Why the UK needs a lifebelt to keep us all afloat

Inequality, Poverty in the UK

With the release of the UK Doughnut paper today, Philomena Cullen reflects on what the report reveals about life in the UK, and concludes that we are in danger of falling into a state of irreversible decline unless we urgently address where we are failing on social and environmental justice.  

It’s tough out there in the choppy waters of the UK economy, with its rising swell of inequality. Oxfam has been asking: ‘How can the UK ensure that the basic rights of its 64.8 million citizens are met, while living within the planet’s environmental limits?’ 

There is no hiding from the unacceptable face of inequality, not least with Oxfam’s killer statistic that if trends continue, then by 2016 1% of the world’s population will own more wealth than the other 99%

And here’s another killer statistic: …if you are born into a deprived English community, then you will have 15% less than the average number of years of healthy life expectancyif you are born into a deprived English community, then you will have 15% less than the average number of years of healthy life expectancy; that’s around nine and a half good years taken away from the most vulnerable groups in society.

Today, Oxfam shines its penetrating strobe of light on the specific UK situation, with the publication of the UK Doughnut report. Though for me, perhaps the metaphor of a lifebelt might be a more fitting visual analogy.

The conceptual framework offered by the Oxfam doughnut or lifebelt (take your pick!) is a relatively simple, but powerful diagnostic tool developed by Kate Raworth and others a few years ago. It enables us to measure the effect of inequality, while taking account of the real world constraints. It has now been applied to the UK context to give a national assessment of where we
currently are.

And predictably, ‘at sea in some very dark waters’ seems to be the general gloomy appraisal emerging from the full report launched today.

The report paints a gloomy picture of the UK

UK doughnut

The diagram above shows that, according to Oxfam’s analysis of the UK’s performance against a combined range of 11 social and nine environmental indicators, we are collectively failing to live in a safe and socially just way.

The report reveals that as a nation we are transgressing nearly all acceptable environmental boundaries (bar ozone depleting emission levels). We consume more resources than our population size can justify, pollute our air quality and rivers, and stand idly by as we damage our essential biodiversity. For instance, we have lost 55% of our farmland birds since 1970 and we continue to overfish by 64% each year.

Meanwhile in social metric terms, too many of our citizens struggle to live dignified lives. The way we have chosen to organise our economy and society means that over 22% of people live in relative poverty, while 23% lack any formal educational qualifications, and even more of us can’t heat our homes properly (26%)

For me, the starkest breach in an acceptable minimum social floor is found in the depressing realisation that 7% of UK citizens cannot afford to even feed themselves properly, hence the exponential rise in food banks that Oxfam has campaigned about in recent times. 

…7% of UK citizens cannot afford to even feed themselves properly

The stark reality from breaching the social floor on healthy life expectancy is that UK poverty doesn’t simply harm; it kills. So, as the overall Oxfam Doughnut/lifebelt analysis makes clear, as a nation it seems that we are not waving, but drowning.

Why it matters

The report certainly does not claim to be definitive. Nor does it attempt to provide the policy solutions needed to fix these series of overlapping crises. That is work for another day. 

As a model, its strength lies in identifying and integrating the main social and environmental concerns we currently face. It refuses to pit the planet against people, or Greens against social activists. Instead, both sets of agendas are shown to be interdependent and essential to all our futures. Such an approach must surely be welcomed in the deeply fragmented domestic UK policy context.

The report is a snapshot in time. We can debate whether Oxfam has chosen the most appropriate social and environmental domains to construct its assessment by; we can argue about exactly how the complex relation of these myriad indicators are actually played out in the UK context; and we can make policy judgements about the best way to move back within the middle space boundaried by the environmental ceilings and social floors that we must respect. But I, for one, think there’s real merit in clearly identifying the dangerous tipping points where we as a nation are plunging
into dark waters of potentially irreversible decline
. In so starkly highlighting these today, Oxfam is throwing a lifebelt to swim toward. 

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Author: Philomena Cullen
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.