Unconditional Basic Income and transitioning to a low-carbon society

Next up on Basic Income week, Professor Greg Marston explores how the simple yet powerful idea of basic income could help people vulnerable to climate change. 





This week, 14th-21st September is the 8th International Basic Income week. An unconditional basic income is a payment made to individuals on a regular basis without a means test or work requirement at a high enough level to ensure a decent standard of living and participation in society. There are a wide variety of proposals around, which differ according to the amounts involved, the source of funding, the nature and size of the reductions in other transfers and state social services.

The aim of having a dedicated International Basic Income week is to highlight campaigns and events that generate discussion and debate about how a simple but powerful idea can enable citizens to have greater economic security and
self-determination. This is even more important at a time when these foundational features of a ‘good society’ are either under threat or being actively eroded in rich countries.

While a number of European countries are planning basic income referendums, basic income trials and activist rallies, here in Australia we lack an organised social movement to press the case for radical reform of our welfare system. And our national political leaders continue to mouth the hollow mantra of ‘work is the best form of welfare’, while pushing forward with greater conditionality and hard paternalism in income support policies.

Consequently, it doesn't appear that supporters of an unconditional basic income in Australia have much to celebrate during International Basic Income week. However, perhaps we can take some heart from the fact that some sections of the media are taking an interest in overseas developments and are asking what is happening here in Australia to progress the idea.

Increased media attention will lead to more public interest, which may lead to political pressure for trialing basic income pilots in Australia. From my perspective, this would be preferable to rolling out administratively expensive ‘basics card’ trials that have produced underwhelming evidence of their effectiveness in changing individual behavior or addressing poverty.

Unconditional basic income is an important consideration when looking for alternatives to conditional welfare. Besides self-determination and anti-poverty arguments for an unconditional basic income there are other reasons that deserve a focus when thinking about the merits of a basic income. In this short piece I want to briefly consider the ecological argument for introducing a basic income, as it receives less attention in mainstream basic income debates.

What we know is that human induced climate change will make life a lot harder for a great many people; especially the world’s poor who can least afford to adapt to a rise in sea levels and extreme weather events. Poverty and climate change undermine the capacity of people and communities to live a flourishing life. The human populations likely to be most harmed by climate change are the least responsible for causing it and have the least resources to cope with it—this is the case both within nations and between nations.

The Australian welfare state, like that which exists in other developed countries, needs to be refurbished so that it can meet a different set of economic conditions in the 21st century. Welfare states of the 20th Century developed in response to the crisis posed by the great depression and war, now welfare states have a key role to play in responding to a new crisis. In the current era, human induced climate change and poverty are posing real threats to the social order and it this dual crisis that social policy must confront.

However, transitioning to a low-carbon future is not simply a matter of more of the same social policy incrementalism in Australia. Welfare and economic systems will need more radical reform in order to bring about a low-carbon society sustained by what Herman Daly referred to as a ‘steady state economy’, in which population growth, technological change and economic growth are all reduced to a more sustainable level. This means getting beyond what Clive Hamilton and other commentators have in the past called the ‘growth fetish’.

We are going to need a new form of politics to carry big ideas forward. The hollowed out model of corporate politics dictating the mainstream policy agenda needs to be challenged. Deliberative democracy, social equality and ecological values go hand in hand. Recent survey data shows that those countries with egalitarian values are the most likely to support government services designed to reduce inequality. Conversely, those who support ‘economic individualism’ and neo-liberal economic policies are the least likely to favour an active role for government in addressing climate change risks.

High carbon production and consumption patterns have come to be embedded in social institutions and cultural patterns in the West, supported by social and economic policies, such as the dominance of energy intensive suburban living in many cities around the world. In addressing this challenge social policy and economic opportunities and choices will need to be localised in the transition to a low carbon economy. Planners, politicians and citizens will all be required to collaborate in the redesign of urban and rural centres, with energy requirements and lifestyles being more local and smaller in scale.

We need an integrated public policy framework that includes a coherent vision of an alternative low-carbon future. The pursuit of ‘greener economies’ without attention to the social dimension will seriously limit the capacity for human adaptation. The general orthodoxy at present is for national governments to use social policy to compensate the losers from climate change policies. Compensatory policy settings, such as utility bill subsidies for low-income groups are an ineffective long-term solution because they do little to change the behaviour of energy producers, they are difficult to target effectively and lack dedicated revenue streams, making them vulnerable to budget cuts.

A redesigned welfare state in advanced economies, with basic income as a core institutional feature, can assist the transformation of high carbon economies into sustainable societies, both in terms of speed and scale. An unconditional basic income would have the benefit of addressing economic insecurity and reducing reliance on industries that harm the environment during the transition to a new economy. It will also provide a form of economic security while jobs in the new economy are created, particularly in the face of rapid digital disruption.

Among political parties in Australia it is The Australian Greens that have accepted the normative argument that connects basic income with a concern for ecological sustainability. The Australian Greens have a commitment to basic income in their social policy platform. The fact that we rarely hear about this pledge is a concern. Perhaps The Australian Greens fear that they will be ridiculed as socialists and labeled a threat to national and economic security if they became more vocal about the need for such a policy.

The Australian Greens, however, should feel emboldened by the victory of Jeremy Corbyn who was recently crowned leader of UK’s Labour Party and the popularity of Bernie Sanders in the run up to the US Democratic Party presidential primaries. These are both politicians that were marginalised by their own parties for their anti-austerity views and their social democratic values on health and education. Through their authenticity, both politicians have managed to successfully give a voice to people feeling disaffected by economic policies that fail to protect the interests of all citizens. What we are witnessing is a recalibration of social politics among Anglophone countries and at some point the two major political parties in Australia will need to adjust their values and policies if they want to remain relevant to the concerns and needs of Australians.

We need top down and bottom up leadership in Australia if we are going to get serious about implementing an unconditional basic income. We need a broad based social movement that is vocal about the merits of an unconditional basic income, one that is based on a coalition of environmental and welfare groups and trade unions. While in some parts of the world trade unions remain ambivalent or even hostile about the need for a basic income, there are other trade unions that have been supportive, particularly as a basic income strengthens the bargaining power of workers, creates incentives for employers to create better jobs and provides opportunities for job sharing.

A political commitment to unconditional basic income would reframe the justification for income support in terms of economic security and genuine sustainability, rather than legitimising hard paternalism and facilitating labour market participation no matter what the personal and environmental cost.