Ecological Crisis: Standing’s Eight Giants

Ecological Crisis: Standing’s Eight Giants

In this series Luke explores the Eight Modern Giants introduced by Economist Guy Standing in his recent report Basic Income as Common DividendsIn this article Luke discusses the ecological crisis threatening our planet and the key role a Basic Income can have in combatting the climate disaster we have created. Luke goes onto suggest global warming is a symptom of a failed economic system, created by the same structural flaws which drive inequality and poverty. He concludes only a systemic approach taking on the attitude of exploitation intrinsic to our capitalist system will effectively prevent the climate disaster many fear. 

Luke Brotherdale Smith – Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland Volunteer

The 7th and penultimate ‘Giant’ Standing writes about is the Ecological Crisis, or what he simply and powerfully labels ‘Extinction’. This is probably the most important article I will write of the eight and it focuses on the biggest threat not just to the UK but our entire planet. The climate crisis we find ourselves in deserves the utmost attention and urgent action due to the emergency we have created. However, after providing the contextual reality of our fucking up of the planet, I will discuss how the movement to combat our ecological catastrophe needs to be holistic and part of a broad movement to systematically change the way we live. By this, I mean that the climate emergency, huge global inequality, poverty, structural racism and sexism are all symptoms of the same thing. An intrinsically flawed capitalist system which is based on a logic and attitude of use and abuse, ruthlessly exploiting people and the planet in the pursuit of more profits and increased growth. It does not diminish the importance of all these issues in their own right, but combatting them separately is simply reacting to manifestations of structural flaws, rather than dealing with the core and systemic failures themselves. Therefore I will conclude this article by discussing the need for a united movement to combat huge inequalities and slam the breaks on the climate crisis. At the heart of this movement will lie the Basic Income; a policy which will radically redistribute wealth and power, supporting the most vulnerable and empowering the most oppressed. The Basic Income will form the keystone in shifting our economy and its prevailing values away from relentless profit pursuit and planet abuse, to a focus on community, compassion and a care taking of the earth. Confronting climate change is no longer about changing lightbulbs, it is about changing the world. 

The wellbeing and existence of our planet as we know it is under existential threat. The consequence of increasingly polluted air, seas and rising temperatures is the destruction of the  ecosystems which ultimately sustain life. Harvests will fail, water systems cease to function and extreme weather such as flooding and droughts are already becoming more commonplace, threatening life on every continent. We are all pretty damn aware of just how much we are screwing up the planet and yet it still feels as though we are a million miles away from the genuine change needed to stop this clusterfuck. For those of you who (I hope are in the minority) are skeptical about the severity of the climate crisis, I’m just going to quickly provide the context and throw some figures at you, to really make you miserable. So firstly, current trends point to the planet warming by 1.5 degrees by 2030 – this is enough to set in motion the apocalyptic destruction of environmental systems and threat to life I described above. Whilst the BBC might like to excitedly report record high UK temperatures this summer, their enthusiasm is simply indicative of the lack of seriousness the establishment is treating the climate crisis with. Our global temperature is rising almost twice as fast as 50 years ago, and getting a tan in the UK doesn’t quite justify the destruction of the planet. I’m not going to bore anyone with the science, but in short temperatures are rising due to increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. CO2 is responsible for about two thirds of global warming, with methane and nitrous oxide (I don’t know what that is either) also doing their bit for the cause. With this we are already seeing higher sea temperatures (dangerous to sea-life) and rising sea-levels (Indonesia is moving its capital city due to the current one sinking!). So rather than the effects of climate change being forever on the horizon and something we can just ignore, the future is here and impacts are playing out in front of our eyes (or not, for the many who keep them shut). Even in the UK, where we are seemingly immune to the effects of the climate crisis, record CO2 levels are having huge impacts. Each year 40,000 premature deaths are attributed to air pollution, according to The Royal College of Physicians (and the RCP are hardly the Daily Mail). Burning fossil fuels has been declared the most significant threat to children’s health, with long-term exposure hindering cognitive ability and reducing life expectancy by over a year. 

The beef for one quarter pounder burger requires 52.8 gallons of water, 74.5 square feet of land and enough fossil-fuelled energy to run a microwave for 18 min – the planet certainly isn’t lovin’ it.

