The Environmental Impacts Of UBI And A Shorter Working Week

Continuing our series on UBI: In this essay, republished from the Green Institute’s ‘Can Less Work Be More Fair?’ discussion paper on Universal Basic Income and a shorter working week, Professor Greg Marston argues that a UBI and shorter working week could play an important role in creating the conditions for a sustainable and equitable ‘good life’.

A major policy and political challenge in the 21st century concerns how to create conditions for human flourishing within the ecological limits of a finite planet. Meeting this challenge requires the social and economic dimensions of public policy to be integrated with the environmental dimension so that moves towards a greener economy do not exacerbate income inequalities and social injustice. Steering this course will also require significant changes to how we think about work and welfare. As Naomi Klein puts it in her recent book on the need for a transition from one economic order to another in the face of climate change: “ … it is counterproductive to force people to work in jobs that simply fuel unsustainable consumption” (1). While some amount of climate change is inevitable, the amount of warming is very much under our control. It is for this reason that we need to look at what sort of social policies will enable a successful transition to a low-carbon economy.

We need to look at what sort of social policies will enable a successful transition to a low-carbon economy.

The measures needed to secure a just and equitable transition away from fossil fuels and ‘dirty jobs’ clashes with our reigning economic and social policy orthodoxy in Australia. At present there is very little coordination between social policy, environmental targets, and economic policy, which makes it difficult to see how Australia will make a successful transition to a low-carbon economy, despite the expansion of the renewable energy sector over the past decade (2). This is because climate change is a human problem, not one that can simply be fixed by technological innovation. In its recent discussion paper, the World Health Organization succinctly summarised the significance of the social dimensions of climate change:

The current climate change discourse—including the way mitigation and adaptation measures are designed and appraised—tends to emphasize environmental, economic or technological inputs and costs. The social dimensions of climate change are not well understood or addressed. As a result, current policy responses may not fully address the negative impacts nor do they take full advantage of potential opportunities to reach a number of sustainable development goals. (3)

Acknowledging the limitations of economic growth raises fundamental philosophical questions about what constitutes a ‘good life’. What is clear is that we must implement radical policy change if we are to have any hope of addressing climate change and growing economic insecurity and uncertainty associated with automation and technological unemployment. Tinkering around the edges will not be enough. This short paper examines some of the arguments for introducing a universal basic income alongside a shorter working week as one suite of possible responses to recreate the conditions for the ‘good life’ under conditions of sustainable prosperity.

What is clear is that we must implement radical policy change if we are to have any hope of addressing climate change and growing economic insecurity and uncertainty associated with automation and technological unemployment. Tinkering around the edges will not be enough.

Welfare states, jobs and growth

The welfare states of the developed world flourished in the second half of the 20th century under conditions of rising revenues to fund social programs, based on exporting emissions and expanding imports from low-wage countries. Rapid growth, driven by expanding consumption, was the dominant economic model. This model worked well enough until rising unemployment hit many developed economies in the early to mid-1970s. The response by national governments at the time was to deal with growing unemployment by speeding up the rate of growth.

However, we have known for a long time that a high rate of growth is neither desirable nor sustainable in human and environmental terms. So why don’t we change our ways? In part, high carbon lives have come to be embedded in social institutions and dominant cultural patterns, supported by social and economic policies (such as the dominance of energy intensive suburban living in many cities around the world). The separation of environmental sustainability and welfare sustainability into distinct policy areas also reduces the capacity to effectively respond to new risks and uncertainties. This compartmental policy context has meant that social-welfare dynamics, which are crucial to the realisation of a low-carbon future, have been neglected and underplayed in mainstream climate change debates.

Politically, there is a real sense here of policymakers struggling with competing goals, without the benefit of clear leadership to create policy synergies and open the way for economic models that can provide conditions for sustainable prosperity. This problem is neatly encapsulated by Jackson’s conception of the ‘conflicted state’:

On the one hand government is bound to the pursuit of economic growth. On the other, it finds itself having to intervene to protect the common good from the incursions of the market. The state itself is deeply conflicted, striving on the one hand to encourage consumer freedoms that lead to growth and on the other to protect social goods and defend ecological limits. (4)

Identifying policy synergies and promoting more radical policy change is an increasingly important task if genuinely sustainable human development is to be realised. Proposals for shorter working weeks and the UBI are worth examining for their potential to help address the climate change challenge, particularly as the environmental impact of a UBI remains somewhat unclear and untested.

Identifying policy synergies and promoting more radical policy change is an increasingly important task if genuinely sustainable human development is to be realised.

