New study from the University of Helsinki brings forth an argument that practices of getting income, such as salaried work or rentier practices, have become to constitute the core of living and that such core seems to be increasingly decoupled from the environmental degradation, particularly in the urban global North. Below is a summary of the research written by one of the authors, postdoctoral researcher Ossi Ollinaho (HELSUS, EXALT & Development Studies).

In our paper "Incomegetting and Environmental Degradation" (published in Sustainability, May 2020) we bring forth an argument that practices of getting income, such as salaried work or rentier practices, constitute the core of life-worlds and that such a core is increasingly decoupled from the environmental degradation, particularly in the urban global North. We found our conceptual paper on Alfred Schütz social phenomenology, practice theory of Theodore Schatzki and others, as well as some recent developments in the social scientific environmental scholarship on work and extractivism. Accordingly, the world system in its current configuration is structured by large-scale extractive practices that entail flows of wealth from the periphery to the center, that is, value grabbing from the global South to the global North, and also corresponding material flows. Such material flows entail diverse types of buildup and drain that often cannot be sustained for long without evoking systemic breakdowns. Such vast scale cumulative changes nevertheless fail to enter as a pragmatically relevant issue directly to the core of life-worlds – practices of incomegetting – as environmental changes are mediated through thick layers of people and machines to the typical life-world in the global North, but increasingly also in the global South.

Our paper entails three general level implications for environmental social scientific research. First, instead of drafting sketchs how humans should ideally act facing such predicament, scholars ought to study what really goes on in our social lives, that is, to analyze what is relevant for people as they act as part of the social practices that constitute their life-worlds. In more general level, this is to criticize academic work that assumes human cognitive relation to the world – values, knowledge, attitudes – to be the principal driver of our activities. We claim that rather than studying what humans think of nature, we ought to scrutinize their everyday life and how activities within are socially (historically, politically) and materially (infrastructure, technology) structured. We maintain that even though what people find relevant drastically varies across the world system, money has become a pragmatic necessity in virtually everywhere, and therefore the manifold of practices that yield monetary income can be seen as the chief structurer of the life-worlds.

--even though what people find relevant drastically varies across the world system, money has become a pragmatic necessity in virtually everywhere, and therefore the manifold of practices that yield monetary income can be seen as the chief structurer of the life-worlds.

The second point is a corollary of the first: consumption practices depend on income (including credit) and therefore ought to be only scrutinized in environmental social scientific research only after practices of incomegetting. At least with regard to the global North, consumption practices yet attract the most scholarly interest within the field, entailing typically both an individualist and cognitivist assumptions, even though the practice lens is increasingly used within. Incomegetting is not an individual level concept, but refers to the set of practices as part of which people act, that is, it entails structural level analysis while nevertheless maintaining connection to the subjectivities within. Rather than seeing the world as constituted by a range of (e.g. consumption) decisions or conceptualizing the mere being of people, our view directs the attention to human activities and social and material structures organizing them. In other words, our – phenomenological and pragmatist – starting position that life, including human life in late modernity, in its every form, is activity and that any consciousness therein arises from such activity.

Third, we see that with regard to incomegetting, unconditional universal basic income schemes ought to be studied and pushed to government agendas and global institutions in order to curb pressures to further degrade environment due to necessities of getting one’s income in the era of ‘bullshit jobs’. In the current system, people struggle to meet basic and socially constituted necessities through seeking jobs (and income) that are made scarce by the pattern in which public and private capital is directed to labor reducing investments (increasing automatization, robotization and mechanization). It is, however, clear that currently most money is invested in the mere – parasitical – speculative and rent seeking investments that create even less jobs. In other words, rather than thriving for increasing jobs and reducing unemployment under a radically unjust world system and therefore binding people into adverse conditions, scholarly work ought to focus on how to emancipate people from the destructive treadmill.

Unconditional universal basic income schemes ought to be studied and pushed to government agendas and global institutions in order to curb pressures to further degrade environment due to necessities of getting one’s income in the era of ‘bullshit jobs’.

We argue that building momentum for unconditional universal basic income policies remains squarely impossible under the current economics orthodoxy that does not understand the essence of (fiat-)money and how it is created through credit in commercial and central banks. It is obvious that the actual global production systems ought to suffer major changes in parallel with such policies and indeed, we see that universal basic income schemes may help in legitimizing such transitions. We find that environmental social sciences ought to grasp money conceptually instead of taking it as given (by the orthodox economists). To recapitulate (a bit provocatively): Instead of scholars thinking what kind of values and what kind of ideas should be induced to populations so that they curb their consumption to save the planet, scholars ought to focus on the core of the life-worlds: practices of getting income and structures under which such practices are reproduced. One (but not the only) fertile case to study is universal basic income schemes, which for their part require understanding money anew. We hope that our paper incites a lively critical discussion that ultimately helps to undermine the extractive system within which we currently have to live.

Read the full article here.

Read more about the authors:

Ossi Ollinaho - Postdoctoral Researcher at Development Studies, Helsinki Inequality Initiative (INEQ) & Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS)

V. P. J. ArponenGraduate School Human Development in Landscapes, University of Kiel