Carbon Neutral Lent: Individual and Systemic Action

How do we solve climate change? Do we eat less meat? Turn off the lights? Fly less? ‘No!’, I hear you say, ‘we need systemic action!’ To a large extent this is true, but as with all things related to climate change, it is not quite so simple. In this piece, I will be playing devil’s advocate and putting forward some of the arguments for why individual action is also important. Please do not take this to mean that I am a puppet of the corporations.

How do we solve climate change? Do we eat less meat? Turn off the lights? Fly less? ‘No!’, I hear you say, ‘we need systemic action!’ To a large extent this is true, but as with all things related to climate change, it is not quite so simple. In this piece, I will be playing devil’s advocate and putting forward some of the arguments for why individual action is also important. Please do not take this to mean that I am a puppet of the corporations.

Depending on who you ask, climate change is a policy problem, an engineering problem, a communications problem, an ethical problem; the list goes on. At its heart, however, it is a physical problem. Carbon is carbon. Climate change does not care about fairness. It will react to the quantity of greenhouse gases which are cumulatively released into the atmosphere, regardless of whether those emissions come from Exxon Mobil or from your meat, lights and planes.

The Guardian recently reported that just 20 companies are responsible for a third of all emissions since 1965. Those numbers can easily make one feel that individual action is a fool’s errand. Surely we can just shut down these companies and we’ll be fine? Again, it is somewhat more complicated than that. What does it mean for a company to be ‘responsible’ for emissions? Those who read past the headline of that Guardian article will have seen that while 10% of those emissions came from the extraction and transport of the fossil fuels, 90% of the emissions came from us, the consumer, burning the fuel for energy. The fossil fuel industry facilitates the burning of fossil fuels but we are the ones to pull the trigger.

Would these companies have produced those emissions if there was no one there to buy their oil and coal? Even now, would they be raking in the cash if we didn’t need their fuel for our cars or their energy for our homes? If there’s a market for it, then someone’s selling. If there’s no market for it, it stays in the ground where it belongs. That’s capitalism. Supply and demand. Don’t worry, I don’t like it either.

Of course, petrochemical companies like Shell do bear a disproportionate share of the blame, not least because they have between them spent vast sums of money trying to obscure the facts about climate change by funding right-wing think tanks, factually inaccurate media campaigns and the ‘research’ of a select few ethically suspect scientists. Think of the solar panels they could have built with that money.

Another major consideration is the massive gap in per capita emissions between the developed and developing world. There is a huge number of people in the developing world who emit next to nothing. The average emissions for the group of 47 countries categorised by the UN as ‘Least Developed Countries’ (LDCs) is 0.3 tonnes per person per year. The average for the rich 35 ‘Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’ (OECD) countries is 9.6 tonnes. That’s one hell of a difference.

The difference becomes even more stark when you look at individual nations. Per capita, the average annual carbon emissions in the US are about 20 metric tonnes. Burundi, on the other hand, are listed by the ‘World Bank’ as emitting 0.0 tonnes per person per year. In my view, there is no possible argument to be made that could justify that level of inequality.  

The fossil fuel industry is particularly culpable, yes, but so are normal people in the developed world. Our vast over-consumption precludes the possibility of an equitable redistribution of resources to the global south. We have gained a massive advantage over the developing world through colonialism and the burning of fossil fuels. We must now right those wrongs by fighting to restore some semblance of global equality. Perhaps that means sacrificing some of the things that we only have as a result of exploitation.

If we don’t reduce our individual footprints in the developed world, the very act of pulling people out of poverty in the developing world will lead to incredibly dangerous levels of emissions. The question is whether we should ask the rich kids to stop eating beef or ask the poor kids to stop eating at all. I know which seems fairer and more ethical to me.

Don’t get me wrong, individual action is not enough by itself. Not by a long shot. We do need systemic change. Among other things, we need governments to build renewable energy infrastructure and provide funding to retrofit houses. We need them to expand and green public transport, impose quotas on cattle herds, set targets for reforestation and protect marine habitats. Unfortunately, this all takes time that we don’t have. Especially at the pace we are going at. Again, climate change is a physical problem. While we argue over the wording of a document, carbon is accumulating in the atmosphere faster each year. Climate waits for no man.

While we fight for systemic change, we must also reduce our individual consumption in the developed world if we are to give people in the developing world time to improve their socioeconomic conditions. If you have quit the meat or stopped flying, that is a good thing. Your efforts have not been for nothing. You have reduced the global average per capita emissions, giving the developing world more time to reduce poverty before it has to start worrying about the resulting emissions.

In philosophy, a distinction is often drawn between necessity and sufficiency. While bread is necessary for a sandwich, for example, it is not sufficient. You also need a filling. I would argue that while both individual and systemic action are necessary in the fight against climate change, neither are sufficient in their own right. Systemic change takes time that we don’t have, and individual change does not give us the emissions reductions that we need. Together, they might have a shot.

In the developed world, we must fight the powers that be and force widespread systemic change. That is the most important thing we can do. In the meantime, however, we must also reduce our own footprints. That is the only way I can see for us to achieve a truly just transition. We cannot be expected to live carbon-free lives in a carbon-rich system. We can, however, be expected to try. Why? Because the alternative is so much worse.