So we know it’s not good and we know CO2 emissions are knackering the planet and we know it’s humans that are the driving factor. So exactly who is pumping all these deadly fumes and chemicals into our planet’s atmosphere, what exactly are the major drivers behind climate change? Well, as we know burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) produce CO2, and one of the major reasons for burning these fuels is to generate electricity. The share of fossil fuels used to generate electricity has actually increased globally since 2000, with around half global emissions produced in the name of electricity and heat production. This, despite a general recognition of the issue of global warming since the 1980s, (swept that one under the carpet didn’t they,) and the desperate need for rapid decarbonisation. Another key player in the climate crisis is the meat industry; globally, livestock produces more greenhouse gases than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined. On top of this are the huge amounts of food, land, energy and water used in the rearing of livestock. The beef for one quarter pounder burger requires 52.8 gallons of water, 74.5 square feet of land and enough fossil-fuelled energy to run a microwave for 18 min – the planet certainly isn’t lovin’ it. Then there is the less discussed but similarly damaging fashion industry. Textile production is a huge polluter, producing more emissions a year than international flights and maritime shipping – in fact 5% of total global emissions come from the fashion industry. And of course companies want to use cheap materials, like cotton, so they sell more cheap t-shirts. The issue is, whilst you can get £2 t-shirt from Primark, growing cotton is incredibly water intensive and it can take 2700 litres to produce a single T-shirt. Then when you get the t-shirt, it’s shit quality and you soon bin it –  almost 60% of all clothing produced is disposed within a year of its production. So that is just a small glimpse of just a few of the big players in this crisis. And the unifying force between them all? A prioritisation of profits over the planet. Destroying forests gives more space to rear cattle, burning more fossil fuels generates more electricity to sell and producing t-shirts with cheap cotton leads to lower costs. We can all see the intrinsic conflict between profit and planet’s wellbeing. Yes, we should all try to buy environmentally better clothing and yes we should cut down on the meat we eat, but this alone cannot tackle the underlying principle profiting at the expense of the planet. Only a genuine shift in the way we choose to live and the systems we choose to adopt can bring the necessary change. 

 I don’t want this article to simply talk about climate change like every other commentator and writer does. If you want an in depth analysis of climate change go watch some David Attenborough, not only does he know more than me, he also has a much nicer voice. What I really want to focus on within this article is systemic causes of global warming, not just pointing the fingers at specific industries, plastic bag users and meat eaters. All of these drastically different markets and companies are fundamentally united by the intrinsic law of capitalism: profit making. Now, I’m sure plenty of us could sit here and think ‘well yeah i’m sure profits are good and all, but they’re not exactly more important than, say, the planet our entire species relies on’. But that is how our economic system works. Growth and profits are the end goal, people’s labour and the planet’s resources are simply a means to that ultimate end. And if burning coal and destroying forests means lower costs and increased profits, then (frankly), these businesses couldn’t give a flying fuck about the ecological disaster they are creating. Sure, some companies like to pretend they care about the world. They donate money to some projects helping less developed countries and they talk about how much they like trees. But they will only do these things as long as they make profits. Even if certain companies are making genuine benevolent attempts to use environmentally friendlier materials and paying their workers well, (they do exist!), this ultimately drives up their costs, which may put them out of business. Our system encourages low costs and exploitation, workers’ wellbeing and the planet’s survival are not and cannot by the priority. So this is the uncomfortable reality we all need to confront in terms of the extinction threat we are facing. We cannot just deal with the symptoms of a failed system; increasing pollution, rising temperatures and the destruction of rainforests. We need to recognise the structural causes of the crisis we are in, and this is fundamentally a capitalist system which relentlessly pursues profits and growth. The time for tinkering and changing lightbulbs is over, a genuine system change and value change is needed. The planet and people cannot and should not be means to monetary gain, people and our planet are the ends in themselves. 

