December 2, 2021

The Earth Gets Left Off the Balance Sheet. Let’s Fix That

by How to Save a Planet

Background show artwork for How to Save a Planet

For decades politicians and other leaders have said that acting on climate change comes at too high a cost — to jobs, to business, to the economy. And they've used economics, the dismal science, to support their argument. But some climate activists have long said that those politicians have it all wrong. That there are no jobs on a dead planet. 

And increasingly, some economists agree. 

They say that if we're going to have any hope of addressing climate change we need to rethink our relationship to the economy - which is often how we measure a country's well being. And to that, we have to rethink economics. To understand their argument, we talk to Kate Raworth, an Oxford economist, and author of the book Doughnut Economics, about what economics gets right, what it gets wrong, what it needs to do differently to help sustain human life on this planet. And speak with Lead Councillor Susan Aitken, the head of Glasgow, Scotland's city government who is working to take the economic ideas that Kate Raworth has put forward to help her city transition to a healthier more sustainable future. 

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This episode was produced by Kendra Pierre-Louis. Our reporters and producers are Rachel Waldholz, Anna Ladd and Hannah Chinn.  Our supervising producer is Lauren Silverman with help from Katelyn Bogucki. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Our intern is Nicole Welch. Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard and Lonnie Ro with original music by Peter Leonard, Emma Munger, and Catherine Anderson. Our fact checker this episode is Claudia Geib.

Where to Listen


Alex Blumberg: Welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Alex Blumberg, and this is the show where we talk about what we need to do to address climate change and how we make those things happen.

Alex: So there's a refrain you hear a lot in climate activism circles. It's popped up on signs at climate protests, people say it in speeches: There are no jobs on a dead planet.

Alex: Now the refrain doesn't always use jobs. Sometimes it's, "There's no business on a dead planet," or "There's no economics on a dead planet," but the point's the same no matter what the word. Economic interests shouldn't come at the expense of a habitable planet. And in fact, our economic interests depend on a habitable planet. And what these slogans are trying to do is counteract a point that you hear a lot, that acting on climate is just too expensive. You hear this point of view from lots of elected officials.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, George W. Bush: There's a much better way to address the environment than imposing these costs on the job creators.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Marsha Blackburn: Just think of what will happen to small businesses and manufacturers hit with a skyrocketing energy bills.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Donald Trump: The Paris Accord was not designed to save the environment. It was designed to kill the American economy.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Barrasso: It's a big green bomb that will blow a hole in our strong healthy and growing economy.]

Alex: For years this has been the framing: climate action can only come as a trade-off with economic prosperity. And this idea has kept many governments from taking the kind of action on climate that we need. But people have also been pushing back against this idea, saying if we truly want to tackle this problem, we need to stop thinking of the economy as separate from the health of the planet. What we need instead is to start factoring a healthy planet into the way we think about the economy. And our guest on today's program is an economist who is trying to do just that.

Kate Raworth: I call myself a renegade economist.

Alex: This is Kate Raworth, and she says that the way economics has traditionally been taught, it's fostered the narrative of the trade-off: prosperity vs. sustainability.

Alex: Kate wants to use the world of economics to chart a new path forward for tackling climate change—a path that doesn't just obsess over people getting richer every year, but also takes stock of the health of the planet and the wellness of all people on it.

Alex: Coming up after the break, we are going to talk with Kate about her ideas and about what economics has gotten right, what it's gotten wrong, and what she thinks it needs to do differently to help sustain life on the planet.


Alex: So welcome back. We are exploring the ways in which our economic system can exacerbate climate change and how we can fix that. And we're gonna be talking with renegade economist Kate Raworth in just a second, and joining me in this episode is How to Save a Planet's own senior climate reporter and recovering economics major Kendra Pierre-Louis. I always forget you were an economics major.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Yeah, nobody remembers. I consider that a compliment, actually.

Alex: [laughs] I guess that tells us how you feel about your economics background.

Kendra: Yeah. I mean, I started taking it, I think, when I was, like, 19, when the world doesn't make sense. And here comes economics and it makes sense. There are graphs and there's a wrong answer and a right answer, and it's just so definitively taught, you know? But by the time I got to my second or my third class, I was kind of like, Yeah, this is baloney." And that's kind of where I am now, which is I think it can be a useful tool, but I think people treat it the way they treat physics or chemistry, like it's following a natural law instead of recognizing that it's, in some ways, you know, manufactured.

