Tonce is Earth Day, which must give us a chance to pause and face the terrible problem facing humanity. We eat microplastics, breathe pollution and watch other life forms disappear. We face crises of poverty, health, climate and biodiversity. Our global problem is that consumption of the rich is driving us to a global catastrophe, yet billions live in poverty and need to consume more to live well. In this cycle, any version of “success” only accelerates disaster.
Solving this puzzle requires much more than just reducing the impact of lifestyle-consuming lifestyles. Similarly, if we focus on increasing efficiency, this tends to increase resource use: make cars cheaper and drive more. At the heart of any response that really rises to this challenge will be interconnected policies that lead society to a just and sustainable path.
Here are four policies that work together to maximize people’s well-being and freedoms, drive vital technological innovation, and enable society to function within the boundaries of the Earth. At their heart is human dignity coupled with breaking the dynamics of ever-increasing production and consumption. Together they could quickly reorient the doomsday machine that is today’s global economy.
The first policy is a universal basic income (UBI) by which a financial payment is made to every citizen, unconditionally, at a level above their subsistence needs. A UBI is needed to break the link between work and consumption. Critically there is a constant awareness that we all need to be increasingly productive at work, otherwise someone else will take our job. In response we all said: I work hard, so I deserve that fancy meal, a new appliance or a long-term vacation. Increased consumption is the reward for being increasingly productive at work. Indeed, it makes little sense to slow down our consumption when we know we will have to be increasingly productive at work, regardless of our choices.
Fears that UBI can lead to laziness are unfounded: UBI’s small-scale tests show that people work hard and are usually more enterprising. Decisively those UBI recipients had lower levels of anxiety, stress and health problems. UBI allows people to say no to unwanted work unless it is paid well enough. People can also say yes to opportunities that they often don’t get because they can study or be re-educated. And clearly there is a huge amount of work to be done, from caring for others, to producing what we all need to live well. With UBI we would increasingly choose a job that we thought was important, instead of working ever harder to consume more and more.
The second policy framework is what I call universal common services – others have advocated for universal basic services, but what is needed must be much more than basic. Many countries have some of these, from healthcare to education. These are the services that everyone needs, and their delivery has an impact across the entire society. At its core are health, education, energy, housing and leisure services. Providing these universally decreases financial costs due to economies of scale, and can considerably decrease environmental costs. Such universal services make societies more equal and drive them to more sustainability se two additional policies are implemented.
The third policy deals with the climate crisis through legally binding ever-decreasing carbon budgets. This framework exists in the UK, following the Climate Change Act of 2008. The government needs to reduce UK carbon emissions to a carbon budget. These five-year budgets are declining to zero allocation by 2050. This law has also created an independent statutory body that analyzes data and advises the government on how to achieve each successive carbon budget. The advice results in new legislation for specific sectors and drives technological innovation, as the zero emission long-term goal is clear. As a result, the UK is a world leader in reducing carbon emissions.
The fourth policy uses the same declining budget principle, but deals with material use instead of energy generation. Similarly, declining “budgets for plastic uses” can set society on a path to eliminating plastic pollution. The same principle can treat metal use to limit the damage of mining. A budget for the total amount of land used to produce the food consumed by a country can limit the footprint of agriculture, essential to halt the loss of biodiversity. As for carbon emissions, scientists can now track the production and use of plastic, metal and food. Scientific oversight and new policies on a “declining budget” could keep material utilization within Earth’s boundaries.
These four policy goals together would raise the well-being of people and our environmental impacts down. They are not new, nor very radical. We are already, for example, securing income for pensioners in many countries, healthcare is universal in some countries, and declining carbon budgets are being used to help spur today’s energy transition.
But how to pay for it? The first response of the powerful to change is to argue that the costs are too great. They are rare. After two decades of arguments about the high costs of tackling climate change, consultants from large companies McKinsey are now reporting that the cost of Europe achieving net zero emissions by 2050 is itself net. The investments literally pay for themselves. Revenue options should also help cheaper to implement the four policies; these could include taxes on rental financial transactions and high energy or material use. Of course, without pressure from popular protest movements and political parties, nothing will change.
However, systematic thinking on how to respond to global problems is growing. The Covid-19 pandemic has produced new seriousness through a graphic revelation that there is indeed no “outside” of society or the environment. When there is no “outside,” the neoliberal mantra of avoiding taxes and regulations to keep wealth to yourself makes less and more sense. With political pressure and smart policies a new universality that breaks with centuries of exploitation of people and the environment could be achievable. This is definitely a very difficult task, but we cannot afford to fail.