For the avid capitalists reading this, I can already hear you: ‘but capitalism has raised millions out of poverty’ etc etc. There is a strong and prevailing idea that ‘growth’ (in the capitalist sense) correlates to rising living standards. Historically speaking this is to some extent and for some people true. Be it ‘growth’ translating into higher wages or being redistributed through tax and spending, there have been some saving graces of this kind of ‘growth’ (whilst it’s been destroying the planet). But there are two major issues which make this ‘kind capitalism’ an impossibility in our current context, ideas that Standing touches upon directly. Firstly, as I discussed in my first article about inequality, the notion of ‘growth’ being necessary for increased living standards because it will ‘trickle-down’ is simply not true. 26 people own 50% of the planet’s wealth and that isn’t trickling down to us – this kind of ‘growth’ disproportionately benefits the ultra-rich. So when people falsely justify ‘growth’ makes us all happier, richer and healthier, they are talking rubbish. Secondly, if we assume for a sec that ‘growth’ does actually increase living standards, generating increased levels of economic ‘growth’ is fundamentally unsustainable. In order to genuinely reduce poverty, huge levels of ‘growth’ would be needed and this would accelerate resource depletion and the global warming which is kinda destroying the earth. So, again, when we look at the fundamentals of the capitalist system, the off-the-shelf responses defending its definition of ‘growth’ do not stack up. Growth as it is currently defined does not improve our lives, but it is destroying our planet.

So why don’t we define growth in a different way? What if growth was about natural development in a more human and environmentally conscious way? GDP (the capitalist measure of growth) adds up the stuff we make and the money we spend. The presumption is that a larger GDP means us all being healthier, wealthier and happier etc. But as discussed above, this isn’t exactly the case. GDP doesn’t measure how much time we spend with our family, how clean our air is or how healthy our community is. So rather than using GDP as an indirect measure hinting that we could all be better off, why don’t we directly measure people’s wellbeing, happiness and so on, and use that as a measure of growth? Let’s redefine growth, making it directly relate to human wellbeing and living standards, not indirectly through the prism of GDP. Standing proposes using a Genuine Progress Indicator as a measure of growth. The GPI includes everything GDP measures, but also subtracts negative stuff such as the cost of crime, cost of ozone damage and cost of resource depletion, among others. Such ideas are important for us in moving away from the capitalist ‘growth’ model which is currently destroying our planet. Things like reduced carbon emissions and increased human wellbeing seem more synonymous with common understandings of growth than companies selling crude oil or producing a million pairs of Nike Air Max…

So how are we going to start moving in the right direction? A key policy many people talk about in regard to tackling global warming is a genuine and effective carbon tax. Levied on CO2 emissions, in essence this tax will mean higher prices for goods which are made in an environmentally destructive way. But, as Standing points out, this isn’t going to be popular and such a tax would also be incredibly regressive (low-income earners would pay a bigger proportion of their income on the tax than the wealthy). We only need to peek over the channel to look at how well Macron’s increased fuel tax went down to realise we can’t just focus on environmental issues whilst ignoring income insecurity and inequality. But when we look elsewhere, at Switzerland and Canada, we can begin to see how an effective carbon tax can be popular with people and protective of the planet. In Switzerland every household receives a payment from the CO2 tax as an annual rebate on their health insurance premium – this means two thirds of the revenue from the tax goes to households. In Canada, they have a higher fuel tax than Macron tried to implement, but it hasn’t led to protestors donning high-vis and marching the streets, instead it has been very popular. This is because much of the revenue raised from the tax is returned to the population in the form of dividends… You know where this is heading. Whilst a standard tax on CO2 emissions would be regressive if used to cut personal income tax, if combined with redistributing the revenue through universal lump-sum payments, it is a progressive policy. So, how about that as a place to start? A Basic Income in-part funded by taxes on carbon emissions will not only be progressive, not only help the poorest and most vulnerable, it will not only be popular, but it will also go a long way to protecting our environment too. Not bad eh? 

The attitudes that vindicate paying Malaysian women 35p an hour to make t-shirts are the same attitudes that justify destroying a rainforest for more land to grow palm oil trees.

