Universal Basic Income can help us improve the planet - and also raise people from long-term poverty


One of the clearest and most urgent cases we've heard for universal basic income (a huge theme here at A/UK) comes from Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, in their new book The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene. They see UBI as a key response to what humans should do with their coming powers of sustainable energy and digital media - which make them primarily responsible for the climatic fate of the planet. 

The authors describe five stages of expansion in human history (see the graphic to the left). Each of them have increased our environmental impact, as our powers of making energy, growing populations and informing ourselves have also increased. 

The authors go on to argue: 

These insights help us think about avoiding the coming crash as our massive global economy doubles in size every 25 years, and on to the possibilities of a new and more sustainable sixth mode of living to replace consumer capitalism. 

Seen in this way, renewable energy for all takes on an importance beyond stopping climate breakdown; likewise free education and the internet for all has a significance beyond access to social media – as they empower women, which helps stabilise the population. 

More energy and greater information availability appear to be the necessities for any new kind of society - although these changes alone could increase our environmental problems, as in the past. To usher in a new way of living, today’s core dynamic of ever-greater production and consumption of goods and resources must also be broken, coupled with a societal focus on environmental repair. 

As well as rewilding half the planet, the authors suggest that one policy which might break this dynamic is...Universal Basic Income:

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a policy whereby a financial payment is made to every citizen, unconditionally, without any obligation to work, at a level above their subsistence needs. 

Most people would still work, but UBI could break the link between paid work and consumption. We all do it – saying, I work so hard, I deserve that fancy over-packaged sandwich, new gizmo, or long-haul holiday. 

Consumption is the pay-back for being ever-more productive at work. With UBI we could think long-term, well beyond the next pay cheque, as living in the Anthropocene demands. 

Small-scale trials of UBI suggest we would educate ourselves, do useful work, while caring for others and the wider environment.

Big-picture, even civilisational cases for UBI can often be made. But we must also remember that within the current paradigm - which claims that economic growth will at least eventually be fairly distributed - there are people who are suffering badly. And for whom UBI would not just be a way to think long-term about the planet - but short-term, about their own lack of resources. 

Another BBC report this week brought the redistributive potential of UBI into sharp focus. A study from the Sutton Trust showed that it would take some parts of the population "five generations" to get anywhere near average income in the UK. From the BBC report: 

For those people born between 1955 and 1975, the research says, social mobility was a "reality", with people born into low-income families able to move up in terms of education and earnings. But the OECD study suggests that those born afterwards, becoming adults in the 1990s and later, faced "stagnating" social mobility.

Researchers found a high likelihood of people being "stuck" in the income group into which they were born, with those born into poorer families likely to remain poor and those from high-income families going on to become high earners themselves.

There was also a trend for middle class families to have slipped further behind the highest paid - and for some to have got much closer to low earners.

In the UK, the study found only about a fifth of the children of low-income families went on to become high earners. Almost three-quarters of the children of graduates in the UK went to university - compared with a fifth of children from low-income families.

And among the children of parents with manual jobs in the UK, only about a quarter would get managerial jobs.

Sir Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust social mobility charity, said: "These depressing new findings should be a wake-up call." He blamed the UK's poor social mobility on "rising wage inequality and the relationship between family income and educational attainment".

The recent work of Anthony Painter at the RSA, and Mathew Lawrence at the IPPR, make strong cases for some kind of basic income or dividend proposals as way to deal with the growing extremes of wealth and poverty. Whatever - it's the policy idea that won't go away.

Update: this tweet shows an interesting take: