What if basic income atomises people when both poverty and environmental challenges call for a collective response? Sophie Swaton’s alternative proposal for an ecological transition income has sparked public debate and won support. We sat down to ask what this idea would look like in practice.

Green European Journal: Before discussing the ecological transition income, how can we explain the renewed interest in idea of a universal basic income?

Sophie Swaton: Renewed interest in basic income, both in political debate and academic circles, is not that surprising given the current socio-economic climate. Despite the introduction of various assistance measures, poverty and unemployment are still rampant despite being decried since the 1980s. In France, for example, half of those entitled to the in-work welfare benefit (revenu de solidarité active) receive it only in part because the administrative procedures involved are so complex.

As a result, the arguments made in the 1990s in support of a universal income are being revived. Chief among are them: fighting unemployment and poverty to create a “full activity” society in which each individual is free to pursue their ambitions and put their free time to good use. As receiving a basic income would be automatic, the stigmatisation its proponents criticise would be eliminated. The most economically insecure would no longer have to complete the slightest administrative procedure to receive an income, which would be a right for all.

The period since the 2000s has seen the emergence of two further arguments for basic income. First, there are those who fear a wave of redundancies caused by the introduction of digital technology and automation, as certain jobs and even entire professions become obsolete. Second, there are those who advocate basic income as a way to accelerate an ecological transition.

Is it a problem that so many different arguments are used to call for a UBI?

All the arguments that I cite coexist with others, such as boosting growth, the car market and consumption, and I believe that poses a problem. Furthermore, some advocate a basic income as part of a complete overhaul of the social security system and an implementation of a flat tax. This would remove the face-to-face relationship that most economically insecure people have with social workers.

Can so many contradictory arguments be held together in a single measure?

That such a measure is advocated by the far right and neoliberals in the name of restructuring social protection as well as by those who genuinely believe in the end of work seems problematic. Between these two extremes, the big tech entrepreneurs such as the founders of eBay or Tesla advocate basic income because they no longer believe that there will be jobs for unskilled workers, either in the Global North or South.

Can so many contradictory arguments be held together in a single measure? A unconditional basic income could as much be a liberal proposal as one truly based on solidarity.

What is the ecological transition income?

Unlike UBI, the ecological transition income is not just an unconditional cash income. It is based on three components. First, a variable income to support an environmental or social activity compatible with the limits of the biosphere. Second, this income is accompanied by tailor-made support for people that want to launch a project, something too often lacking today. Third, it advocates belonging to a democratic structure in the wider meaning of the term, thus promoting a sense of belonging and cooperation in a way an individual cash payment could not do.

The theorists first behind the UBI relied on a ‘real libertarian’ conception of liberty, not just the formal liberty of liberals. The theory also depends on the principle, attributed to Thomas Paine in the 18th century, of shared ownership of the Earth, and on a fantasy of unlimited natural resources: “I take from the Earth because that is my right, and its riches belong to me. I choose to spend this income how I see fit.”

The ecological transition income’s underlying philosophy is somewhat personalist and inspired by care. Here care is understood as truly taking care of others, not just by giving people money, but by supporting them and providing them with a network. It’s about advocating ‘equality in difference’, a solidarist principle that dates to the 19th-century social utopias of Robert Owen in Britain or Charles Fourier in France.

The ecological transition income emphasises environmental ethics as well as the social philosophy of cooperation and interdependence. The main tenet is less “I take the Earth’s resources because that is my right” and more “I respect the shared natural resources of our Earth as a stakeholder living in the same sphere”. It unities ecology and the social economy by focusing on emerging citizens’ movements rather than on isolated individuals. After all, it was social movements that led to our social protection systems in Europe.

The UBI has many arguments in its favour but depends on a single solution: cash. The ecological transition income starts from an urgent priority, accelerating the ecological transition, but can vary by amount, types of financing (complementary currency, taxes), and activities.

How did you come up with the idea for an ecological transition income? 

The idea came to me after years of working on basic income (I did my doctoral thesis on it) and identifying several shortcomings. There are four main flaws with UBI that led me to propose a more complete programme for accelerating the transition.

First, the UBI only has a cash dimension to it. Cash by itself cannot properly guarantee freedom because it does not provide for adequate support of people’s capabilities. Second, UBI ignores the value of work. Work is an important factor in social recognition, overwhelmingly supported across society. Everybody tries to give meaning to their work and it can be source of self-fulfilment. That’s certainly the case for the growing numbers of people engaged in the transition and embarking on new careers with small ecological footprints. Third, new arguments for basic income ignore greening the economy by confusing levels of argument. How could one tool fight poverty, boost growth, and promote environmental activities?

with basic income we are not that far from the homo economicus of orthodox economics

Last but not least, the exclusively individual dimension of the UBI seems unacceptable. Advocates talk about social connection, a “society of activities”, the end of capitalism, and post-productivism. But they still extol the virtues of an exclusively individual right with no collective aspect or common action. This lacks ambition and is a narrow solution when compared to the ideals espoused by its creators. Fundamentally, with basic income we are not that far from the homo economicus of orthodox economics. However, the ecological transition income has a common vision and its foundations, in terms of resources to identify and governance to put in place, is the commons.

