Basic Income and Degrowth: Creating an Alternative Ecological Future?


Post by ~ Johann Beckford

Universal Basic Income’s history amongst intellectual circles is well documented and varied. In many ways, contemporary trials from Finland to Scotland, Canada to Kenya feel like a building crescendo. UBI’s time is coming - and soon.

The arguments we are most familiar with usually focus on poverty alleviation and material freedom. Jason Leman and Simon Duffy, elsewhere in this blog series, have discussed UBI’s relationship with an automated future, providing further food for thought. There may be, however, a need for UBI that is more pressing than any we could have imagined.

8th October 2018 saw the publishing of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that has made the rounds in political circles and drawn significant media coverage. The headline: we have 12 years to avert climate disaster.

Specifically, the report references global efforts to maintain atmospheric temperature rises of 1.5 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial temperatures. The 1.5-degree figure, made famous by the Paris Climate Conference in 2015, is a desperate attempt to avert catastrophe that many recognise would occur if the previous target of a 2-degree limit were to be reached. The takeaway from this report is that we have the potential to limit climate catastrophe but we only have 12 years to act, and act radically.

An increasing body of academic work, encompassing climate science, geography, ecological economics and political ecology, amongst other disciplines, is now arguing that this cannot be achieved under 'economic growth'. In context, this is a terrifying thought. Growth supports our entire economic system. From providing headline political figures to paying off debt interest, asserting business confidence and reducing poverty levels, growth is necessary everywhere. Yet one 2011 study suggests that to stay within even the 2-degree target of global warming, we must decarbonise our economy by 8-10% per year. Many scholars believe this is incompatible with a growing economy.

Degrowth is the perspective that argues, in this light, that to avert ecological collapse the economy of rich countries must undergo a controlled contraction in material throughput, to eventual stabilisation, to levels supportable by the earth’s processes.

An important part of this story is about economic growth’s social and economic impacts as well as its environmental drawbacks. Whilst growth drives forward social progress initially, once a certain threshold is reached, wellbeing isn’t increased significantly. For example, despite a GDP per capita less than one-fifth that of the United States, Costa Rica outperforms the world’s richest country in terms of life expectancy and it rivals Scandinavian countries in happiness levels.

Despite examples such as Costa Rica, this is still a difficult notion for us in the global North to compute. Scaling back our activity surely means austerity and recession which damage our social fabric? This is a common misconception. Degrowth does not mean austerity. In fact, degrowth is a radically progressive perspective that seeks to tackle the huge inequality gaps that in many ways drive ecological destruction through high-end consumption. This is where UBI is an oft-cited policy of degrowthers. UBI can act to maintain living standards and guarantee security and livelihoods for all, supporting a ‘prosperous way down’.

At the same time, UBI can act as a redistributive measure. To help its financing and to limit the consumerism of the rich, UBI must be accompanied by radical redistributive policies. This means taxes on income and wealth will need to be toughened. Samuel Alexander, a contributor to the excellent and wide-ranging introductory book Degrowth: A Vocabulary For a New Era, couples the idea of basic income with the notion of a maximum income. This radical policy discussion shows how seriously degrowth takes addressing inequality.

UBI has a broad appeal across degrowth scholarship. Giorgos Kallis, Serge Latouche, Ricardo Mastini and Jason Hickel amongst others have all discussed UBI as a potential policy solution. They do not, however, suggest that it should be considered a panacea for degrowth by any stretch. It is clear that merely introducing a UBI will not magically lead to degrowth.

A quick glance at the empirical findings of UBI experiments bears this out. For example, the Canadian ‘Mincome’ experiment of the 1970s and its sister trials in the US showed, as their investigators hoped, that work rates did not plummet when people received ‘free money’. Where slight reductions did occur, these usually coincided with other social priorities taking precedence, such as familial caring responsibilities. Although limited, this may suggest that UBI can support a reprioritisation of our work-life balance. Furthermore, this is within a context where, according to André Gorz, our entire social and economic reproduction is geared around work. 

What if that context changes? UBI trials have almost exclusively focussed on groups of randomly selected individuals and families. However, the Mincome study involved a unique site that may tell us something important about social context. The small town of Dauphin in the Canadian province of Manitoba was targeted as part of the Mincome study in order to measure some of the administrative impacts of the Negative Income Tax (NIT) which was trialled. As a result, the experiment offered the NIT universally across the town. Everybody was eligible.

Research found that in this town, larger reductions in work were found than in other areas that were also part of the same Mincome study. Simply put, the town where UBI was normalised saw a greater re-evaluation of priorities away from work and towards greater leisure time and other activities. Granted, labour participation rates are plainly not the only indicator of growth and ecological destruction - far from it - but it has been estimated that 30% of the labour market participation reductions have been due to this contextual factor.

What if the context were further changed? This emboldening of potential ‘post growth’ behaviour suggests that if the context were to be further changed in favour of degrowth, a UBI could support this transition.

For example, there have been calls to favour alternative measurements of economic success ahead of GDP. One is the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) that measures growth on the one hand but balances it against social and environmental factors to create a more rounded measurement. This could highlight the impact that growth has on certain sectors as well as the damage that it has the potential to do. These types of debates even appear to be permeating into political debate. The Green Party of England and Wales recently called for a ‘Free Time Index’ to replace GDP as a measurement of economic success.

Degrowth supporters have called for a range of policies including those aimed at curbing advertising which fuels ecologically destructive consumption. This is not necessarily a far-fetched idea. In 2014 the French city of Grenoble became the first European city to ban outdoor advertising, replacing billboards with trees. Further degrowth policy ideas include the introduction of a four-day week and reducing working hours, the toughening of ‘green’ taxes, and supporting the cooperative sector.

We will not know for sure the potential impact a UBI can have if we do not begin to change the context within which we live. This means a political campaign to debate growth. What is the purpose of the economy? Perhaps, if we can provide everyone with financial security we can reassess our relationship with the rest of nature. What is clear is that with a 12-year ticking time clock we cannot afford to take any options off the table. It's time to think and act seriously on our changing climate.    


Johann Beckford is an MA Global Political Economy student at the University of Sheffield researching economic growth, environmental sustainability and prosperity. His dissertation research was on the relationship between basic income and degrowth for environmental sustainability.

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