Alex: Yeah. I have probably less conflicted feelings about economics than you do, although I only took one course in college, which maybe that's the reason. [laughs] Most of what I learned about econ, I learned from working at my previous job at Planet Money, which was a show on finance and economics at NPR. And I worked on that show for many, many years, and it was sort of like the big education in economics. And I found it really helpful in helping me understand a lot of what goes on in the world, but I agree, there's this certain attitude that I feel like economics brings with it, which is sort of like, "We're the hard science and we know the right answer, and the rest of you people are all silly." And then there's a bunch of things that it isn't really great at answering, but it feels like it should be.

Kendra: Right.

Alex: So yeah, we have pretty fundamental questions, I guess, around econ and what it can give to the world. And it turns out our guest Kate Raworth did too. She's an English economist based at Oxford University, where she teaches at the university's Environmental Change Institute. But like you Kendra, she had some frustrations with her economics training very early on.

Alex: How did you decide to sort of get involved in economics in the first place?

Kate Raworth: Oh, because I thought it would be a great tool of public policy to help change the world, help save the planet, fix things. I skipped off to university to study economics in the early 1990s, and I was frustrated from the outstart because none of the things I cared about were showing up in the diagrams.

Alex: Like what?

Kate Raworth: Like where's the living world? It's not there.

Alex: Right.

Kate Raworth: Whenever I ask economic students the world over: so what was the first diagram you remember? I'm gonna try Alex: what was the first diagram you remember learning?

Alex: Supply and demand

Kate Raworth: Thank you very much. Same answer all over the world, right?

Alex: Yeah.

Kate Raworth: Welcome to economics. We go straight into supply and demand as if to say the economy is the market.

Alex: So supply and demand. If you haven't seen a supply and demand graph before, we've dropped a picture of it in our newsletter, but what you need to know is that supply and demand is one of the most basic ideas of economics, and it's all about how the supply of something and the demand for something interact. So if the demand is high—let's say for gasoline—but the supply is low, the price goes up. And that's where you see higher prices at the fuel pump.

Alex: If demand is low—if people are driving less—but supply is high, then the price goes down. The other thing that the graph says is that if demand goes up, if more and more people start wanting something, then supply should go up to meet it. Oil producers might start pumping more oil or refining more into gasoline. So this graph, it's really powerful, and it explains a lot about how the world works.

Kendra: It does, but it also leaves a lot out. The only things on the graph are supply, demand, quantity and price. It doesn't talk about where that supply is coming from, or the impacts of increasing the supply of something. So on the graph, if more people drive, that drives up demand for gas and supply, you know, should rise to meet that demand. But the graph doesn't show how increased drilling for oil damages ecosystems, or that global warming is getting worse as a consequence of burning that oil. Economists call all those negative consequences an externality.

Kate Raworth: So we privilege price as the metric of concern, and anything that falls outside the price contract is called an externality.

Alex: Right.

Kate Raworth: And bang, we're now saying that the breakdown of the living world, oh, that's called an environmental externality. Now to me, that is alarm signal enough that this does not serve us.

Alex: Yes, it should be a centrality, not an externality.

Kate Raworth: Yes, thank you! It's a centrality. It's a starting point, but it's literally never drawn. You don't encounter it. When I was a student in the 1990s, I couldn't even study environmental economics. And it's still taught as a nice add-on option. "Oh, you want to understand the living planet? You can go and study that if you want to. Other people may want to just study macroeconomics business and go and rule the world of finance." It's an add-on. It's absurd.

Kendra: I was an undergrad econ student in the early 2000s. There was one environmental economics class—it was also an add-on. You could basically only take it senior year. And I didn't take it. It was already full by the time I tried to sign up for it.

Kate Raworth: Exactly.

Alex: Yeah, exactly. So that shows you there was a supply and demand problem there.

Kate Raworth: Yes. [laughs] And actually, when the question of markets come up, right? Okay, yes. We're taught markets and economics. Markets are really powerful tools. Adam Smith was onto something. Markets coordinate the wants and needs of millions, indeed billions of people buying who may never even talk now through the days of online purchasing. They coordinate the wants and needs of millions of people who want to buy and sell things. There is something incredible about that communication mechanism. Two small problems: markets only serve those who can pay. The rest they ignore. They also only value what's priced, the rest they exploit and there goes the living world. Now those are massive caveats to the market.

Alex: But despite those caveats, Kate says, over the last century the world has really coalesced around this focus on the market. And in fact, it's coalesced around one figure by which we judge a country's well-being: gross domestic product or GDP. You've probably heard this term before. When people talk about how the economy is doing, they're generally talking about GDP, which is the market value of all the goods and services produced within a country in a given year. It's a number that includes everything from toilet paper to military tanks. And for decades, most policy in most countries has focused almost exclusively on growing that GDP number. Often, it's short-handed as simply "economic growth." And Kate says there's a reason the world has been so focused on economic growth.

Kate Raworth: Growth put us on this upward escalator. And of course, when you're not yet aware of the ecological implications of what you're doing, growth seems a wonderful thing. Growing industry means growing wage packets, means households are able, through the market—that wonderful market mechanism, households can start to provide for their wants and needs. And this was the real kind of golden story from the '50s through to the '60s.

Alex: The growth story was also very powerful because it was having an effect, right?

Kate Raworth: Oh, growth is an incredibly important part of every nation's journey. I want to be really clear: low-income countries, let me think of Malawi, Bangladesh, these countries absolutely, I believe, need and will turn economic growth into well-being for their people. That is what enables them to send every child to school, to have health and education and housing. The question is whether you can carry on doing that endlessly.

Alex: And Kate says that the power of economic growth to improve people's material well-being led policy makers and governments to make a lot of excuses for the problems that economic growth brought along with it.

Kate Raworth: First was a belief that when economies grow, sure, things are going to get more unequal, some people are going to do better than others, but we will all come out the other side better off. It will trickle down. And it turned out that this just was not true, but this idea about growth, this trickle-down belief has been so powerful in so many countries for decades.

Kendra: When it comes to challenging this first belief, that wealth will eventually trickle down to everyone, Kate references the work of Jason Hickel. He's an economic anthropologist at the London School of Economics, and his work suggests that wealth isn't trickling down, it's not moving from rich countries to poor countries. He says it's actually the opposite. Richer countries have been growing their economies by cannibalizing the wealth of poorer countries.

Kate Raworth: The majority of the world's GDP growth is being captured by the countries that already are the richest, right? And it's not trickling down internationally.

Kendra: So my family's from Haiti, and the wealth of France was built through extracting it from Haiti. So you can look at Haiti now in 2021 and say, yes, it's a poor country, and that's true. But in part, the poverty was caused through years, decades, centuries of wealth extraction, right?

Kate Raworth: Exactly.

Kendra: And that's not just true of Haiti And there was a report that came out this year that basically found, like, development mostly develops developed countries.

Kate Raworth: Exactly. And Jason Hickel makes these points so powerfully. That actually, if you look at the numbers anew, if you take a very different slant on this story, we actually see that many of the world's richest countries have, first of all, got there through extracting resources endlessly through colonialism, through ongoing trade and finance rules, through military power, have extracted and continue to extract resources from many of the world's low-income countries. And so they have actually created that richness on the back of others.

Kate Raworth: Couple that with a belief that, as economies grow, yeah, there'll be more pollution, we'll put more pressure on the environment, but as we get richer, we'll clean things up again. Well, you know what? That may turn out to be true sometimes locally, but when we take account of our global carbon emissions, our global footprint, it is not the case at all.

Alex: This claim that, as economic growth increases, we'll somehow just naturally clean up after ourselves? That's being debunked daily by wildfires and hurricanes and droughts and record temperatures and all the other things that we talk about regularly on this podcast.

Kate Raworth: So I would say that one conundrum we face is that no country has ended human deprivation without economic growth, but no country has ended ecological degradation with economic growth. And this is the conundrum. And I'm not celebrating it, because this is the real challenge of our times, the knot we need to get out of. So we've inherited economic designs that pursue growth, and that are running down the living planet in the process, and can be deeply divisive in the process. And we need to turn that around.

