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A Fair Share: Reclaiming the Commons with Basic Income

By Jorge Pinto , Michael Howard

Green movements have long advocated universal basic income but the link with protecting the planet is not always clear. Wedding social justice and sustainability, basic income opens up a path to breaking our dependence on production for prosperity and draws on a tradition that holds that the commons belong to all, to be shared and safeguarded.

Green European Journal: The basic income is often supported by ecologists, even though distributing money across society may well increase consumption. What are some of the considerations regarding basic income from an environmental perspective?

Michael Howard: There is some evidence that suggests that redistributing income from relatively wealthy people, who save a higher proportion of their income than they spend, to a lower income groups, who spend more than they save, will increase consumption. So if consumption is closely tied to carbon emissions, then the introduction of a basic income may well increase carbon emissions. But this expectation assumes does not look at how it is funded. If the basic income is funded through pollution taxes, then the incentives to stop burning carbon and to use renewables will probably more than counteract increased consumption. But it is an effect towards which we need to be mindful.

Jorge Pinto: Financing is key here. A carbon tax is one of the main ecologist proposals for how to fund a basic income, but this can be tricky. Alaskan oil revenues are partly paid into the Alaska Permanent Fund and each resident of the US state gets an annual dividend, a kind of basic income. Because the fund is based on oil exploitation, there is absolutely no incentive to reduce the usage of that resource.

So it’s not enough to say that a basic income, or any other measure for that matter, will be based on resource taxes, because that encourages continuing resource use and environmental damage?

Michael Howard: The recipients of a basic income might be indifferent to the ecological effects of resource exploitation. In the case of Alaska, drilling and ultimately the burning of millions of barrels of oil capitalises the fund. It is dependent on the exploitation of oil resources.

Jorge Pinto: That’s why identifying the economic activity we want to encourage with a basic income is important through having a mix of funding sources. A mix of sources guarantees that if we charge the use of the commons, such as carbon, through resources taxes, we do not end up in a situation where the state and the citizens need to choose between a basic income paid for by pollution or forgoing a basic income to save the environment. This is a scenario we need to avoid.

Michael Howard: You could fund a significant level of basic income from pollution taxes, but it would be below subsistence level and so would not be enough. If you put a tax on fossil fuels, maybe starting at 20 dollars per tonne, but probably rising to 200 dollars per tonne to bring carbon emissions down sufficiently, and paid it out as a dividend, it could reach up 2000 dollars a year per person. Not enough to live on, but still a substantial basic income. If you want to push the basic income beyond that, then you have to start looking at other funding sources as well.

Beyond the immediate effects of payments or taxes, how could basic income encourage more sustainable ways of working and living?

Jorge Pinto: Basic income would allow people to experiment with different – and more ecologically friendly – ways of life. With an extra layer of security that gives people a voice and a real exit strategy from unwanted jobs, individuals could reduce the amount of time they spend at work and move their activities to the ‘autonomous sphere’ where they can choose how to use their time. People now spend time engaged in activities performed not through any desire or preference, but rather because everyone needs an income at the end of the month. A basic income could break this link and move some activities to the autonomous sphere where the ecological impact is arguably lower. Of course, many questions need to be answered to make sure this happens, especially the level of the basic income which will determine if people can reduce their time in the labour market or not.

People now spend time engaged in activities performed not through any desire or preference, but rather because everyone needs an income at the end of the month.

The arguments for basic income are not only environmental, many argue that basic income would enhance wellbeing and combat poverty. How do these objectives relate to each other?

Jorge Pinto: The only way to achieve a positive environmental impact with a basic income is to implement other parallel measures such as working time reduction or maximum income. The intention is to move to a post-productivism economy where economic growth is not central for everything from pensions to unemployment payments. Economic growth should not be a necessity for people’s wellbeing. Improving overall happiness should be our aim and there is a moment after which economic growth changes nothing when it comes to happiness.

Michael Howard: The mainstream neoliberal approach to the elimination of poverty is to lift all boats by allowing the wealthy to get richer and hope that enough trickles down so that the poor rise too. But we still have large numbers of poor people. If we continue to rely on that strategy of growing the whole economy to fight poverty, we will spend our way into economic and environmental disaster. To deal with poverty, we have to abandon that growth model and attend more directly to economic inequality and sharing what we have.

People in poverty are often most exposed to environmental hazards and risks. How are social and environmental inequalities related and how can basic income confront this dual challenge?

Michael Howard: People in poverty are more likely to live in low-lying areas that will be adversely affected by sea-level rise, storm surges, more intense hurricanes, and flooding, all of which are intensified by climate change. And it is well known that toxic waste and industrial pollution are more often located near low-income than high-income neighborhoods. The tar sands in Alberta, Canada, have produced severe pollution for the First Nations living in the vicinity.