Money for Nothing: The Advantages of Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income (UBI) means that each person is paid (by the government) enough money that they can afford food, shelter and even a carefully budgeted social life without the need for work. The extremely poor would be paid exactly the same weekly wage as the extremely rich. Where would this money come from? A tax on the obscenely rich of course.

The idea that we could pay everyone enough money to live on with no strings attached has been around for hundreds of years. With income inequality and job automation on the rise in recent years, however, the idea has started to make more and more sense.

UBI and Income Inequality

Universal Basic Income (UBI) means that each person is paid (by the government) enough money that they can afford food, shelter and even a carefully budgeted social life without the need for work. The extremely poor would be paid exactly the same weekly wage as the extremely rich. Where would this money come from? A tax on the obscenely rich of course. A 40% tax on Jeff Bezos’ wealth would yield around 61 billion USD, leaving him with a measly $91 billion for himself. The $61 billion that comes from taxing one man could be used to pay someone else $500 dollars a week for 2 million, 346 thousand, 153 years. That’s nearly 12 times longer than our species (homo sapiens) have existed.

Bezos himself would be left with more money than it is possible to spend in a lifetime, even living the most extravagant of lives. What’s more, he would continue to generate huge quantities of wealth through both the profits of Amazon and the monumental interest which accrues when one has $91 billion in one’s pocket. This is not necessarily how UBI would work in practice. Rather than a wealth tax, the money could instead come from taxing the income of the extremely rich. This avoids the problem of trying to tax assets like property and warehouse robots, but the drawback is that it is easier for billionaires to hide their income than it is for them to hide their robots.

Incidentally, working 24/7 with no breaks at the US minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, it would take 2 million, 393 thousand, 324 years to make as much money as Jeff Bezos currently owns. That is also roughly 12 times as long as sapiens have been around (aren’t numbers fun?). The question these figures pose for me is this: What could Jeff Bezos possibly have done in his life that is of equal value to 2 and a half million years of minimum wage work?

The way the system is currently set up necessitates that the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. People working on minimum wage make just enough to get by, leaving them with basically no possibility of saving or investing in education. The super-rich, on the other hand, are actually paid just for being rich (in the form of interest). People who are struggling to make ends meet may be forced to borrow money from the very rich. These loans accrue interest, meaning that the net effect is that money is taken away from the economically disadvantaged people who need the loan and funneled upwards into the bank accounts of the people who could afford to give the loan. These factors, along with automation of jobs and a few others, are why income inequality has been rising and rising and showing no sign of slowing down. Taxing the rich and using the money for UBI would go a long way towards closing that gap.

Many researchers have drawn a negative correlation between income inequality and self-reported happiness. This makes sense in terms of both the numbers and the philosophy. Of course people in more equal societies are happier. Every country has a finite amount of resources, and how fairly those resources are distributed determines how many people are struggling to put food on the table and how many people can comfortably provide for themselves and those who depend on them. Given the link between happiness and inequality, it follows that a system such as UBI which dramatically decreases inequality would also lead to a dramatic increase in happiness.

UBI and Employment

These days, when someone is called a ‘Luddite’, it is typically used to mean that they are opposed to the progress of technology. An example would be someone who refuses to buy a smartphone. However, the word originally referred to a revolutionary group who were active more than 200 years ago. The Luddites were weavers who were famous for smashing spinning jennies, machines that threatened to put them out of work, but they were not necessarily opposed to technology as many people believe. Instead, they were opposed to the obscenely rich upper class who owned the spinning jennies, from which the workers reaped no benefit. Spinning Jennies were not new technology, in fact they were invented 50 years before the first Luddite ever smashed one.

The problem was that when something was woven by hand, the weaver could receive the majority of the profits, whereas if it was woven by a spinning jenny, the majority of the profits would go to whichever wealthy man owned the machine. The Luddites were early trade union activists who protested unfair wages by destroying their employer’s revenue-generating property. This problem has only gotten worse since the protests began in 1811. Many people, like fast food workers or cashiers, make a living by operating machines which belong to extremely rich CEOs who have very little indeed to do with the actual production process. Amazon currently have 45,000 robots operating in its warehouses, generating revenue but paying no tax. A barely related but nonetheless interesting side note is that Amazon’s warehouse robots have accidentally opened multiple cannisters of bear repellent in the last few years, leading to the hospitalisation of dozens of employees.  

About 50% of workers are predicted to lose their jobs to machines by 2050. The number of jobs that are beyond the reach of automation has been shrinking ever since the Luddites banjaxed their first jenny, and the rate at which they are disappearing has become more and more rapid with the passing of time. Before anyone thought to use a dummy, the job of scarecrow was carried out by children, who were paid one penny and a swede for their troubles. For me, it makes perfect sense that jobs like this were lost to time. That is why we build technology; to reduce the amount of work we need to do ourselves. Often the jobs that are taken by machines are ones that we only do because we need the money, not because we find them fulfilling or meaningful. With UBI, we could leave those jobs to technology and focus instead on projects which make the world a better place.

