Universal Income may increase environmental damage.

I recently had a social media conversation about Universal Basic Income, and I would like to expand on it here.

I think a UBI may greatly increase our environmental impact—and produce only a more equitable arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic.

The conversation arose when I was asked to explain my reaction to the subtitle of Rutger Bregman’s book, Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek. 

Bregman posted a very interesting article adapted from his book, called Why do the poor make such poor decisions? If you have read my posts on Compassionate Systems, you will find Bregman’s article in alignment.

I have not read the book, so maybe he does a bait and switch after the subtitle—but if he really does support “Universal Income…and a 15-Hour Workweek” I think that shows Bregman does not understand sustainability. 

I have been tentatively participating in discussions about UBI for a couple of years now. There is an odd assortment of people promoting basic income—pragmatists, business people, and radicals on both right and left, and it is really having a moment thanks to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. I haven’t liked the smell of basic income but the various ideas have not coalesced into anything coherent enough to respond to, so I haven’t written more than the occasional comments until now, when I was asked to explain myself further.

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So how will we pay for a Universal Basic Income? The image above is from Time Magazine—can we really have a life of reading books while idly picking dollars off The Magic Money Tree?Hat tip to Lee Herrin.

Indeed, an article in Forbes tells us how we will pay for the Green New Deal ‘Isn’t a thing’. The only question raised is about inflation.

If the plan is just to comprehensively tax the rich and give their money to the not-rich, then all we are doing is redistributing the profits from killing the planet. 

As I said, I think it is much worse than that, I think a UBI may kill the planet faster.

It all stems from a near universal confusion about what money is.

Money is not wealth, money is simply a very elaborately printed IOU note. It has no value except in exchange for real wealth—like salmon, trees, cotton and wool. 

Further wealth is created when labour smokes salmon, mills lumber and builds houses or furniture, and knits wool into sweaters or weaves denim for blue jeans—and all those labourers need to eat and be sheltered and clothed with more wealth from nature. 

John Michael Greer introduced me to “E.F. Schumacher’s insight, that goods produced by nature are the primary goods in any economy, and those produced by human labor are secondary goods”.That is from the essay The Wealth of Nature, but Greer wrote a whole series that is very interesting.

Greer goes on to extend this framework to tertiary goods, which is simply the pushing of numbers around on computers. 

But the thing is, we can’t eat money, and we can’t eat the numbers in the bank’s computer. 

Money is simply a convenient, pocket-sized promise we make to trade for real wealth at a later time. Wealth only comes from nature, and from the application of labourYes, TED, ideas matter—if labour can apply them to the wealth of nature. But that is a big if we will get to later…and I wrote a whole post about it. to the wealth of nature.

Now, various corporate greenwashers, shills, and green tech promoters want to “decouple” our economy from environmental impact—but again, this is just ignorance of the difference between money and wealth. It is impossible. When we “share experiences” we do so in real buildings built and operated with the wealth of nature and labour. When we share a meal with friends, we consume food that came from the earth and was cooked by labour in kitchen that came from the earth powered by energy that came from the earth. We go to a concert in a hall built from the earth, powered by the earth, and drink beer from the earth. 

Yes, we can reduce the amount of impact our consumption has,One of the most famous investigations of reducing our impact is Factor Four. but decoupling is just marketing. There is literally nothing you have ever touched or consumed that did not originate in nature. Furthermore, there is a floor of consumption below which people cannot go, or they die of starvation or exposure. You can’t decouple that. 

So wealth comes from nature, and from the application of labour to the wealth of nature. People become rich by extracting wealth from nature and from labour. In our current economy, that means the rich get rich by killing ecosystems and exploiting people.

Now, I support extremely radical taxation, but I hope I am being clear that taxation simply distributes the profit from killing ecosystems and exploiting people in a more or less equitable fashion.

This puts the conservative in conservatism. Whenever we talk about universal healthcare, increased social programs, hospitals in small towns or highways to remote towns, building a subway, recycling—whatever—we must ask what wealth are we going to extract from nature to make this possible? Asking how we will pay for something is not a question about debt and government bonds and inflation.

Daniel Quinn makes this clear in his incendiary essay The New Renaissance.I have slighty reordered some parts of this excerpt.