A world of much slower growth, and the call to curb emissions, poses critical questions for social norms and the political economy of 21st century welfare states. In looking to the future we will need to look at the social institution of the welfare state from a new angle—as a potential resource for avoiding some of the more pessimistic future scenarios that are associated with unsustainable high-carbon growth. Social policy can assist the transformation of high carbon economies, both in terms of speed and scale, and in terms of minimising social conflict associated with transitions to a ‘greener economy’. As far back as the 1970s, the economist Herman Daly (5) argued that the quantitative expansion of the economic system increases environmental and social costs faster than production benefits, making most of us poorer not richer.

More recently, important insights are provided from philosophers such as Soper (6), who argue that consumer society has already passed a critical point where materialism is now actively detracting from human wellbeing. Psychologists such as Kasser have also produced evidence that people with higher intrinsic (non-or post-materialistic) values are both happier and have higher levels of environmental responsibility than those with extrinsic (materialistic) values (7).

Transitioning to a low-carbon slow growth economy is not simply a matter of social policy prescription or new economic incentives, but of transforming whole patterns of social life in terms of employment, family, mobility, housing and leisure. It is social systems that need to change in order to bring about a low-carbon society sustained by a ‘steady state economy’, in which population growth, technological change, and economic growth are all reduced to a more sustainable level (8).

Transitioning to a low-carbon slow growth economy is not simply a matter of social policy prescription or new economic incentives, but of transforming whole patterns of social life in terms of employment, family, mobility, housing and leisure.

What is clear is that we are going to organise work differently if we want sustainable economic, social and environmental systems. This conclusion was once seen as economically inevitable, rather than simply socially and environmentally desirable. Leading 20th century economists predicted in the 1930s and 1940s that we would all be working less in the 21st century. John Maynard Keynes proclaimed in 1930 that we would be all engaged in just 15 hours of paid work week by the year 2030, largely as a result of rising standard of living on the back of productivity gains. For a time it seemed he would be proved right. Working hours reduced and leisure time increased in many developed countries up until the 1970s.

However, in the 1980s, this trend started to reverse. Women entered the workforce in greater numbers and leisure time started to decrease for households as men did not reduce their working hours. Part of the explanation for increased labour force participation rates and longer hours is that capital city house prices also climbed in countries like Australia, outstripping wages growth. More than one income became necessary to service the average mortgage. Over the same period, our houses were getting bigger, while family size was becoming smaller. So while our rising national wealth once created more leisure, it was now creating more consumption. Greater stress (being time poor) and uncertainty (economic insecurity) have been the result of these changes, particularly as the pool of secure full-time secure work shrinks and part-time and casual employment increases.

Addressing this problem will require reminding ourselves of some recent history. We have forgotten the lessons from the past that productivity and longer hours do not go hand in hand (9). Large global companies like Ford and Kelloggs learned this lesson in the 1950s when they reduced the length of the working week for their employees on the factory floor. The same lesson applies to the knowledge economy. Recent research suggests that someone who is constantly drawing on their creative abilities can be productive for no more than six hours a day.

So what sorts of problems does a shorter working week solve? We would have a greater sense of personal autonomy associated with more discretionary time to do the things we find enjoyable and pleasurable; we would have fewer work related accidents associated with long hours and overtime; and we would have more time to do the unpaid caring work and volunteering that builds social citizenship and solidarity. Reduced working hours could also help in mitigating climate change, as the following section explores in greater detail.


Reduced working hours and environmental impacts

As productivity increased in developed and developing countries, social and political choices were made as to whether the gains should be taken as higher consumption or fewer working hours (based on the assumption that a fair share of these gains flow through to workers). As the previous section has shown, many countries have chosen longer working hours and more consumption.

In Western Europe, there is some evidence that average working hours have been reducing in response to national legislation, while in countries like Australia and the US, working hours have been increasing for the proportion of the workforce with full-time jobs. In fact, a recent OECD report found that 15% of Australians are working for more than 50 hours per week, compared with the OECD average of 9%. Excessive work and pressure have become status symbols. At the same time, poorer citizens are working longer on lower wages, when they can find the hours. We have a paradox of overemployment and underemployment. What is needed is a radical redistribution of working hours for human and environmental health.

What is needed is a radical redistribution of working hours for human and environmental health.

There are some claims that a worldwide shift to a shorter working week over the course of this century could almost half the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, depending on the baseline scenario for each country (10). In countries with high levels of income inequality, it will be harder to make the case for a reduction in working hours, given the impact on economic livelihoods at the bottom end of the income scale (hence the need for an adequate basic income to work in tandem with a reduction in working hours). Overall, despite a complex relationship between the different variables, including population growth, it does seem that the path to consuming less may start with working less (11).

