Could a Universal Basic Income save the forests?

Lately the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has been getting a lot of traction. The concept of UBI is being advocated both on the left and on the right of the political spectrum, which of course, means that the shape of the idea and the details of its implementation vary a lot. Some people see a UBI as an inevitable remedy to the jobs losses caused by automation and the rise of artificial intelligence, others see it as an effective way of sharing and redistributing the wealth generated by our industrial economies, as well as a practical application of human rights. The idea is becoming so popular, that there is even a candidate for the US presidential elections in 2020, Andrew Yang, that has made UBI the center of his campaign !

I have written several articles about the general idea of a UBI and I have tried to address some of the concerns surrounding it. But in this article I’d like to speculate about an aspect of UBI that I haven’t explored before : its effect on the environment, and forests in particular, when implemented in regions with rich biodiversity.

Poverty is a cause for biodiversity loss

The Earth’s biodiversity hotspots cover a tiny fraction of the landmass, but harbor most of the species on land. The people who live inside and around these hotspots are finding themselves on the frontlines of the war against nature, waged by our industrial societies. The indigenous people that live around the Earth’s remaining pristine forests are deeply connected to the environment. Studies have shown that these people are extremely effective at protecting the forests that they call home. They cherish these forests and don’t want to see their destruction.The expansion of tribal land rights is the most cost-effective ways to protect forests and sequester carbon according to this study, that analyzed data from 37 tropical countries.

But a combination of factors such as poverty, climate change and the encroaching industrial development is making the lives of these indigenous communities much harder. These people have found ways to live in a sustainable manner within forest ecosystems for thousands of years, but the world’s economy is putting too much pressure on these regions. Poverty forces people to exploit the natural resources in unsustainable ways, forests in South America are illegally burned to make way for pastures and soy fields, the illegal extraction of minerals and metals in Africa’s rainforests comes at an extremely high price for the people and the environment, illegal logging in Mozambique’s natural reserves is fueling the supply of exotic trees that meet China’s increasing demand, the illegal cultivation of the coca plant and the subsequent production of cocaine in the heart of the Amazon is causing havoc… The list goes on… My point is that the main reason why people engage in these destructive and dangerous activities is poverty. Few people would want to risk their lives and destroy the forests they love if they had the means to survive.

Externalized costs

The implementation of a UBI in these places would be a great solution, or at least a reasonable first step in slowing down and eventually ending the deforestation. I don’t know how much this would cost, and I certainly don’t have a detailed plan on how to put the idea in practice. Would a UBI cause migration towards these areas, thus increasing the ecological pressure on the forests? Who would pay for the UBI, and more importantly, who will find the political will to fight for such a solution? Certainly many other questions need to be answered,  but even without all of these answers I can recognize that a UBI can be a logical and effective solution, if done the right way.

First of all, the people who live in these areas are disproportionately affected by the development of the industrial world. They reap very few benefits from the technological progress, while they pay the biggest price. The industrial development of richer countries, or even wealthier regions of their own countries is often based on the exploitation of the resources hidden within or under the forests. The costs of that exploitation are directly paid by the local community, while the financial benefits are accumulated by the corporations that operate in the area, or that benefit from the resources extracted from it. These costs are numerous, the health  and security hazards are often severe : the spraying of cancer promoting pesticides and herbicides on the soy fields in South America, the mercury pollution of the water caused by gold mining in central Africa, the violent oppression of the native populations in East-Asia’s palm oil plantation. The list goes on, and on.

Furthermore, the climate change created by the industrialized world and the direct degradation of their environment is destabilizing the means of survival of people who have lived in harmony in these remote areas for thousands of years. The industrialized world has a huge debt towards these communities and it should start recognizing that fact.

UBI, a tool against deforestation

The industrialized world cannot keep on ignoring these costs. It’s not just a matter of ethics or equity the survival of the human species is threatened by the degradation of the remaining islands of biodiversity. If UBI manages to lift these people out of poverty, they won’t just more reluctant in engaging in destructive activities, they’re likely to be the first ones to defend the forests against the appetites of destructive industries.  It’s clear that a UBI can’t single-handedly solve deforestation, but it’s an important, and I believe, necessary tool in the struggle for the protection of the world’s forests. But of course, as long as our economic systems fail to recognize the vital importance of healthy ecosystems and fail to account for the ecological costs of our economic activities the forests and humanity will be in peril.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this idea! Do you think that we should strive to implement a Universal Basic Income? Do you think that Earth’s biodiversity hotspots are a good place to start?

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