Published at 2020, June 26th
There are multiple crises going on today, be it at the economic, social or ecological spheres. At the core of the lack of resilience of such systems is the failure to frame them within the way Life works. In times when we need to make things differently, a universal basic income, degrowth theories, and a higher taxation might be interesting ideas to get familiar with.
Coronavirus Speeded Forward the Troubles Society, the Planet and the Economy Have Long Been Facing
The pre-coronavirus world was broken, let’s not get back to normal – we have all most likely read it across social media networks. Together with all the existing issues society and the planet were facing before coronavirus arrived, we have now experienced firsthand that a healthier planet is incompatible with the economic and social prosperity of the system.
Indeed, as a result of a huge drop in energy the virus indirectly caused, the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects energy-related carbon emissions to fall by 8%, or 2.6gigatonnes, in 2020 – the lowest decrease in over a decade. Unfortunately, when it comes to employment and getting a livelihood to survive, what looked like good news quickly turns into bad news.
According to the Pew Research Center, unemployment in the US rose higher in three months of COVID19 than it did in two years of the Great Recession. The same unemployment (and ultimately, survival) issues are happening all across the globe, not to mention those small-medium businesses whose financial struggles aren’t even part of the statistics. Good news for the planet, bad news for society and the economy then? Not really.
Put into perspective, this year’s good (and forced) ecological results need to become the norm. According to UNEP’s annual Emissions Gap Report, carbon emissions need to decrease 7,6% every year until 2030 so we have a 66% chance of staying below a 1,5°C global mean warming above pre-industrial levels until the end of the century. Failing to do so means Life on the planet will become unbearable for our species in the short-term as ecological points of no return are surpassed.
Building Back Better Means Acknowledging We Need To Change Systems’ Foundations
Yes, we need to #buildbackbetter and keep this year’s likely good carbon-emissions performance for the coming years. At the same time, it is urgent to work on policies, mechanisms, and subsidies that guarantee people have the chance to get a decent job and a fair wage.
Easier said (or written) than done: definitely. There is no proven, global, recipe to succeed in such transformation, one might argue: and that is right too. But there are clues, different ideas whose time might have come, and out-of-the-box experiments that might deserve a 2.0 shot, often in places that are too uncomfortable to look at. We’ll take a brief look at some of them just now.
But before exploring different ways of structuring our societies, we need to face the truth. We need to admit it, to say it out loud. Only then we’ll be truly committed and with no strings attached to finding new, nature-based solutions. Without pointing fingers, leaving feelings like frustration, disappointment, and anger aside, accepting change is natural, part of Life and we that can’t fully predict it or control it. Read it, say it, feel it:
The systems sustaining human societies are not aligned with the way the natural world works and they need to change. We need to redesign the human presence on Earth.
Systems Change: Innovating and Design Long-Term Resilient Societies
At their core, our human-designed systems are mostly made at our image, looking for maximum efficiency, short term gains, and standing upon the belief we will always find a technological fix. They tend to ignore the fundamental law they need to be synced with in order to prosper and create abundance for all in the long term: the way Life works.
Daniel Christian Wahl, the author of Designing Regenerative Cultures and one of the most recognized figures among the regenerative design movement claims that “virtually every structure and institution around us is in need of innovation, redesign, and transformation.”
Be it at the local, regional, national, and global scale – in education, governance, industry, transport, infrastructure, energy systems, water management, agriculture and food systems, health systems, as well as social systems – they all need transformational change. And releasing this potential requires the redesign of the financial and economic systems at all scales from local to global.
However, even before looking for alternatives, Wahl suggests we need to challenge our mental models, basic beliefs, and assumptions about the nature of reality. Doing so will “affect how, what, and why we design, the needs we perceive, the questions we ask, and hence the solutions or answers we propose.”
Nothing Is More Powerful Than an Idea Whose Time Has Come
Standing from the perspective there ain’t no 100% right or wrong, black or white or one-size-fits-all solutions – ecosystems and social cultures are too complex, diverse, and going over different maturity stages for this – there are 3 ideas or movements that might be worth exploring.
