Revitalizing What is Vital
By William F. Schmick IV – How The Devon Doughnut Collective in the UK is changing the story around unmet social needs and planetary collapse to create a “Space for Revitalization”
The Devon Doughnut Collective, based in Devon in the south west of England—a landscape that’s both rural and urban—works with data and narrative storytelling to develop uniquely contextualized ways to measure the social needs and ecological limitations of their community. Their methodology for community revitalization, adapted from the book Doughnut Economics by economist Kate Raworth, brings together lived experience, expert analysis, and citizen science to create pathways for action available to all stakeholders. This methodology has far-reaching implications for other Doughnut Action Networks, pro-social and environmental activism, community development, stakeholder engagement theory, psychological well-being, distributive justice, and global public policy.
Is it possible to adequately describe the needs of a community in such a way that sufficiently represents those of each stakeholder, leaving no community member behind, and in such a way that is prescriptive and yet not paternalistic, and on top of all that, does so in a manner that not only seems approachable but also fun?
As a student trying to prove the feasibility of such a prospect, I couldn’t have been more delighted to find in the Devon Doughnut Collective, the deliberate, collaborative, and conscientious actions that seem to be doing just that.
The Collective has generated enthusiasm around solving what is sometimes described as a bottomless pit of unmet social need and climate catastrophe, and done so in a way that up until now was thought to be impossible. The United Nations stopped trying to sufficiently distribute resources based on need in the 1980s due to this very ‘impossibility’ that the Collective is currently embracing. There is surely work to be done to improve the nature of stakeholder engagement, especially as the conversation moves more squarely from needs to limits. Although technology could soon make this process easier, it’s what’s underneath that counts. This project may lay the groundwork for needs-based self-determination among communities, nations, and eventually reestablish the impetus for needs-based distributive justice within global public policy. Perhaps this claims too much, but such a project could lead to great things.
How does the Devon Doughnut Collective work?
With the guidance of the intrepid team at the Bioregional Learning Centre, the ever-widening circle of Doughnut enthusiasts is becoming a robust and diverse group of stakeholders to include, thus far: residents, councillors, academics, sector practitioners, business leaders, marginalized individuals, and other change-makers as our outreach continues. An infrastructure for knowledge and networking is simultaneously built and garnered through this engagement, and with each meeting, as the Collective grows to comprise larger numbers of more diverse people, the social capital and efficacy within the group grows as well.
Every fortnight, (that’s two weeks, or so I’ve learned during my time spent virtually across the pond) the Collective grows larger and more diverse, drawing ever-closer to describing their community in terms specific to their own social and environmental climate, culture and context. Each meeting has a clear agenda, starts on time and ends on time; and I always leave feeling involved, included and accomplished. First through group conversation, and then through collective description in breakout rooms and shared Google docs, the Collective contextualizes the original Doughnut ‘domains’ as well as the indicators, thresholds, and pathways to action by adding, subtracting, or changing words or concepts to more adequately fit unique and specific needs—those that distinguish their community from others.
Through true stakeholder engagement—extensive outreach to ‘experts’ and others combined with directional guidance that resists any inclination towards paternalism or any appearance of the same—the Collective has developed an approachable, realistic, well-defined methodology: By combining narrative story telling with raw data they develop indicators and twin track thresholds for citizens and policy makers that are representative of community needs specific to Devon. Further discussions have resulted in unique ways in which to measure these indicators and thresholds, and gone on to develop pathways for action.
The methods used are fun and engaging: the process of broad, open-ended conversation on Zoom, often led by an ‘expert’ in whichever domain we are working on that day, followed by group work in shared Google docs, may explain the leaps and bounds that the Collective is making towards a fully-formed “People’s Doughnut for Devon.”
In what ways is the Devon Doughnut different?
Many Doughnut groups, such as Berlin and Rio, are seeing that a local Doughnut and its indicators for a healthy social foundation and ecological ceiling must be fleshed out in context within the community wishing to utilize the Doughnut. The Collective has been putting this into practice since October 2020.
The methodology of the Collective stretches the usefulness of the Doughnut as a locally-held tool. When discussing indicators (that when seen together form a clear picture of the most relevant ways to gauge Devon’s health) the group not only relies less on objective data sets but it actively avoids them when it makes sense to do so. This gives space for other questions to arise, such as, “Do we need to measure the level of CO2 in the atmosphere to know we want and need less of it? Does it make sense to put all the emphasis on measuring a reality we know we don’t want to replicate? What is important to measure, here, in this place?” Although a part of the Doughnut process is to derive thresholds, or baselines, from each indicator, available data is seen to be in service to addressing scenarios that are alive within their region.
