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Change the System, Yes, But How?

The cries are getting louder and they’re coming from an unusual combination of people not usually given to playing the role of Cassandra. Doctors, a top UN official, schoolchildren, and at least 11,258 scientists from 153 countries are chorusing what everyone should know: despite forty years of global climate summits, business has generally gone on as usual. Irreversible tipping points, cascade effects, melting ice, rising levels of CO2, CH4, and N2O, ocean acidity, rising temperatures, wildfire, massive species extinction, and much more, have led them to emphasize that the catastrophe is not only about melting glaciers and killer temperatures but that it’s a social and political problem. They’re calling for “transformative change, with social and economic justice for all”.

Last June, Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, warned that the impacts of global heating threatened basic rights to life, water, food, and housing for hundreds of millions of people, as well as democracy and rule of law. Another stand was taken by the editor-in-chief of The Lancet, who, backing Extinction Rebellion, urged health professionals to engage in nonviolent social protest because “medicine is all about protecting and strengthening the human species”. Schoolchildren, stepping in where adults have failed, understand all too well that the crisis isn’t only about saving polar bears. They’re also calling for system change.

The climate crisis has shown that capitalism is incompatible with the planet’s health and that it’s essential to move away from GDP growth. Yet, instead of heeding the warnings, governments are turning to violence against demonstrators and, like the Prince of Salina, in The Leopard, are opting for gatopardismo (“Things will have to change if we want things to stay as they are”), preferring to protect the status quo than to change a planet-destroying system. This situation is fertile breeding ground for far-right groups which, exploiting people’s fears, are regressing back to fascist-style government in which human rights are even more gravely threatened.

In a recent interview, Srećko Horvat of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25) calls for “transnational cooperation because those we are fighting against are working transnationally”. In his Green Strategy Marc Brodine writes, “A massive movement is needed, worldwide in scope, to fight defensive battles against environmental degradation and exploitative development.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders recognize the need for revolutionary reforms. But one essential fact is almost non-existent in the discourse. The climate crisis is a human rights crisis and the most affected are the world’s poorest citizens who have done least to contribute to the disaster.

Where are the mechanisms for achieving these reforms? Yes, we need transnational cooperation but about half the world’s people can’t participate because they’re literally struggling to survive. How can this cooperation be opened to everyone? “Human rights” is a universal political narrative but, lacking basic rights, people can’t function politically because they don’t exist socially. And the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been a dead letter from day one, especially because it didn’t come with mechanisms to implement the rights it proclaimed, not even the most basic of all, that of material existence. The only instrument we know of that could feasibly guarantee this right on the global scale is a universal, unconditional basic income above the poverty line (in whatever place it is introduced). And it’s more than an instrument. In itself, it’s a right that can be traced back to the early principles of the commons. If we want system change and stronger, healthier societies for tackling the universal climate crisis, then guaranteeing this universal basic right would surely be a radical and decent first step.

Without a focus on the poor, the dispossessed whose natural resources have been ravished by a Global North which doesn’t give a damn about the destructive wantonness of its “progress”, there can be no real system change. The poor in developing countries are bearing some 75-80% of the costs of climate catastrophe. They tend to live in disaster-prone areas, in less resistant housing, and often lose everything they own; have fewer resources to mitigate the effects; get less support from social systems to recover from the impact; have precarious livelihoods; and are vulnerable to disease, crop failure, rising food prices, death, and disability. Responses to the climate-related catastrophe are often in the form of cynical ex post humanitarian intervention. For example, after Cyclone Idai the IMF agreed to a no-interest emergency loan of $118.2 million to Mozambique—the world’s sixth-poorest country where the average inhabitant is responsible for 55 times less carbon emissions than the average US citizen—but ruled out debt relief for pre-existing loans. Guess who profits. System change requires ex ante measures and a guaranteed basic income would be essential among them as a distribution of resources to improve a population’s chances of applying appropriate local knowledge in combatting climate change before disaster strikes. It would, for example, allow women agriculturalists in poor countries to have better tools. Scientists calculate that they could then grow 20-30% more food on the same amount of land and thus avoid two billion tons of emissions by 2050. That alone would seem to be a good argument for basic income.

