Chapter 7: Cap and Share – managing the share on a global level by Caroline Whyte

Note: an updated version of this article, from June 2016, can be read here:

There are two key questions that arise when one considers the practicalities of distributing the share in Cap and Share – or any other per-capita-based share of a common resource – globally: whether it would be physically possible to distribute equal allocations to every single adult or every single person in the world, and whether it would be wise.

Let’s being by running through some of the main objections that spring to mind when we consider how a global cap and share scheme might play out:

  • The instability of debt-backed money within the ‘casino’ world economy. Relying on national currencies in their current debt-based form as the primary way to express the value of the share seems likely to prove unwise, to say the least. At the time of writing we’re being reminded yet again of just how fragile the world’s financial system is. By the time this book is published, it’s entirely possible that the euro will have collapsed, bringing the world’s stock markets down with it.
  • Lack of infrastructure. This problem could affect the distribution of the share, since getting emissions allocations or cash to people who live off-the-grid and far from any road is a challenge, and it could also affect the extent to which the share is useful. There’s not much point in having cash if there’s nothing meaningful in the locality to spend it on.
  • Unstable regions. Large areas of the world are either in a state of war or barely out of war, and the logistics of getting shares to refugees and displaced people could be daunting.
  • Possible gold rush effect. Local economies could be destabilized by a sudden inflow of cash, as has happened before in areas where a valuable natural resource was discovered. In this case the resource would be emissions rights, and as with other resources, its ‘discovery’ could trigger problems such as inflation. It could be particularly damaging to communities which are not very dependent on cash at present. Moreover, as with other resource discoveries, an economic boom in the area would likely be ephemeral and might quickly give way to a bust, particularly if the world economy collapsed because of energy shortages.
  • Problems related to the temporary nature of the scheme. If the cap is successful in bringing emissions down to zero over time, the scheme will end. But there could be resistance to the gradual winding down of Cap and Share both on the part of the people employed to carry it out and of those beneficiaries who gain the most from it.
  • Possibility of violent crime. Some areas of the world are already in a state of crisis because of climate change or other disasters, and desperate people might take extreme measures to get hold of as much cash as they can. They might also spend it on weapons. Vulnerable groups such as women and the elderly could be targeted.
  • Vested interests. As we’ll see, one of the effects of allocating the share would likely be a decrease in inequality. This could be perceived as very threatening by people who benefit from the status quo, such as big landowners in Brazil. They tend to have a lot of political clout and could make it difficult to implement the programme.

This list may seem quite forbidding. However, the world situation is evolving very quickly and there are three recent phenomena which we can factor against the objections listed above. A decade or so ago, none of them would have been weighty enough to make much difference, but as we’ll see, circumstances are different now. Let’s take a look at each of them in turn.

Increased recognition of the importance of empowering individuals and local economies

Broadly speaking, it used to be widely assumed that developmental planning was something best undertaken either solely by governments or by a combination of governments and big businesses who would undertake massive projects such as dam construction[1]. Then, in the eighties and nineties, government went out of fashion and there was a trend towards privatizing publicly held resources such as water and energy. As Justin Kenrick and Nick Bardsley point out in their chapters, agencies such as the IMF and World Bank have become notorious for pressuring countries to adopt these policies.

In some areas such practices continue to the present day. But it is increasingly recognized that there are enormous problems with putting all the big planning decisions in the control of large bodies, be they public or private. Such problems include corruption, a systematic, relentless transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, too much bureaucracy, a lack of accountability and misperceptions as to what ‘ordinary’ people actually want and need.

An important aspect of the reaction against this is the global commons movement which Justin Kenrick describes in his chapter. I’ll be discussing another aspect here: the increasing amount of attention that has been given over the past decade and a half to “social transfers”.

Social transfers are anything useful that lends itself to per-capita distribution by governments or NGOs. They can take the form of cash, food or vouchers, among other things. Cash transfers in particular are becoming increasingly popular, despite initial fears on the part of some observers that they would create dependency and stifle initiative.

In their book Just Give Money to the Poor: The Development Revolution from the South, Joseph Hanlon, Armando Barrientos and David Hulme write that cash transfers are a “southern challenge to an aid and development industry built up over half a century in the belief that development and the eradication of poverty depended solely on what international agencies and consultants could do for the poor, while discounting what the citizens of developing countries, and the poor among them, could do for themselves”.[2] They add that “the biggest problem for those below the poverty line is a basic lack of cash. Many people have so little money that they cannot afford small expenditures on better food, sending children to school, or searching for work.”, and they cite statistics showing how cash transfers have substantially reduced poverty in countries as diverse as Brazil and Mongolia.