Does the ecological transition income reflect real demand and can it be applied on a scale larger than local communities, particularly at European level?

There is a real demand for the commons, for restoring social connection, and for work that is meaningful and contributes towards the transition.

The ecological transition income could be solution sustainable and applicable at European level but we must first experiment locally. Every community has commons that need to be identified (water, forests, natural resources) for protection by – and this is fundamental for the idea’s acceptance – existing systems and human resources. This process would depend on groups of politically engaged citizens, motivated politicians, municipalities, charities, and NGOs. What my research shows – with stakeholders in the social economy in France, Switzerland, Europe, and Latin America – is that we must trust civil society intermediaries.

How would the ecological transition income be allocated in practice?

We need to start with employment agencies to match supply and demand, not through the subjugation of claimants but through a radically new paradigm of co-construction and active partnership. Many charities who help people back into work (such as Solidarité Nouvelle Face au Chômage or Les Territoires Zéro Chômeurs in France) have already tried and tested methodologies. These organisations start with volunteering and a person’s skills, find out what they want to work on, what projects they want to be involved in or the type of business they want to start.

In addition, it would need basic lists of activities required in the community where the ecological transition income is being trialled. Drawn up jointly by representatives from municipalities, entrepreneurs, and charities, these lists would be constantly added to. They could compile the supply or demand of activities necessary to renovate a cultural heritage site, promote traditional crafts, set up walking trails, provide sustainability advice for businesses, support welfare programmes for families in fuel poverty, or raise environmental awareness in schools. The list could go on but would never be exhaustive. It needs to be drawn up with stakeholders, people that wish to launch projects, job seekers, and anybody else in transition wanting to get involved or simply dissatisfied with their current job.

How can we avoid bureaucracy and remain in touch with the reality on the ground?

This situation must be avoided from the outset by including representatives from all of the stakeholders I’ve mentioned. It’s not about imposing a top-down vision but rather a bottom-up vision that leaders must support and not obstruct, without seeking to impose their demands.

How can we ensure that the selection process is inclusive and that it isn’t just an income for those who are “already” in the ecological transition?

A main aim of the ecological transition income is bring people together and not to atomise them. On this point, it better suits the wishes of the most economically insecure when compared to UBI. Studies and reports from organisations on the ground, like those of Fourth Work for example, we clearly see a desire for citizen empowerment and participation. People are hungry for new projects to get involved in. The most economically insecure are looking for a relationship of equals without discrimination and supported by a watchful eye, such as that cast by the doctors or social workers often cited in studies.

The clause on adherence to a democratic structure as part of the ecological transition income guarantees that projects bring people together without income discrimination. The desire to work on a shared project is what will unite people and good ideas for projects are not reserved for the better-off. We must draw on the life skills and know-how of the most economically insecure who can offer vital advice for the circular economy and a different vision for our consumer societies.

In other interviews, you’ve commented on the potential for basic income to undermine existing social benefits and presented the ecological transition income as complementary to social benefits. What does this mean in practice?

Unlike basic income, the ecological transition income supports work. It strengthens the environmental side of the social dimension, creating jobs in social support that also engage fully with possible solutions to environmental challenges.

Many of the unions that I spoke to at the European Trade Union Institute’s conference in June have an excellent grasp of the twin futures that are playing out: the digital revolution and ecological transition. But unions are equally aware of the paradoxes this dual challenge sometimes throws up. Getting rid of polluting industries can destroy jobs. Promoting digital technologies comes at a cost of more pollution, such as that associated with rare-earth elements. Unions want to understand the transition underway and identify as precisely as possible the transitions’ emerging professions. That’s why the ecological transition income makes sense for them.

unions remain indispensable because they are becoming whistle-blowers about dangerous sites for workers in the transition

The few misgivings that I detected concerned the innovative aspect of the system. With the ecological transition income, it’s not just a case of reacting as part of an existing structure, but supporting entrepreneurship and projects from the start by mediating with stakeholders to best take into account those who will ultimately benefit, which has not necessarily been the traditional role of unions.

But their role is evolving and unions remain indispensable because they are becoming whistle-blowers about dangerous sites for workers in the transition and can actively guide the emergence of new, fairer jobs. As well as being involved in divestment from fossil fuels, which is compatible with a complementary ecological transition income programme, another path unions are following is to focus on workplace stress and technology-related illnesses, as well as job insecurity among digital platform workers.

Youth unemployment is very high in some European countries. How would an ecological transition income help young people?

As well as workers of all stripes, it is also aimed at young people. In France, young people aged 18 to 25 do not receive the RSA in-work benefit and many are financially insecure. In Belgium, unions are condemning the fact that increasing numbers of students have to work alongside their studies. What is their status? Student or economically insecure employee? In France, President Emmanuel Macron announced in September the creation of a ‘universal activity income’ as part of the plan to fight poverty. But nothing was said about young people or the type of employment. It is principally a case, as was proposed in the 2016 Sirugue report, of merging existing benefits and adding the condition of a return to work. An ecological transition income offers young people a genuine programme for supporting their plans while allowing them to pursue their studies without any contradiction – a very different offer in terms of philosophy, form, and desired effect. It is our young people who can think about their role and impact at the heart of societies in transition. It is them we must support above all.

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