Basic income now: a high-leverage system intervention for sanity, humanity and ecology

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Introduction

We face global overheating and associated climate breakdown; biodiversity destruction and ecosystem collapse; the extinction of animal populations; pollution and associated health problems; enormous waste; extremist politics; severe inequality, and human and animal suffering. All of these problems are interrelated and a change in one will have ecological, economic, social or political effects in other parts of the overall system. Huge changes are needed if we are to avert climate and ecosystem catastrophes and alleviate inequalities. Different levels of awareness of the problems and commitment to alleviating them exist among the population. Politicians seem ignorant or confused about an overall plan of action. In civil society, vigorous, passionate, active activists, thinkers and pioneers have been working for decades alongside extreme denial, lack of awareness and apathy.

In 2009, I published a book called Enough is Plenty: Public and Private Policies for the 21st Century. It was an attempt to bring together some of the thinking and practice that has at its heart ideas and practice of sufficiency as a way of caring for people and the planet. A great deal of work is necessary at local, regional, national and international levels to bring about economies and societies that fit the biological capacity of the earth: sane, humane and ecological. Enough is Plenty discussed some big frameworks developed over recent decades which, given the political will, could be put in place at the broad parameters of society and economy in order to help us reach a steady state. These include Cap and Share, Universal Basic Income and policies for Intelligent Agriculture, which would help to create basic securities of climate, food and income. These frameworks are structured to allow equality along with maximum diversity, creativity and autonomy for everyone, within safe global limits. Sadly, the frameworks are not in place, and the movement for sufficiency and steady state is still in a minority.

In the decade since the book was published, I have resisted the temptation to write more books and have instead tried to ‘stand in the gap’ between what is and what might be, to make real some of the ideas in the book. Acting with other people, I helped to start a community-supported farm in my home town of Celbridge, Co Kildare. I have also put a lot of time and effort into the Irish movement for a universal basic income, because I think it is one of the key changes we could make now, which supports other efforts for change, community-supported farming among them. And I have worked with Feasta to support innovative thinking about upstream or high-leverage interventions – including basic income – that can bring about a strongly sustainable global economy and society: sane, humane and ecological.

So why am I writing now again? Since early 2019 there appears to be a growing awareness of our problems among groups who have heretofore not given much thought to them. Their curiosity, attention and desire to do something may have been awakened by Extinction Rebels, School Strikers including Greta Thunberg, and David Attenborough’s TV documentary, Our Planet. We have also recently seen renewed protests about ecocide from indigenous peoples and peasant organisations, and declarations by some countries and regions that we are in a state of emergency regarding biodiversity and climate. The time seems right to draw attention again to the concept of enough, sufficiency and limits, addressing people who are newly aware and looking for solutions. This is where I envisage most of the readership for this paper and the series of Enough is Plenty blog posts that will follow, hosted by Feasta.

The chief aim of this paper is to make the case for basic income as a key policy instrument for addressing our problems. I begin by sketching some of the practical work that citizen-leaders are doing to address them. I then examine how a basic income, which most rich countries could introduce immediately, could support this useful and necessary work. I also outline viable taxation approaches for funding basic income now and in the future.

The paper then broadens its focus and turns to its secondary aim: outlining the need for the global economy to contract and achieve a steady state, in order to fit into the biological capacity of our planet. The on-the-ground initiatives take place in this context. It is a massive cultural, political and economic shift, but one that we need if we are to achieve a strongly sustainable, sane, humane and ecological civilisation. This is a huge challenge to contemporary growth-oriented capitalism and related ways of thinking. Thinking and practice about steady-state-sustainability is very well developed but it receives little or no attention in mainstream conversations about solutions to our problems. It receives little political support, apart from some Green Parties. And there is low demand for it from civil society, possibly because few people know about it.

The paper then discusses how basic income could help those not already aware of steady-state thinking to live in ways more congruent with limits, care and sufficiency. It also outlines the necessary literacy campaign to help everyone understand steady state culture and policies. The paper ends with a short discussion of leverage points, places in which to intervene in a system for maximum beneficial effects.

Download the whole paper (pdf, 250K)

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