Kate Raworth: I'm sitting in the UK, you're in the US. We are living in two of the richest nations in the history of humanity. It's bizarre that we still believe that the solutions to all of our problems lie in yet more growth. At a really deep human level, we have come to think of growth as an untarnished good thing, right? In our own lives, we think of growth as a sign of health. We love to see our children grow and our gardens grow. So we think growth means things are going well, but nothing in nature grows forever, nothing succeeds by trying to grow forever. It destroys itself or the system on which it depends. And even in our own bodies, we know the other end of that metaphor. If I told you that my friend went to the doctor and the doctor said she had a growth, we feel absolutely different about that.

Kate Raworth: We immediately know that that is deep harm to our own bodies. We call it cancer, and we do everything we can to remove it. So what we understand profoundly at the level of our own bodies, that something trying to grow endlessly inside us is a threat to the health of the whole and we stop it. If we take that from the human body to the planetary body, it confronts economics with a question: why do you think that our economies growing forever are going to be the one system that bucks this trend, that are going to be the one system that somehow thrives and succeeds?

Kendra: All of this, it led Kate to the conclusion that we need a new model of economics—one that doesn't put growth as the one central goal above all others.

Kate Raworth: I think we need to move from degenerative economics to regenerative, and from divisive economics to distributive. So it's all about redesigning the economy with the goals that we want to bring about.

Alex: So a while ago, Kate set herself the task of trying to do exactly that. And by this point, she'd been long gone from the economics courses she first encountered as an undergrad. She spent years working to promote microenterprise development in Tanzania, and as a senior researcher for Oxfam, the global poverty charity. And it was there that she decided to revisit what she'd been taught as an economics undergrad—or rather, what she hadn't been taught.

Kate Raworth: I mean, I studied economics for four years and only at the end of it realized we'd never actually discussed the purpose. What is the purpose of the economy? Why is that not the first class in every economics course, every degree? What are we here to do? Because if we don't know the purpose of the economy, how on earth do we judge it's success?

Alex: Right.

Kate Raworth: I was never taught the core ideas that actually help us deal with the crisis of our time. So I went back to the economics I had never been taught. I read ecological economics and feminist economics, complexity, behavioral, institutional economics. And there was so much wisdom in them, I wanted to write a book that brought these ideas together and saw what happened when they tried to dance on the same page.

Alex: The book she ended up writing was called Doughnut Economics. It came out in 2017 and became a bestseller. And the name Doughnut Economics, it doesn't refer to the delicious pastry—although I do love a doughnut. It refers to an image. An image that is at the center of her approach.

Kate Raworth: I think pictures are incredibly powerful. When I thought back to my early days of studying economics, those pictures are very, very powerful because they visually tell us what to see and what to notice and count and measure, and what to leave invisible out of the picture and silent and peripheral and missing. And so we are never gonna reinvent economics if we keep on using the old pictures. You can't scrub them out. It's like intellectual graffiti. It's really hard to scrub out. So rather than scrubbing it out, paint an amazing new mural over the top. Draw a new picture to replace it. And that's what I did.

Alex: So instead of the traditional images of the supply and demand curve or the GDP growth chart that's constantly going up and to the right, Kate came up with a new image: a picture of a doughnut. So get a traditional economic graph out of your mind. There's no y-axis, no x-axis, there are simply two circles: a smaller circle, and around that smaller circle a bigger circle. So if you look at it, it looks like a doughnut.

Kendra: Or a bagel.

Alex: [laughs] Or a bagel. Right. It also looks like a bagel.

Kendra: We are in New York. [laughs]

Alex: What else does it look like? It looks like a puffy 'O.'

Kendra: Cheerio.

Alex: Yeah, Cheerio. Yes. I think our listeners get the idea.

Kendra: Now I'm hungry.

Alex: [laughs] If you don't, we will put a picture in our newsletter. But what you need to know is that the hole of the doughnut, the area inside the smaller circle, that is the area we don't want people to be. That is extreme poverty. The inner edge of the doughnut is the minimum standard of living that we want for every person on the planet. And then as you move further and further to the outside of the doughnut, standard of living, material wealth goes up and up until we get to the outermost edge of the doughnut, which is the ecological limits.

Kendra: Past that point is a level of material well being and wealth that is far beyond what the earth can sustain. You get climate change, deforestation and so on. It is the maximum limit of humanity that the Earth can nurture.

