Should Environmentalists Embrace Universal Basic Income?
Cash payments from the government could help ease the transition to a climate-safe economy and weather the natural and economic storms to come.
by Tara Lohan
If you had an extra $1,000 a month, what would you do?
It’s a question a lot of Americans started pondering after entrepreneur Andrew Yang proposed just that when he jumped into the 2020 presidential race.
Yang’s idea of a “freedom dividend” — a payment of $1,000 a month for all U.S. adults — lasted about as long as his candidacy. But the idea of a universal basic income (UBI), as it’s commonly called, is neither radical nor new. The principles behind the idea — periodic cash payments, with no strings attached — date back at least as far as Thomas Paine in the late 1700s and have been promoted by civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King, Jr.
Over the past 40 years, dozens of universal basic income programs have been tested across the world, in countries like Finland, Namibia, Brazil, India, Canada and Spain. Currently small pilot projects are running in the United States in Stockton, California and Jackson, Mississippi.
The motivations behind universal income programs vary, but broadly they aim to help ensure that everyone has a decent standard of living.
Yang predicted his program could ease the economic strain from the increasing automation of jobs that’s putting Americans out of work. Over the years other experts and politicians have espoused UBI as a way to address economic inequities and the growing wealth chasm. Most recently calls for a universal basic income have increased as a way of mitigating the effects of surging unemployment spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But could it also be a useful tool for addressing another, larger problem? That is, climate change and related efforts to transition to a clean economy?
The Green New Deal, for example, proposes a just transition from a fossil fuel economy and a set of social programs to equitably support that transition.
Could universal basic income help grease those wheels? And if so, why aren’t more environmentalists backing UBI initiatives?
A lot of people balk at the idea of giving out money for nothing. But Jim Pugh, cofounder of the Universal Income Project, an organization established to raise awareness about UBI, says it isn’t like other social-welfare programs, which base their determinations on a person’s perceived or deserved need.
“When you hear a politician say that no one who works full time should live in poverty, the unspoken statement is that if you don’t work full time, it’s OK you live in poverty,” he says. “What we’re trying to push is the idea that in a country with as much wealth as the United States has, no one should live in poverty.”
Proponents say the benefits of UBI are far reaching, and that a stable source of income could help lift folks out of poverty; allow people to better balance responsibilities like caring for family members or pursuing a degree; encourage personal freedom; provide security for the self-employed; and simply allow people to work less.
Studies analyzing pilot projects have shown that people “overwhelmingly spend [the money] on what they need,” says Pugh. “They may buy food, pay down debt or pursue some sort of education to be able to position themselves for a better career.”
How would UBI benefit the environment? There are many theories.
More income, some experts say, could help people purchase longer-lasting and eco-friendly goods, including sustainably produced foods, that are now financially out of their reach.
It could also free people from undesirable jobs in polluting industries or ones that involve long, smog-inducing car commutes, says Pugh.
And it could give people the resources to increase the energy efficiency of their homes or purchase more fuel-efficient vehicles.
“I think it’s incredibly hard to quantify, but if you actually can give people the financial freedom to have more options generally, then I think that there is, at the very least, the opportunity that you could get people to make more environmentally responsible choices,” he says.
One bit of recent evidence could support that. An anti-poverty program in Indonesia that provided cash payments to the poor resulted in a 30% drop in deforestation. Many people no longer had to resort to cutting down the forests around their communities to get by. And what surprised researchers the most was that “the drop in deforestation seen in Indonesia was about the same as those achieved by policies in other countries designed specifically for conservation,” explained a story about the program in E&E News.
On the Flip Side
One potential negative environmental consequence of UBI is that more income means more consumption, which in turns means more greenhouse gas emissions. Studies have found that the environmental ills rise with per capita income.
“If a UBI is implemented without any consideration of the environmental impacts caused by a surge in consumption from a sudden increase in aggregate demand, it is highly likely that environmental problems will worsen and that — without an innovative regulatory regime that protects critical ecological systems and promotes disruptive technological change — these may not decline over time,” wrote researchers in a 2019 study in MDPI led by Ralph Hall of Virginia Tech.
And then there’s the potential for using UBI to incentivize extractive industries, as we’ve seen from a large-scale U.S. program that’s been underway for decades. The Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend provides residents with an annual cut of investments from the state’s oil revenue. In the past decade the payments have ranged between about $1,000 to $2,000 a year.
A Lack of Data
But when it comes to understanding whether UBI would, indeed, be good — or bad — for the environment, there’s not much concrete data yet.
While more than 1,000 studies have tracked various economic and social metrics of UBI, very few — less than 1%, in fact — have looked at environmental indicators, according to a study led by social scientists Timothy MacNeill and Amber Vibert of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.
That’s likely because of the size of projects, the researchers surmise. “Since pilots tend to be very small and, by design, restricted to only some impoverished members of society, their overall environmental impact is difficult or impossible to measure,” they write.
Influencing Green Policy
There are still questions to be answered, but many have posited that basic income programs could be a necessary bedrock as we look ahead to the climate reckoning on our horizon.
UBI could play a particularly important role when it comes to threats from climate-amplified natural disasters, as reporter Sarah Lazare wrote for In These Times: “A guaranteed universal income would provide the means to survive droughts, floods and superstorms to the people most directly affected, in [the United States] where 11.1% of people are food insecure and 40% can’t afford a $400 emergency.”
And as we look to transition to a cleaner and more just economy, UBI could be a complement to the proposed Green New Deal. Overhauling the economy isn’t likely to be a seamless process. While new jobs will be created with the transition, some people may not be able to be retrained quickly enough to take advantage of those positions, and others may simply not be able to do the new work.
“If the radical changes of the Green New Deal aren’t supposed to punish workers in the current fossil-fuel dependent economy, giving these people, who most likely will lose their jobs, a guaranteed alternative would create support for the transition and make sure that those most vulnerable to the proposed changes don’t get left behind,” wrote political theorist Fabian Schuppert of Queen’s University Belfast in the Conversation.
And while all of this may sound good in theory, green groups aren’t doing much cheerleading for UBI programs.
Pugh says that’s likely because of political factors.
Many of the programs in the Green New Deal have public support, but politicians/organizers supporting the effort are still trying to amass widespread political backing. And until very recently UBI was relatively unknown and warily regarded. Adding UBI to the Green New Deal was likely deemed too risky, Pugh theorizes.
“I think that there definitely are political considerations and people have been fearful that including a basic income would make that push [for a Green New Deal] harder,” says Pugh.
Still, he hopes UBI could be part of long-term, broader discussions about Green New Deal proposals in the future.
“I think if you look at what’s actually going to transform our society into one where we have not just environmental justice, but also all the other forms of justice as well — racial, economic, social — then it does seem very, very natural to have UBI be part of it,” he says. “But that’s so far removed from day-to-day politics. I think it’s often tough to create the spaces to have those conversations.”