Typhoon Haiyan – How the Swiss may help

Scientists always stress that no single event can establish a trend as a fact. If the direct hit by hurricane ‘Sandy’ on New York – a first since systematic records following the arrival of Europeans – did not push avoiding climate change to the top of the agenda of those currently making global decisions, then the worst typhoon ever is unlikely to do so. It only hurt poor people somewhere else, not them. I have just read an article in the Financial Times by Jeffrey Sachs. He makes the obvious link  with climate change, but many comments on the article were virulent dismissals of Sachs’s concern as scaremongering. The stridency and frequency of these denials whilst the scenes of devastation and sheer thirst and hunger due to infrastructure destruction are still on our TV screens may indicate a realization by deniers that their game is up. But there are powerful interests who are determined that business will continue as usual for as long as possible. The increasing frequency and violence of extreme weather events has generally been accompanied by comments at to how often they should be expected. Not Haiyan. This is new.

But now seems a good time to reiterate an idea which could help avoid the global crisis for which we seem to be on course. Not the citizens’ Basic Income per se, but the principle on which it is based: share whatever is defined as basic needs, have whatever rules you like for anything else. One of its advantages is that it can be discussed on its social justice merits without any mention of climate change. There is a national, and an international organization dedicated to the Citizens Basic Income purely on social justice grounds.

There are signs that this may be about to burst into the mainstream. Switzerland holds several referenda each year. It requires 100,000 signatures for one to be obligatory. In March this year, following a huge public and political backlash against a £49million golden handshake, a group of young radicals, increasingly concerned at fat cat salaries, globally, but especially in Switzerland, got enough signatures for a referendum to ban golden hellos and goodbyes. It received more than a two thirds majority. Emboldened, the group secured a further referendum, held on 24th November, limiting executive pay to 12 times the lowest paid in an organization, the so-called 1:12 initiative. The ‘No’ vote was 65.5%. With wisdom after the event, perhaps the 1:12 actual ratio was too sharp a discontinuity from the excesses it was intended to curb.

But 125,000 signatures have already been secured for the most radical referendum yet: a Universal Basic Income of 2,500 Swiss francs (£1,700) per month from the state. In Britain that would be £390 per week. My estimate of a minimum Citizens’ Income is £160 per week, but Switzerland does have a higher cost of living. I would have gone for a more modest sum even before Sunday’s vote warned that it might be a similar tactical mistake.   If there is too large a vote against, it will be taken as evidence against the principle. But the 1:12 referendum was on the old tram lines of jobs and growth, leading to ever more damage to the ecosphere. My main fear is that the Citizens Basic Income will be unsuccessful because not enough people will understand its full significance. It  is unlikely that there will be any mention of the environmental  implications. But even confining the argument to social justice, the Citizens’ Income applies the principle of Aesop’s fable Persuasion is better than Force’. Allow people to do nothing, but reward them if they do something. The fat cats are more likely to settle for that than vain threats to strip them of their stranglehold.

This initiative has come straight out of the blue for us seasoned Citizens’ Basic Income watchers. I attended a BIEN conference in September 2012, at which Switzerland did not feature. But neither did climate change to any great extent, despite my own efforts. When, rather than if this idea does become mainstream world-wide, we eco-freaks need to be ready to harness it.

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