Kate Raworth: So the goal is to leave no one in the hole in the middle of the doughnut. But—and this is a very big but—as we collectively seek to use Earth's resources to meet our wants and needs, we start to put so much pressure on Earth's systems that we begin to kick them out of kilter. We cause climate breakdown, we acidify the oceans, we break down the web of life through biodiversity loss, we convert too much of Earth's surface for human use, use too much fertilizer. So we start to break down the life support systems of planet Earth. And so put those two together. You want to leave no one in the hole in the doughnut, but we mustn't overshoot the outer limit. And it's like finding a dynamic balance between the inside and the outside of that ring.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Kate Raworth: So we want to meet the needs of all people in the means of the living planet. And to me, that's the starting point of economics. Now we can disagree or dispute the details, but at least we're having the conversation.

Alex: Right.

Kate Raworth: And then we can go on and say, what kind of markets, what kind of regulation, what kind of commons, what kind of paid and unpaid work, what kind of relationship between the market and the state, the household and the commons will give us a chance to get there? What kind of finance would be in service to this? Now we know what we're designing for. But if we start with the market and leave the living world as an externality, well we're gonna take ourselves straight into all the 21st century realities and crises that we have.

Alex: And so there's this band in between sort of like the needs of the X billion people on the Earth and the ability of the Earth to sustain those needs. How confident are you that there is a gap there? There is space between what the billions of people want and what the Earth can sustain?

Kate Raworth: I call it the existential doughnut question. Does the doughnut even exist, right? If we were to meet the needs of all people in the world, is it even possible to do it within the means of the living planet? And some people will say, "Oh, no. It's not possible." For example, people love to say, "Oh, population. The world's population is growing and it's too big. We can't possibly do this." Well, you know, I don't think it's the population of the world. I mean, it's incredibly important that we stabilize the size of the world's population, but that is not the thing that keeps me awake at night, because I could give you an example.

Kate Raworth: One in 10 almost of people worldwide don't have enough food to eat every day. Put that against the fact that between 30 and 50 percent of the world's food supply is currently lost post-harvest, waste in supply chains or scraped off plates in kitchens and thrown away. I don't think it's about getting everybody out of poverty. There are so many other dimensions going on here. There are huge inequalities in the world. Why is it we see billions of people falling short in essential needs and other people jetting into space in rivalrous rockets. Why is it we see those huge inequalities?

Kate Raworth: We need to tackle the inequality in the world. We need far better governance. We need to use technologies far more smartly. Let me give you a really simple example of the power of technology to transform: 20th-century irrigation. You get a spray and you spray water across the fields. It can be incredibly wasteful, puts the water in the wrong places, and half of it evaporates. 21st-century irrigation, you get a hose pipe with little drip holes in it, and by giving a fraction of the amount of water, you can grow so many more crops more efficiently. So we can transform the way we use Earth's resources to meet human needs in really smart ways. We need to rethink inequalities and governance and technologies, but also our aspirations. Like, how much is enough? How much do people need? Where in the doughnut is a sense of sufficiency that people are leading lives and say, "You know, I have enough at this point?" And how do we create that for ourselves? It's the opposite of the consumerist rational economic man at the heart of economic theory, who apparently, according to theory, never can have enough, has insatiable wants and needs, which go on and on and on. So we need to reimagine ourselves to give ourselves a chance for that existential doughnut to actually exist.

Alex: I'm hearing you say we need to want less. And that's certainly not a concern of classical economics. [laughs] What's the mechanism to get us to want less?

Kate Raworth: Rather than saying we need to want less, I'd say we need to realize that buying more stuff is often not going to be the way that we actually have a good life.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Kate Raworth: Well-being, happiness, that sense of life going well doesn't come from buying more stuff endlessly. It comes from having a sense of community and belonging, being part of something bigger than yourself. Connecting with people you love, doing something that you feel like you're in flow. It's often a skill, a craft, something that you tend, having a connection to the living world. Many of the things I just mentioned, they're not for sale.

Alex: So Kendra, I don't know. Like, for me talking to Kate about the doughnut idea, like, I think she's absolutely right. It is a very simple and super compelling, super compelling image that has a lot of explanatory power. It makes clear, intuitive sense, and I think it's super helpful for thinking about the world.

Kendra: Right. But? I feel like there's a "But."

