Universal basic income’s implications for climate change and other catastrophic risks

[Highly speculative post]

Would a universal basic income (a plan for the government to pay everyone, say, $1k/month) decrease greenhouse gas emissions? The thought occurred to me because I’ve been trying to cap my emissions for a while and quickly realized that I was only able to keep my energy usage below the average global citizen’s level because I didn’t have to drive 20 minutes to work each day, which otherwise would explode my energy usage. This is possible in Boston, especially when you have housing options within 20 minutes’ walking distance from your place of work. But I had a harder time imagining this working in the sprawling South Bay in the San Francisco Bay Area (although you can get surprisingly far with a bike). Reading about basic income made me think: if basic income resulted in some people quitting their jobs, and if quitting your job means reducing your emissions spent on driving to work, does basic income win on this environmental count as well?

Yes, I realize this is speculative. Basic income might have to be pretty high, or your cost of living pretty low, for a basic income to convince you to leave your job. (Andrew Yang’s $1000/mo. Freedom Dividend, while a start, feels insufficient.) And while I do *feel* that quitting your job reduces your emissions, maybe you spend your leisure time or your low-cost lifestyle driving an equal or even greater amount to other places instead. I doubt it, but it’s possible.

Two speculative arguments make me feel that no job is less energy-intensive than a job:

  1. I saw inventor Saul Griffith show a graph of how energy usage is correlated with GDP. The 2008 recession saw a significant dip in energy usage. I would guess that that happens because lower GDP means fewer transactions, sales and jobs, and (a) people are just doing and making less stuff, (b) fewer people are coming to work and (c) people are spending less on carbon-expensive vacation flights. The first two of these factors pertain to a basic income scenario, and suggest a link between fewer jobs and fewer emissions.
  2. I read about this terrifyingly energy-intensive job in David Graeber’s _Bullshit Jobs_:

    Kurt works for a subcontractor for the German military. Or… actually, he is employed by a subcontractor of a subcontractor of a subcontractor for the German military. Here is how he describes his work:

    The German military has a subcontractor that does their IT work.The IT firm has a subcontractor that does their logistics.
    The logistics firm has a subcontractor that does their personnel management, and I work for that company.
    Let’s say soldier A moves to an office two rooms farther down the hall. Instead of just carrying his computer over there, he has to fill out a form.
    The IT subcontractor will get the form, people will read it and approve it, and forward it to the logistics firm.
    The logistics firm will then have to approve the moving down the hall and will request personnel from us.
    The office people in my company will then do whatever they do, and now I come in.
    I get an email: “Be at barracks B at time C.” Usually these barracks are one hundred to five hundred kilometers [62–310 miles] away from my home, so I will get a rental car. I take the rental car, drive to the barracks, let dispatch know that I arrived, fill out a form, unhook the computer, load the computer into a box, seal the box, have a guy from the logistics firm carry the box to the next room, where I unseal the box, fill out another form, hook up the computer, call dispatch to tell them how long I took, get a couple of signatures, take my rental car back home, send dispatch a letter with all of the paperwork and then get paid.
    So instead of the soldier carrying his computer for five meters, two people drive for a combined six to ten hours, fill out around fifteen pages of paperwork, and waste a good four hundred euros of taxpayers’ money.

    What the…?

    Obviously not all jobs are so energy-inefficient, but even a job in which you drive 20 miles to the office, sit in an air-conditioned office for 8 hours and then drive back is pretty energy-intensive. This makes me feel that not having a job is often less energy-intensive than having one.

This leaves me more stuck on the first objection that current proposals for universal basic income would not influence many to quit their jobs.

Besides reducing my energy usage, I’ve been thinking a lot about pandemics for my PhD research. Is it crazy that basic income might also be helpful in that scenario? Specifically, imagine the next Spanish flu emerges. It threatens to spread to every continent within weeks, and, if the world responds to it as it responded to the 1918 version, 3-5% of the world population will die. So the CDC and WHO and a bunch of scientists and companies around the world scurry to make a vaccine, but that’s going to take hundreds of days. The main way for the rest of us to stay safe and stop the spread in the meantime is to stay away from each other and from our offices and schools. Except many need to go to work to pay the rent and eat…

Universal basic income to the rescue! You may now consider not going to work if you’re really concerned about the pandemic. You may lose your job, but you hopefully can still pay your rent (depending on where you live in the United States), and maybe you get your job back when the pandemic is over. Again, however, as with the emissions case, the basic income amount may not be enough for this to make sense.

Thinking about this made me wonder about a pandemic basic income, which is an income administered to everyone in pandemic situations for this very reason. I don’t think most pandemics warrant this kind of panicked response, but if one really did, maybe you’d want a pandemic basic income (plus other measures in place to ensure food, clean water and a bunch of other services still get to people despite the social disruption).