Could universal basic income be the solution to the climate crisis?

23 Sep 2019

When the Nazi Party was on the rise in 1930s Germany, how to deal with this international threat dominated political discourse, not just in Britain, but all over the world. Countries leapt into action to defend each other against such a manifestation of evil, and to preserve their way of life. Yet today, we are faced with the greatest threat to our way of life since 1945, and it is near the bottom of the political agenda.


If the consequences of climate change, from the increasing number of “climate refugees” to the destruction of our natural resources, were being caused by a single nation state, governments would surely declare total war against them. The rise of groups and individuals like Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg demonstrate that people have woken up to the climate emergency: could a radical new economic policy hold the key to solving it?


It’s important to recognise just how dire the situation is. To date, humanity has made enough concrete to cover the entire surface of the Earth two millimetres thick. Enough plastic has been manufactured to Clingfilm it as well. There are 1.2 billion cars, 2 billion computers, and more mobile phones than the 7.6 billion people on Earth.


Globally, human activities move more soil, rock and sediment each year than all natural processes combined. Factories and farming remove as much nitrogen from the atmosphere as all Earth’s natural processes; the global climate is warming so fast that we have delayed the next ice age. We’ve entered the Anthropocene and left behind the stable planetary conditions of the past 10,000 years that allowed farming and complex civilisations to develop.


Today’s globalised network of cultures relies on a stable environment. So how do we design national and international policies to deal with this global climate and environmental emergency?


A study in Nature Sustainability recently attempted to summarise and evaluate the different types of policies that could be used to save our environment. The study is based on the planetary boundaries concept, developed by a team of academics led by sustainability researcher Johan Rockström and Earth system scientist Will Steffen. They defined nine physical environmental boundaries that, if exceeded, could result in irreversible changes and serious repercussions for human civilisation. We’ve already crossed three of these boundaries by changing the climate, destroying biodiversity and disrupting the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles through agriculture.



This study focused purely on physical limits to human life on Earth and didn’t deal with the underlying dynamics of consumer capitalism which govern most of human life. In contrast, economist Kate Raworth combines the physical and social needs of humanity by including water, food and health alongside education, employment, and social equality. Between these two sets of needs is a just, operating space for humanity. Living within this space, according to Raworth, demands inclusive and sustainable economic development, which is becoming known as “doughnut economics”. At a fundamental level, it means we design our economic policies to look after the planet and everyone on it.


It is evident that if we are to live within the parameters of this broadly accepted economic theory then we desperately need bold new economic policies. One of these is the idea of a universal basic income (UBI) – a policy that would guarantee a financial payment to every citizen, unconditionally, at a level in line with the living wage of that area. It means that if people fall out of employment, they are guaranteed to remain above the poverty line, and gives people the financial freedom and security to operate in the free market. Trials of UBI show that educational attainment is higher, healthcare costs go down, entrepreneurship levels both in numbers of people and success rates go up, as does self-reported happiness. However, UBI does more than this: it could break the link between work and consumption.


Breaking this link could, if carefully managed over time, dramatically reduce environmental impacts by slowing the treadmill of production and consumption that is currently intrinsic to our economic growth. We could work less and consume less, yet still meet our needs. Fear for the future would recede, meaning we wouldn’t have to work ever harder for fear of future struggle. This is especially important as the digital revolution will mean automation and intelligent machines are increasingly competing with humans for many jobs.


UBI therefore eliminates extreme poverty and reduces dependency. It gives people the agency to say “no” to undesirable work, including much environmentally damaging work, and “yes” to opportunities that often lie out of reach. With UBI we could all think long term, well beyond the next pay day. We could care for ourselves, others, and the wider world, as living in the Anthropocene demands.


UBI would give people the right to choose when it comes to fulfilling their own basic needs. Instead of relying on 20th-century ideas, we need carefully designed policies that could push society towards a new mode of living in a new epoch. Surviving the Anthropocene means breaking the cycle of production and consumption which is currently undermining the conditions that once allowed our global network of complex civilisations to flourish.


Our global climate and environmental emergency will not be solved by modest changes to taxes. Bolder changes would mean we can adjust the way we live to radically reduce suffering and give people the freedom to flourish. It’s about time that our governments started seeing climate change as the existential threat that it is, and recognise that, just as if our country were under attack by another nation state, we must rebuild our society in a fairer way to combat it.

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