This is the first of a three-part selection from the analysis paper written by IPE’s 2020 JRF Tomislav Cik.
Although ecological unsustainability, in particular, has been the subject of international policy since the 1970s, it remains a big challenge. It could be that an adequately systematic and globally coordinated approach is missing because of the complexity of the task at hand. At first glance, one could dismiss this argument and be quick to proclaim it as escapist and unaffordably pessimistic. However, even such ostensible defeatism can serve as a platform upon which new perspectives can be built.
One favourable start of a project that recognizes the complexity of the issue but still chooses to address the task at hand could be, as Latouche formulates (in: D’Alisa et al., 2016), to “decolonize our imaginaries”, or more simply put, to emancipate our mental and social realities from the ideologies of economic “growth” and “development”. Various understandings of these “imaginary meanings” have been conceptual cornerstones of some of the most influential responses to issues of global inequality, unsustainability, and injustice.
However, there is mounting evidence that the very idea of economic growth is uneconomical, unjust, ecologically unsustainable, and that it does not increase overall well-being (D’Alisa et al., 2016). It should then not come as a surprise that, as Kothari et al. (2014) demonstrate, the “green economy” and “sustainable development” models, predicated upon economic growth, have failed to deliver an adequate conceptual and political framework.
One of the main oversights of these models is that both approaches are based on neoclassical economic theory, according to which economic growth disconnects (de-couples) itself from its environmental foundation at appropriate levels of resource productivity and decreased pollution. This economy-environment relationship is perhaps most commonly illustrated by the (in)famous environmental Kuznets curve, a diagram that ultimately legitimizes economic growth in the name of increased environmental quality.
However, as there is serious criticism on account of the model’s reliability (Stern, 2004), there is no evidence that economic growth, most readily recognized as GDP growth, can ever be absolutely and permanently decoupled from resource use and emissions. Moreover, in their extensive empirical analysis of the effects of economic growth on CO2 emissions, Schroeder and Storm (2020) find that even though production-based CO2 emissions and economic growth do show signs of decoupling, consumption-based CO2 emissions are increasing with rising per capita GDP. Indeed, as their analysis concludes, these findings do call for a reconceptualization of “decoupling”, as outsourcing of carbon-intensive activities to low-income countries obscures the real driver of increasing CO2 emissions, which is growth in consumption.
These findings, along with many others, indicate that a more sustainable future guided by (GDP) growth-oriented policies is completely unfeasible. Some of these considerations have been supporting the theory, culture and sociopolitical practice of “degrowth” since its inception in the 1970s.
Degrowth, as an “imaginary” and theory, is a critique of economic growth, capitalism, and commodification of social artefacts and socioecological services (D ‘Alisa et al., 2016). As a movement, degrowth emphasizes the need for a structural reorganization of social metabolisms, which can be most simply defined as a form of humanly controlled energy and material flows between (and within) societies and nature (Molina and Toledo, 2014), and their corresponding sociometabolic practices, in order to achieve well-being within the physical means of the planet.
Unsurprisingly, degrowth has received much criticism, one of them being that degrowth can not be accurately measured and is thus scientifically and politically unproductive. However, even though measuring sustainability is understandably complex and challenging and despite the more or less obvious theoretical and methodological limitations of visualizing conceptualizations such as degrowth, discussions on how to approach measuring sustainability have become increasingly important over the last decade.
The impending environmental and social crisis facing humanity in the 21st century, along with the identified failures to adequately address it, has resulted in new modes of sustainability modelling. Among these efforts emerged the Safe and Just Operating (SJOS) framework, designed to reflect the holistic disposition of sustainability-related discourse. In the broadest sense, it provides a single visual representation of social metabolisms in order to achieve or maintain the sustainability of sociometabolic structures and processes. Historically, the framework has evolved based on the concept of planetary boundaries, which has been developed by Rockström et al. (2009). This quantitative approach defines nine biophysical boundaries to determine a safe space of material development for humanity. The framework highlights the danger of irreversible environmental changes caused by exceeding the defined limits.
Kate Raworth soon after (2017) proposes an advancement to the model by complementing the physical boundaries with 12 social standards derived from the UN’s SDGs in 2015. Within this model, however, the visualized “ecological ceiling” and “social foundations” combine to form a doughnut-resembling graph within which a safe and just operating space for humanity in the 21st century is defined as space within the two circular boundaries (Raworth, 2017). Additionally, along with identifying the SJOS, the doughnut model simultaneously visualizes potential transgressions in the physical and social sphere, providing a holistic but visually simplified snapshot of the distance between the analyzed and the aspired social metabolism (Raworth, 2017).
