I recently had a social media conversation about Universal Basic Income, and I would like to expand on it here.
I think a UBI may greatly increase our environmental impact—and produce only a more equitable arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic.
The conversation arose when I was asked to explain my reaction to the subtitle of Rutger Bregman’s book, Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek.
Bregman posted a very interesting article adapted from his book, called Why do the poor make such poor decisions? If you have read my posts on Compassionate Systems, you will find Bregman’s article in alignment.
I have not read the book, so maybe he does a bait and switch after the subtitle—but if he really does support “Universal Income…and a 15-Hour Workweek” I think that shows Bregman does not understand sustainability.
I have been tentatively participating in discussions about UBI for a couple of years now. There is an odd assortment of people promoting basic income—pragmatists, business people, and radicals on both right and left, and it is really having a moment thanks to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. I haven’t liked the smell of basic income but the various ideas have not coalesced into anything coherent enough to respond to, so I haven’t written more than the occasional comments until now, when I was asked to explain myself further.
Indeed, an article in Forbes tells us how we will pay for the Green New Deal ‘Isn’t a thing’. The only question raised is about inflation.
If the plan is just to comprehensively tax the rich and give their money to the not-rich, then all we are doing is redistributing the profits from killing the planet.
As I said, I think it is much worse than that, I think a UBI may kill the planet faster.
It all stems from a near universal confusion about what money is.
Money is not wealth, money is simply a very elaborately printed IOU note. It has no value except in exchange for real wealth—like salmon, trees, cotton and wool.
Further wealth is created when labour smokes salmon, mills lumber and builds houses or furniture, and knits wool into sweaters or weaves denim for blue jeans—and all those labourers need to eat and be sheltered and clothed with more wealth from nature.
John Michael Greer introduced me to “E.F. Schumacher’s insight, that goods produced by nature are the primary goods in any economy, and those produced by human labor are secondary goods”.2
Greer goes on to extend this framework to tertiary goods, which is simply the pushing of numbers around on computers.
But the thing is, we can’t eat money, and we can’t eat the numbers in the bank’s computer.
Money is simply a convenient, pocket-sized promise we make to trade for real wealth at a later time. Wealth only comes from nature, and from the application of labour3 to the wealth of nature.
Now, various corporate greenwashers, shills, and green tech promoters want to “decouple” our economy from environmental impact—but again, this is just ignorance of the difference between money and wealth. It is impossible. When we “share experiences” we do so in real buildings built and operated with the wealth of nature and labour. When we share a meal with friends, we consume food that came from the earth and was cooked by labour in kitchen that came from the earth powered by energy that came from the earth. We go to a concert in a hall built from the earth, powered by the earth, and drink beer from the earth.
Yes, we can reduce the amount of impact our consumption has,4 but decoupling is just marketing. There is literally nothing you have ever touched or consumed that did not originate in nature. Furthermore, there is a floor of consumption below which people cannot go, or they die of starvation or exposure. You can’t decouple that.
So wealth comes from nature, and from the application of labour to the wealth of nature. People become rich by extracting wealth from nature and from labour. In our current economy, that means the rich get rich by killing ecosystems and exploiting people.
Now, I support extremely radical taxation, but I hope I am being clear that taxation simply distributes the profit from killing ecosystems and exploiting people in a more or less equitable fashion.
This puts the conservative in conservatism. Whenever we talk about universal healthcare, increased social programs, hospitals in small towns or highways to remote towns, building a subway, recycling—whatever—we must ask what wealth are we going to extract from nature to make this possible? Asking how we will pay for something is not a question about debt and government bonds and inflation.
It’s obvious that it costs a lot of money and energy to produce all the food we need to maintain our population at six billion.6 But there is an additional, hidden cost that has to be counted in life forms. As I’ve said, it’s conservatively estimated that as many as 200 species are becoming extinct every day as a result of our impact on the world. Put plainly, in order to maintain the biomass that is tied up in the six billion of us, we have to gobble up 200 species a day – in addition to all the food we produce in the ordinary way. We need the biomass of those 200 species to maintain this biomass, the biomass that is in us. And when we’ve gobbled up those species, they’re gone. Extinct. Vanished forever.
Those 200 species . . . why exactly are they becoming extinct? Are they just running out of air or water or space or what? No, those 200 species are becoming extinct because they have something we need. We need their biomass. We need the living stuff they’re made of. We need their biomass in order to maintain our biomass. Here’s how it works. Go down to Brazil, find yourself a hunk of rain forest, and cut it down or burn it down. Now bring in a herd of cows to pasture there. Or plant potatoes or pineapples or lima beans. All the biomass that was formerly tied up in the birds, insects, and mammals living in that hunk of rain forest is now going into cows, potatoes, pineapples, or lima beans–which is to say into food for us.
We need to make 200 species extinct every day in order to maintain the biomass of six billion people. It’s not an accident. It’s not an oversight. It’s not a bit of carelessness on our part. In order to maintain our population of six billion, we need the biomass of 200 species a day. We are literally turning 200 species a day into human tissue.
If this were something that was going to stop next week or next month, that would be okay. But the unfortunate fact is that it’s not. It’s something that’s going to go on happening every day, day after day after day–and that’s what makes it unsustainable, by definition. That kind of cataclysmic destruction cannot be sustained.
