An Ethos for a Sustainable World


Here are my thoughts on a set of principles that elaborate on the fundamentals behind doughnut economics with the hope that they could be useful for driving discussions and actions for the transformations needed to get us into the doughnut.

An Ethos for a Sustainable World

As those attuned to the multitude of problems facing humankind and the world we live in are aware of, there is a serious rift between human activity and the ecosystems that support us. In essence we are at war with nature and appear to be losing the battle. Moreover, the current economic and social structures are failing to meet the basic needs of the entire global population. Many people and organizations are working hard to address fundamental environmental problems and social injustices. This ethos for a sustainable world aims to bolster such efforts by offering a vision of a world in which humans live in harmony with Nature and the well-being of our children, grandchildren and generations to come is paramount. The principles presented here offer individuals, governments, organizations, and businesses a framework to guide their actions and to hold others accountable for their actions as we work collectively to protect (and restore) the natural world and build a global economy that ensures the well-being of all.

Four Key Principles

Four principles working together serve as the foundation for this ethos. Accepting responsibility for caring for the Earth and respecting each individual’s right to achieve his or her potential provide the moral underpinning for judging our actions. At the same time building strong communities and families and strong democratic institutions and processes provide the engine to create a better, more sustainable world.

Embracing Stewardship – Humans have an individual and a collective responsibility for caring for the Earth. After all we are the only creatures that have the capacity to dominate and destroy most anything around us. Each individual’s actions should take into account the environmental impact for good or for bad and make decisions on what is best for the Earth. The more affluent, the more one has benefitted from the current system the greater the responsibility. Businesses, especially large corporations which have an oversized impact, have a high moral responsibility and should be held accountable for their actions.

Realizing Human Potential . Each individual has the right to achieve his or her potential starting with the fundamental rights to adequate food, shelter, clean water, basic health care, and a safe and secure environment free from violence. Underlying these rights must be a respect for all individuals, regardless of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, and sexual preference. Education is the cornerstone for ensuring that each person can reach his or her potential and societies have the responsibility to provide access to basic education for all its members to ensure basic literacy. Advanced educational and continuing learning opportunities, including access to museums, libraries, and theaters, provide further pathways to a lifetime of enhanced individual well-being as well as open new employment opportunities.

Fostering Democratic Governance – Strong governing institutions from the local to national and international levels, representing the needs and interests of those governed and supported by a rule of law culture, are essential to creating societies that put the best interests of their people and future generations at the forefront of decisions. Individual have the right to be heard and the responsibility to participate in democratic process to hold governments and leaders accountable. Moreover, the best interests of individuals for a healthy and productive life have precedence over the interest of corporations and other entities.

Building Strong Community and Family – Our connections with each other are the foundations that define who we are and what gives value to our lives. Communities that have strong bonds among members can reinforce the importance of caring for our world and support actions that will improve the well-being of the community. Strong communities promote civic actions to hold governments and businesses accountable for actions and policies that affect the environment in which they live. While governments at all levels have a responsibility to promote stewardship, local actions driven by grassroots activism are best positioned to create an environment where everyone can prosper. In essence, communities should define what kind of world each of us will live in and should reflect the best of the unique cultures that have evolved.

Strong families (however you want to define them) as the basic economic, social, and emotional unit offer resiliency and stability to our communities. Families serve as the primary conduit for passing down values and culture and inter-generational networks can provide additional emotional and economic support that can ground individuals in good times and bad.

Creating a Sustainable Economic System

Putting humans back into Nature requires that our economic system work in harmony with the global ecological system and serve the best interests of the entire global population. Our current economic actions are at the heart of the environmental morass as current levels of production and consumption far exceed what the global ecosystem can absorb, essentially borrowing from the future to finance today’s consumption. As important the welfare of the human race should be at the center of our economic system with the role of the economy to serve all people.

Rethinking Economic Measures of Success – A starting point for this transformation is rethinking how we measure progress. Progress today is measured largely in terms of growth – growth of output and consumption, increases in stock prices and wealth. At an abstract level continued growth is unsustainable – infinite growth in a finite world simply isn’t possible. More practically, how meaningful are such measures when about 10 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty, just a handful of men have the same amount of wealth as the poorer half of the world’s population, and a sizable portion of output quickly ends up as waste in landfills or pollutes our air, water, and land. At the same time economic measures do not capture the environmental, health, and social costs of economic production that reduce both current and future human well-being.

