Beyond UBI: Sowing the Seeds of Universal Ecological Infrastructure

[Listen to a Mutual Exchange Radio Podcast discussing this essay here]

Ideas related to Universal Basic Income (UBI) have been gaining some traction lately with the goals of mitigating inequality, addressing the increasing precarity of technological unemployment, and attempting to ensure that people can meet their basic needs. As an anarchist seeking freedom for all, these goals overlap with my own.

This essay is not intended to argue against any particular UBI proposal, much less to oppose the concept more broadly. Indeed, were something like a UBI successfully implemented, it would, as Kevin Carson put it, “likely increase individual agency, since our current degree of dependency on landlords and employers amounts to dependence on de facto branches of the state.” A functioning UBI would greatly facilitate the projects I advocate below. That said, I still see some potential problems with UBI and seek to outline a complementary approach to achieving our common underlying goals. 

The most glaring problem with most UBI proposals, at least from an anarchist perspective, is their reliance on a state. States and their corporate beneficiaries have a vested interest in keeping people dependent. If one’s access to the necessities of survival is contingent on one’s citizenship or otherwise legal status under a state, then one is more likely to obey that state’s commands, even when they are harmful. The danger that certain classes of people will be excluded from a state’s definition of “universal” is not just a future threat, but a present and ongoing one.

Migrants are regularly denied basic necessities and freedoms. The land and water of indigenous people is systematically stolen and poisoned. People are assaulted, robbed, imprisoned, and/or killed by police every day. To list merely the ongoing crimes of states, much less their bloody historical record, is a massive task outside the scope of this essay. It isn’t hard to imagine that states will continue to divide people into arbitrary categories and extend privileges to some, at the expense (often mortal) of those deemed “other.”

If we are to meet our basic needs in dignity and freedom, we clearly cannot trust states, as they have been and continue to be the primary disposessors and destroyers of people’s independent means of subsistence. Recognizing this basic fact, some propose creating a stateless cryptocurrency basic income. I find this laudable and wish them success, but as someone who lacks the relevant technical skills I can do little to directly contribute, and I fear such a scheme still shares certain vulnerabilities with statist proposals.

An oft-overlooked problem, even for those forms of UBI that don’t rely on a state, is their reliance on a medium of exchange. Once you’ve received your basic income in the form of x number of food stamps or dollars or cryptocoins, you still have to find someone willing to accept them in exchange for what you actually need to live; like food, water, medicine, clothing, shelter, energy, etc. This isn’t nearly as precarious of a situation as directly relying on the state, at least to the extent that such resources are not monopolized, but it is still a step removed from having direct access to the basic things one needs to live.

Essentially, I contend that Universal Basic Income is neither universal enough nor basic enough. Its focus on monetary income is narrow and shortsighted. It is at least as fragile a program as the broader political-economic system. And ultimately it doesn’t address the roots of our total dependence on the physical landscape and its surrounding and underlying ecology. 

What I propose as both a complementary transitional strategy and a long-term component of a future free society, is the growth and regeneration of Universal Ecological Infrastructure.

Many of the basic needs we must now spend money to satiate could instead be met directly via our interactions with living networks woven intentionally throughout human habitat. Our homes and surrounding landscapes could be designed and built so as to passively maintain comfortable indoor temperatures, collect rainwater, turn waste into living soil, and produce food, fuel, fiber, medicine, and myriad other useful materials and services. We can do this while simultaneously increasing biological diversity, providing forage and habitat for a greater variety of our fellow lifeforms.

The techniques and processes appropriate to each specific area will differ greatly, and will likely be a mix of newer and age-old practices. As imperialist states grew in power and prioritized hegemony and vertical legibility, commons were enclosed, methods of independent subsistence were widely suppressed, and much important local knowledge was lost. We have so much to learn and relearn.

One good way to start is by observing and researching the plants growing in your area. Observing the successes and failures of the oldest structures built in your area can also impart valuable information about local climate and available materials.

Some fruitful general search terms include passive solar design, regenerative agriculture, restoration ecology, autonomous building, vernacular architecture, and permaculture. And while I am strongly in favor of permaculture and I think the permaculture movement as a whole tends to be sincerely compassionate and a radical force for good, it is worth noting certain problematic and unfortunately too-common tendencies; from snake oil sales to eco-feudalism and the enclosure of intellectual property. We can do better.

Nevertheless, knowledge of the necessary techniques and processes to begin growing universal ecological infrastructure is currently relatively freely available on the internet. Part of our strategy must be to distribute this knowledge more widely and help each other implement it. We need only the courage to begin directly providing for our own needs and the creative coordination to defend our homes and neighborhoods from the destruction, waste, and parasitism of states and capitalism.