They note that poorer people who receive transfers are more likely to spend the money on locally produced goods than richer people, who tend to spend more money on imports. Additionally, poorer people are more likely to use the transfers as leverage for investments, rather than simply spending all the money immediately.

According to a recent report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the UNDP, “there is growing international consensus on the importance of essential social transfers and essential social services as core elements of a social protection floor for national development processes.” Many charities and other NGOs are now strongly promoting social transfers. Even the World Bank, which is not noted for its radical views, has come round to endorsing them, albeit in a form which some argue to be unnecessarily
complex[3]. Indeed, I have been unable to find a single report or study that considered social transfers to be a bad idea, although, as one might expect, some individual programmes come in for criticism because of being poorly designed or implemented[4].

Social transfers can be short-term, with the goal, for example, of providing emergency aid to people who are having difficulties, or longer term, to help provide financial stability so that people can make investments and plan realistically. Sometimes they come with strings attached, as in various Latin American countries where people are guaranteed a stipend if they enroll their children in school. These are known as conditional transfers. They can be targeted, i.e., given only to people who fall within a certain income range or live in a particular area, or they can be universal.

So how would Cap and Share fit in with this? It seems clear that the share in Cap and Share could be considered to be a universal, temporary, unconditional social transfer, to be allocated by an NGO which would probably take the form of a trust. We should note however that there are three differences between it and existing social transfer programmes.

The first difference, which is probably not very important, is that the goal of existing social transfer programmes is usually either poverty relief or ‘development’, purely and simply; such programmes generally make no reference to the environment or even to commons-based rights. This difference in purpose would have no effect on the mechanics of distributing the transfers, and in any case, if Cap and Share were to be carefully implemented, it would be quite likely to substantially reduce poverty, at least in the short term (see panel).

The second difference is in the source of the transfer funds. Existing social transfer programmes are all funded from taxes or from donations to charities, and so take the form of wealth redistribution. The share in Cap and Share, however, is a form of predistribution since it derives from the natural commons of the atmosphere. Thus, it might not be subject to some of the short-term political pressures that tax-funded social transfer schemes can sometimes fall victim to, which would of course be an advantage. Indeed, Hanlon et al actually suggest towards the end of their book that the funding from carbon use fees be used internationally as cash transfer revenue; their rationale for this is that funding for the transfers would be more reliable under such a scheme than tax- or loan-based funding. So these authors have independently developed an idea that comes quite close to Cap and Share.

Cap and Share in India and South Africa

Two reports commissioned by Feasta in 2008 examined the possible effects of a global cap and share scheme. The first one discussed the South African situation and the second focused on India. The South Africa report[5] was written by Jeremy Wakeford of the South African New Economics Network. Here is the section of its conclusion that describes the effects of the share:

“South Africa mirrors the wider world in that it has two linked economies, a rich, energy-intensive one and a poor, low-energy-use one. As a result, this study of the effects that Cap and Share would have if introduced there as part of a global climate settlement provides a good indication of how C&S would affect the world as a whole. What it shows is that:

  • 70% of the population would be better off because they would receive more from selling their emissions permits than their cost of living would go up. The income of the bottom 20% could double.
  • The richest 20% of the population could see its income reduced in the short-term by 14% while the 10% of people with middling incomes would be unaffected because their increased costs would be balanced by their increased income from selling their permits.
  • The higher fossil fuel prices C&S would bring would provide the incentive for a rapid development of renewable energy sources.

India still has a comparatively low level of per-capita emissions, since even though it has a booming economy and its emissions levels are increasing rapidly, these factors are counterbalanced by the fact that emissions started at a relatively low level and the population is large. The India report, by Anandi Sharon of the Bangalore-based NGO Women for Sustainable Development, therefore concluded:

“Because most of its people use very little fossil energy, India would benefit massively from the global adoption of Cap and Share […] 90% of the population would stand to gain, and the more rapidly emissions were reduced, the greater their gains would be. For example, if the pace was rapid and the world price for emissions permits rose to €100 per tonne of CO2, the poorest 10% of Indians would see their total income increased twenty times. If the CO2 price was €200 per tonne, their incomes would be 40 times greater than today. Only those Indians using a lot of energy would suffer in the short-term because they would have to pay more for their fuel than they received in compensation from the sale of their permits. Their net incomes would be reduced by 0.26% at €100/tonne of CO2 and 0.52% at €200. In the longer term, however, they could expect to become richer as a group because of the better business and professional opportunities the increase in the rest of the population’s incomes would provide.” [6]

We can see that in both countries there would be a huge reduction in income inequality. The sudden rise in income of the lower-income population deciles would be likely to trigger radical shifts in the countries’ economies, and indeed in their societies and cultures, and the power relations between these countries and the rest of the world would also change. There is plenty to think about here, and we’ll discuss some of the ramifications further below.