Alex: [laughs] Well, there is a "But," which is that how do we make it so? You know what I mean? Like, that's the question now. How do you take this idea and sort of implement it in the world?

Kendra: Well, according to my five-point plan—no.

Alex: [laughs] Oh, you have a five-point plan? Now you tell me?

Kendra: I do not. But Kate has that same exact question, and she and some of her colleagues, they launched this thing called the Doughnut Economics Action Lab. They're working with communities and cities and other groups to sort of answer that question, to kind of figure out how we bridge that gap between idea and action. And one of the cities that they're working with is Glasgow.

Alex: Glasgow, Scotland.

Kendra: Yeah. Host of COP26, baby.

Alex: That's right. Where our colleague Rachel Waldholz was spending time a couple of weeks ago. And as a matter of fact, you and I, we are going to talk to—not the mayor, because they don't have a mayor, but the ...

Kendra: Lead councilor.

Alex: The lead councilor of Glasgow. And we're gonna talk to her about what it looks like to take the ideas from doughnut economics and make them real in the city of Glasgow, Scotland.


Alex: Welcome back. Before the break, we talked to Kate Raworth. She's the author of the book Doughnut Economics, which says that we need to think about economics differently. Instead of centering the market, we have to think through, as a society, what we want the economy to do for us. And in this half, Kendra, you and I are talking to someone who is trying to figure out how do we put the ideas of doughnut economics into practice.

Susan Aitken: So my name is Councilor Susan Aitkin, and I'm the leader of Glasgow city council in Scotland.

Kendra: So Councilor Aitken's party, the Scottish National Party, was elected to their seat in 2017. They toppled a political party that had been in charge for 40 years. And this political shift happened shortly after the country had changed their voting rules. It changed them to allow people as young as 16 to vote.

Susan Aitken: You know, even more than before there was that sense of responsibility towards our younger citizens. For my generation, it was the threat of a nuclear holocaust. You know, we were expecting the mushroom cloud to get us. For them, clearly, the climate emergency is absolutely an existential threat to their futures.

Alex: So Councilor Aitken and the other members of her political party knew that they had to address climate change—their young voters were demanding it. And so they set some goals: carbon neutral by 2030, to have net-zero emissions by 2045. And the question, as always, was how to reach those goals. And while this question is always hard to answer, it was particularly daunting for Glasgow because they had faced an earlier transition which had not gone well at all.

Alex: So the roots of that transition in Scotland date back more than two centuries ago during the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Europe, and eventually much of the world, was shifting from a farming-based economy to one that we have now, based on industry. And Glasgow was a major player in that transition.

Kendra: Yeah. James Watt, the inventor of the modern steam engine, he came up with the design as he was walking across the Glasgow Green, the city's oldest park.

Alex: Right. James Watt, whose last name is now a unit of measure.

Kendra: [laughs]

Alex: That's how you know you've made it.

Kendra: I wonder what a "Pierre-Louis" would be.

Alex: [laughs] It's the hatred of mayonnaise scale.

Kendra: Oh, God. Yeah. [laughs]

Alex: Anyway, Watt's steam engine, that became the basis of what would be Glasgow's main industry for a long time: industrial shipbuilding. Steam engines helped build the ships, they helped power the ships. And at its peak, there were more than 200 shipyards in Glasgow, building everything from cruise liners to yachts to warships. And that shipbuilding created a lot of jobs, not just in the shipyards, of course, but among engineers who designed the ships and the engines and in steel mills, where they manufactured the metals. And in the coal mines where miners mined the coal that powered the ships and the mills. And of course, those jobs created other jobs in restaurants, grocery stores, so on and so forth.

Kendra: And that is how it went on for years until the 1970s and '80s, when deindustrialization, or a shift away from manufacturing hit. What happened in Glasgow mirrored what happened in Rust Belt cities across the US like Detroit, Buffalo and Pittsburgh—which incidentally is Glasgow's sister city. Here's Susan Aitken again.

Susan Aitken: We are a city that has been through a transition before, a transition that failed people frankly, left entire communities behind often as a result of poverty and issues associated with poverty, sometimes generational worklessness when our heavy industry became obsolete. And we live with the legacy of that to this day in the city. We were a cradle of the first industrial revolution, a city defined by heavy industry for a long time, and obviously a huge creator of carbon in the past. So we have a moral and historical responsibility as well.

