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  • Eric Lim

Climate Change & Universal Basic Income

Water

These days, New York Times is digging deep into the looping water crisis in the US. On August 28, they opened the guns, shedding light on how fast we’re using up water and depleting water sources across the country, particularly in places like Kansas and Arizona. On September 3, they delved into how serious the issue is in Minnesota, whose nickname is literally the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. Normally, water should be the last thing that a water-rich state like Minnesota should have to worry about, but the overconsumption of water, largely for agriculture, is drying up the water supply even there.

Picture of a potato farm (Image Credit: B Brown/Shutterstock)

Funny, in Minnesota, a major culprit turned out to be French fries. Apparently, it takes a ton of water to grow potatoes in the first place, but potato farmers get paid more money if they produce smoother, rounder potatoes (which require more water), because they come out cleaner without dark blotches when they’re cut up into french fries. Given that Minnesota is a major potato producer, the demand for French fries incentivizes potato growers there to irrigate potatoes with as much water as they can, even if it means that they deplete aquifers (aka underground water reservoirs) in the process.

The US is not the only water-rich country that is staring at the specter of a water shortage in the late-stage capitalism era. Egypt, India, and China are all examples of historically water-rich countries (incidentally, all three were the original cradles of civilization due to easy access to water), but they’re all beginning to face water shortages as well, largely because of agriculture and industry, including cotton to feed the global fashion industry (cotton is an extremely water-intensive crop).


Overconsumption

This overconsumption problem goes beyond water and applies to so many other components of modern life: single-use plastics (by the way, if you didn’t know, plastic is made out of oil and gas), fast fashion, meat consumption, golf, short-distance flights, cars, and so on. We in 2023 consume more products and services than any other generation in history, while there are more of us than ever, with the human population at 8 billion in 2023. Such unrestrained consumption results in a colossal amount of resource depletion, carbon emissions, environmental degradation, and waste.


Current Paradigm

The end goal in capitalism is to maximize profits, and that means producing as many products and services as possible and making consumers, well, consume them. In a capitalist society, this production-consumption cycle takes priority over everything else, such that consumption eventually becomes a culture and a lifestyle itself. And when you take the environmental consequences of such culture into account, you’re looking at an infinite loop of consumption-production-environmental depletion.

This is the main cause of climate change. Because consumption, coupled with social media, has become the culture of our society, people spend so much on dining, fast fashion, travel, new phones, etc. Moreover, this level of consumption and production means that we all have to work longer hours and stay online around the clock, because companies want to squeeze as much time as they can from their employees in order to meet consumers’ endless demand. Not to mention, the more we consume, the more water and plastic and oil and minerals we use up, leading to environmental catastrophes.


New Paradigm

We have to break this loop by cutting consumption. This can happen in a number of ways. Voluntary cutbacks are the fastest and the most efficient. In addition, we should outright ban certain products, such as single-use plastics (e.g. plastic forks, knives, straws, cups, bags), introduce a carbon tax, and discourage carbon-intensive products and services (e.g. beef, short-distance flights, plastics in general). People will still have the freedom to buy what they want and spend their money, but consumers and corporations should pay the full price of the environmental effects of their activities. Once we bring down consumption, production and environmental depletion will also drop.

This is calling for a radical change in terms of how we organize our economic activities and lifestyles. But this is the only real way of stopping climate change, if we want to mitigate the effects of climate change to a level where humanity can still survive and preserve some semblance of civilization in the coming centuries.


Universal Basic Income

The main problem with this new paradigm is that it impairs the standard of living for most people. Measures like carbon tax and single-use plastic ban will raise the cost of goods. Meanwhile, lower consumption slows down the economy, which will lead to companies making less profits and many workers making less income overall, if not losing their livelihood altogether. With the Yellow Vests in France or the BBB (Farmer-Citizen Movement) in the Netherlands, we are already witnessing how much social turmoil is generated when governments ask people, particularly working-class people, to make sacrifices for the environment without providing them economic compensation in return.


2018 Yellow Vests Protests (Image Credit: Mo Wu/Shutterstock)

That is where universal basic income (UBI) comes in (and, to a greater extent, basic society). Because we are asking people to consumer less, produce less, and make less money, we have to fill the gap so that people can still get by. To start off, we need to give people at least the equivalent of what Andrew Yang promised in the 2016 US presidential election: $1,200 a month to everyone over the age 18. In addition, we introduce basic society. Basic society means an economic system in which we (1) give people UBI, (2) provide universal healthcare, (3) provide universal housing, in the sense that the government gets directly involved in the housing market and rents out apartments at a rate of $200 or $300 a month (this works, by the way, check out this article), and (4) make higher education virtually free (though it’s likely that most people will and should stop going to college in the next 10, 20 years). Universal basic income, healthcare, housing, and education make up “basic society.”


Gemeindebauten (social housing) in Vienna (Image Credit: Rob Crandall/Shutterstock)

This isn’t as far-fetched as it first seems. Sure, it’s unlikely that the US will be a first mover, or even an early adopter, in this new world, but in Europe and Asia, healthcare is already universal, and public transportation is increasingly becoming free (check out my next article on this). Direct government involvement in the housing market has proven time and again to drive down the cost of rent to a truly affordable level. To achieve basic society, we need to keep pushing in all these areas, implement UBI, and show people how important and beneficial it is to design our society around the concept of basic society, in conjunction with climate change.

There are so many benefits to this transition. For one thing, we stop climate change. We ask people to consume less, produce less, and therefore heal the environment. Moreover, because we produce less, we will also work less. For one thing, it’s time to start the four-day workweek across the world. And, with basic society, what’ll happen is that, in direct contrast to the current system, essential services such as housing, healthcare, and transportation will become affordable to everyone, while non-essential services (e.g. consumer goods) will become more expensive, which means that people have to be more thoughtful about what they choose to buy and consume but will enjoy the basic necessities of life much easier.

How do we pay for this? Higher tax rates for corporations and the rich. Since the 1990s, tax rates have plummeted across the world. In the US, for example, the top tax rates used to be 80-90% in the 1950s and 1960s, which are considered the heyday of this country. We need to bring that back. Moreover, since the 1990s, and particularly since Covid-19, economic inequality has accelerated yet even further, and the richest individuals in the world have amassed an unfathomable amount of wealth, mostly because of the current setup of our economic system, not their own contributions to the world. There’s a vast ocean of wealth sitting out there that is available only to the richest 1,000 or so individuals in the world. If we can hold them accountable and give back to society that gave them their wealth in the first place, we can make all of this work.

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