Let’s start measuring economic progress not by broad statistics of economic growth and wealth but on the basis of progress in improving human welfare. The United Nations 17 Sustainable Development goals provide an excellent framework for assessing progress, calling for elimination of hunger and poverty, improvement of in health and well-being, universal literacy, and quality jobs that protect the environment along with other goals. Efforts under way to track “happiness” provides another more informative indicator of well-being. Our economic measures also need to capture the value of environmental services of a healthy ecosystem and contributions made from “non-economic” (and thus not valued) activities such as care for the young and elderly and volunteer service that contributes to stronger families and communities.

Reflecting Environmental Costs and Benefits – Factoring in the environmental cost of extraction and use of natural resources is crucial to provide appropriate market signals for production and consumption decisions. Because such costs are external to the production process, governments must step in to set effective prices to shift behaviors. Similarly, governments should seek mechanism to compensate landowners for protecting natural resources that provide essential environmental services

Adopting Ethical Economic Norms

  • Do No Harm —Production processes should be designed to leave or at least restore the world around it in its natural state. Greenhouse gas levels need to be held to sustainable levels to contain global warming and emissions from production, transportation and other activities need to be free of particulates in the air that jeopardize human health. Water used for consumption and production should be returned to rivers and other water sources as clean or cleaner than when it was removed. Production inputs should be non-toxic, preventing harm to workers, consumers, and the environment. Agricultural production, fisheries, and forestry should work with natural systems rather than depleting the essential ecosystem services of our soils, forests, and oceans.

  • Zero waste —Products should be designed as part of a circular economy that ensures the production process is waste-free and that products produced will have a useful “next life”.

  • Local and regional resilience —Shifting consumption to goods and services produced locally or regionally and relying on resources available locally can lower the environmental impact, help strengthen local economies and communities and make them more resilient to disruptions.

  • Human-driven output —Shifting consumption to goods and services that rely heavily on the knowledge, skills, and craftsmanship of individuals producing them (concerts, yoga instruction, craft beers to name a few) will lower the environmental footprint of economic activity, increase opportunities for individuals to achieve their potential, and further strengthen local and communities.


I like this approach, but would suggest 2 additions.

Firstly to “Realising Human Potential”. True equality is not just about respecting/valuing diversity, it’s about understanding that different groups of people have different, but equally valid, needs. And that these can’t be defined on the basis of a single, broad characteristic such as “disability” or being Black or gay/lesbian. Our current political systems are very bad at meeting the needs and protecting the rights of minorities. And whilst market economies should in theory be good at responding to diverse needs, in practice they aren’t because such groups tend to be poorer and bespoke goods/services tend to be more expensive. i.e. less profitable.

Secondly, I think an additional principle of Informed Consent is required. What I mean by this is that moving economies into the Doughnut requires significant changes to the lives of pretty much everyone on the planet. Changes that will not take place unless people consent to them. Even changes that will benefit the majority tend to meet resistance because most humans dislike change - for the very good reason that many changes (the destruction of old industries, deskilling of many jobs, austerity, the rise of automation, etc) have been detrimental to many people and places. Other changes, like social liberalism and feminism, are seen as threats to established cultural and religious beliefs - especially by the old and less educated sections of communities. Achieving genuine and lasting consent to changes requires people understanding the real reasons for and the impacts of the change. Which in turn requires that electorates are given the necessary information, in a form they can understand, to enable them to decide. NOT fed a pack of lives and half truths by those with a personal axe to grind, have been corrupted or are biased against particular groups. N.B. That doesn’t mean people cannot express their views and opinions, just that they are subject to authoritative refutation if the present opinions as facts or distort or misrepresent facts or accepted theories.

One mechanism for achieving this principle would be a journalistic code of ethics. Another would be a requirement to publish independently conducted Integrated Impacts Assessments that explain how a proposed change would affect the environment, the whole economy, the Equality groups, and aid progress into the Doughnut.I


Growth is not a measure for success and is unsustainable, indeed, but since SDG has the idea of sustainable growth (an oxymoron IMO) in it (SDG 8), it’s also not a useful framework for it refuses to let go the need of growth.
We need a breakthrough that provides a glimpse of something new, completely disconnected of whatever economic system we used so far.