It’s obvious that it costs a lot of money and energy to produce all the food we need to maintain our population at six billion.Only six billion! Those halcyon days! But there is an additional, hidden cost that has to be counted in life forms. As I’ve said, it’s conservatively estimated that as many as 200 species are becoming extinct every day as a result of our impact on the world. Put plainly, in order to maintain the biomass that is tied up in the six billion of us, we have to gobble up 200 species a day – in addition to all the food we produce in the ordinary way. We need the biomass of those 200 species to maintain this biomass, the biomass that is in us. And when we’ve gobbled up those species, they’re gone. Extinct. Vanished forever.

Those 200 species . . . why exactly are they becoming extinct? Are they just running out of air or water or space or what? No, those 200 species are becoming extinct because they have something we need. We need their biomass. We need the living stuff they’re made of. We need their biomass in order to maintain our biomass. Here’s how it works. Go down to Brazil, find yourself a hunk of rain forest, and cut it down or burn it down. Now bring in a herd of cows to pasture there. Or plant potatoes or pineapples or lima beans. All the biomass that was formerly tied up in the birds, insects, and mammals living in that hunk of rain forest is now going into cows, potatoes, pineapples, or lima beans–which is to say into food for us.

We need to make 200 species extinct every day in order to maintain the biomass of six billion people. It’s not an accident. It’s not an oversight. It’s not a bit of carelessness on our part. In order to maintain our population of six billion, we need the biomass of 200 species a day. We are literally turning 200 species a day into human tissue.

If this were something that was going to stop next week or next month, that would be okay. But the unfortunate fact is that it’s not. It’s something that’s going to go on happening every day, day after day after day–and that’s what makes it unsustainable, by definition. That kind of cataclysmic destruction cannot be sustained.

We’re like people living in the penthouse of a tall brick building. Every day we need 200 bricks to maintain our walls, so we go downstairs, knock 200 bricks out of the walls below and bring them back upstairs for our own use. Every day. . . . Every day we go downstairs and knock 200 bricks out of the walls that are holding up the building we live in. Seventy thousand bricks a year, year after year after year.

I hope it’s evident that this is not a sustainable way to maintain a brick building. One day, sooner or later, it’s going to collapse, and the penthouse is going to come down along with all the rest.

Making 200 species extinct every day is similarly not a sustainable way to maintain a living community. Even if we’re in some sense at the top of that community, one day, sooner or later, it’s going to collapse, and when it does, our being at the top won’t help us. We’ll come down along with all the rest.

So, I have yet to see a UBI proposal that addresses sustainability—the extraction of wealth from nature. I will be happy to cash my UBI paycheque—for the few years our culture might have left in a wildly damaged ecosystem—but UBI is just a band-aid on a sucking chest wound of living beyond planetary limits. 

We will live within limits—either we choose to do so, or nature will force us to do so.

The 15 hour work weeks might be a bit better? Like I said, I haven’t read Rutger’s book, so I don’t know what the proposal is and my critique may be way off base. But typically arguments like these are something like, “If we stopped letting billionaires squirrel wealth away in the bank, we would all only need to work 15 hours a week.”

I think this could actually cause enormous ecological damage.

Again billionaires don’t squirrel away wealth—or at least only a very small share. They are billionaires—they possess over one billion dollars—because they have not converted the money into wealth extracted from nature. Yes, they have more yachts and houses and diamonds than the rest of us, but what they squirrel away is money. Most of their riches are actually just numbers “invested” in a computer. 

If you distribute those numbers to the rest of us, we will actually turn them into wealth—into salmon we eat and trees we cut. This is a feature of localism—spending money locally keeps it cycling in the local economy, being spent over and over and over again on the real wealth extracted from nature and labour.

So redistributing wealth from the tertiary economy—from the stock market and billionaire’s bank accounts—will radically increase environmental impact. It will turn numbers in a spreadsheet into species on the extinct list.

The first time I put that into words I felt like vomiting—and I still get queasy thinking about it. 

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I have yet to see any proposal for UBI or shorter work weeks that starts from the question of what the ecosystem can sustainably provide—but here is a good starting point. 

Human population was fairly stable for a thousand years at about a quarter of a billion people.


One thing and one thing only has allowed for the exponential growth in population, and this is burning fossil fuels. 

“But knowledge!!” people will say. Yes, knowledge matters. And I think useful knowledge could likely lift that population ceiling to half a billion people, or maybe even one whole billion human beings. But that is all. 

Here is a searing paragraph from Greer’s eulogy for William Catton, who wrote Overshoot. 

