benefit from city-driven economies. Because the welfare state is widely seen as either biased or broken, climate-related transitions are at risk of failing. This is especially true if transition costs reinforce perceptions of economic stagnation and misgovernance.

The current gas crisis has compounded these fears, bundling the effects of carbon pricing with twin shocks from the coronavirus pandemic and energy competition. If anything, this crisis demonstrates clearly that energy and fuel-subsidized economics are no longer a means to greater social mobility, freedom, and better standards of living—former cornerstones of the liberal democracy framework. The twin promise of political stability and expansive individual freedoms is questioned as a result, without an alternative value-proposition in sight. The challenge is not to fix the old paradigm, though, it is to invent a new one, something institutions and states are struggling with.

At the regional level, the EU is trying to revive a new age of economic opportunity with the Green Deal, investing into new sectors, new jobs, and green growth. The EU has coupled this with its Climate Pact, a framework through which the union hopes to activate civic engagement within the transition. But for all it’s worth, the Green Deal is still focused on a model that fails to take into account the full breadth of looming ecological crises. And while it banks on higher digital employment opportunity and virtual mobility for the future of work, these prospects may entirely fail to address fundamental grievances in societies where labor conditions have grown increasingly fragile and where digital divides may lay bare socioeconomic and territorial inequalities. This has a direct impact on voting behaviors and political polarization vis-à-vis ecological issues. The economics of the transition are still mired into polarized perspectives over the distributional effects of costs and opportunities. More generally, they lack a value narrative that people can rally behind.

This is why city-level experiments with the Doughnut model’s application could be so significant. Cities are currently home to over half of the world’s population. They cover only 2 percent of the world’s terrestrial surface, yet they use more than 70 percent of the world’s natural resources and emit approximately 70 percent of greenhouse gases. Their demand drives extraction around the world, and their waste spreads in equal measure. The global economy revolves around them as hubs for consumption, innovation, commerce, financial exchanges, services, and technological concentration. Cities, especially in developed countries, have become a force of geological change in our time of the Anthropocene.

While the globalized economy depends on cities to function, cities themselves depend on complex networks of supply chains in rural areas and outside country borders. These dependencies are often associated with ecological destruction and exploitative supply chains (such as in the agricultural sector). In other words, cities outsource their negative impacts beyond their confines, making the consequences invisible to their inhabitants and lessening the political appetite for accountability and change. So, in a global system that revolves around cities, logic would have it that transformational systems change could begin there too.

This is the idea that Raworth’s Doughnut model offers a way to act on.

What Is the Doughnut Model?

Raworth came up with the Doughnut model back in 2017 (see figure 1).  

The inner ring represents the social thresholds where human societies should not underperform, based on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The outer ring represents the ecological thresholds that humanity should not overshoot. When taken together, they provide a roadmap of indicators that define humanity’s “safe operating space”—one in which social fragmentation does not undermine well-being or social peace and where nature’s ecological foundations are not just safely guarded but also regenerated and sustained over time.

The Doughnut model offers a theory of economic change and a multifunctional analytical tool for a climate-disrupted world. To a certain extent, it aims to provide a civic engagement tool that pushes decisionmakers to find economic activities with meaning beyond growth and reason within ecological limits. The model provides its users with a vision, tool, and platform for socioeconomic engagement—albeit at micro-scale for now.

This combination is potentially significant. The last decade’s social movements, culminating in France’s Yellow Vest protests, were said to lack form and technical ability to engage political actors constructively. The Doughnut model may help to bridge that gap, offering a tool that makes cities directly accountable to their dependent networks. What is missing in the model, though, is a methodology to design political and civic engagement processes that translate diagnoses into policy, behavioral, and economic action. Unless this gap is filled, the model will not fulfill its potential and aspiration for systems change.

Changing the Economic Narrative

In Raworth’s words, the doughnut represents a “compass for progress,” underpinned by nine principles—two of which may well redefine the future relationship between politics and economics. The first is that economics should be redistributive and regenerative by design, matching the indicators of the upper ceiling and lower social ring of the doughnut. The second is that economists, politicians, and policymakers alike should be agnostic about economic growth and pursue multidimensional indicators of performance beyond gross domestic production. Taken together, these principles (along with the other seven) imply that socioeconomic and geoeconomic models should pursue simultaneously functional and ethical goals that aim to stabilize and nurture human and ecological systems. Production and consumption patterns should be adapted accordingly to stay within the safe operating space for humanity.

This narrative—about redirecting the notion of progress toward ecological foundations while serving people’s well-being—is obviously compelling, as it responds both to the climate crisis and the democratic rift of confidence that has undermined social contracts. The key question that remains is how the Doughnut model can be translated from a visionary concept into a practical tool.

This is where the role of cities is so important.

The Doughnut Methodology

Like any good methodology, the Doughnut model starts with a question: “How can our city be a home to thriving people, in a thriving place, whilst respecting the wellbeing of all people, and the health of the whole planet?” This big question can be broken down into various categories to explore the linkages between the local and global levels, as well as the economic, social, and ecological dimensions of a city’s ecosystems and dependencies (see table 1).

These questions have been explored interactively in Doughnut labs, analytical workshops that ask participating citizens to create “city portraits.” In some cases, these workshops have been prompted by city authorities, consisting of consultative processes based on voluntary participation by private actors and citizens that want to actively contribute to transition planning. On the whole, though, they remain mostly driven by volunteers who have little leverage over city governance for now.