However, a basic income means quite a few things to quite a few people. One interesting ingredient within (but on the fringes of) the present juncture of calls for system change is Andrew Yang’s candidature for the US presidency promising a basic income of $1,000 a month for every American over eighteen. Yet his investment to deal with climate change is only about a quarter of what Bernie Sanders proposes. Yang’s focus is more technocratic than concerned with poverty. He favors nuclear power and dubious geoengineering solutions like foldable space mirrors, stratospheric scattering of sulfur dioxide, and ocean seeding with plankton. Yang is a telling example of the divisions in the basic income debate, where some enthusiasts are very right-wing. The basic income we refer to is just one measure in the domain of political economy. If it is to be effective it requires strong public policies in health, housing, education, transport, and so on. Why on earth isn’t Bernie including basic income in his campaign?

System change requires systems thinking, especially about degrowth, which is no stranger to redistribution. Basic income is obviously a form of redistribution and in Gini terms too since it can easily be funded by progressive taxation. Systems thinking requires taking into account the health of the whole system, as indigenous cultures have long known. Awareness of this world view would not only encourage cutting consumption but also incorporate a long overdue element of respect for the world’s indigenous peoples who have, since the age of imperialism, been seen as an obstacle to be removed from the path of resource exploitation.

So how could a basic income foster system change? Since the poor must be the focus we’ll give a few examples from a detailed 2010 study of ours on the hypothetical effects of a basic income in Timor-Leste. We found that a basic income partially financed by oil and gas revenues would allow immediate distribution of a regular micro-income (as opposed to micro-credits) received every month without external interference. A poverty-line basic income (then) of US$20 per month per person for the whole population would mean that a poor family with six dependents would receive a guaranteed monthly income of US$160. In a hamlet of twenty similar families, this would amount to $3,200 per month or US$38,400 per year.
What this could represent in terms of food sovereignty is illustrated by a project of rice cultivation with buffaloes in the devastated rural area of Uatulari with a population of about 20,000 people. Working with a Timorese NGO, the Catalan government financed the project to the tune of US$142,680 from 2000-2003 (US$47,560 per year), or roughly US$2.38 per person per year. The area achieved self-sufficiency in rice cultivation before the end of the period and was able to supply seeds to nearby areas. The buffaloes were the “machinery” for preparing the abandoned rice fields (treading the soil to compact it prior to planting the seedlings) and also produced manure, milk, meat, and hides, besides reinforcing social ties because they are traditionally community property. However, with a change of government in Catalonia, funding stopped and the project never went beyond the successful pilot project stage. A basic income of US$20 per person per month would bring a guaranteed US$4.8 million into Uatulari every year, about one hundred times what the Catalan Government gave. The impact of such a stable source of income in terms of local development would be remarkable.

In human rights terms, an agricultural development strategy consolidating local production with generalized development of market networks is much more beneficial than an export-oriented policy of monocropping, concentration of landholding and systemic inequality, not to mention negative environmental effects. Smallholdings not only contribute to market produce on the local scale but also reinforce food and social security and offer a wider spread of productive livelihoods as well as resulting in better environmental management. Furthermore, massive migration to the capital Dili has created an enduring problem of urban-rural population imbalance, with large numbers of unemployed and disaffected youth with great destructive capacity. Evidently they can’t be integrated back into rural communities that don’t exist because they have no productive base. Including them in a basic income scheme would go a long way towards their reintegration as citizens and establishing peaceful coexistence.

Then again, the poorest families tend to have the largest number of children. The 2016 fertility rate was 5.5 births per woman, one of the highest in the world. Irrespective of the absence of family planning facilities and basic health education, having more children tends to be seen as a way of replacing siblings who die in infancy and as a kind of social insurance plan for parents. That the mother’s health is greatly undermined by many pregnancies is a lesser consideration in desperate circumstances. A guaranteed form of social insurance such as a basic income would lower the birth rate in the long term, correct the skewing towards the young, dependent members of society, improve the health of mothers and children, and get children into classrooms.

A basic income wouldn’t solve all Timor-Leste’s problems but it would mean much more widely spread opportunities in the productive field, enhanced social inclusion within reinforced local communities, greater political participation, and a major reduction of poverty and poverty-related problems. The good news is that our basic income model is exportable and some adjustments can be applied anywhere in the world. And so it should be if we really care about human rights and want system change, especially when it comes to combatting the climate crisis and its effects on the planet’s poorer inhabitants.