by Anna Gardner
Universal Basic Income (UBI) has shifted from a radical utopian idea to a policy of mainstream political parties, including the Green Party in the UK . It comprises a regular cash grant given to all members of a community, with no means test . It is usually sufficient to cover the minimum level of subsistence and enable a life free from economic insecurity .
The idea of a basic income is not new but has seen increased support over the last year . The pandemic highlighted the need for a simple administrative system that can continue supporting people through rapid changes and uncertainty and demonstrated through furlough schemes that cash transfers do not have a disastrous effect on labour supply .
UBI is also well-suited to the transforming nature of work in the new technological revolution. As artificial intelligence and robotics replace more human labour, UBI is a way to share out these productivity gains and tackle polarisation between the labour force and capital owners . In the Global South, there has been growing interest in cash transfers as an approach to reducing extreme poverty .
It is clear that UBI is entering discussions of sustainability; what is less clear is the environmental implications.
It has been argued that UBI could have negative environmental impacts by increasing consumption and undermining collective institutions . Increases in income are associated with higher greenhouse gas emissions on an individual, household and national level, outweighing behavioural changes . In addition, First Nations members of the North Shore Tribal Council pointed out that UBI invests in individuals rather than communities which can weaken environmental initiatives .
On the other hand, there are reasons to believe that UBI could have positive environmental impacts. UBI could increase the ability of the poor to purchase higher quality and longer-lasting goods that tend to be better for the environment . Second, UBI may promote a change in attention away from status-based consumption to other opportunities, giving people more freedom and time to volunteer locally with environmental initiatives . Third, UBI may inspire changes in food practices with pro-environmental effects because cost is a major barrier to sustainable food consumption .
Small-scale pilot studies suggest that UBI has positive social outcomes including reduced stress, improvements to health, and increased educational attainment – all of which are correlated with positive environmental outcomes .
Given the lack of large-scale pilot studies, the more important theoretical question is how to develop sustainable versions of UBI.
One suggestion is conditions, such as payments in the form of vouchers to exchange for locally produced sustainable food products. The problem with this is that conditions go against the very definition of a Universal Basic Income and assumes that all citizens can access options for green consumption.
UBI should be framed not as a replacement for other policy initiatives, but as a complement to them. It only becomes a just and sustainable policy within a wider policy shift towards environmental protection and social justice, implemented alongside policies like ecologically sustainable public housing and good quality green jobs . In this way, UBI complements other postcapitalist politics which shift the relationship between the economy, labour and environment.
UBI could not be introduced overnight. A series of transitional steps towards UBI have the potential to raise incomes for the poorest and tackle inequality, but political questions remain. For instance, the level at which to set the payments for the minimum standard of subsistence is not an economic question but a socio-cultural one .
Overall, UBI is gaining momentum as a feasible policy to tackle poverty and inequality. It deserves to be taken seriously in the sustainability agenda.
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