Browsing through books: ‘Doughnut economics – Seven ways to think like a 21st century economist’ by Kate Raworth

I had come across Kate Raworths’ doughnut economics in a couple of instances, which for me is a sign to read a book in question. In addition, I had gathered that the book deals with the role and nature of economics, which in turn relate to my postdoc project on post-growth work. After all, the need for continuous economic growth stems from the institutions, such as economics departments, practicing economists, and political decision-makers.

What really kicked me into finally reading the book was the fact that Kate Raworth visited Helsinki in May. The organisers of the events encouraged people to familiarise with her thoughts, for example via a recent TED talk. I took the advice quite literally and browsed through her book, finally reading most of it.

The book is well written, flows beautifully, and has a compelling argument. It is organised around the idea that images have a lot of power. The simple supply-demand curve has influenced a countless number of people in universities’ economics basic courses. In fact, I have been influenced myself as a business school graduate in international business (for my undergraduate studies). So she knows what she is talking about. Moreover, that curve is not the only image that affects students, but many other uncontested “truths” are taught over and over again, although they were developed in the 19th or the 20th century and can be criticised heavily.

The power of images

She points out that we live in the 21st century so we have 21st century issues, which I shortcut here in words ‘wicked socio-ecological problems.’ So why should we rely on old thinking that was not developed knowing contemporary issues and, moreover, has proven to be flawed in many ways? In the spirit of powerful images, Raworth introduces the doughnut: when keeping on the ring of a doughnut, we respect the social needs and the ecological ceiling.

The doughnut

Sadly, the ‘selfie of our time’, as she refers to it in her recent TED talk linked above, is not flattering.

The unflattering selfie of our times

Most of the book is devoted to providing evidence for her argument on why we need to shift our thinking to become more doughnut-like, instead of previously developed (neoclassical) economics. This is understandable, since the dominant thinking in many public institutions support economics that is not suitable for the 21st century. She backs up her arguments by examples that already try to respect the doughnut and bring on change. Some of the examples I know from before, and it was fascinating to see how she links them to the idea of 21st economics.

The book gets really interesting in the end, when she talks about regenerative economics and being agnostic about growth. As an avid reader of post-growth and degrowth literature, I was challenged by her idea to invite economic growth back to the negotiation table after we have cleared the hurdle of making socio-ecological well-being our top priority. She argues that growth could be possible and needed in some places, but it would need to respect the priority of keeping within the doughnut and not causing to fall to the empty centre nor to rise above its outer ring. This type of message seems wise, when engaging in dialogues with decision-makers in power at the moment. Any message is easier to communicate when not seeming too fundamental.

In Helsinki, she mentioned a couple if interesting things that I want to share. First, she said has no time to knock on shut doors. In short, she follows good energies. Not surprisingly economics departments have not been keen to invite her. Yet, critical (economics) students have been in touch with her. In addition, cities and urban planners have contacted her. Also designers have been interested in her ideas as well as some businesses and (progressive) business schools. Finally, political parties hungry for new economics have engaged in a dialogue with her, which is very promising.

Second, someone always comments to her that “this is nothing new”. She replies that yes, this is right. In fact, usually this is the case beyond this book or idea. But it is not enough to say things once, when we want change, here end the dominance of continuous economic growth. Indeed, her work is to serve as a communicator of ideas that resonate widely. For some this may seem like a celebrity cult, which is emphasised in our times by TED talks and alike. However, she (and many others) use the medium available to reach people so that she can reach open doors and follow good energies.

Third, Kate Raworth emphasised that the book may seem like an easy thing to write, but it was a struggle. She was about to give up before she came up with the leading idea of the power of images. I appreciate her honesty, since many books seem effortless, although they are a result of sweat and tears, sometimes even facing one’s deepest fears. But perhaps that is why they are so compelling.

Browsing through books: ‘Another science is possible: A manifesto for slow science’ by Isabelle Stengers

Isabelle Stengers’ Another science is possible: A manifesto for slow science is an important book for anyone doing research or dealing with research. It identifies problems in science and research today and suggest ways to overcome these. Although I’m not a natural scientist, I found this book useful and resonating. In fact, using examples from a different field helped me to see the issues slightly from the outside. The first 4 chapters are about describing ‘fast’ science and the remaining 2 chapters focus on slow science.

The most important take-away for me was Stengers’ ability to verbalise how contemporary mainstream ways of thinking marginalise other ways of being. In the case of academia, the symptoms relate to rankings, measuring, efficiency, expectations for delivering results, commodification, among other things. While these are annoying practices, together they create a sense of fastness. Still, they are the symptoms and the root causes are elsewhere.

What are the root causes? But briefly, the argument is that science is put to serve knowledge economy. She argues that many contemporary socio-ecological problems are known and shared by scholars but they are affected by ‘fastness’ and thus scientists and researchers cannot focus on ‘matters of concern’ (Latour). The tricky part is that no one has the right to decide on their own what is a matter of concern but it should be a dialogue among many people, and not only scientists, but also non-human others. In her analysis, such dialogue is not encouraged at the moment but circumvented or even denied.

In truth, the whole book is about articulating the root causes since it is a book about the philosophy of science. Thus, it would require more work from me to cristalise her analysis. While the same goes for her suggestions how to bring about slow science, I will still try.

I read that her proposals include researchers facing the question ‘You knew what you had to know; what did you do?’ (Chapter 5. p. 106). In her opinion, research institutions are not equipped to handle this and to admit that science is messy and not controllable. Moreover, facing the question requires negotiations (or reclaiming, p. 141), which always happens in a specific context – not in general or in abstractions. From the perspective of fast science, this seems like a terrible idea since negotiations require time. Still, time and negotiations are required for formulating answers to the question she poses: ‘You knew; what did you do?’ Moreover, engaging in negotiations as an academic results in need for diplomats who do negotiating. Sometimes scientists can be those diplomats, while sometimes the diplomat is someone else.

This is not a book to digest easily. Yet, it is definitely an inspiring and important one. So I’m happy that I did more than browse and spent time with this one. I have a feeling that I will return to this book later and compare the underlined parts and my notes to new highlights that I make. (And yes, I scribble in my books, but usually with a pencil.)

The importance of reading

When I was 8 years old, my primary school substitute teacher hinted that I might have faked my reading diary. For two weeks I marked two books read per week. I assure you I wasn’t. There was absolutely no incentive for faking anything since it was a pro reading campaign detached from grades. Simply, I just loved reading and felt that finally I got to share all the fun things I had found.

This unfortunate story has a happy ending: others’ opinions didn’t make me lose my interest in reading. In fact, I’ve kept my hobby and made it into a profession as a researcher. Now, imagine if I had kept a reading diary since I learned how to read. Not meaning to brag – or seem like a fraud – but that list would be massive.

But in research one can never read enough so I’m definitely in the right business. I plough through smaller or bigger piles of books and (digitalised) articles every week. Be assured that my pile includes more than two pieces per week. I’m loving it! My sincerest thanks to great library services.

I’ve also learned to stop reading something if it has not attracted my attention for long enough. In diplomatic terms, that’s called skimming.

My favourite reading meme
My favourite reading meme

Partying is reading. Reading is learning. And there’s no research without learning. There’s no living without learning. Someone would say there’s no living without partying, which is practically the same thing as proven in the quote above. So let’s keep on reading and learning.