The temporary nature of the share

The third difference is likely to be the most important one: it is that the share in Cap and Share would not be a dependable, fixed amount of money, but would fluctuate in value. At the beginning it would quite possibly be far more valuable to most of its recipients than any social transfer made at present (with the exception, some would argue, of financial bailouts made to billionaires on Wall Street – a rather different kind of social transfer from that promoted by the UNDP and ILO). As mentioned above, in some areas its value could be so great that it could even destabilize the local economy. Later on, its value would depend on the extent to which the world economy was succeeding in transferring to renewable forms of energy. This places it in sharp contrast with current social transfer programmes, which only deal with modest amounts of money that do not fluctuate.

What are the implications? Obviously, Cap and Share could not be part of a “social protection floor” as it would not provide a reliable income or food security. However, the emphasis placed by social transfer schemes on providing individuals with decision-making power about how to allocate resources dovetails very neatly with the commons- and resource-based philosophy behind Cap and Share. Many charities express their support for social transfers in terms of individual rights and agency.

Moreover, if Hanlon et al are right, any distribution of wealth in favour of the poor will tend to stimulate local economies, a fact that has important ramifications for cutting down on fossil fuel use: it means that the share in Cap and Share could reinforce the cap by creating an environment in which locally-based industries are able to develop and flourish. It could also be pooled by community members and used to secure customary land tenure systems such as Justin Kenrick describes in his chapter. In addition, the investment possibilities for people receiving funds would certainly apply to people looking for uses for the share in Cap and Share. The money could be treated as a nest egg to be used for projects that would improve their lives, such as education or better housing.

It would clearly be important to make sure that beneficiaries were getting accurate information about Cap and Share in order to avoid confusion. If it was understood that the scheme was temporary, they would be likely to make very different decisions about what to do with their allocations than if they were under the impression it was permanent.

However, we should note that even though Cap and Share itself would be temporary and the value of the allocations would fluctuate, there is no reason why it couldn’t serve as a springboard for a more stable permanent transfer scheme, such as a basic income derived from a Tobin tax or land value tax. The same databases and communications networks could be used for such long- term schemes, and Cap and Share could perform a useful role in providing the initial capital to get the overall system going while the details of establishing a source of revenue for a more permanent scheme were being hammered out. This might have the convenient side-effect of warding off some of the potential problems with Cap and Share being a temporary scheme: employees would have more security and beneficiaries would know that they could count on receiving transfers in the longer term[7].

Techniques for the distribution of emissions allocations

Let’s move on now to examine the second global trend which could provide a boost to a Cap and Share: the widespread adoption of technologies which could be used for distributing the share. If we look at the many experiments that have been made with distributing social transfers we get some idea of the possibilities. Those which have the most potential for overcoming distribution challenges are probably smart cards and mobile phones.

Namibia, Botswana and South Africa now use smart cards for their universal pension schemes. Once the smart cards have been created there is no need for any other identification, since smart cards can record people’s fingerprints, which can then be checked with a simple digital camera each time a transaction is made. Recipients can opt to keep some or all of their funds in the card account. They access the funds through banks, mobile ATMs or through point-of-sale terminals in shops.

The East African Regional Hunger and Poverty Programme comments that “even street-traders and village merchants are now clubbing together to share the use of such low-cost terminals.”[8] This means that recipients of the pension do not need to live anywhere near a bank or post office in order to make use of their allocations – they need only be in striking distance of a market with vendors who use the terminals. They could opt to withdraw only some cash or to go entirely electronic when paying the merchants with the terminals. Such terminals can be run on solar power[9], so areas which are not on the electric grid could be included in the scheme.

