Polly Higgins is charismatic, but before discussing her Ecocide campaign, we must look at the obstacles. I am a Citizens’ Basic Income maniac. Whatever you say will remind me of the CBI, and that will figure in my reply. Having only recently read ‘The Origin of Capitalism’ by Ellen Meiksins Wood (2002, Verso), I am already suffering from the same syndrome in relation to her thesis.
There is a debate within the Green movement as to how best to stem ecological destruction as a result of expanding economic activity. On the one hand Alison Marshall takes the view that many ‘ecological services’ must be assigned a value, otherwise externalities will continue to be treated as free: the atmosphere, woodland generally, including rainforest, pollination. Wetlands, natural forms of carbon capture, dumping of toxic material including nuclear waste . . . the list is endless.
On the other hand Rupert Read and Molly Scott Cato have produced a paper passionately arguing that to put a price on Nature is capitulating to the mind set of the vested interests who are the core of the problem. Compromises such as ‘price ecological services to begin with’ (50 years has been mentioned) are the top of a slippery slope: crises will ensure that ‘to begin with’ never expires.
Until recently my only problem with the Read/Scott Cato view was how far removed it was from any debate the general public could relate to, as they must. This is where my, er, illness leads me to see the Citizens’ Basic Income as at least bringing that discussion nearer. Unfortunately, Ellen Wood’s thesis sends me back to Alison Marshall’s concern. Wood explains that capitalism is a major consequence of an earlier development in mediaeval England: the monetization of what were formerly contributions in kind. This opened up novel opportunities, and facilitated innovations which led first to the agricultural revolution, and in due course to the industrial revolution, with capital accumulation a natural part. Markets and the profit motive had always existed, but they, especially the latter became dominant in a way they never had been before.
The crucial point Wood makes is that this new dominance of profit above all else created imperatives. These are still with us, and they apply to everyone, not just the few capitalists making the most profit. The principle that, for example shale gas should remain underground should be seen as an obvious ecological necessity. Instead, it is subject to the imperative that if Cuadrilla does not take advantage of the opportunity, someone else will.
Alison Marshall makes a different point, again valid at first sight. In contrast to the ‘Positive money’ view, she points out that economic growth does not depend solely on the money supply. Growth is money supply times the velocity of circulation. Velocity slows in a recession, and accelerates in a boom. But the whole case for ‘debt free’ money creation, not just Alison’s criticism, becomes irrelevant in the light of Wood’s imperatives, which ensure that growth – indiscriminate growth – will be driven ever onwards and upwards, interrupted only by the accidents and overshoots inevitable with profit as the supreme driver. Most capitalists are enthusiastic profiteers, but they could not escape even if, like the Club of Rome 45 years ago, some of them wondered if they should try. The dynamics of the Tragedy of the Commons as explained by Garrett Hardin, and exemplified by Easter Island are formidable enough, but the untrammelled profit motive firmly locks the world in.
So how do we escape? Rupert Read suggests that religious and spiritual ideas have a part to play. Some small tribal societies which had achieved sustainability without technology had taboos we could usefully adopt, but this might be difficult without the belief system, and most wider religions were tied to expanding societies, for example the appalling Biblical notion of dominion over Nature.
Feudal society was bearable only for the privileged few, but it was at least indefinitely sustainable. One theory which has occurred to me, which someone younger and better qualified might take up, is that feudalism and the Indian caste system were responses to a Tragedy of the Commons slow enough not to create an outright crisis. Those in power created arrangements which gave them comfort whist allowing the rest to survive in conditions not bad enough to revolt against en masse. If an ecological collapse is avoided, there are clues that those in a position to dictate events are already aiming for something similar globally.
The Citizens, Basic Income could play a part in this, but with two important ameliorating features lacking in India or Mediaeval Europe. The technology and resources which capitalism has given us will allow a much more comfortable standard of living for the general population, whilst still allowing considerable differentials, and unlike the caste system or Feudalism, with the Citizens’ income, no one is trapped at the bottom. Log cabin to White House, slum to CEO will be perfectly feasible for anyone. Some will insist on something closer to socialism, but that debate, or conflict must wait. The urgent need is to get those in a position change the course of history, but currently trapped in insane imperatives, to co-operate in saving the ecosphere.
The Citizens’ Basic Income is a game changer. Purely as an idea, it starts the cultural change essential for sustainability. And so does Ecocide – the principle that damage to the ecosphere is a crime. It can challenge the dominance of the price mechanism. Polly Higgins is not against capitalism, or profits, only the damage they do. She points out that not one of the businesses which said they would collapse without slaves went out of business. In exactly the same way, capitalists will at first regard ecocide as a foe to be got rid of. But they are not stupid. They will come to realize that it offers them a release from the imperatives, and is their only hope of avoiding a Tragedy of the Commons, which will not be in their interests. Once the Citizens’ Income allows a recession on ecological grounds to be feasible for the general population, ecocide can be introduced to bring economic activity within sustainable bounds. Over to you, Polly Higgins.