Social floor beyond ecological ceiling?

Hi Everyone,
I was explaining the doughnut to a rather cynical and misanthropic friend the other day, and he asked ‘what if the social floor is beyond the ecological ceiling?’ Do we have a good analysis that suggests otherwise?
Cathy Gere, University of California

This comes back to the thorny question of: what population can the planet support? With projections of it leveling out at 10-11 billion depending on the decrease in family size in ‘developing countries’ which is tied to education and career opportunities for women, then the issue becomes ‘what is the allowable resource consumption per person’ and how can we accelerate these countries green development while transforming ours?

If you take carbon emissions (the resource being the remaining ability of the planet to absorb more carbon) then you arrive at the need to meet net carbon zero by 2030 - or 2050 for those thinking the former is not politically possible - in developed countries. Another issue is that the populations of these ‘developing countries’ will understandably seek to increase their standard of living which under current systems require carbon (e.g. more power stations, more flights etc.). So hence the need for the developed countries to share and subsidize no-carbon technologies to help them go carbon free.

This is a long winded way of saying you would have to go issue by issue (land use, water, agriculture etc.) and look at the overshoot and likely technologies to drag us back. The work has likely been or is being done but it is not a straight forward answer in that there is not one ecological ceiling but many.

These are just my thoughts but I hope they help your quest.


Colapse, as social ceiling is linked to economics.
A good approach to that is using the Towers of Hanoi game, which gives a proper understanding about the hierarchy levels between environment (the basis), society (the middle) and economy (the top disc).
It makes more clear that we need a society to have a economy and a environment to have a society but not the other way around.

That’s super helpful – take the nine planetary systems, and think about each one separately. Makes perfect sense. Thanks!

And we could get back to the World War II, after which people started to build high stored living buildings. I personally live on 9th level, which is the the last, but new homes in my city are built much higher. If the reasons behind WW2 were the lack of resources, then after WW2 we’ve learned to compress instead of kill each other. But perhaps that was a temporary solution as well.

Perhaps the overpopulation story needs to be another topic, but regarding the resource consumption, I’d like to collaborate with someone to create a simulation with But I have no idea who could support me for this activity.

Or you could try this:

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The economy is embedded in society, which is embedded in the natural environment. They do not have ceilings or floors.

But, the indicators of wellbeing for society have floors as the threshold which must be met, while indicators of wellbeing for the natural environment have ceilings which must not be crossed.

If the earth’s population exceeds its carrying capacity, then, by definition, the floors and ceilings will have been broached.

This is an excellent question.

I use various thresholds in my math. The ‘first’ is Subsistence, which is the absolute minimum use of ecological services possible in that community. Anyone using less ecological services than that will use all of their time to meet their needs, and they still won’t be met.
The second is poverty, where people don’t have to use all of their time to meet their needs, but there is no possibility that all of their needs can be met.
The third is affluence, where the slope of the immediate quality of life for the individual vs ecological services curve is flatter than the long term quality of life for the community vs ecological services - that is to say, by living rich, it’s costing the community more than it is benefiting the individual - it’s possible the community would still exist within the ‘donut’, but the future will be ‘poorer’ because of that consumption.
The last is unsustainable - people will be unable to meet all of their needs once over-consumed resources cease to be available, and the community is in a slow slide to collapse. There are some nuances in this range that describe if it is possible to pull the fat out of the fire or not. If they can’t, they are also overpopulated.

Lets throw some numbers in here: I know Canadian data using Ecological footprint, so I’ll use that, but someone clever could convert to planetary boundaries pretty easily.

Canadians with an EF of less than 3 GHa would be in subsistence. Poverty is below about 4.6 GHa. The maximum long-term quality of life would occur at between 7 and 8.5 GHa/ca, Affluence is above about 11 GHa. Unsustainable is about 17 GHa.

I have an example using Holland found here:
It uses some fictive data to make the point, but yeah, they would have the social floor well below the ecological ceiling as things are right now. It means they have to cooperate with neighbours who can support their weaknesses. I show how with a little creativity, quality of life for all involved can be raised.

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Hi, Doug, this is terrific, thanks so much. I’m not in a position to evaluate the numbers, but you have certainly confronted the question head on and I appreciate your sharing the power point.

Thanks, Martin, this is very helpful. Empower women!!

this seems to be a version of the environment versus jobs argument … there are plenty of examples in the book e.g. bangla pesa, etc of alternative models of business, money etc showing great effects on low income to poor populations. The observation is perhaps a false dichotomy, and it positions symptom versus cause …