Are you sure that “Ethos” is the correct word? It means races of different kinds of people. I should think you should be using the word “Ethics” instead, meaning the proper way to behave in our society so as to cause no offense.

This kind of behavior was explained by the great partner in leadership of the Sanhedrin about the year 0 CE. He was called Hillel (the elder) and he was asked by a Roman sent taunter to explain the whole Torah (or Jewish law) whilst standing on one leg. Hillel’s partner, the great Shammi would have had this taunter thrown out of his presence, but Hillel replied “That which is offensive to yourself, do not do it to your neighbor. The rest is commentary. Now go and study (it).”

If doughnut economics does not allow for this principle to apply, then it is not worth all the electronic signals that it is generating. I feel that there is too much emphasis being given to the details where in fact a large ocean of basic truth has been largely ignored. In particular, until we recognize that all people should not simply be regarded as having equal rights, but they must have equal opportunities. Without this some of our national become poverty-stricken, homeless and jobless. To eliminate poverty is therefor our number one aim, or should be, along with Hillel’s claim.

To achieve this we need to properly share all the opportunities that access to natural resources offers and which landlords and to a degree banks, dominate, monopolize and seriously restrict. Doughnut economics is nothing like so particular and is wrong in so being. To share these opportunities in a socially just way we need to change our system for taxation. The following essay explains how,

Socially Just Taxation and Its Effects (17 listed)

Our present complicated system for taxation is unfair and has many faults. The biggest problem is to arrange it on a socially just basis. Many companies employ their workers in various ways and pay them diversely. Since these companies are registered in different countries for a number of categories, the determination the criterion for a just tax system becomes impossible, particularly if based on a fair measure of human work-activity. So why try when there is a better means available, which is really a true and socially just method?

Adam Smith (“Wealth of Nations”, 1776) says that land is one of the 3 factors of production (the other 2 being labor and durable capital goods). The usefulness of land is in the price that tenants pay as rent, for access rights to the particular site in question. Land is often considered as being a form of capital, since it is traded similarly to other durable capital goods items. However it is not actually man-made, so rightly it does not fall within this category. The land was originally a gift of nature (if not of God) for which all people should be free to share in its use. But its site-value greatly depends on location and is related to the community density in that region, as well as the natural resources such as rivers, minerals, animals or plants of specific use or beauty, when or after it is possible to reach them. Consequently, most of the land value is created by man within his society and therefore its advantage should logically and ethically be returned to the community for its general use, as explained by Martin Adams (in “LAND”, 2015).

However, due to our existing laws, land is owned and formally registered and its value is traded, even though it can’t be moved to another place, like other kinds of capital goods. This right of ownership gives the landlord a big advantage over the rest of the community because he determines how it may be used, or if it is to be held out of use, until the city grows and the site becomes more valuable. Thus speculation in land values is encouraged by the law, in treating a site of land as personal or private property—as if it were an item of capital goods, although it is not (see Mason Gaffney and Fred Harrison: “The Corruption of Economics”, 2005).

Regarding taxation and local community spending, the municipal taxes we pay are partly used for improving the infrastructure. This means that the land becomes more useful and valuable without the landlord doing anything—he/she will always benefit from our present tax regime. This also applies when the status of unused land is upgraded and it becomes fit for community development. Then when this news is leaked, after landlords and banks corruptly pay for this information, speculation in land values is rife. There are many advantages if the land values were taxed instead of the many different kinds of production-based activities such as earnings, purchases, capital gains, home and foreign company investments, etc., (with all their regulations, complications and loop-holes). The only people due to lose from this are those who exploit the growing values of the land over the past years, when “mere” land ownership confers a financial benefit, without the owner doing a scrap of work. Consequently, for a truly socially just kind of taxation to apply there can only be one method–Land-Value Taxation.

Consider how land becomes valuable. New settlers in a region begin to specialize and this improves their efficiency in producing specific goods. The central land is the most valuable due to easy availability and least transport needed. This distribution in land values is created by the community, after an initial difficult start and not by the natural resources. As the village and city expand, speculators in land values will deliberately hold potentially useful sites out of use, until planning and development have permitted their site-values to grow. Meanwhile there is fierce competition for access to the most suitable sites for housing, agriculture and manufacturing industries. The limited availability of useful land means that the high rents paid being by tenants make their residences more costly and the provision of goods and services more expensive. It also creates unemployment when entrepreneurs find the rents too high for them to operate and employ workers. This speculation causes wages to be lowered by the monopolists, who control the big producing organizations and whose land was previously obtained when it was cheap. Consequently this basic structure of our current macroeconomics system, works to limit opportunity and to create poverty, see above reference.