Universal Basic Income
Remember Wahl’s suggestion that we question the nature of reality and challenge our mental models? That’s precisely the suggestion of ’Malley and Rothstein, researchers involved in one of the most famous UBI studies. They suggest that to get valuable insights out of UBI studies that could have a large-scale implementation, we should define better what outcomes we are looking for – at the cost of missing the important conclusions.
Put shortly, under a basic income policy, citizens get a certain amount of money during a determined period – no strings attached. People don’t have to work to earn a salary and they can spend it however they want to. Everyone gets the same no matter what their gender, family structure, housing costs or employment status is.
From it arise worries on whether people would stop working and living at the expense of others or if the money will be spent on alcohol or drugs. And possibilities like the right to live, the chance of becoming more productive, working part-time or dedicating more time to areas such as arts. A great book addressing both the pros and cons of a universal basic income is Utopia for Realists, by the Dutch historian Rutger Bergman.
Experiments give us clues on what might happen on a larger scale, but they are very contextual and aren’t often backed within a larger picture. Different actors of society need to agree on and co-design how a better future would look like (which would likely be different around the globe) – only then fair conclusions about the potential of an UBI, as well as other alternative, utopian-looking ideas, can be accurately drawn.
Degrowth: Changing the Economic Model
The term degrowth refers to an economic circumstance during which the economic wealth produced does not increase or even decrease. It is based on the principle of awareness of a finite world, with limited resources, and on the idea that only a reduction in global production and consumption can ensure the future of humanity and the preservation of the planet.
The popularity of the term degrowth is growing but it still doesn’t come up often at discussions taking place in the economic sphere. It is more frequent to find it in discussions focused on sustainable development and systems change under which there is the belief constant production at the expense of nature needs to stop and that we need to produce better with less.
Degrowth proponents defend a radical redistribution, reduction in the material size of the global economy, and a shift in common values towards care, solidarity, and autonomy. Alongside it, there are ideas on part-time jobs and job sharing to make it up for job losses due to the desired decreases in consumption (and, therefore, in production).
A Different Tax System
Every year Oxfam releases a report focused on global inequality. The world’s 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of the planet’s population while the number of billionaires has doubled in the last decade are among the most interesting findings. It is hard to deny wealth is very unfairly distributed.
According to Zucman, one of the world’s leading tax experts, part of what contributes to this distribution are tax havens – $7.6tn of the world’s wealth is hidden in tax havens, he claims. That’s why there’s a growing movement of people, from economists like Piketty or politicians like Bernie Sanders defending an annual progressive wealth tax on all multimillionaires.
On his very relevant piece, The neoliberal era is ending. What comes next? Bergman (yes, the same from above) states high taxes can make capitalism work better. He brings the case of the US that in 1952 had the highest income tax bracket while the economy grew faster than ever.
Mariana Mazzucato, one of the most progressive economists out there also wrote a book – the value of everything – showing how the line between value creation and value extraction has become increasingly blurry over the last decades. There’s a fine line between wealth distribution, taxation and how things are valued. It needs to be addressed with new and fresh ideas.
When? Now. Who? You.
The dominant systems clearly needs to change and no one knows for sure what will replace it. There’s the risk a darker reality arises – in which the population’s freedom is restricted, racism and hate rise and regulator policy-makers keep lobbying and unfairly and unevenly distributing wealth and privileges.
But there is also a window of opportunity to make things right. Countless scientists, academics, media, business leaders, activists, politicians, and conscious citizens have long been rolling up their sleeves and across diverse scales, moments, or specific areas, unveiling what’s not working, showing why it matters or redesigning what could work better.
Alternative ideas like the universal basic income, degrowth, the circular economy, sustainable investments, higher taxation of the super-rich or the creation of ecovillages, designed with the purpose of improving local scale resilience by mimicking nature while working on global cooperation. Some ideas will work in some places, some won’t. Some will work straight ahead, others might need several attempts.
It is up to each and every one of us to look for the causes we connect the most with and look for how we can contribute: be it by volunteering our time, starting up NGOs, cooperatives or entreprises, simply learning about the social and climate crisis and sharing awareness across our social media. There’s so much to be done and so many interesting projects alive – if only we are brave enough to acknowledge the systems we’ve developed need to be more nature-based and if we have the motivation to craft a positive change.