by Samuel Alexander and Alex Baumann
Our civilisation is facing an alarming barrage of overlapping crises, together presenting an existential threat to life as we know it. Climate breakdown is intensifying; we are decimating wildlife populations; and more generally the life-support system called Earth is trembling under the weight of overconsumption.
Just as concerning are the social consequences. The global economic system has produced deep, socially corrosive inequalities; poverty around the world is extreme; and worst of all, perhaps, is that even those who are ‘winning the rat race’ so often find that the promises of consumer lifestyles are unfulfilling.
Too much ink has been spilt already criticising this broken system. What about solutions and creative responses? In words often attributed to Albert Einstein, we cannot solve our problems with the same kinds of thinking that caused them.
In this article we’d like to offer some new thinking: a policy proposal that we feel has the potential to be transformative. At its simplest, our proposal involves providing self-selecting unemployed public housing residents with a basic, living wage. With housing and other basic needs secured, the goal would be to enable these public residents to participate voluntarily in the creation of ‘simple living’ communities and neighbourhoods that are sustainable, resilient, and consistent with human flourishing.
If successful, proposal is that these initial examples could be scaled up to support the economically ‘redundant’ and attract progressives across the political divide as a viable alternative for a sustainable society. Central to this vision is the recognition that access to land, just as with air and water, is not a market product. It is a human right and should be recognised as such.
We need land to live simply
The great 19th century philosopher of ‘simple living’ Henry David Thoreau spent two years living on the shores of Walden Pond, where he built himself a small abode, grew his own food, and generally lived an abundant life of voluntary simplicity.
Thoreau also wrote an amazing book called Walden, in which he presented a fiery critique of the emerging consumer culture in the United States and a beautiful defence of simple living. Both his example and his words are inspiring – and, in an age of overconsumption, more important today than ever before. In a key passage, he writes:
I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely.
But Thoreau’s living experiment at Walden Pond depended on access to land, which is the prime barrier to people living simply and sustainable today. It is hard to follow his example of sufficiency-based living, even for those of us who want to. After all, most of us have to work full time in an unsustainable growth economy just to afford somewhere to live.
The huge cost of land and housing has significant implications, affecting what we do for work, how much we work, our need for a car, and a range of other consumer habits. Our economy has developed in such perverse ways (particularly when it comes to land cost) that we are often locked into high-impact consumerist lifestyles.
There is absolutely no way affluent consumption practices of the developed regions of the world can be globalised to all 7.7 billion people on the planet today, let alone the 9.7 billion expected by 2050. Technology alone cannot solve this ecological contradiction. If we are to respond effectively to the overlapping crises of our times, we need to empower individuals, households, and communities to transcend consumer culture and embrace a ‘simpler way’ of life, like Henry Thoreau.
Our policy would enable low-impact living for more people, by providing access to land (in the form of secure housing) and a ‘participation income’ – a Walden Wage, if you like.
Let us explain how it could work.
Access to Land is Fundamental: Unpacking the Vision
At its simplest, the Walden Wage is similar to a ‘voluntary-work-for-the-dole’ scheme – but with a twist and a grand vision that we will share. The policy’s most important feature is linking a secure but modest income with access to public land and housing.
This housing and income option would be offered (at first) to unemployed people who are already in, or on the top of the waiting list for, public housing. These public residents would ‘self-select’ to be involved in around 15 hours per week of local community programs, like growing food, maintaining the neighbourhood, facilitating sharing schemes, or even building new homes.
In other words, the Walden Wage would provide a ‘participation income’ for jobless public residents wanting to engage in the necessary work of creating new forms of sufficiency-based living, enabled by access to land.
The ‘wage’ part of this scheme has some similarity to the notion of a ‘basic income’, which is being talked about a lot these days. However, there are some critical differences. The primary difference is that it would be offered, not universally, but only in the context of public housing and community development – as a minimal and sustainable living wage. This would make it affordable to governments, and since it is linked to access to public land and housing, people receiving the Walden Wage would not find themselves needing to ‘top up’ their incomes by engaging in an unsustainable growth economy in any significant way.
Interestingly, the fact that this income (through the voluntary-work-for the-dole-scheme) it is already available (in Australia) for unemployed people who are over 55, demonstrates that it has already been deemed affordable by government. And, unlike the UBI, it would neither be universal (i.e. paid to all citizens) nor promote or depend on a limitless growth economy to fund it. Indeed, a Walden Wage would function to support the building of a new form of sustainable economy, based on a new land governance arrangement and sufficiency-based, community economies. If over 55s could show a viable pilot, we believe this option could easily be extended to under 55s who are unemployed in public housing.