Kendra: So this is the history that haunts Glasgow today as it prepares to make another huge transition, this time away from fossil fuels. Susan Aitken and her fellow councilors want that transition to happen without causing the kind of suffering the previous transition did.

Susan Aitken: And poverty also removes choice. So when I'm talking about our response to the climate emergency in Glasgow, I'm wary of talking about it in the context of people giving things up.

Alex: Yeah.

Susan Aitken: Because I'm conscious there's a lot of people in my city who don't have a lot to give up. And I don't think it's fair to ask them. And they also don't make huge contributions to climate change. So we were absolutely determined that this next transition was one that we would be ahead of, and we would ensure that it was just, it was equitable. But more than that, actually, that we were able to maximize the opportunities that it offers to address some of those long standing inequities in the city.

Alex: So in other words, a situation sort of primed for doughnut economics, right? Like, Susan Aitken and her party were very concerned about staying within the limits of what the Earth can bear, but also very concerned about getting their citizens out of that center of the doughnut, making sure that they have a minimum level of a standard of living. And one of the first things they knew they had to tackle was how Glaswegians—that's how you call people from Glasgow: Glaswegians—how they heat their homes. Glasgow has these really damp, cold winters with temperatures hovering just above freezing. And to stave off the cold, most residents used natural gas, which as we know is made up mostly of the potent greenhouse gas methane.

Alex: Now classical economics would say this is a perfectly reasonable solution, right? Like, people are cold. The market will provide gas heaters to the people who are cold. They will pay for it, and eventually everybody will have gas heat for their homes. But in a doughnut world, that doesn't make sense, right? Because if everybody has gas heat, we go outside the limits of what the Earth can bear. And also, not everyone can afford gas heat, so some people will go without. In fact, 25 percent of households in Glasgow live in fuel poverty right now. So Susan and her party, they looked at this problem: needing to decarbonize household heating, and they asked themselves what resources they had. And one that was right in front of them was the River Clyde which runs through Glasgow.

Alex: Which is this super counterintuitive idea when you and I were talking about it, right? Like, you would think Scotland's cold in the winter, the River Clyde is probably very cold too. How could you use a cold river to keep people warm?

Kendra: Magic? No. [laughs] Through very complicated engineering that I spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos and trying to understand, and still only kind of get it. It is possible, using a technology called "Water source heat pumps." And this technique is one of the more efficient and lower carbon-emitting ways of producing heat.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Kendra: The coolest thing is the goal is not just to heat a house or two, but to create a district heating network. And this kind of heating structure, like, generating the heat at this central location and distributing it sort of across a community, it kind of fell out of favor for use in cities for a variety of reasons. But in the US, it's still very heavily used on college campuses. And Manhattan has a set of steam tunnels running underneath it that provides heating for buildings all over the borough, including the Empire State Building.

Alex: Oh. really?

Kendra: Yeah.

Alex: So the Empire State Building is still heated in this way, this district heating?

Kendra: Yeah. And it's why when you look at kind of New York City's iconic skyline, those skyscrapers, despite being built in an era where, you know, coal furnaces were the norm, they don't have chimneys.

Alex: I've never noticed that. But now that you mention it, it's true. That's so crazy!

Kendra: Yeah, because they were getting their heat piped in. And some of them still are.

Alex: That's so cool!

Kendra: Right? Other cities, not just Glasgow, are looking to bring it back.

Alex: And this kind of heat, does it have advantages other than sort of like, you don't have to make it yourself?

Kendra: Yeah. This kind of district energy model, when you combine it with energy efficiency, like the ultra-efficient passive house standard, which is a way of either building or retrofitting a building to use much less energy than a typical building. The hope is that that whole setup will lower energy use and emissions while making people even more comfortable.

Alex: So less energy use, fewer emissions, increased comfort.

Kendra: Yes.

Susan Aitken: Our river we think can power probably about 50 percent of the city. So that's where our first priority is to target. There are obviously bits of the city that are farther away from the river that are going to require other approaches. So that's a big focus for us. The retrofitting is 450,000 homes across our metropolitan region, making them energy efficient, as energy efficient as possible, as close to passive house standard as we can get them on the scale that we have to do it in terms of affordability. That's a big concern.

