Donut Economics and Salt Lake City

From Donut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist by Kate Raworth

Cities are the experimental laboratories of economic growth, social justice, and public health.  They are where the rubber meets the road. They are the incubators of new ways of trying to make a decent life for their citizens.  With this in mind, some cities are embracing the model of “Donut Economics” in their decision-making.

Donut Economics is a visual framework for sustainable and healthy development. It includes the inner level of social services and safety net for the neediest of its citizens….and the limits of economic expansion in terms of environmental degradation. The diagram and the principles of Donut Economics were developed by economist Kate Raworth in 2012: “A Safe and Just Space for Humanity”.  

The founders of Salt Lake City embraced the concept of communitarianism and understood the inner ring of the donut.  The community valued everyone’s work and everyone contributed, and there was a social safety net for those in need that provided food and shelter.  The concept of the inner core of the donut is in our genes.  We care about others and try to make sure that there is somewhat of a social safety net of health (free clinics), education, food (food banks), and shelter (expanded shelters for the homeless).  We get the inner part of the donut, although we could do better. 

We are struggling and failing to deal honestly with the outer part of the donut and now we have come to the critical conflict with economic expansion and the air and water that secures our health.  For example: 

  1. Water use and water diversion from the Great Salt Lake coupled with climate change will increasingly lower GSL water levels. Not only is that a significant problem for wildlife, but it will severely affect the Greatest Snow on Earth. Dust storms will pick up miles of potentially toxic dust and put it in the lungs of the citizens of Salt Lake City.  
  2. Spraying toxic insecticides which is thought to decrease the mosquito population that breeds in the wetlands of the GSL will damage populations of other insects (bees), harm aquatic birds and fish, and….harm people.
  3. The very unfortunate plans to build an inland port will certainly make some people much wealthier.  It will also provide some jobs.  A few people will benefit and a few will benefit greatly.  However, the increase in air pollution will make the already fragile airshed quality even worse and create unsustainable levels of PM2.5 and ozone during the winter and the summer months.  This plan pushes against the ecological ceiling of the donut and will adversely affect the safe and just space for humanity. 

City planners around the world in cities that have the resources to create a “regenerative and distributive economy” – a sustainable economy – are embracing the principles of the Donut Economy as they consider their futures.  Salt Lake City is half way there with its commitment to a social safety net.  It now urgently needs to consider the outer rim of the donut where we are pushed up against the limits of our environmental safety and health.

Kirtly Parker Jones MD, UPHE Board Member