Such a project isn’t something that can be implemented all-at-once or instantly via some sweeping act or decree. Rather, it must emerge interstitially as we gradually repair damaged soils, rebuild disrupted habitats, and grow and regrow networks of mutual aid with our fellow humans and non-humans alike. Nor is building ecological infrastructure a wholly sufficient liberatory strategy in and of itself. But it is arguably a necessary part, alongside our squats, strikes, egalitarian markets, community self-defense, and the building of social, cultural, and technological infrastructures for liberation.

Money may not grow on trees, but many foods, fuels, fibers, and medicines actually are produced by trees and other plants. When present in sufficient numbers, as in forests, they can help produce local rainfall. They can also moderate temperatures by shading the ground during the day, slowing the loss of warm air into the sky at night, and providing a buffer against harsh winds. Not to mention the fact that plants can help cleanse the air of some pollutants and literally convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. Intentionally integrating more plants into our designs for human habitat is a direct way to meet our basic needs and an obvious step toward solving many problems. 

Sector analysis is an illuminating concept in permaculture design focused on observing the patterns of various energies incoming into a site. In a sense, nothing could be more basic or universal than this “income.” Which directions does the sun come from over the course of the day/year? From which directions does the wind tend to come? Where does water flow and where does it collect? Identifying these and other relevant patterns and basing our plans on them is vital.

Whether these incoming energies facilitate or inhibit the basic subsistence of a site’s inhabitants depends on how that site is set up to receive them. The perverse incentives of state capitalism have caused many structures to be built that are effectively uninhabitable without nearly constant and costly fossil-fuel-based energy inputs. Such poorly-designed structures render their inhabitants dependent on extractive energy companies that in turn impose significant negative externalities. 

Kevin Carson’s recent piece Pandemics: the State as Cure or Cause? touched on this, referencing a piece by Vinay Gupta, whose themes of “wealth as the ability to sustain life” and the “immense freedom that comes from owning your own life support system outright” are something I again want to echo:

[A] fuel bill is your life energy going down the drain because the place you live sucks your life way in waste heat, which is waste money, which is waste time […] all of the time you spent to earn that money is wasted to the degree those systems are inefficient systems, behind best practices!

Rather than structures that drain our life energy, we can build, as Emma Goldman put it, “things of utility and beauty, things that help to create strong beautiful bodies and surroundings inspiring to live in.”

In colder climates, well-designed homes will have windows facing sunwards to absorb heat during the day, and perhaps will have trees or other structures to slow and redirect cooling winds. In warmer climates, a well-designed home applies the same principles for their reverse effect, using air flow for cooling and utilizing shade to intentionally avoid solar exposure during the hottest times. In almost every terrestrial climate, as one digs down into the ground, the temperature of the surrounding earth tends towards the annual average, and this stable temperature can be used to minimize the need for both heating and cooling. The principle of using thermal mass to moderate the microclimate inside of an insulated space is broadly applicable.

Every site has its own unique mix of climate and microclimates, and while as an individual you may have very little ability to affect the global climate, you can directly make very strong impacts on these local microclimates. By conscious observation and design, we can arrange and orient the components of a site to efficiently utilize many different incoming energies and passively generate basic human necessities in abundance. 

While many things are undoubtedly harder to produce locally, being dependent on a global supply chain for almost everything is precarious and unsustainable. Through building and growing diverse, resilient, locally-adapted life support systems, by carefully observing our environment and adapting our strategies to our unique local settings, almost any place on earth can provide the basic necessities for human life. 

Designing and cultivating resilient agro-ecological systems to provide habitat for a rich diversity of life while growing our own food, medicine, materials, etc., building and retrofitting our structures to be able to passively and efficiently shelter us; generating and regenerating the ecological infrastructure we need to live is real action that we can take, directly, autonomously, and gradually. We can start locally and grow together into a more global and universal movement. We need not ask permission from states or landlords, but we will need to organize resistance together and defend ourselves when they inevitably try to stop us.

As permaculturist Bill Mollison wrote, “The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves.”

We desire a world where everyone’s needs are met and the freedom of all is expanding endlessly. There are countless tactics, techniques, and processes we will have to adopt if we are to have any hope of success. Embracing the long-term goal and immediate strategy of generating universal ecological infrastructure can offer us many useful lenses through which to see, tools with which to build, and allies with whom we can live and fight alongside.

A mature form of UEI might look like a solarpunk eutopia, perhaps not fully automated luxury, but at least practically passive comfort, where the food we need is growing right outside our homes and we have zero utility bills. In the longer term future, UEI could be greening the deserts of the asteroid belt, and ultimately, as Octavia Butler put it, “The destiny of earthseed is to take root among the stars.” 

Today, it may start with flowers growing between the cracks in the pavement, sprouts growing in a windowsill, digging ponds, planting forest gardens, and integrating homes into the surrounding landscape.

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