I would like to take this point to unapologetically acknowledge the length of this article so far. But its unapologetic because this is the most important of the all the ‘giants’ and it deserves every sentence and detail dedicated to it. But despite the huge danger posed by climate change in its own right, the crisis is simply a symptom of a deeper lying issue. Just like poverty, inequality, racism and sexism, the slow destruction of our planet cannot be tackled singularly. All of these issues need to be tackled together, in a united movement to fundamentally change a system built on exploitation. Underlying all these issues lie the same attitudes, the same beliefs and the same failures. An attitude of dominance and greed drives the powerful in society, an elite that believe anything can be used an abused in order to increase profits and make more money. The attitudes that vindicate paying Malaysian women 35p an hour to make t-shirts are the same attitudes that justify destroying a rainforest for more land to grow palm oil trees. Within our capitalist system the obsession with growth and profits means you and I are simply means to an end, as is the very planet we live on. We need to stop taking on the symptoms separately. Yes we could (and should) increase the minimum wage a bit and yes we could (and should) end fossil fuel subsidies. But we will just be tinkering. The attitude that drives the relentless pursuit of profits and growth will remain, and human beings and the planet will remain tools to this end goal. What I believe is necessary is a united movement that places people and the planet at the very centre of everything we do, not just resources to be exploited. We need to drastically alter the attitude that says it’s okay for billionaires to avoid tax while children starve and that it’s fine for fossil fuel companies to profiteer while the coral reef dies. And for this to happen, the fight to save our planet and the movements for gender, racial and economic equality need to unite behind a single platform that seeks to alter the system which is built on an attitude of exploitation. You may think this is far-fetched or radical or impossible, but if what is politically possible today consigns us to climate disaster, then we need to change what is politically possible. 

So what does this platform look like? Well, you’ll be surprised to hear I don’t have that answer. I’ve got my opinion which I will (all too happily) voice, but a shift in our entire economic system needs to be driven from the bottom up. A non-partisan movement united by ideas, common goals and a set of humane and compassionate values seems like a good place to start. A platform built by a range of people which politicians seek to adhere to and serve, rather than the platform bending to political normality. And this needs to happen quickly. We know genuine change is never gifted from above, but is fought for and won from below. As the fight takes place, the Basic Income can form a key transitionary policy that begins to change values, attitudes and have a key impact on averting the climate crisis. I wholeheartedly believe that the financial security and mental space the Basic Income will prove will enable critical autonomy throughout the entire population and this will be key in creating a new platform and new system designed with people and the planet as the focus. 

So as I conclude this long as hell bit of writing (I appreciate it immensely if you’re still reading to this point) I think I just want to effectively summarise the wide range of topics i’ve discussed. Global warming and climate change are huge huge subjects that have complex causes and solutions. But fundamentally the heating of our planet and the dangerous effects it is having on our planet is a result of our own ignorance, greed and exploitation. We as people have created systems and lifestyles that are simply not conducive to a happy planet and to be honest, aren’t particularly conducive to a happy people either. So in an article about the climate crisis I have talked about growth, its unequal distribution and how we measure it and the role of a Basic Income within the fight against global warming. Whilst this may seem a bit slap-dash or random, I think its critical to appreciate the systemic causes of the problems we face and the necessity for a holistic response. Of course climate change needs to be tackled through effective carbon tax – and a Basic Income can underpin a progressive and environmentally beneficial evolution towards decarbonisation. Of course the gender inequality within our economic system need to be voiced and combatted, through campaigning and thorough legislation. And of course we need bodies and movements working to eradicate poverty and the extreme inequality that is so normalised. But what I think is fundamental is recognising it is the same system generating these injustices and the same attitudes perpetuating them. By becoming aware and uniting these movements, we can tackle the route cause of these issues: the very nature of our economic system. Building on this, a united movement of climate activists, feminists and all other campaigners can begin to shape not just what they oppose but also what they are for. A platform starting from values and attitudes, seeking to replace dominant ideas of greed and exploitation with compassion and humanity. Through this value shift, we will see a system shift and policies which follow suit. One such policy which can aid us in this transition is the Basic Income: a human right that will eradicate poverty, redistribute wealth, boost people’s psychological wellbeing and be fundamental in slamming the breaks on the climate crisis. A world in which people and the planet are ends in themselves is possible, we just need to let ourselves believe it. 

This blog is one of a series looking at Guy Standing’s recently published report, written for the Shadow Chancellor, ‘Basic Income as a Common Dividends’. Influenced of course by Beveridge, Standing reflects on the eight modern giants he sees as stalking modern Britain. He comments on how these giants are having a protracted negative effect on society as well as the economy, and how a Basic Income can be a key tool in combatting the growing challenges these giants pose. In the next few weeks, we will be releasing a series of articles analysing Standing’s eight giants and delving further into how the Basic Income can (and will) combat them.

The giants are inequality, insecurity, debt, stress, precarity, automation, ecological crises and the rise of neo-fascism and the far right

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