There is a simple blueprint for survival - Universal Basic Income and Half Earth

Pink plant factory

Plant physiologist Shigeharu Shimamura created the world's largest indoor farm - illuminated by LED.

The Anthropocene appears to be an epoch of destruction and extinction. But professors SIMON L LEWIS and MARK A MASLIN, authors of Human Planet argue that two simple and increasingly popular ideas - the Universal Basic Income and Half Planet - could finally transform human society into a sustainable - and pleasant - place

To usher in a new way of living today’s core dynamic of ever-greater production and consumption of goods and resources must be broken, coupled with a societal focus on environmental repair. Two increasingly discussed ideas do just this.

Mention the human impact on the environment and people can get defensive. Whether eating a meal, driving to work or lighting our homes at night, there are environmental costs to everything we do.

To make ourselves feel better, we might say that humans always despoil the natural world and grumble that ‘the planet will be better off without us’. We might argue that indigenous peoples live in harmony with nature, and modern humans have fallen from Eden. 

If we have money, we might say that only the wealthiest communities can afford to clean up the environment: if only everyone was rich, then we would all live sustainably.

Single species

Or if we lack a good income, we might say it is all the fault of over-consuming elites. All of these stories have both elements of truth and obvious blind spots.

But we ought to try to put these views aside and face reality – as we can best understand it – because the evidence is mounting that our impacts on the Earth are now so large that may scientists have declared that humans have become a force of nature. 

Combining the Greek words for ‘humans’ and ‘recent time’, scientists have named this new epoch when our impacts have become global and sustained, the Anthropocene.

It describes when Homo sapiens became a geological superpower, setting Earth on a new environmental and evolutionary path. So profound is this change that for the first time in Earth’s 4.5 billion year history a single species is increasingly dictating its future, including our own. 

The influence of human actions is more profound than many of us realise. Globally, human activities move more soil, rock and sediment each year than is transported by all other natural processes combined. The total amount of concrete ever produced by humans is enough to cover the entire 196.9 million square miles of the Earth’s surface with a layer two millimetres thick. 

A force of nature

Factories and farming remove as much nitrogen from the atmosphere as all Earth’s natural processes, and the climate is changing fast following carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use.

Populations of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals have declined by an average of 58 percent over the last forty years. Extinctions are commonplace, running at 1,000 times the typical rate seen before humans walked the Earth.

The Anthropocene marks a turning point in the history of humanity, the history of life, and the history of the Earth itself. It is a new chapter in the chronicle of life and a new chapter of the human story.

The modern world birthed this new epoch, starting some 500 years ago as global trade and new ideas swept the world. It was reinforced 200 years ago by the shift to fossil fuels during the Industrial Revolution, and then accelerated following a new wave of high-production and consumption globalisation after the Second World War.

While there are technical debates amongst scientists to formally define the human epoch as beginning a few hundred years ago (we consider that it began in 1610) or a few decades ago (others have suggested 1950 or 1964), it is the emergence of a single global interconnected network of cultures powered by a vast use of energy and coordinated by the management of huge amounts of information that has led to humans becoming a force of nature.

Major transitions

Of course, there is no single entity called ‘humanity’ that drives the changes to our home planet: specific groups of people cause each impact. From a narrative perspective, beginning the Anthropocene with the birth of the modern world tells a story of a new powerful profit-driven society.

This new geological epoch is built from slavery and colonialism, enabled by a long-distance financial industry. The human epoch is a story of how people treat the environment and how people treat each other; of domination and resistance to that domination. 

However, looking forward the critical question is: will today’s interconnected mega-civilization that allows 7.5 billion people to lead physically healthier and longer lives than at any time in our history continue from strength to strength?

Or will we keep using available resources until human civilization collapses? To understand the future requires us first to understand how we got to where we are today. As scientists, we look at human history through the lens of Earth system science and the impact of humans on our planet, re-interpreting it in a new way.

As we trace the environmental impacts of human societies from our march out of Africa there are a series of major transitions in human societies that spread worldwide. These are familiar, but in this context allow us to see new relationships.

Information availability

After the beginning state of hunter-gatherer societies, there have been four broad types of human society: agricultural, mercantile capitalist, industrial capitalist and consumer capitalist modes of living. 

A careful analysis of each of these new modes of living shows us that each new form of human society is always reliant on greater energy use, greater information availability and more people, together resulting in an increase in collective human agency. 

This implies one of two futures for today’s globally interconnected network of cultures: one of today’s very large global economy doubling in size every 25 years leading to ever-more dramatic changes to society and the global environment, eventually resulting in societal collapse; or the emergence of a sixth new mode of living that replaces consumer capitalism. 

Seen in this way renewable energy for all takes on an importance beyond stopping climate breakdown; likewise free education and the internet for all has a significance beyond access to social media – as they empower women which helps stabilise the population.

While more energy and greater information availability appear to be the necessities for any new kind of society that could spread, alone they could increase our environmental problems, as in the past.

Profound idea

To usher in a new way of living today’s core dynamic of ever-greater production and consumption of goods and resources must be broken, coupled with a societal focus on environmental repair. Two increasingly discussed ideas do just this.

Universal Basic Income (UBI) could break the link between work and consumption. UBI is a policy whereby a financial payment is made to every citizen, unconditionally, without any obligation to work, set at a level above their subsistence needs.

Without UBI it makes little sense to forgo consumption when we know we have to work harder in the future whatever our choices. We say: I’m working hard, I deserve that fancy sandwich, new gizmo, or long-haul holiday.

Consumption is the pay-back for being ever-more productive at work. With UBI we could work less and consume less, meet our needs, and plan for the future - beyond the next pay cheque - as living in the Anthropocene demands. Small-scale trials of UBI suggest we would educate ourselves, do useful work, while caring for others and the wider environment.

Environmental repair could come from the simple but profound idea that we allocate half the Earth’s surface primarily for the benefit of other species. Humans can have one half and everything else can have the other.

Careful thought

This is less utopian than it first appears, because despite huge increase in human population we are already living in more concentrated populations. There are also promising shifts in discussions to eating more plant-based diets, which require much less farmland. 

Beyond this, radical changes in society tend to change our views on nature.  In the West, our ideas about the natural world have been forged in response to the Industrial Revolution: separate National Parks in opposition to dirty industry.

As we increasingly recognise that humans are part of nature and our actions are taking over the very processes of Earth’s functioning, a new aesthetic is emerging.

Called rewilding, this is the idea that large areas should be managed to allow natural processes to run. In parallel to this, 43 countries have made commitments to restore 292 million hectares of degraded land to forest, ten times the area of the UK, showing that repair is increasingly on the agenda.

Clean energy, free education, and the Internet alongside Universal Basic Income and Half-Earth, are, of course, no panacea. Policies need public debate, careful thought, and detailed planning. It will take many initiatives to replace today’s unsustainable consumer capitalist mode of living. And the opportunity to do anything at a scale that takes power away from elites will have to be fought for. 

Acknowledging that we live in the Anthropocene is daunting, because what we do matters – for the only planet in the Universe known to harbour life.

Focusing this immense power on rapidly phasing out greenhouse gas emissions and clever investments to provide solar and wind energy to all plus policies to break the high-production high-consumption dynamic of consumer capitalism should give us the best chance to shift society towards greater equality so that people and the rest of life we share our home planet with can all flourish.

These Authors

Simon Lewis is professor of global change science at University College London. He also holds an equivalent position at the University of Leeds. Mark Maslin FRGS, FRSA is a professor of climatology at University College London. This article is adapted from their book, The Human Planet; How we created the Anthropocene. 

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