We’re like people living in the penthouse of a tall brick building. Every day we need 200 bricks to maintain our walls, so we go downstairs, knock 200 bricks out of the walls below and bring them back upstairs for our own use. Every day. . . . Every day we go downstairs and knock 200 bricks out of the walls that are holding up the building we live in. Seventy thousand bricks a year, year after year after year.
I hope it’s evident that this is not a sustainable way to maintain a brick building. One day, sooner or later, it’s going to collapse, and the penthouse is going to come down along with all the rest.
Making 200 species extinct every day is similarly not a sustainable way to maintain a living community. Even if we’re in some sense at the top of that community, one day, sooner or later, it’s going to collapse, and when it does, our being at the top won’t help us. We’ll come down along with all the rest.
So, I have yet to see a UBI proposal that addresses sustainability—the extraction of wealth from nature. I will be happy to cash my UBI paycheque—for the few years our culture might have left in a wildly damaged ecosystem—but UBI is just a band-aid on a sucking chest wound of living beyond planetary limits.
We will live within limits—either we choose to do so, or nature will force us to do so.
The 15 hour work weeks might be a bit better? Like I said, I haven’t read Rutger’s book, so I don’t know what the proposal is and my critique may be way off base. But typically arguments like these are something like, “If we stopped letting billionaires squirrel wealth away in the bank, we would all only need to work 15 hours a week.”
I think this could actually cause enormous ecological damage.
Again billionaires don’t squirrel away wealth—or at least only a very small share. They are billionaires—they possess over one billion dollars—because they have not converted the money into wealth extracted from nature. Yes, they have more yachts and houses and diamonds than the rest of us, but what they squirrel away is money. Most of their riches are actually just numbers “invested” in a computer.
If you distribute those numbers to the rest of us, we will actually turn them into wealth—into salmon we eat and trees we cut. This is a feature of localism—spending money locally keeps it cycling in the local economy, being spent over and over and over again on the real wealth extracted from nature and labour.
So redistributing wealth from the tertiary economy—from the stock market and billionaire’s bank accounts—will radically increase environmental impact. It will turn numbers in a spreadsheet into species on the extinct list.
The first time I put that into words I felt like vomiting—and I still get queasy thinking about it.
I have yet to see any proposal for UBI or shorter work weeks that starts from the question of what the ecosystem can sustainably provide—but here is a good starting point.
Human population was fairly stable for a thousand years at about a quarter of a billion people.
One thing and one thing only has allowed for the exponential growth in population, and this is burning fossil fuels.
“But knowledge!!” people will say. Yes, knowledge matters. And I think useful knowledge could likely lift that population ceiling to half a billion people, or maybe even one whole billion human beings. But that is all.
Here is a searing paragraph from Greer’s eulogy for William Catton, who wrote Overshoot.
The difference in energy concentration between input and output, it bears repeating, defines the upper limit of complexity. Other variables determine whether or not the system in question will achieve that upper limit. In the ecosystems we call human societies, knowledge is one of those other variables. If you have a highly concentrated energy source and don’t yet know how to use it efficiently, your society isn’t going to become as complex as it otherwise could. Over the three centuries of industrialization, as a result, the production of useful knowledge was a winning strategy, since it allowed industrial societies to rise steadily toward the upper limit of complexity defined by the concentration differential. The limit was never reached—the law of diminishing returns saw to that—and so, inevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough.
So knowledge is not enough. We still need resources, and especially, we need the primary resource, energy. If we want to do much at all we need highly concentrated energy.
“But solar!!” people will say. “Windmills!!”
Neither of these is a concentrated source of energy.
We built this modern, globalized economy with oil that had an Energy Return on Energy Invested of 100:1—we had to burn one barrel of oil to gain 100 barrels. One gallon of gas contains the energy of weeks of human labour, so that gave us a massive surplus of energy.
We are now down around 30:1 EROEI for fossil fuels—and the world we built for 100:1 doesn’t work so well.
Solar and wind are 10:1, maybe 15:1. Some of them are less than 1:1–in other words, it takes more energy to manufacture the solar panel than it will ever generate in its lifetime.
Here is another problem.
You can’t make solar panels with solar energy. There is essentially no solar heavy industry—mining, refining and manufacturing. The concentrated energy carried fossil fuels is required in those industries.
But can’t we just electrify manufacturing? No, because we can’t get the energy concentrations.
So when we say we want wind farms, we are saying we want to keep changing the climate so we can mine and refine the resources and manufacture the parts.
And then of course, there are resource constraints. Being practical people, we dug up the easiest and richest resources first. This means the resources we have left are poor. Some analysts think that even if we could get over the social barriers and the financial barriers, there are not physically enough resources left in the ground for a transition to a renewable society.
If a fox spends more energy chasing mice than it earns from eating mice, the fox starves to death.
So, the world we can have with renewable energy is not this world. We simply won’t have the concentrated energy supply.
Therefore a world of 15 hour workweeks is a fantasy. Ask subsistence farmers how many hours they spend working and I think you will find it is a lot more than 15.
Put another way, when we talk about 15 hour weeks or the UBI, what we are saying is we want to continue destroying ecosystems and changing the climate. We want to keep destabilizing our life support system. That is how we have built an economy that we think is rich enough to distribute more equitably.
One way or another, our future lies in what is able to be sustained, and that likely involves the work of subsistence we have seen in most of human history, human and animal-powered pastoralism and agriculture for a much smaller population base.
Not a universal income or a 15 hour work week.