The ‘City-Portrait’ methodology of DEAL (Doughnut Economics Action Lab), then, is rather subverted in the Devon Doughnut, replaced instead by local narratives that describe the indicator in its current state, as well as what could be done to affect it. Within these narratives lie the indicators, thresholds and pathways for action that provide both citizens and policy makers with ways to leverage change.
Also within these narratives, although somewhat less explicit, the values of Devon are described, because the needs of a community also represent that which is valued or valuable—that which is important to their community.
Because these narratives contain community values, they have the ability to leverage change in a way that perhaps raw data may not achieve in certain contexts.
Where and when values may conflict—cases when domains affect other domains, for instance–raw data collected through citizen science may provide guidance and also leverage prescriptive action—data is necessary to triage in cases where values conflict. However, in contexts where data may be in doubt or conflict, shared community values that underlie the narrative for each domain may present a unifying middle ground on which to compromise.
It is critical that this process of contextualization occurs as the local Doughnut can only achieve its true normative impact through hyperlocal, contextual drawdown—from universal human needs to specific ones and from global ecological indicators and thresholds to ones that are relevant and enforceable in local context.
Is it about downscaling a ‘city’ Doughnut or optimizing the framing according to context?
In the original Doughnut Model human needs and ecological means are put squarely within a global context; by juxtaposing the inner and outer ring of the doughnut through universal boundaries requiring give and take. The Model shows an understanding of the globe’s social consumption and consequent applied environmental pressure resulting from meeting, or not meeting, basic needs in a global context. Although its domains, indicators and thresholds will provide for a global average, and this global average will not be descriptive enough to attribute blame and prescribe corrective action.
Thus, the drawdown gains importance as the strength of a local Doughnut can be found in the strength of its contextualization: its relevance, applicability and enforceability for the community and all stakeholders. Within this contextualization, at least in the case of the Devon Doughnut, is the impetus for action.
What keeps people interested and coming back is that they see themselves and their community reflected in their work, and reflected in a better, or at least more promising light.
As the longevity of any Doughnut depends on continued enthusiasm and involvement, on a largely volunteer basis, this contextualization provides the intimate connection to day-to-day work needed for long-term sustainability. This strategy for mobilizing social capital might result in an increase in agency and autonomy for the average citizen—previously thought to be unattainable or unrealistic without some amount of paternalistic mandate, generalization of needs, or simply because it was so overburdensome to account for the unmet needs of an entire community.
Do we want to leave to market forces the capabilities inherent in every community?
This way of working should be useful in developing nations to mobilize social capital and define needs in context. Such an ability may revive distributive justice in global public policy; that is, resource distribution in global policy could be based on need. It is arguable that much of the money spent by the United Nations Development funds have created nothing more than a cycle of neoliberal colonialist debt. This is because resource distribution is currently determined by capabilities: money is given to those claiming to be capable of putting it to use.
Those with this capability may not have needed more resources, but rather, needed to redistribute more efficiently the resources they held. The irony is that as a result of being unable to adequately account for the varied, and seemingly endless list of specific human needs, the United Nations has forgone the challenge of listing all the capabilities for which they distribute money, and this leaves the creation of “capabilities” to the market. The market then creates these capabilities. In a more sustainable world, capabilities would create a market. It is for this reason that the developing world often bears the brunt of shopping malls, Wendy’s Restaurants and thoroughfares before they see investments in public health and well-being. The case study for this would be the story of Ecuador and the IMF from 1960-2010.
To provide contrast and perhaps clarity, Thomas Piketty observes in Capital in the 21st Century, “None of the Asian countries that have moved closer to the developed countries of the West in recent years has benefited from large foreign investments, whether it be Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan and more recently China. In essence, all of these countries themselves financed the necessary investments in physical capital, and even more, in human capital, which the latest research holds to be the key to long term growth (pp.89-90)”. He goes on to put it more bluntly: “the poor catch up with the rich to the extent that they achieve the same level of technological know-how, skill, and education, not by becoming the property of the wealthy” (pp.91).
The Devon Doughnut Collective is demonstrating the kind of stakeholder engagement that leads to a sufficient description of community needs and realistic pathways to action for fulfilling them. Their outreach, and communal work process, are setting an example that policy makers may not be able to ignore. As a result, direct financial investment in communities based on specific needs may in the future provide a better avenue for global public spending than our current approach of what amounts to trickle-down sustainable development: we can’t expect western contractors from the global north to adequately, sufficiently, let alone authentically, prescribe markets into communities any more than we can expect a community from the developing world to authentically describe themselves by the values of the global north.
Allowing communities to define their own needs through a process of self-determination would allow direct financial investment based on need to avoid the logical pitfalls just described and provide communities a path to authentically describe themselves.
A future-facing Doughnut that builds agency and honors authenticity
The concept of authenticity is one crucial to both psychological as well as economic well-being: the agency and autonomy provided to the average Devonian in the process of determining the needs of their community allows for a description of values that otherwise may not be delineated in such clear terms. In other words, the methodology of narrative storytelling combined with data to prescribe corrective action provides the community of Devon the chance to live by their values—and to live by one’s values is to live authentically. Such authenticity, whether in business or in civil engagement, provides the opportunity to flourish, and in a community that facilitates such flourishing, authenticity develops with a sense of richness. (For a full account of authenticity, values and happiness, see Daniel Haybron, The Pursuit of Unhappiness, 2007.) Such richness is what accounts for people saying things like, “There’s a real sense of community here.” Because, generally, communities are defined by socially reinforced and reciprocated acts, and those acts must stem from values at some point.
The beauty of the Devon Doughnut is that the authenticity garnered through their collective process will spur pro-social and pro-environmental action because on some instinctive level of consciousness, such behavior only seems appropriate. It is our ego, conditioned by skepticism and insecurity, that is responsible for doubting our inclination towards helping the other. Just as reality may shatter for an overconfident student receiving a poor grade on an exam, the act of seeing oneself and one’s community described on paper may shatter the glass, so-to-speak, and invite an instinctual response to improve the description.
We apathetically throw away the phrase, “In a perfect world…” as though it is an impossibility, yet we can all imagine it, at least briefly before ending the sentence with something like “food would be free,” again collapsing into the seemingly certain suggestion that this too is impossible. We all share an instinctual understanding of what is fair and are uncomfortable when something is not; we all recognize suffering and most of us instinctively want to end it. By describing their own community’s social needs and environmental limitations in terms that matter to them, the Collective is establishing the groundwork for normative policy-making to end suffering in their community. But what about the rest of us?
What is it that prevents us from making the world comfortable, just and right, so as to validate our instincts? Perhaps this feeling of discomfort has become so ubiquitous that it has been termed anxiety—often characterized by paralysis and indecision. A perceived lack of alternatives (autonomy) and the ability to affect change (agency) becomes a stagnant and persistent reality—one that feels less and less personal the longer it persists. As it feels less personal, it feels less tangible and less controllable, and more and more overburdensome, and then it is overwhelming. As agency and autonomy dwindle, authenticity dissipates from the societal construct, people more or less disappear from that construct in terms of their role and responsibility towards maintaining it, and reappear as daytime ghosts that feel distinctly separated from the purpose let alone meaning of their day-to-day activities.
People lose touch with what I call their “deeper roles:” People go to work but it isn’t their work. Family members do not feel part of their family, as the role of that construct fades as the roles of individuals within that construct seem to vanish. The world is happening around them and they are scared and feel isolated. Lack of agency breeds resentment and lack of autonomy breeds fear. The two combined breed false realities and conspiracy theories. Shared via online forums and social media these false realities have the capacity for real agency and seemingly real autonomy, allowing fear and resentment to take the place of active engagement in citizenship. People loudly complain online but fail to vote “because it doesn’t matter.” If this sounds familiar, the Collective is a fantastic place to go to feel confident, in control, powerful, purposeful and dare I say, happy. It matters and you matter, too.
The ring in the diagram of the Devon Doughnut shows “A Space for Revitalization,” making it explicitly positive and future-facing, seeking to empower community stakeholders with the information they need to make fully informed decisions (autonomy) and the ability to collectively make those decisions for their community (agency). Because it is a Doughnut based on what Devon “wants to be,” community values, and the indicators and thresholds representing them, can be progressive, imaginative, and aim to alleviate some of the anxiety and paralysis that often presents when one is faced with solving what amounts to a “wicked” problem.
Instead of burying my head in the sand, the Devon Doughnut invites me to think about the future I want as opposed to the past I need to fix.
The Collective differentiates itself not only from other Doughnut Action Networks (DANs) but also other pro-social and pro-environmental action groups, in that they allow their imagination for a better Devon to guide them past their doubts that “the system” or “business as usual” will get in the way. Through their imagination, contextualization, and strong fortitude, the Devon Doughnut will be best when it reflects the best Devon possible—not when it is “better” than other Doughnuts, or is “better than it used to be.”