The difference in energy concentration between input and output, it bears repeating, defines the upper limit of complexity. Other variables determine whether or not the system in question will achieve that upper limit. In the ecosystems we call human societies, knowledge is one of those other variables. If you have a highly concentrated energy source and don’t yet know how to use it efficiently, your society isn’t going to become as complex as it otherwise could. Over the three centuries of industrialization, as a result, the production of useful knowledge was a winning strategy, since it allowed industrial societies to rise steadily toward the upper limit of complexity defined by the concentration differential. The limit was never reached—the law of diminishing returns saw to that—and so, inevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough.

So knowledge is not enough. We still need resources, and especially, we need the primary resource, energy. If we want to do much at all we need highly concentrated energy. 

“But solar!!” people will say. “Windmills!!”

Neither of these is a concentrated source of energy.

We built this modern, globalized economy with oil that had an Energy Return on Energy Invested of 100:1—we had to burn one barrel of oil to gain 100 barrels. One gallon of gas contains the energy of weeks of human labour, so that gave us a massive surplus of energy. 

We are now down around 30:1 EROEI for fossil fuels—and the world we built for 100:1 doesn’t work so well. 

Solar and wind are 10:1, maybe 15:1. Some of them are less than 1:1–in other words, it takes more energy to manufacture the solar panel than it will ever generate in its lifetime. 

Here is another problem. 

You can’t make solar panels with solar energy. There is essentially no solar heavy industry—mining, refining and manufacturing. The concentrated energy carried fossil fuels is required in those industries. 

But can’t we just electrify manufacturing? No, because we can’t get the energy concentrations. 

So when we say we want wind farms, we are saying we want to keep changing the climate so we can mine and refine the resources and manufacture the parts.

And then of course, there are resource constraints. Being practical people, we dug up the easiest and richest resources first. This means the resources we have left are poor. Some analysts think that even if we could get over the social barriers and the financial barriers, there are not physically enough resources left in the ground for a transition to a renewable society. 

If a fox spends more energy chasing mice than it earns from eating mice, the fox starves to death. 

So, the world we can have with renewable energy is not this world. We simply won’t have the concentrated energy supply.

Therefore a world of 15 hour workweeks is a fantasy. Ask subsistence farmers how many hours they spend working and I think you will find it is a lot more than 15. 

Put another way, when we talk about 15 hour weeks or the UBI, what we are saying is we want to continue destroying ecosystems and changing the climate. We want to keep destabilizing our life support system. That is how we have built an economy that we think is rich enough to distribute more equitably.

One way or another, our future lies in what is able to be sustained, and that likely involves the work of subsistence we have seen in most of human history, human and animal-powered pastoralism and agriculture for a much smaller population base. 

Not a universal income or a 15 hour work week.


  1. One way or another, our future lies in what is able to be sustained, and that likely involves the work of subsistence we have seen in most of human history, human and animal-powered pastoralism and agriculture for a much smaller population base.

    There is another theoretical option, but it would be very tough to pull off. We could concentrate a few million people in one city, the only city, on earth. They would use modern technology to live as we do now, only using wood for primary energy, but their limited population would allow them to live without destroying the rest of life on earth.

    This quasi-ecomodernist suggestion assumes that modern technology could be sustained by a very small population. We could set the city up somewhere, surrounded by its agricultural food base, and see if it could continue.

    • This is the image used by Rees and Wackernagel in Our Ecological Footprint—the city and the lands that provide its inputs, contained under a glass bell jar.

      I don’t think modern technology can be sustained by a very small population, though. Did you see the art piece where the guy set out to make an electric toaster? The metallurgy in a toaster is probably only held by a few people on the planet. The ability to make computer chips. The ability to design and manufacture relays. The ability to find and drill for oil. The ability to refine oil into plastic feedstocks. The ability to design and manufacture plastic molding equipment. The ability to use plastic molding equipment.

      I could go on and on, but I bet for a very simple modern tool like a toaster we would need a couple of hundred highly specialized fields of knowledge and a couple of thousand highly trained technicians.

  2. A comment I wrote about an article about William Nordhaus published on Resilience a couple of days ago (having never read Quinn):