The main issue here, for me, is not that jobs are lost to technology. New jobs are constantly being created to meet new demands. While human scarecrows have gone the way of the dodo, uber drivers and dogwalkers have popped up in their stead. That’s evolution baby. The priority should not be to desperately cling to jobs that we no longer need or want (like coal mining or weapons manufacturing) but rather to provide adequate training to the people doing these jobs so that they may transition to ones which are more useful to society (like building renewable energy infrastructure or vertical farming).

People do not do jobs which harm society because they want to. They do them because it is necessary to put food on the table. By providing food and shelter to everyone, we mitigate the external pressure to work jobs which harm society and encourage people to focus their attention instead on what gives their lives meaning or makes them happy. What they choose to do will be more likely to be in the best interest of society than what they are currently forced to do to survive in a broken system.

Another way that UBI could benefit society is by massively streamlining the welfare process. Right now, huge numbers of people are employed to sign people up to welfare, make sure that people are looking for work and carry out the administration and bureaucracy involved in a system which requires people to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they are starving before it will give them something to eat. These administration jobs could largely be done away with under UBI, since welfare would be replaced by the very simple process of giving everyone exactly the same amount of money regardless of their situation. The money we pay to welfare officers and administrators could be used to help fund UBI, and the people who are doing these jobs would be freed up to pursue more fulfilling goals. Hell, one of them may be the next Jimi Hendrix but they never had the time or resources to pick up a guitar before.

What about the claim that if everyone is paid to do nothing, then no one will do anything? This, in my view, is simply false. People have an innate drive to make something of themselves. I doubt you would last more than a week doing absolutely nothing before you decided to get up out of bed and make your name mean something. In addition, UBI does not mean that there is no reason to get a paying job. Your weekly wage as an unemployed person would be enough to live on, yes, but it would not be enough for a particularly comfortable life. Most people would still work a few days a week to make money for holidays, luxury items and projects which enrich their lives. This idea is supported by preliminary evidence from the most complete pilot study ever carried out in relation to UBI.

From 2017-2018, 2,000 people were randomly selected in Finland to receive €560 per month with no strings attached. Researchers then compared those who participated in the study to a control group of 173,000 people with respect to several factors including employment rates and life satisfaction. For all of 2017, the test group earned, on average, just €21 less than the control group from employment. This extremely small difference tentatively suggests that UBI will not lead to a significant reduction in employment, if any. The difference in trust and life satisfaction between the two groups, however, was far more significant. Basic income recipients reported much higher levels of trust in other people, the legal system and politicians. They also reported much higher confidence in their future, financial situation and ability to influence societal matters. In addition, 54.8% of basic income recipients self-assessed their health as being ‘good’ or ‘very good’, compared to just 46.2% of the control group. The study only ended in December of 2018, so the full report has not yet been released, but the preliminary evidence suggests that under a UBI system, employment rates would stay about the same, whereas happiness, trust and health would benefit hugely. The full report is scheduled for release at the end of 2019.

UBI and Society

To say that UBI is unrealistic because the rich will not allow it to happen is to succumb to a form of brainwashing. There, I said it. There are more of us than there are of them, and yet somehow they have convinced us that they will always have all the money and we will always have none. The most important tool in their arsenal is your belief that they are too powerful to oppose. By arguing that they will not allow it to happen and therefore we should not even try, you are playing right into their hands. If you think that UBI would be good for society (as I do) then you should fight to make it happen. I am not saying that we will not come up against any resistance from the financial elite. We very much will. What I am saying is that one of the ways in which they have resisted change already is by convincing you that they are so firmly in control that nothing can be done.

UBI would give us the freedom to do what we want to do with our lives. It would provide the foundation for an equal society, in which those who were born with nothing can make something of themselves and those who were born with everything get a smaller slice of the global pie. The Luddites thought that it was unfair that people who had inherited enough money to buy spinning jennies were taking all the profits while the people working their fingers to the bone operating those machines were making a pittance. I wholeheartedly agree. The private ownership of revenue-generating technology like tills, deep-fat-fryers and warehouse robots has been a significant factor in the long-term trend toward a top-heavy and unjust society in which some people have mansions to themselves while others share tiny flats or worse, sleep on cold and unforgiving streets.

Automation, inheritance, interest, loans, tax loopholes and unfair wages have created a society in which some people have everything and everyone else has nothing. There are things we can do to alleviate this problem like raising the minimum wage or corporate tax, but none do more to solve the problem than UBI. The disadvantaged majority have always fought for equality and the advantaged minority have always resisted to maintain their advantage. Enough is enough. We are more connected now than ever before in human history, making it easier than ever before to organise ourselves against those in power. We need to elect people who are not afraid to push back against corporations and sign into law measures that will help the 99% and hurt the 1%. For too long the discourse has been controlled by people who benefit from things staying exactly as they are. The new generation has shown time and time again that we want change and it is only a matter of time before that wish is granted. Do not believe for one second that they have all the power. If we do that, they have won. We have the power. We can force change.