The Green Economics Institute, 2012, 339 pp, pbk, 1 907543 07 4, £20
This somewhat passionate book sets off from a classic example of the tragedy of the commons: the story of Easter Island, where for six hundred years the felling of trees for canoe manufacture and statue transportation led to environmental degradation, conflict, and human catastrophe. Expansion always has its limits, and the ways in which we are using the planet’s resources and polluting its environment are eerily reminiscent of the issue at the heart of the Easter Island disaster. The absence of an adequate mechanism to enable the community’s long term interest in conserving natural resources and protecting its environment is leading to a failure to control individuals’ or groups’ short-term interest in resource exploitation.
But this is also a hopeful book. It takes as the model for its proposed solution to the problem the way of life developed by the Siane tribe in New Guinea: shared necessities and a free market in luxury goods. From this example Lord et al argue that a Citizen’s Income would enable a just sharing of necessities at the same time as freeing the market in everything else. (The flaw in the logic is that amongst the Siane necessities were not automatically exchangeable for luxury goods whereas a Citizen’s Income would be an integral part of a money economy in which all goods and services can be exchanged with each other. The parallel to the Siane experience would be universal food stamps, not a Citizen’s Income.) As the authors correctly identify, reduced consumption and therefore reduced production can save the commons from degradation, but that will mean disconnecting consumption from jobs, a process which would be facilitated by a Citizen’s Income.
The major problem with the book is not so much the content but rather the structure. The book is a somewhat disconnected set of chapters, mostly by Clive Lord, but with others by other authors presumably related to the Green Economics Institute. Whilst each chapter is of interest, it is not easy to discover a consistent line of argument through the book. One reason for this is that the two main themes, 1. a Citizen’s Income, and 2. environmental protection and a sustainable economy, are not necessarily as directly related as the authors might think. They are dual enthusiasms, and because they are enthusiasms the potential connections and conflicts between them are inadequately explored. The reader is therefore left puzzled by the combination of themes. A more objective editor might have pointed this out to the authors.
But having said that, the two main themes are important and the book’s chapters are often thought-provoking. If you don’t have time to read the whole book then read chapter 4, which helpfully summarises the book as a whole, and which is equally helpfully published as a separate eight page pamphlet.
Easter Island’s story did not end in complete tragedy. When a Dutch ship arrived in 1722 there were still 3,000 people alive. They had found ways to co-operate in scraping a living from a barren landscape. Lord’s, Kennet’s and Felton’s book is a robust call for us all to act now before there is a tragedy from which we shall need to recover, and is an important contribution to a debate on how Green economics and a Citizen’s Income might relate to each other.