    “Life on earth is a zero-sum process. For any given amount of glaciation, the amount of biomass is constant. Any growth in human population, human biomass, comes at the expense of the other species that might have occupied those niches we took to feed, water and house ourselves.
    Since there can be no more biomass than sunlight will support, it only remains to be decided how much of the total should be taken to support humanity. Continuous growth of the human population and economy would mean that eventually every living thing on earth would exist only to serve human needs.
    This takeover of the entirety of the earth’s total stock of biomes would be extremely dangerous. The management of all life to serve human needs would require god-like knowledge of all the complexities and feedbacks required to maintain a stable ecosystem. To assume that it can be done, or even attempted, is a fatal hubris.
    And for what? More people, manipulating more stuff. Eventually the number of people and the amount of life they co-opt must stabilize, even if all of it could be perfectly managed and perfectly shared. The earth’s surface is finite after all.
    The risk-minimizing solution is to reduce the human footprint to a low enough level that we don’t have to worry about managing the ecosphere. It would manage itself all on its own and continue to provide risk-free sustenance to an optimally small human population.
    People like Nordhaus, who can’t see the simple, common sense, and deadly ramifications of the exponential growth of the human economy, will be the end of us all. We must hope that the consequences of their economic insanity become too difficult to manage well before it destroys the ecosystem that all life depends on. We must hope that economic collapse will come very soon indeed.”

    So I agree completely with you speculation that the sustainable human population is probably well under one billion people. Now that there is so little carbon budget left, we can’t wait around for birth control and sub-replacement baby production to result in a natural decline in population. The sad truth is billions of people need to die prematurely to ensure that even more billions don’t die prematurely a few decades later. The most environmentally effective schedule would be for all the rich folks like us to die first.

    • This is very interesting Joe. I am surprised by the idea that biomass is directly related to the amount of glaciation, but maybe I am just splitting hairs. I think about the difference between climax ecosystems and newly established ecosystems, for example. Or that in rainforests, there is a huge amount of species, and even soil, far up in the canopy.

      I think of evolution as slicing the earth into progressively thinner niches of specialization, new creatures finding as yet unused nutrients they can grow on.

      Could you talk more about the zero-sum idea? Is this accurate?

  3. Just had a peek at Rutger Bregman’s article (your link) and am missing whether there was any accounting for societal cost associated with casino goers who lost money gambling. I am impressed with the results for those receiving a cut of the proceeds – the results showing how the money flowing toward poverty escape is a fine investment… just curious if there isn’t a comparative cost based on where the funds come from (see previous comment).

  4. Was at a workshop last week when this posted. Burning up planetary resources with fellow soybean scientists and other stakeholders with a view to postpone our eventual demise… so it was until today that I found this latest contribution from SDAL.

    I’ve struggled with UBI myself, but for different reasons. Your take here adds to my list of concerns. I also appreciate the refs cited here. More to chew on.

    Have to head off to another planetary resource use discussion so I can’t share all my quibbles right now. I will offer a quick one here – on the fox and its troubles with mice.

    One might observe that neither foxes nor mice have succumbed to the list of the 200 species lost every day (per Daniel Quinn). And the reason is simplish… for every fox that starves to death for expending too much energy searching for mice there are many many more mice that survive fox predation. Eventually the increase in mouse numbers is sufficient to support the searching strategy of another fox. Rabbits can be substituted for mice… and coyotes for foxes (or wolves… sheep for rabbits… and so on.

    Eventually the dynamic comes back to sheep we humans have designs on and whether we will share them with the wolves. But at the edge – under the limits – there likely won’t be ALL humans perishing at one time point; just as the death of one starved fox doesn’t push the whole population into extinction.

    • I will look forward to your further musings on UBI. I don’t believe in human extinction for the same reason I don’t believe in mouse extinction or cockroach extinction—because many years ago I read David Quammen’s Planet of Weeds.

      Here is a truly low quality pdf of that essay. And here is a text version on a website that some readers may find disturbing, The Church of Euthanasia.

      • In the past my biggest complaint toward UBI was the free loader issue. And this is not a straight forward argument either… but it does get some folks all jazzed. At the edges of the free loader problem though is a twist that I get worked up by – the disincentive to struggle for a better future. Necessity is the Mother of invention. And I’m not focused on light bulbs here. There are innumerable calls on our attention (think I may have learned that here 🙂 )… and many of these are minor matters… how get this done in time to get prepared for that, while keeping this project going… and so forth. Life hacks.

        I’m not a sociologist, but I am concerned that if there isn’t some stress in life the result will be a sliding backward and a carrying of incompetence. In a cold and cruel accounting we are already doing this with some of our health care. Please don’t read into this that I’m in favor of abolishing health care – but I am most certainly in favor of health promotion. Get off the couch and get some exercise, don’t smoke, watch your weight; etc.. At our place on the food chain we can prevent wolves, bears, alligators, or other apex predators from culling our aged, our weak, our infirm. And I’m OK with that – to a point. If people want to lay about, eat too much, disregard the gift of life they’ve been given, then perhaps a trip to Yellowstone to meet a wolf pack up close and personal might stimulate them. That strolls away from the UBI discussion a bit, so to reign it back… evolution works on competition between species by fostering competition within species. For other species there isn’t much of a free rider phenomenon; you eat what you kill. I’m afraid if we go too far to allow free riding within Homo sapiens we hurt the whole system (and not just ourselves).

