Why I distrust Citizens’ Assemblies; CV19 update

Extinction Rebellion (XR) thinks democracy is broken, and that Citizens’ Assemblies will fix it. The Irish Referendum on abortion is evidence for this. I think democracy is broken because elected governments are still pursuing economic growth after it has reached its Limits: growth is far beyond the point at which the exponential principle suddenly transformed it from advantageous to dangerous.

In Ireland, it is claimed that the public listened to rational arguments by experts, and changed their minds from the conventional church view. I think a generational shift is a more likely explanation. Until the Referendum revealed otherwise, the widespread assumption would remain that the traditional view was still consensual.

But look at the breakdown figures (in the link). Only in the oldest age group was there a clear majority in favour of retaining the 8th Amendment to the Irish constitution.  The same thing happened in the UK when breathalysers were introduced. Older drivers who had driven home pissed at least once a week all their lives without incident took no notice. It only became consensual as those drivers stopped driving.

It is possible that XR has been more successful than I give it credit for. When XR went ‘swarming’ (unannounced, three-minute traffic blockages) in Leeds, a few drivers gave us signs of approval – more than I expected, but nowhere near enough if a Citizen’s Assembly had been drawn from those we delayed by 3 minutes.

The school climate strikers are the beginning of a much needed generational shift, but I fear that many are not yet aware of the hard economic realities previously faced by their parents.

But the Coronavirus crisis collides with those realities. For 47 years I have been patiently suggesting a universal (world-wide) unconditional basic income (UBI), because it would guarantee individuals security. It would enable (not cause) individuals to give ecological realities priority over what – until now – have sensibly determined short term economic decisions.

Suddenly we have a recession, doing all the things which will save the ecosphere. My (Asperger’s) insight was (still is) that a basic income will lead to a gradual generational shift away from consumerism which will lead to fewer purchases. Further down the line it will cause a political shift by making taxation according to ecological footprint realistic . Eventually there would be a gradual contraction in the economy. But as this would be a voluntary recession, it could be adjusted as necessary.

I fear a Citizens’ Assembly would not work – yet. But although I am still waiting for a better ecological catalyst than a UBI, of late I have increasingly warned that unless firmly tied to the looming eco-crisis, it would do more harm than good, due to its potential to facilitate economic growth.

CV19 has catapulted this risk to the top.

But everyone is looking elsewhere. Can we please talk about damage to the ecosphere again? It is a far more serious threat.

At the time of writing, the Chancellor’s CV19 measures have become quite close to a UBI, but they are still not comprehensive. Sian Berry puts it succinctly. I suggest giving a UBI to everyone with a NI number. But the measures as they stand will bring about my worst fears. So would a basic income unless firmly tied to ecological footprints.

What could be an unexpected opportunity to save the ecosphere, instead looks more likely to hasten its destruction.

One supposedly crushing objection to a full UBI including housing, is its cost. It would be less than after the second world war. But at least the astronomical amounts thrown at this lesser crisis by Rishi Sunak make a nonsense of the cost argument.

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