So far, Doughnut labs have yielded a few interesting results:

  1. Where they are applied, they can redefine city-level performance on transitions. In Brussels, the Green Party sitting within the regional government officially adopted the Doughnut model to test transition pathways. They outsourced lab and diagnostic implementation to a local association that involved citizens in their reflections. The result is a new monitoring and evaluation framework for the city to define its transition success. Doughnut lab participants painted a “city portrait” that is now composed of multidimensional indicators, adaptive over time, and designed to reflect the relationships between people, their economy, and their direct environment.
  1. In some cases, Doughnut lab participants have provided road map questions to hold political parties to new standards of accountability during election campaigns. In Cambridge, for example, activists sent a series of Doughnut-related questions directly to various political candidates running for city leadership and published the results. Such questions include how political parties plan to respond to the twin challenges of climate and social emergencies and whether they plan to vote for a climate and ecological emergency bill. This exercise helped to translate political agendas regarding the climate crisis and social issues into less technical terms and a more digestible format.
  1. Doughnut labs have also helped redefine climate targets through network and supply chain analysis, providing transparency on city dependencies. This is singularly important. A lot of greenhouse gas emissions are imported rather than produced in cities themselves. Truncated carbon accounting systems and targets skew city-dwellers’ perceptions of their own climate footprint, which often leads to residents taking less responsibility for their consumption, production, and waste footprint outside city limits. Portland, Oregon, for example, realized upon applying a Doughnut analysis that its emissions were double what it had originally calculated. In turn, this type of truncated view creates the false perception that cities drive climate transitions while rural areas don’t care. Such perceptions can easily cause unnecessary and counterproductive polarization. Transitions will only succeed if they are systemic, an outlook that relies on crosscutting collaboration and the harnessing of economic interdependencies for better collective purposes.

The Doughnut model’s strength so far is that it equips citizens with a set of questions and analytical lenses that support accountability through a transition that goes beyond decarbonization. This provides visibility over ecological and economic interdependencies on the one hand and socioeconomic interdependencies on the other. Though results remain limited for now, Amsterdam is engaged in some interesting experiments with construction projects that reduce the city’s ecological footprint and spur more social fabric and resilience at the local level.

Where the Doughnut Model Falls Short

Building a social fabric on the basis of participatory civic engagement of the likes of Doughnut labs is often labeled a form of democratic engagement. But the two should not be conflated. It is in this regard that the Doughnut model falls short, because it is agnostic not just about growth but also about designing the necessary political processes for economic systems change. As the model makes economic interdependencies between cities, rural areas, and foreign supply chains apparent, it makes use of analytical tools to keep decisionmaking solely the purview of the city. It therefore misses an opportunity for joint reflection and decisionmaking between cities and supply sources and also fails to make systems change co-creative and disruptive across lines that have become politically fragmented. In short, while the model provides transparency and potential accountability in relational economics, it fails to translate that accountability to relational democratic processes—despite the need to reconcile economic agency with civic engagement and political narratives.

The democratic potential of the Doughnut model should not go unfulfilled, for it holds some precious keys to reining back economic models within planetary boundaries and social contracts. Without a narrative that helps political systems adapt and transform under this new imperative, both transitions and democracies will mutually weaken. Adopting democratic processes that reflect economic interdependencies could create a multiplicity of change dynamics and narratives that will eventually inform national debates within democracies. And this is becoming increasingly urgent.

Debates about alternative economic trajectories—such as the ones on degrowth, a research trajectory that explores how to produce stable economic prosperity without destructive and exponential economic growth—are already making their way to presidential contests in countries such as France. However, the topic is discussed in binary terms, equating alternative economic modeling with recession and green growth with salvation. The dichotomy is likely to create further unnecessary rifts that will delay democratic climate resilience. More nuance is needed, based on actionable research informed by citizens who buy into a new economic model themselves—not just as a way to respond to the climate emergency but also to renew flagging social contracts.

Because technological innovation steals the show in climate debates at present, an emphasis on social and economic innovation is currently missing in rhetoric about transition trajectories. Economic remodeling is critical, in that sense, and should not happen from the top down. National policies can only be directed by people who base their blueprint for transition on their own lived experience and contextual versions of resilience and democratic, economic, and ecological adaptation. National policies, for now, should play a facilitating and supportive role until a coherent critical mass of inclusive politico-economic processes emerges. At this point, national governments should work to identify common patterns to draw lessons in terms of governance-related, technological, socioeconomic, and democratic solution pathways to ecological and democratic crises. Hopefully, these lessons will help in coming up with a new value proposition superseding the liberal democracy paradigm. This is where the key to a successful transition truly lies—and where the future of democracy should be headed, too.

The Doughnut methodology provides space to deconstruct climate action into social and economic agency—making it more palpable and accessible to citizens. The more this happens, the harder it will be for politicians to hide behind the argument that citizens aren’t mobilized by climate agendas. Citizens across the world have made it clear that they want to see more political and social action on climate change, but no political party so far has managed to connect the fundamental dots between redesigning socioeconomic systems, democratic resilience, and climate-responsive policies in line with today’s ecological emergencies. The Doughnut model may well help to hack democratic transformation on the climate front at long last.

Carnegie Europe is grateful to the Open Society Foundations for their support of this work.