Alex: Right.

Susan Aitken: We need to make sure that this is not regressive. When we make this shift, it has to be affordable for people.

Alex: Another thing that Councilor Aitken and her party wanted to tackle was transportation. And the city of Glasgow already has one of the lowest car ownership rates of any city in the UK—less than half of households in Glasgow have access to a car or a van, but the city center is still pretty car focused.

Susan Aitken: We're making considerable investment in active travel, in cycle lanes, in people-centered places, essentially, as well as in public transport, new modes of public transport and improving and making more efficient our existing modes of public transport. We have plans for a whole new transport mode, a Glasgow Metro, which we're working very closely with our national transport agency, Transport Scotland, and the Scottish government on that. And so right now, a lot of people in Glasgow would say, "I have no choice but to use my car because the buses aren't reliable. They're not going to get me to work on time." So we need to remove that excuse. We need to see not only are the buses much more reliable and that we have green lanes that only the bus runs on, but also we've built a new Metro system. And we've made it easy for you to get on one of our electric bike hires, you know, all of those kinds of things. It's chipping away at people's excuses.

Kendra: So, they have these plans, and lots more that chip away not just at climate but at broader ideas of equity and justice. Like making Glasgow a fair work city, which is a Scottish framework that centers the idea that work should be good for employees, employers and society. They have a circular economy roadmap, and all of these other really big ideas. But there wasn't anything that sort of knitted these seemingly disparate goals together. That was the thing that they were really struggling with, and that's the thing that the doughnut model kind of helped them figure out how to do.

Susan Aitken: It was a happy coincidence that at the time Kate published Doughnut Economics, we were working as a city to, I suppose, grapple with how we brought together a whole different range of strands of work, brought them into a systemic way of working. The doughnut economics idea came along at just the right time, and assisted us in our thinking about how we could shape that. And it was very much a guiding light for us.

Kate Raworth: I'm really delighted to hear that.

Alex: Again, this is Kate Raworth, who was sitting in on our conversation with Councillor Aitken.

Kate Raworth: And before you joined us, I was just saying for me, the big way to get started on doughnut economics, putting it into practice is thinking regeneratively, thinking distributively. And it was just great to hear you talking about all the things that are happening in Glasgow, because I hear so much distributive design. It's being a fair work city. It's about community wealth-building. It's about investing in the low-income communities and supporting those who live in poverty, which is still very prevalent in the UK. We're such an unequal society. So we may be one of the richest nations in the world on paper, but there is huge deprivation in the midst of that.

Kate Raworth: And then I hear you talk about regenerative design, retrofitting buildings, cutting carbon emissions, ensuring people can travel by cycling and buses. And to me, this all adds up to moving away from when we only have markets, we get private luxury for those who can afford it and public squalor for the rest. This moves us towards public luxury for all, which by the way is much, much lower carbon, and a sense of private sufficiency coming back. And to me, that's what builds society. When we start to feel like we live in a place where we all get around in a similar way, where we all have access to good public spaces instead of that huge divisiveness of just the inequalities that break society, break community. And I just see what's going on in Glasgow as really pioneering.

Alex: And this brings us to our patented calls to action—they're not actually patented. If you want to learn more about the work that Kate Raworth and her colleagues are trying to accomplish, or maybe even to bring some of that doughnut economics thinking to your community, you can check out the Doughnut Economics Action Lab at That's "Doughnut" spelled D-O-U-G-H-N-U-T, On that website, there's also opportunities to meet and connect with other individuals who are interested in bringing some doughnut economics to their own communities. We will put that link plus additional links where you can learn more in our show notes and, of course, in our newsletter. Our newsletter, you say? Yes, you can subscribe at It's great. Comes out every week.

Alex: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Alex Blumberg. This episode was produced by Kendra Pierre-Louis. Our reporters and producers are Rachel Waldholz, Anna Ladd and Hannah Chinn. Our supervising producer is Lauren Silverman, with help from Katelyn Bogucki. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Our intern is Nicole Welch.

Alex: Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard and Lonnie Ro, with original music by Peter Leonard, Emma Munger and Catherine Anderson. Our fact-checker this episode is Claudia Geib.

Alex: Thanks to all of you for listening. We'll see you next week!


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