People in poverty are more likely to live in low-lying areas that will be adversely affected by sea-level rise, storm surges, more intense hurricanes, and flooding

Basic income cannot compensate for these dire effects by giving some modest resources to the victims. It would never be enough to compensate for the loss of a home due to flooding or wildfires, or the destruction of food sources because of desertification. It is not sufficient to compensate climate refugees for being uprooted or for the political turmoil that will result. But basic income is important for enabling the rapid transition to a fossil-free future, and the reduction of air pollution, drilling, pipelines, and other environmental impacts on poor communities. Because basic income is redistributive, the infusion of cash into poor families and communities is one additional source of empowerment to resist the imposition of environmental risks on their communities. To the extent that basic income enables workers to say no to undesirable employment, it may weaken the appeal of environmentally dirty jobs to people otherwise desperate for work.

Basic income is often presented as a way to get the economy growing or getting people back to work, which is the aim of the Finnish pilot. Does this tension between a basic income with environmental goals and basic income as stimulus play out in the basic income movement?

Michael Howard: The ecological dimension is often referenced but is a minority voice in the basic income movement, which is pretty diverse in general. Some advocates put the emphasis on basic income as a driver of economic growth that will stimulate the economy, which is at very least in tension with an ecological approach. When you confront people about that people will say, “Well, you have to distinguish between economic growth in the sense of value and growth in the sense of increase of carbon emissions and material consumption.” In principle, these things are distinct but in practice it is a lot trickier.

Jorge Pinto: The first defenses of a basic income with an ecological mindset were made in the early 1970s as part of the debate on steady state economics. Warren Johnson, in a book edited by Herman Daly, presented basic income as a possible tool, not an end, to ensure a transition to a stable economy. It is too bad that the debate has not got much further and today I would say that the majority of the defenders of basic income assume increasing economic growth and that more people will participate in the labour market.

How does basic income relate to the much wider question of whether green growth is possible?

Michael Howard: Economists like to talk about decoupling growth and carbon emissions. There has been no absolute decoupling, carbon emissions have continued to rise, and there has been very little, if any, relative decoupling. Despite many efforts to make a transition, it is not happening and the time is running out. We have so little time to avoid going over the cliff of a two-degrees or more temperature rise.

Jorge Pinto: This is divisive in the environmentalist movement. Eco-modernists argue that the only way to save ourselves is if we have some technological breakthrough, such as geoengineering or nuclear power. They say, “Well, we are doomed. We have turned into a dead end and there’s nothing we can do now that would be powerful enough to avoid the impacts of global climate change.” So they put their faith in technology. The thing is: I will not risk my life on a technological breakthrough that might not even happen. Where does basic income come in here? Basic income can help break the link between the need for economic growth and the need for an income to afford the consumption necessary to live. It could be a positive way to frame the ecological challenges in front of us.

In Europe, the basic income movement is very diverse. But some of the most prominent Americans we hear discuss basic income are Silicon Valley tech billionaires. What does the basic income movement look like in the USA?

Michael Howard: Those billionaires get the media attention and are funding some pilot projects, which gets a lot of coverage too. But most basic income advocates of the past 20 years come out of the welfare rights movement. For these activists, basic income is a better way to address unemployment and poverty than the means-tested, conditional benefits of today’s welfare state.

Basic income in America has egalitarian roots that trace back to Henry George and Thomas Paine. The Georgian current wants to move away from taxes on income and capital to taxes on land and resources, partly for efficiency reasons and partly because it’s a way to reclaim the commons and make sure that everyone gets a share.

when we talk about commons, we need to broaden the concept to include social resources, inherited technologies, knowledge, and copyright

Jorge Pinto: Basic income has great potential to offer us citizens a path and a reason to reclaim the commons. The commons, as the name suggests, refer to those resources and goods that belong to everyone and are not – and should not – be privately owned. The commons go from forests, oil, oceans, and rivers to even things that we very rarely think of such as the use of the radio spectrum. If we tax the use of the commons in this broad sense to finance a basic income, citizens will be more interested in their preservation. But of course, in some cases using common resources must be banned to ensure ecological sustainability.

Michael Howard: When Thomas Paine talked about commons, he was talking about land. Nowadays when we talk about commons, we need to broaden the concept to include social resources, inherited technologies, knowledge, and copyright – things that have now been twisted to create enormous pockets of monopoly. The likes of Facebook and Amazon have grown very rapidly and concentrated wealth in a very few hands. The more honest among their beneficiaries such as Chris Hughes, the co-founder of Facebook, readily admit that this is pure luck. He did very little to earn all that. It just fell into his hands and so Hughes argues for something that approaches a basic income, a negative income tax with some soft conditionalities. The idea is to spread the luck around as a measure for social justice. But this is no return to socialist nationalisation, today there is no need for the state to manage enterprises. Collecting the rents and distributing dividends is well within the capacities of modern states and the management of business can be left to cooperatives and other kinds of firms.


A Fair Share: Reclaiming the Commons with Basic Income

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