The most basic cause of our continuing poverty is the lack of properly paid work and the reason for this is the lack of opportunity of access rights to the land on which the work must be done. The useful land is monopolized by a landlord who either holds it out of use (for speculation in its rising value), or charges the tenant heavily in rent for its right to access. In the case when the landlord is also the producer, he/she has a monopolistic control of the land and of the produce. The product becomes more costly–this monopolist can effectively charge more for it, than what an entrepreneur normally would, were he/she able to compete on an equal basis, because of the excessive rent demanded by the landlord.

A wise and sensible government would recognize that this problem derives from lack of opportunity to work and earn. It can be solved by the use of a tax system which encourages the proper use of land and which stops penalizing everything and everybody else. Such a tax system was proposed almost 140 years ago by Henry George, a (North) American economist, but somehow most macro-economists seem never to have heard of him, in common with a whole lot of other experts. (I would guess that they don’t want to know, which is worse!) In “Progress and Poverty” 1879, Henry George proposed a single tax on land values without other kinds of tax on produce, services, capital gains, etc. This regime of land value tax (LVT) has 17 features which benefit almost everyone in the economy, except for landlords and banks, who/which do nothing productive and wrongly find that land dominance has its own reward.

17 Aspects of LVT Affecting Government, Land Owners, Communities and Ethics

Four Aspects for Government:

  1. LVT, adds to the national income as do all other taxation systems, but it can and should replace them.
  2. The cost of collecting the LVT is less than for all of the production-related taxes—then tax avoidance
    becomes impossible because the sites being taxed are visible to all.
  3. Consumers pay less for their purchases due to lower production costs (see below). This creates
    greater satisfaction with the government’s management of national affairs.
  4. The national economy stabilizes—it no longer experiences the 18 year business boom/bust cycle, due
    to periodic speculation in land values (see below).

Six Aspects Affecting Land Owners:

  1. LVT is progressive–owners of the most potentially productive sites pay the most tax.
  2. The land owner pays his LVT regardless of how his site is used. When fully developed, a large
    proportion of the ground-rent from tenants becomes the LVT, with the result that land has less sales-
    value but a significant “rental”-value (even when it is not being used).
  3. LVT stops the speculation in land prices and any withholding of land from proper use is not
  4. The introduction of LVT initially reduces the sales price of sites, (even though their rental value can
    still grow over long-term use). As more sites become available, the competition for them becomes less
    fierce so entrepreneurs are more active.
  5. With LVT, land owners are unable to pass the tax on to their tenants as rent hikes, due to the reduced
    competition for access to the additional sites that come into use.
  6. With LVT, land prices will initially drop. Speculators in land values will want to foreclose on their
    mortgages and withdraw their money for reinvestment. Therefore LVT should be introduced
    gradually, to allow these speculators sufficient time to transfer their money to company-shares etc.,
    and simultaneously to meet the increased demand for produce (see below).

Three Aspects Regarding Communities:

  1. With LVT, there is an incentive to use land for production or residence, rather than it being unused.
  2. With LVT, greater working opportunities exist due to cheaper land and a greater number of available
    sites. Consumer goods become cheaper too, because entrepreneurs have less difficulty in starting-up
    their businesses and because they pay less ground-rent–demand grows, unemployment decreases.
  3. Investment money is withdrawn from land and placed in durable capital goods. This means more
    advances in technology and cheaper goods too.

Four Aspects About Ethics:

  1. The collection of taxes from productive effort and commerce is socially unjust. LVT replaces this
    extortion by gathering the surplus rental income, which comes without any exertion from the land
    owner or by the banks–LVT is a natural system of national income-gathering.
  2. Bribery and corruption on information about land cease. Before, this was due to the leaking of
    news of municipal plans for housing and industrial development, causing shock-waves in local land
    prices (and municipal workers’ and lawyers’ bank balances).
  3. The improved and proper use of the more central land reduces the environmental damage due to a)
    unused sites being dumping-grounds, and b) the smaller amount of fossil-fuel use, when traveling
    between home and workplace.
  4. Because the LVT eliminates the advantage that landlords currently hold over our society, LVT
    provides a greater equality of opportunity to earn a living. Entrepreneurs can operate in a natural
    way-- to provide more jobs. Then earnings will correspond to the value that the labor puts into the
    product or service. Consequently, after LVT has been properly introduced it will eliminate poverty
    and improve business ethics.