The Devon Doughnut Collective has not only restored my faith in environmental and social activism, but has to an extent restored my faith in humanity. The idea that people can cooperate towards their collective well-being, in this manner, disproves much neoliberal capitalist political theory, and therefore invalidates much of the same practice. The idea that markets should remain “free” for the individual becomes nonsensical in terms of collective well-being once it has been established that people are very capable of not only communicating their needs to one another, but also doing so in ways that do not subvert those of either party. The classic market approach that everyone acting selfishly produces the most communal well-being must only be viable in scenarios marked by fear (scarcity) and silence. In a market where one is terrified someone else is going to get to “it” first and no one gets to speak, then I guess, yes…it makes sense for everyone to go for themselves and perhaps in that very specific scenario, everyone acting selfishly will produce the “most” well-being.
Tracing the need to its source
This same line of reasoning applies to resource distribution at the global scale: if fear and silence were not recognized as the norm of international communication breakdowns, resource distribution based on need could proceed without veiled talks regarding paternalism, the insufficiently objective nature of needs, or talk of a “bottomless pit” of need and spending, all protruding into discussion.
Behind the veil of these traditional arguments against needs-based distributive justice lie many fears. Communities, and more broadly, developing nations, can describe for themselves what they need and thus demonstrate a level of agency and autonomy that might invalidate the saviour complex of the neoliberal colonialist psyche, and thus force a reckoning of conscience regarding the motivations behind sustainable development funding to date. Further, they might achieve this self-determination in terms less profitable to the global north. Perhaps the most significant of these fears however is that upon gaining agency and autonomy, they might use their new authority to leverage what is possibly the most powerful component of distributive justice based on need: the ability to trace the need to its source and attribute blame–financial blame. Deficits (needs) have causes, and distributing resources based upon needs allows for blame (as well as praise) to be attributed, and attributed in a very binding (financial) sense that is sorely absent from the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
While the SDGs are conceptually wonderful, they lack “teeth.” The capabilities approach to sustainable development allows for development funds to establish new markets to meet unmet needs, to ignore the causes of those needs, and often to ignore the proposed solutions suggested through the SDGs–and to do so guilt-free. In contrast, a needs-based approach to sustainable development would require prescriptive, corrective action from parties responsible for causing unmet needs, and thus, require direct financial investment or restitution–that is–after an admission of guilt. Because the SDG’s are non-binding, no one is ever guilty. In a culture or construct where no one is ever guilty, there is no need to leave a note.
The quest to describe meaningful social indicators is not easy, and made more difficult when those indicators warrant correction, often through spending. However, it is surely easier when the entire community becomes part of the discussion. The other side to the coin of “needs” is “limits” and this discussion promises to grow more difficult as those who are beyond their limits of consumption, either publicly or privately, are forced to confront similar questions regarding the “why” as well as their “deeper role” in life. Marrying the often “odd-couple” of equity and environment is no doubt difficult, but when vows are taken in a setting characterized by high levels of trust and communication, and values and data are held authentically by authentic people, this arrangement can last.
The Bioregional Learning Centre, conveners of the Collective, prefers to speak of ‘holding to account’; that building a Doughnut together from the ground up will increase the solidarity and self-reliance of those participating. By going in the opposite direction from big government, by decentralizing knowledge and power, and showing that process is as important as a result, they believe that co-creating a more accurate picture of how things work here is the first step, such that situations are visible to all, and therefore required actions become obvious.
Coffee and Doughnuts, anyone?
In Devon, I can see polite discussion over Coffee and Doughnuts leading to sweeping change across other Doughnuts, communities, nations, and eventually the entire world. Their process of stakeholder engagement resulting in a methodology that encapsulates within its borders and boundaries both the “why’ and the “how” proves that even if it is just in one community, self-determination through successful accounting of resources based upon needs (and limits) can be non-paternal, contextually sufficient, and most importantly, fun.
Being a part of the Collective has been a highlight of my year. It’s amazing to see social capital form, grow and mobilize, and I consider it a privilege to interact with such fine people, dedicated to such a fine place, both of which promise to grow only finer in the years to come.
William Schmick lives in Vail, Colorado. He holds a B.A. in Sustainability Studies from Colorado Mountain College and a B.S. in Philosophy from Davidson College.
Image: Our Prehistoric Fate by Basim Magdy (2011) from the Eco-Visionaries exhibition at the Royal Academy 2019/20.