Land, we should add, would still be owned by the Commonwealth, and residents would pay 25% of their income in rent. Without having the expense of private land and housing, a modest participation income is all that would be required to live well. If we assume that income is a rough proxy for environmental impact, we can also say that the Walden Wage would imply roughly an 85% reduction in impacts compared to the national average, on the basis that the dole ($489.70 per fortnight) is roughly 15% of the average Australian income.
Given the security of public housing and the many benefits of local collaborative development, this wage could be sufficient and even desirable. If shown to be viable, it’s a way of living that represents a massive reduction in market dependence and certainly puts it in the ballpark of global sustainability.
The Benefits and Prospects
The best thing about this seemingly radical idea is that it isn’t actually that radical. With the right supports, it could actually begin now – given that the policy settings are already in place to allow public residents, who are over 55, to self-select into voluntary-work-for-the-dole programs. Such a pilot, if well-conceived, could show that access to land plus a participation income could help build new forms of sustainable economy. If this pilot showed some success, it’s not hard to see how one pilot could turn into two, and even be offered to some willing participants who were under 55.
The next phase could be slightly more ambitious. If governments could provide some more land, these public residents could not just develop community economies around existing public housing projects, but actually participate in the building of their own homes, in collaboration with others, and under the guidance of experts. This would also reduce pressure on existing public housing, giving others the opportunity to participate in this scheme.
Also, providing these public residents with such an opportunity, coupled with a voluntary-work–for-the-dole scheme (reframed as the Walden Wage), represents a shift many on the political right would want too, in the direction of less passive and more active forms of ‘welfare’.
In fact, this policy would totally reframe welfare for those who self-select. If such an opportunity could be encouraged, the identity we give to public housing tenants who participate could begin to be uplifted and even celebrated. Their status in society, and how they might conceive of themselves, could move from being regarded as ‘social dependants’ to ‘pioneers of a new, social economy’.
What if things scaled up?
As more people are cast into unemployment by the automation of jobs, the globalisation of labour, or the phasing-out of high impact industries like fossil fuel power stations, it is highly likely that more and more people will require a new and sustainable housing and community development option like the one being proposed here. For this reason, we need bold new thinking and action now – and the courage to experiment with new housing and living arrangements.
With the community economies we envision becoming increasingly self-reliant, it is not hard to see how this proposal, that started with the unemployed in public housing, could expand to include the growing numbers who have found themselves alienated from the market. This is where things get really interesting and where our policy shows most promise.
Once this local and cooperative sector of the economy started to flourish, we could imagine the sustainability dream coming into fruition – bike lanes weaving their way through food forests, with a few shared electric vehicles available for occasional use when necessary. We can imagine renewable energy micro-grids and large water tanks supporting these new communities on public land. And we can imagine people enriched by the process of participating in the building of their own sustainable homes (e.g. mudbrick), under expert supervision, and in collaboration with others. Soon enough, these pioneers (being liberated from a market mortgage or rent) would be living as free citizens in a thriving, local economy of sufficiency.
This work building new sustainable communities would ‘earn’ or justify the small participation income, providing many benefits – not only to participants, but also to the broader neigbourhood. Through the participants 15 hours per week in local sustainable productivity (professionally run community gardens, resource share and repair programs etc.), many neighbours could opt to be involved and enjoy collaborative benefits. Neighbours could also enjoy a greater sense of community connectedness. Very importantly, all neighbours would also benefit from a much more sustainable future!
Empirical studies show that that some simple living communities and strategies can reduce ecological impacts by up to 90% or more, which is arguably the scale of downshifting needed to bring developed nations within sustainable limits of the planet. Our policy provides an essential key to helping such sustainable communities and neighbourhoods proliferate, namely, by empowering people with access to land (thereby freeing them from the lifelong debt of the mortgage / rent and everything that goes along with it).
Over time, as the realities of globalised labour, technological job redundancy and environmental limits to consumer growth really start to kick in, why should we not imagine thousands of these ecovillages emerging within existing societies? If this happened, we might at last see the planned contraction of energy and resource demands that is so clearly necessary for any ‘degrowth’ transition to sustainable, steady state economy.
Let governments be as ambitious as the Senegalese government, which is has announced a plan to establish and support 14,000 ecovillages.
Build a new model
Our wager, then, is this: if people are provided with affordable rent through public land and housing opportunities to undertake their own sufficiency-based living experiments like Henry Thoreau, then many people would do so. Access to land liberates people from market growth and facilitates ways of living consistent with degrowth. At the very least, it makes sense to support all willing pioneers and encourage their skill development and empower them to build new worlds within the shell of the old.
As Buckminster Fuller once said: ‘You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.’
This is a republished version of an article first published on The Fifth Estate.
Dr Samuel Alexander is a lecturer with the Office for Environmental Programs and researcher with the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne. Most of his writing is freely available at: samuelalexander.info
Dr Alex Baumann lectures in Sustainable Futures at the University of Western Sydney. He is also involved with the ‘Neighbourhood That Works’ sustainability project.