If we have shorter hours, we will have more time for leisure. What we do with our time is something we all need to consider, both collectively and individually. Will Australians be more likely to use leisure time shopping and buying cheap imported consumer goods? Or will we instead use discretionary time for enjoying the natural environment, reading, getting involved in local politics or participating in cultural events? These kinds of questions get to the heart of what is sometimes called ‘genuine leisure’ versus commodified leisure and recreation, which are forms of leisure that rely on market-provided goods and leisure that ultimately enable the reproduction of capitalism (12).

Using leisure time wisely will ultimately justify whether the reduction in working hours pays off for people and the planet. As action was taken in the 20th century to reduce working hours, there were plenty of scaremongers amongst employers and governments who predicted that more leisure would result in more household debt, higher crime rates and social deviance. This dystopian vision did not transpire, which should give us some confidence about a workless (but not worthless) future as we contemplate the arguments for shortening the working week (13).

The combination of redistributing working hours and introducing a UBI will allow people to work out their optimal paid working hours, leaving time for the other things that matter, which will hopefully include enjoying and caring for the environment. However, the relationship between greater economic security and greater environmental stewardship remains untested.


UBI and environmental impacts

Arguments for a universal basic income can be based on different sets of normative assumptions, such as enabling greater personal freedom, fulfilling state obligations for social citizenship through fairer redistribution of resources, or creating the conditions for ecological sustainability. This latter argument is given less attention in academic debates about the merits of a universal basic income (14). However, the crisis presented by climate change, combined with concern about growing technological unemployment, is a powerful force in breaking down established economic and social policy ‘path dependencies’.

In line with the hypothesis that it will ultimately be necessary to limit transnational and global inequalities in wealth and income in order to reach an ‘Earth-wide steady state economy’, Andersson proposes the successive generalisation of a universal basic income from the already rich countries to a global scheme (15). The first step will be establishing the benefits of national schemes in wealthy countries, a number of which are presently being trialled in places like Canada, the Netherlands and Finland, following successful trials in India.

There are three main ways that a universal basic income may promote climate change mitigation and adaptation. First, an adequate universal basic income will reduce income inequality, which has a positive flow on effect for the environment. Reducing income inequality seems to help promote pro-environmental values. Breznau’s analysis of survey data from five countries showed that those with egalitarian values are the most likely to support government services designed to reduce inequality (16). Conversely, those who support “economic individualism” are the least likely to favour such a role for government. Such attitudes also appear to affect support for pro-environmental behaviours and expenditures. Generally speaking, those who hold pro-market/ individualist worldviews do not endorse pro-environmental values and behaviours; the reverse holds true for people who maintain pro-environmental values (17).

Second, a universal basic income can change the power relationship between capital and labour, putting more power in the hands of employees. To use the language of incentives, which is so often levelled at income support recipients, employers have little extrinsic motivation or economic incentives to deliver desirable jobs and working conditions when an army of income support recipients are being forced to accept whatever paid work is offered, regardless of its quality, duration, or whether it is a job that is harmful to the environment. In short, what is required is institutionalising new conceptions of wellbeing, as well as new relationships between individuals and paid work that rely less on driving people into undesirable jobs (18). In the interests of moving beyond outmoded welfare state economics, serious consideration needs to be given to de-coupling income support and economic security from labour market policies. A UBI will increase people’s appetite for risk and new forms of income generation may become possible, in part enabled by new information and communication technologies. People may seek self-employment opportunities, for example, which they can do from home.

A universal basic income can change the power relationship between capital and labour, putting more power in the hands of employees.

Third, a universal basic income will change people’s movement in cities where the bulk of the population live and where it is estimated that more than 60% of carbon emissions are generated by transport and housing. We might see less reliance on the daily commute from the urban fringe to the city centre to work during the week, and on the weekends people may also rely less on travelling to shopping malls to spend their disposable income on a mix of necessities and luxuries alike. Planning laws and regulations will need to be modified to create an alternative vision of the city and the town. Planners, politicians and citizens would need to collaborate in the redesign of urban and rural centres, with energy requirements and lifestyles being more local and smaller in scale (19).

What this brief discussion shows is that questions of identity, culture and lifestyle are as important as political economy in successfully transitioning to a low-carbon society. Ultimately the incorporation of environmental interests, including climate change mitigation, will require a much more active state or ‘a return to planning’ (20) to set goals and targets, manage risks, re-align prices through taxation, and regulate externalities otherwise neglected by business interests. Especially in circumstances of financial crisis, economic recovery is seen to demand public investment, and this should be targeted towards energy security and low-carbon infrastructures into the future.

Questions of identity, culture and lifestyle are as important as political economy in successfully transitioning to a low-carbon society.