Within the scientific community, the theoretical doughnut-shaped model was perhaps most famously applied by O’Neill et al. (2018) in their comparison of 150 nations relative to the values of 11 social and seven biophysical indicators. More interesting than the somewhat unsurprising conclusion that no country achieves high values of human wellbeing with sustainable levels of resource use, is the established and conceptually paralyzing trade-off between human wellbeing and its environmental foundation. Typical to common understandings of social metabolisms, these findings define wellbeing as a function of resource consumption. More importantly, they present progress as a cost-benefit tradeoff between social justice and environmental destruction.
In an effort to diverge from conventional and politically paralyzing sustainability metrics analysis and the above-identified tradeoffs, a group of researchers from the Institute for Political Ecology designed the Degrowth Doughnut model (Domazet et al., 2020).
As a conceptual and an analytical tool it highlights key biophysical and social aspects of transitioning to a (reconceptualised) safe and just operating space and remaining within it by providing comprehensive overviews of social and sociometabolic performances of individual nation-states, with quantitative data already collected for the majority of UN-recognized countries. In this model, however, the social and biophysical components are supplemented with a cultural component. These segments comprise of ten themes containing 33 indicators overall. These themes are agriculture, climate change, and biodiversity (biophysical); energy and materials, material security, democracy, and health (socioeconomic); democratic potential, environmentalism, and well-being (cultural). Despite the fact that the themes are conceptually close to one another, they provide a broad enough coverage for displaying holistic visualizations of complex systems in easily understandable yet meaningful images. This aids in avoiding the trap of further entrenching policy-making debates in highly academic and technical terms of experts, as well as expanding the potential of the model to provoke interdisciplinary explorations.
Another significant modification of the previous models is that the Degrowth Doughnut identifies boundaries and thresholds for all three segments. In other words, it presents potentials for growth and injunctions for a reduction in biophysical, socio-economic and cultural aspects of life. Another important aspect of the model is its openness to downscaling of themes and indicators to an appropriate level of “specific metabolically integrated areas” (Domazet et al. 2020: 8). In relation to regional or urban comparisons of various doughnut models, the research is sparse, but some research suggests conceptual blueprints for downscaling of the model (Nykvist et al., 2013; Dao et al, 2015.; Dearing et al, 2014). Moreover, downscaled doughnut models are starting to appear as policymaking tools aimed at transformative action in major world capitals, such as Amsterdam.
These kinds of efforts could be of monumental importance for the future as some projections estimate that 68% of the world population will live in cities by 2050, which, along with the already present concentration of economic activity and political power in urban areas, could be crucial in securing a successful transition to a safe and just operating space.
This is especially true for Europe, where cities accommodate 74% of the population (Reckien et al., 2018). In this sense, cities are major factors in the ongoing aspirations of reaching sustainable and just levels of social reproduction and environmental protection. Globally, urban environments are not only important because of their responsibility for 70% of all carbon dioxide emissions and close to 65% of energy consumption. At the same time, cities are especially vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change, primarily by rising sea levels and coastal storms, as 90% of the world’s cities are located on coastlines.
It is to be expected that the necessary ideological and technological shift to the desired state will depend on cities spearheading transitional efforts by exploring new ideological and technological terrains and implementing transformative innovative strategies aligned with the latest research trends and scientific discoveries.
Recognizing the methodological advantages and limitations of visualizing planetary and social boundaries, along with their possible transgressions, will provide a solid foundation for legitimizing further downscaling of the Degrowth Doughnut model. Analyzing how Croatia fits within the Degrowth Doughnut model is a continuation of ongoing efforts of IPE to utilize the model for assessing the alignment of strategic policies with the attainment of sustainability. It is also an addition to previous downscaling efforts of the model conducted by IPE for regional analysis of France, USA, and Croatia.
Therefore, this analysis paper will assess local sustainability performance to further inform decision-making. The analysis will not be focusing on all indicators originally included in the model but rather on those representative of and paradigmatic for the degrowth theoretical landscape and the methodology of visualizing the Degrowth Doughnut.
Analyzing how Croatia and four of its localities fit within the model will identify key areas of vulnerabilities and strengths of its social metabolism and sociocultural practices and structure a vocabulary for addressing them. Reflecting on how these insights could be used for determining possible policy trajectories of Croatia is of major interest to this analysis.
In addition, reflections on the methodological aspects of visualizing the Degrowth Doughnut will be provided to further establish the validity of potentially downscaling the model for optimizing policy-making efforts on lower levels of decision-making. Finally, recognizing that all nation-states are themselves comprised of a patchwork of national subunits, of regions, counties and municipalities, could contribute to their affirmation as conceptually available and analytically susceptible to the application of the model.