The problem with this approach is that whilst in the C19th most wealth power were linked directly or fairly directly to land ownership, that is no longer the case when (in the UK) 80% of the economy is services and, arguably, much of this is socially useless and/or environmentally damaging: financial derivatives and all kinds of pollution.

Focussing on land development to meet human consumption ‘wants’ (rather than ‘needs’) labour in relation to the production of physical goods also ignores the importtance of both the ecological “services” performed by natural systems (e.g. forests’ roles in flood prevention, protecting biodiversity, moderating climate change) and nature’s inherent aesthetic qualities, wich also contribute to human health and wellbeing.

Finally, the theory ignores the importance and value of human knowledge - even that assigned monetary value in the current, flawed, economic system by classing it as ‘intellectual capital’, granting patents, copyright, licences, etc. Or via indirect mechanisms such as the art market. This is particularly important because it excludes and devalues the contributions of those, oftent women and bothe young and old people undertaking unpaid work in the form of domestic and caring activities and passing on wisdom and knowledge to subsequent generations

As an ecologist and student of human evolution who has subsequently done a lot of work on equality, I feel this is the weakest part of Doughnut theory and it fundamentally affects the ways in which more technical economic issues such as definitions of debt, Basic Income, taxation systems, accounting rules, etc are framed and resolved.


I am fascinated by this new way of looking at global economics.

I am researching the role of the world’s militaries in causing global climate change. We have known for decades that militaries are the greatest polluters, the greatest contributors of greenhouse gases and the greatest consumers of petroleum products on the planet, but their contributions are not counted either nationally or in conferences such as COP24. Some authors estimate the military contribution to climate change to be over 5%, but because the data are classified, an accurate estimate is very difficult to make. No one discusses the effect of over 1300 nuclear bomb tests, including eight underwater tests, or the terrible long-term effects of depleted uranium in bombs used in Iraq and Syria.

As I study the diagram of the doughnut, I am trying to find a way I might present, as part of the diagram, the destruction wrought by the world’s militaries. My first thought is that military effects run through all nine of the overshoot sections, and could perhaps be indicated by a third dimension like a dome over the whole thing. Or perhaps, they could be indicated by a color that infuses each section to show the contribution of the world’s militaries.

The effects of militarization also negatively affect all the social foundations of health and well-being in the middle of the doughnut. The financial effect of spending over one trillion dollars a year on the world’s militaries must also be skewing the financial system.

As a physician, my purpose is to raise awareness that we cannot achieve our goals of reducing climate change without addressing the destructive effects of the world’s militaries. Continuing to base security on military power will destroy us by destroying the environment we need to survive.

My concern in preventing war is, of course, focused on preventing human suffering and death, but when I consider the full consequences of a system of world security based on military strength, I realize that I need to go much further with what I am writing. In order to consider a path forward to a world using alternatives to military-based security, I have to address the economic role of the militarization of the planet. I would appreciate comments and suggested references on this topic.

Mary-Wynne Ashford


Totally agree! At the best, SDG 8 needs to be reinvented (from scratch I would say) so that growth reflects progress without doing harm or that growth is not made important at all because it’s not really required for a good living. At the worst it could remain as is but should then include that doing harm in any way is not allowed. Growth that is beneficial may then add to GDP, growth that is causing harm must be subtracted from GDP.


Absolutely agree about negative effects of militarisation, but this isn’t going to be easy because of the degree to which military and civilian technologies and manufacturing systems are entwined. To pick some obvious examples: space, computing, aerospace. It’s not called the Military-Industrial Complex for nothing! And then there are indirect effects such as syphoning off of talent into arms manufacture.

I’d be concerned about the whole debate being drawn into detailed discussion of this, admittedly important, aspect when some of the basics still need work. Kate, if you are still following this, we could do with some strategic guidance here.