Basic income and the world’s “carrying capacity”

Posted: December 18, 2014 at 11:21 am

The following is an edit version of a comment posted to Google+ in response to a post by Matthew J Prince discussing the possibility of a basic minimum income to solve the problems of increasing automation and how many people the world can sustain (carrying capacity).

I dispute the current carrying capacity is sustainable, and thus previous increases in population are already inflated. I suppose I can’t separate privilege and hubris from economical choices. If we spread what we have now over the people that are here now, our (as average westerners) quality of life would be significantly lower simply because we use too many resources for a small population. Since we have the power, it’s unlikely we’ll (as economies/governments) make any choices that reduce our use of resources enough to raise those in the 2nd and 3rd worlds up to our level.

We are born with a sense of what we deserve, what normal is, what we need to live and be happy, and without changing those definitions, we’ll forever expect them to be the same.

I think this mentality of privilege is the root cause of our disproportionate use of resources. It’s this mentality that leads us to believe we can engineer our way out of our problems. I’m not saying we can’t, but I am saying that if the drive is to maintain our status quo by continuing to use a disproportionate amount of resources (even if less than we used previously), then we’re trying to solve the problem by continuing the same behaviour that caused the problem in the first place.

Innovation implies a ray of ever increasing development, and we of privilege expect that we can not only maintain but also exceed current levels of novelty, technology, entertainment, etcetera. Innovation is the very thing that got us here, yes with all the wonders, but also with all the stratification of wealth and lack of social mobility. I’m weary of any ‘innovative’ solution because innovation implies a lack of stability, an ongoing and ever increasing growth. I’m not even convinced ‘innovation’ is possible (the way it exists today) outside of a capitalist system of inherent exploitation, constructed need and consumption.

We don’t build what the world needs, we build what we want to consume. Even if we do build what the world needs, we must do it in an economically sustainable way, in a context of capitalism and the expectation of increasing the wealth of the investors. I’m not saying technologies are not developed by DIYs and non-profits, I’m saying that those are (not yet) the dominant model.

I do have hope that the kind of increased literacy and access to knowledge inherent in DIY and making can shift the notion of innovation away from a ray to a stable niche where real needs are solved across multiple contexts and without the capitalist apparatus. I just don’t see how we go from here to there considering those who have power, resources, wealth, etc. want to keep it.

I really believe it comes down to social norms and the mentality of privilege. In order for a basic income for all to actually happen (pass through government and be implemented), I think it would require exactly the same kind of cognitive/social change that would be required for us to consume less and accept life requiring less resources. The former is inefficient because it’s mediated by the government while the latter is something we can all do right now with our individual consumption choices. As a society, we just don’t have the will to do that.

We cannot innovate ourselves out of our cognitive and social norms because innovation itself arises from the very mentality that is the root problem.