        And so I do like your analysis here that UBI might push consumption beyond current levels (themselves too high). I could quibble that the wealth transfer might be smaller than some suspect because a UBI should replace some of the current wealth transfer; but it would go further and thus your argument still holds.

        I am opposed to lotteries and gambling along the same lines. If folks see these activities as get rich quick schemes that circumvent actually working for one’s daily bread then they do great damage. Lotteries especially gripe this one – as legislators frequently go there to avoid the responsible (but more difficult) road of taxing everyone for public needs. Pretty dumb IMHO.

        You’ve also made some points here about energy concentration. And I’ll follow up with a smallish quibble or two on that front. Might even be able to sew together a couple matters.

        And thanks for the Planet of Weeds link. That piece is already 20 years old – perhaps time for a retrospective.

        • Thanks for this Clem.

          My friend, I have extremely strong disagreements with the beliefs you discuss here, and I will see if I can explain them clearly.

          But let me begin with the first of many tangents—I just want to query the idea of a better future. If that future is more of the same, when we struggle for it we just kill the planet faster. Here is another think I like to say—”Now that we can do anything, we must do less.”

          But I feel like we have discussed that before and let’s not get distracted by it.

          Free Riders is what has my goat, and the idea that stress is necessary to keep us moving. I take the 180° tack, which has been a long time building in my life, beginning with my behaviour change research, and expanding on into my personal work/battles with racism/sexism, human attachment and trauma.

          Kind of a big bite to chew. So…

          When I was in mid-reading on behaviour change I ran across Dr. Bruce Alexander’s work. He is famous for an experiment called Rat Park, where he showed socially disconnected rats used drugs to dull their pain, and that when they were returned to rat society they stopped using drugs.

          Alexander expands this in his paper The Roots of Addiction in Free Market Society. Alexander again looks at the relationship between disconnection and addiction, with illustrations from Ireland, Scotland and North American First Nations.

          Alexander expanded still further in his next book, to show that behaviours like shopping are methods to treat the same pain of loss of roots, culture, identity, relationships, language, gods and lands.

          Another famous proponent of this paradigm is Dr. Gabor Maté, who works in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, infamous for the scale of drug addiction. In addition to talking about his history of growing up in a Nazi-controlled ghetto and his subsequent shopping addiction, Maté says 100% – one hundred percent – of his patients who are female addicts have suffered childhood sexual abuse or assualt.


          So, as an experiment, if you use that paradigm as a lens to check reality, does it hold up? I think it does. It is further bolstered by the rapidly developing field of attachment and trauma.

          To sum all that up, my father was right, when as a counsellor in the 80s, he said, “Everyone is just doing the best they can.”

          This is the paradigm shift. Everyone is just doing the best they can.

          If we are doing better, it is because we can. Because we have had some obvious or invisible advantage, we are able to do better.
          And when people are doing worse, it is because they can’t do better.

          This is bolstered, again, by research on motivation—here is a great little animation about Dan Pinker’s research, which again, dismantles most of the myths that our culture is built on.

          Pinker finds that meaning is critical to humans. This tells me that free loaders are essentially a myth, no more common than actual serial killers. So, you might have a few dozen free loaders in the entire USA. Nobody wants to be a free loader because humans are driven by meaning.

          This further tells me that when I see free loading what I am actually seeing is someone who has trauma I cannot relate to.

          As another tangent, the importance of meaning casts a very chilling light on our economy of bullshit jobs. How can a person find any meaning in sitting in a kiosk trying to convince people to exchange their recently purchased cell phone for a new one?

          This, I hope, brings me around to stress—which is actually a fundamental point of the Bregman article on poverty that I based my UBI post on.

          Poor people are the most stressed people there are. They are literally dying from stress. They don’t need stress to keep them on their toes so they pull themselves up out of poverty, they need less stress. Much, much less stress.

          Everyone is doing the best they can.

          As a final tangent—I just learned the original meaning of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps meant to try to do something unusually stupid, impossible, or absurd. That actually makes sense when you think about it, unlike its modern usage.

          Oop. What is the final after the final tangent? I do heartily agree with you that we humans should be eaten much more often by wild creatures.

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