Daly and Farly (21) suggest two main principles of macro-economic reforms that respect ecological limits: firstly, the rate of extraction of non-renewable resources should not exceed the rate of creation of nonrenewable substitutes; and secondly, waste emissions should not exceed the environment’s capacity to assimilate them. Achieving these goals requires an active state to set collective limits on resource extraction, to set targets for renewable energy production, and to move towards greater synergy in economic, social and environmental policy so that demand for energy and goods can also be reduced.



A redesigned welfare state in advanced economies, with universal basic income as a core institutional feature, can potentially assist the transformation of high carbon economies into sustainable societies, both in terms of speed and scale, and in terms of minimising social conflict associated with economic and social transitions to a ‘greener economy’. Combined with robotics and automation, we are facing a perfect storm of events where the result, if not systemically addressed, will be structural unemployment, growing inequality and mass environmental degradation. A viable alternative to this fate is the introduction of a UBI and a shorter working week.

As outlined here, a universal basic income would have the benefit of addressing economic insecurity and reducing reliance on industries that harm the environment during the transition to a new economy, under slow growth conditions. The Australian welfare state, like that which exists in other developed countries, needs to be refurbished so that it can meet a different set of economic conditions in the 21st century, under which economic insecurity, human induced climate change and income inequality are posing real threats to the social order.

Participatory and deliberative modes of governance will have a significant role to play in terms of securing public support for these new welfare paradigms and the legitimation of integrated policy solutions. If institutionalised correctly, deliberative forums can encourage preference transformation in ways that are sympathetic to environmental goals. As Guy Standing argues, a universal basic income may also ‘thicken’ democracy as it enables people to have more time for getting involved in issues that affect them and their community (22).

These reconfigurations of time, work and leisure will necessarily reimagine new forms of citizenship, a form of citizenship that is less territorial in terms of civic and ecological value, given the global dimension to the climate change challenge. Other positive spin offs include reducing reliance on the fragile geopolitics of fossil fuel energy supply by incentivising the creation of more paid jobs in the expanding ‘green sector’ of the economy, while publicly valuing other forms of work (such as unpaid care work and volunteering, both of which are mainly done by women at present). Whatever specific social policy reforms are debated and adopted in the future, the justification for ‘welfare’ will need to be reframed in terms of human security and genuine sustainability, rather than facilitating labour market participation at whatever personal and environmental cost.



(1) Klein, N., This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Penguin Books, London, 2014, p94.

(2) Garnaut, R., The Climate Change Review, 2011. Retrieved from

(3) World Health Organization, Climate Change and Health: Resolution of 61st World Health Assembly, World Health Organization, Geneva, 2011, p3.

(4) Jackson, T., Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a future Planet, London: Earthscan, 2009, p167

(5) Daly, H. (ed), Towards a Steady State Economy W.H Freeman and Company; New York, 1973

(6) Soper, K. (ed), The politics and pleasure of consuming differently, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2009

(7) Kasser, T., “Intellectual Virtue in Environmental Virtue Ethics.” Environmental Ethics, 32, 2001, pp339–352

(8) Daly, supra, n5.

(9) Bregman, R., Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders and a 15 Hour Workweek, The Correspondent, 2016

(10) Rosnick, D., Reduced Work Hours as a Means of Slowing Climate Change, Centre for Economic and Policy Research, 2013, http://www.cepr. net/documents/publications/climate-change-workshare-2013-02.pdf

(11) Bregman, supra, no9.

(12) Agger, B., Fast capitalism: A Critical Theory of Significance, University of Illinois, Illinois, 1989

(13) Dunlop, T., Why the Future is Workless, Newsouth Publishing, Sydney, 2016.

(14) Marston, G., “Greening the Australian Welfare State: Can Basic Income Play a Role?”, in Mays, J., Marston, G. and Tomlinson, J., (eds), Basic Income in Australia and New Zealand, Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke, 2016.

(15) Andersson, J.-O., Basic Income from an Ecological Perspective, Basic Income Studies 4(2): 1–8, p6.

(16) Cited by Haupt, J. and Lawrence, C. (2012) Unexpected connections: Income inequality and environmental degradation, available http://www.

(17) Heath, Y and Gifford, R., Free market ideology and environmental degradation: The case of belief in global climate change. Environment and Behaviour, 38(1), 48–71; Steg, L. and Sievers, I., Cultural theory and individual perceptions of environmental risks, Environment and Behaviour, 32(2), 250–269.

(18) Standing, G., The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, Bloomsbury Press, London, 2011.

(19) Urry, J., Climate Change and Society, MPG Books, Cornwall, 2011.

(20) Giddens, A., The Politics of Climate Change, Polity, Cambridge, 2009.

(21) Cited by Koch, M. (2013) Welfare After Growth: Theoretical Discussion and Policy Implications, International Journal of Social Quality, 3(1), pp 4–20.

(22) Standing, supra, n18.