How we might avoid a ghastly future: an appeal to Greta

Clive Lord | April 6, 2021 | Leave a Comment

This post could be a natural follow-up to Beth Stratford’s blog questioning growth. I was at first reluctant to write a blog because many others overwhelmingly think I am mistaken. I have just watched (again) the film about Greta Thunberg going to the USA by boat. Not only does she accuse world leaders of words they do not follow up with deeds, but she also notes that despite her huge and adoring following, the factors destroying the ecosphere continue unabated.

This is why I persist, whatever my limitations. I suggest a possible way that the entire world economy could naturally and spontaneously contract to within ecological limits, where nothing to date has been able to achieve this. Are humans perhaps not looking in the right direction?

A global Eco-Tax

Ecological footprint taxes tailored to the actual threats (such as biodiversity – not just a Carbon Tax) would be an obvious way to bring the economy within sustainable limits, but they are deemed politically unrealistic. But is the threat ghastly, or not? Given the growing awareness of the global threat, it should be within the power of world leaders with sufficient vision (Ardern, Merkel?) to marshal world opinion.

The solution must be worldwide. I believe if every individual is given a guarantee of basic necessities – an unconditional basic income – such taxes would seem an obvious answer to the ecological threat. This avenue has not been noticed because it is not immediately obvious that, tied to eco-taxes, this approach at least logically ought to lead to less consumerism.

Why we are wedded to growth

Growth is still seen as ‘natural’. Ever since modern humans evolved, a series of inventions (speech, fire, farming) enabled growth to continue. Even ‘flatlining’ leads to redundancies and bankruptcies. But these will happen as part of a ghastly accident if growth simply continues. The threat of redundancies and bankruptcies is why Greta’s “I want you to panic” falls on deaf ears. Underlying all other difficulties is the Tragedy of the Commons: whoever tries individually to break from growth as the norm does nothing to stop it. They merely lose market share.

In 1972 the newly formed Green Party could have been the natural vehicle for this novel approach, but for various reasons, this did not happen. The idea still needs a political presence.

But I must make a confession. I realized at school that my mind worked differently from most. A recent online test says I am autistic, or at least Asperger’s. Greta Thunberg regards her (medically diagnosed) autism as a gift. That is not my experience. Is what I explain above an insight or evidence of a disability? What seems obvious to me makes no sense to almost everybody else.

I admit to naïvety. I knew an international agreement would be difficult, but I did not anticipate the incomprehension of people I would talk to. Immediately post 1972, growth was thought of as a distant problem. But what about the sheer inertia of changing course: if not now, when? And how bearing in mind it meant the problems of downsizing?

Rethinking Unconditional Basic Income (UBI)

An unconditional basic income (UBI) ought to be in the no-growth toolbox. There is growing support for a UBI, but for most, its purpose is to deal with redundancy due to the rise of artificial intelligence. This concern is real, but technological solutions are attempts to outwit, instead of accepting the ecological threat. Such an approach is dangerous because the economy cannot exceed ecological limits. A new philosophical approach is needed. 

It does not seem appropriate to go into detail on a UBI (amounts for example) until the principle has been generally accepted. My weblog tries to answer some questions, but the main obstacle is that private firms want to delay the loss of profit as long as possible, and as long as economic growth is taken for granted, without a UBI any pause has always caused widespread hardship.

The danger of exponentials

When all other hominids died out ‘Homo sapiens’ did well due to the repeated success of technological innovations: language, fire, agriculture, money, etc. The eventual problem of sheer numbers was a can that could be kicked down the road. Or so it seemed. People generally misjudge the exponential principle – the suddenness of the final crisis. When Jane Goodall first went to Gombe in the 1960s, there had been unbroken forest from coast to coast across Africa. But when she recently visited the Gombe reserve by air, she was shocked to realize that it was now a small island in a sea of farmland. This was not due to Capitalism, or any of the major causes of global ecological breakdown, just human groups whose population had for nearly 200,000 years expanded slowly, but exponentially.

Bill Gates thinks humans can go on outwitting the exponential problem indefinitely, but technological ingenuity can only delay the crisis. The sudden end of the exponential principle makes the gamble dangerous. Most people agree with Bill Gates rather than with me. I can only ask the skeptics to bear in mind that the basic income may (not will) be a catalyst enabling a quasi-Buddhist worldview.

The logic of Latin

As I say, my mind works differently from most. At school, I understood the logic of Latin grammar, where the rest of the class struggled with its alien structure. I had exam results to prove I was on the right lines. But now, with an idea that might just save the entire ecosphere from a catastrophe, and which seems to me just as obvious as did Latin, I am frustrated millions more do not grasp on to seemingly logical ideas. 

But there is a way to. 

In Poverty and Progress, (Methuen, 1973) Richard Wilkinson (latterly a co-author of Spirit Level) explains how a tribe with only stone-age technology achieved the necessary philosophical transition to sustainability. All members of the tribe received basic needs – whether they deserved them or not – a moneyless form of an unconditional basic income (UBI). According to Wilkinson:

Every individual had an identity of interest when dealing with ecological limits.

But Wilkinson does not answer the obvious weakness – possible abuse. Although there are now examples that show that for a variety of reasons abuse of a UBI does not occur in practice, it is still odd that the same objections which concern those who now hear of the UBI for the first time did not rule it out for the stone-age tribe. They must have had a reason. Had they already had a brush with ecological limits?

Linking UBI and Eco-Taxation to save the ecosphere

In a society small enough for everybody to know everybody else, informal sanctions would suffice. But to scale it up worldwide it would need to be linked to eco-footprint taxation. I have discussed why, given the seriousness of the threat, this has not happened. Until now, the UBI has only been seen as the answer to inequality, and redundancy due to automation. It has not been linked to saving the ecosphere, though it is seen as a part of the answer to Coronavirus. 

But the real reason a UBI, linked to eco-taxes, may save the ecosphere is because it will enable a philosophical shift to a quasi- Buddhist lifestyle – downsizing without putting oneself at a disadvantage. All this would have been better 40 years ago, but now?

When asked for solutions, Greta Thunberg says: “Listen to the scientists”. But the scientists can only outline the threat. They do not offer any answers. Greta, I do.

Clive Lord was a Probation Officer for 30 years, now retired. He lives in ‘Lilac, an eco-friendly co-housing scheme in Leeds. He describes himself as ‘almost’ a founder member of what became the Green Party. His high point was obtaining 15% in the European Elections in 1989. However, he was disappointed that the Party did not fully understand why he saw the basic income as helpful in saving the environment. His ideas are set out in his weblog:

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