Book Review: Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist

Book ReviewI was first pointed in the direction of Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist by my youngest daughter. She was studying sustainability courses in England and attended a guest lecture by Kate Raworth, the book’s author. Raworth teaches at Oxford University and is also affiliated with numerous other campuses, NGOs, and institutes across England and Europe, all focusing on macroeconomic social change. When my daughter told me about the lecture, I watched a few of Raworth’s talks online and was intrigued enough to order Doughnut Economics. I found it very interesting.

After an introduction that gives a brief history of economic theory, the following seven chapters combine a critique of conventional economic thinking; an overview of the daunting economic, social, and environmental challenges our world currently faces; and a clear alternative to how we should “think economics” and act in all of humanity’s best interests.

Here in Canada, when we hear the word “doughnut,” we think of a chain of coffee shops. However, after seeing Raworth’s doughnut graphic, which first appears on page 9 and is referenced throughout the book, the word now carries more significance. Raworth’s graphic illustrates the doughnut’s inner ring as humanity’s social foundation: what all people need and should have access to. The outer ring is the ceiling of planetary pressure our environment can withstand. Thus, the doughnut itself is a “safe and just space for humanity” to dwell within.

On page 38, she adds a lot of detail to the diagram. For example on the outer edge of the doughnut, she includes climate change and biodiversity loss, and on the inner edge social needs such as housing and gender equality. At the end of the book, through statistics, she shows where we have overshot what the world can withstand environmentally and undershot humanity’s just needs. Also helpful to the reader are extensive notes, a bibliography, and a detailed index.

Raworth asks fundamental questions about the way the world—and economic theory and activity—works. She questions the power of corporations that make profits to shareholders their mantra, the lack of caring and leadership of governments especially in these present days of funding cuts, and the monolithic thinking of academia and policy-makers who are all about growth and the GDP.

This mirrors my experience teaching, when students would come up to me after an international development studies lecture and tell me that what I said in class was the opposite of what they were learning in economics!

The book’s final chapter exhorts the reader and world to change, and here Raworth provides a number of examples of where community efforts have successfully addressed human and environmental needs. However, I think two concerns are missing at this point in the book. One is an acknowledgment that the number of people reading this book and thinking seriously about these issues is very small.

Sadly, humanity may not be ready to take on her challenge. We may, in fact, still be heading in the opposite direction.

What else is missing—and more appropriately may need to come from us as activists and advocates—are the small, local steps that, if accumulated, can change the world locally and globally. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals icon includes 17 symbols of overall goals. Like Raworth’s doughnut, it makes a nice graphic that conveys big objectives. But it is the smaller actions within the goals that we need to focus on so that real change will happen, moving us beyond talk.


Book: Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist
Author: Kate Raworth
Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017
310 pages, $18.00
ISBN: 978-1603587969

Review By: Zack Gross is a member of the board of Fairtrade Canada and past president of the CFTN board of directors.

Originally published in Fair Trade Magazine – Summer/Fall 2019 Edition