Mobile phones are only just beginning to be used for social transfer allocation, but they are also showing considerable potential. In a pilot scheme in 2009 jointly organised by the Kenyan government, the charity Concern International and the mobile phone company Safaricom, beneficiaries in a very remote rural area of Kenya, off the electric grid, were each given a SIM card. Mobile phones were also distributed among the population, one for every ten households, together with solar chargers and handsets. Each time a transfer was due, an SMS message would be sent to the mobiles explaining where to go to cash in the transfers, and the beneficiaries would walk there (a maximum of 8 kilometres) and collect the money from a mobile ATM. Obviously someone in the ten households had to be literate enough to read the SMS message, but in practice this was not a problem. The cost of the scheme was calculated at 5%, which is low compared to that of many earlier transfer schemes.[10]

As with smart cards, beneficiaries could spend some of their allocation immediately on food or other provisions if they wished, and they could also opt to keep some in the mobile account for later. This ability to manage money wirelessly and store it securely by electronic means is so convenient that a New Statesman article from 2008 argues that mobile phones are likely to become dominant as the way to handle money in the future.[11](Previously, people had to send wire remittances if they wanted to transfer money from place to place, which were cumbersome and costly.)

A final point we should note about mobile phones is that in addition to being used for financial transactions, they are, as one might expect, still doing their original job – putting people in contact with each other, or to put it more trendily, building social networks. As of late 2008, there were almost 4 billion mobile phones being used worldwide, with the bulk of the market growth taking place in the BRIC countries[12][13]. This opens up some interesting possibilities for Cap and Share, which we will explore further below.

Could mobile phones help to overcome the challenge of distributing shares from emissions allocations in areas of the world with little or no industrial infrastructure?
Could mobile phones help to overcome the challenge of distributing shares from emissions allocations in areas of the world with little or no industrial infrastructure? Photo source: Author: m_a_essam

However, we should first consider another question that was mentioned at the beginning of this section with regard to allocation distribution: the potential for violent crime. This could occur in the very direct form of gangsters who might wish to steal allocation funds. More generally, there is also the challenge of allocating emissions rights in the many parts of the world that are highly unstable. How could a social transfer programme possibly function in such situations?

In a 2006 book on designing social transfers, Michael Samson of the South African Economic Policy Research Institute asserts that “Even in fragile states – such as Nepal and early-1990s Mozambique – governments have effectively delivered social transfers.” He describes a transfer scheme that was implemented in Mozambique in the 1990s, during the civil war there, and comments that “the programme worked remarkably well in the first five years”[14] (later on it foundered due to administrative and funding problems, and it has since been replaced by another scheme).

Various techniques can be used to ward off would-be robbers. For example, in areas where a mobile ATM machine might be vulnerable to hijackers, agencies use tactics such as changing the route that the vehicle carrying the ATM takes each time it enters the area, and having it stop to distribute cash in different places as well.[15] In fact, I came across only one direct reference to a hijacking of a vehicle carrying cash intended for social transfers, in Uganda, and this hijack was considered rather exceptional – it was an inside job, carried out by people working on short-term contracts for the agency. The report which described the hijacking concluded that longer-term transfer schemes in which the distribution work is contracted out are much less vulnerable to this kind of problem: “Using [such a] system goes a long way towards minimising the possibility of insider mischief; agents are not short-term contract staff, they are entrepreneurs looking to build a sustainable business so have a vested interest in the system working safely [16]”.

One might wonder, though, whether the large amounts of money likely to be involved with Cap and Share, at least initially, might not create a greater incentive for violent crime. After all, most existing cash transfers involve only modest sums, not enough for it to be worth a gangster’s while to chase down recipients after they have collected their cash and force them to hand it over. With Cap and Share we could be talking about serious money, as is suggested in the reports on India and South Africa.

One way to deal with this could be to encourage people to use their smart card or mobile phone accounts as safe storage places for their money, and only withdraw cash in small amounts as needed. There may also be other good reasons for people not converting all of their emissions allocation into the local currency for immediate personal use, as we shall see.

However, it could be that the threat from crime is somewhat overblown, particularly if we take into account the ramifications of the share. As mentioned above, one of its effects would likely be a decrease in income inequality – indeed, most social transfer programmes have this effect [17] – and there is a great deal of evidence that as income inequality decreases in a country, so too does violent crime [18.] Of course it should not be discounted altogether, but it may be less of a problem than one would fear.

One other point we need to discuss when considering the use of modern technologies is the possibility – even probability – of system collapse. Some analysts believe that the world’s communication infrastructure is actually very fragile – it is, after all, intermeshed with the wider growth- and fossil-fuel- based economy – and that a trigger such as a shortage of oil could send it over the edge, causing the entire communications network to rapidly unravel[19]. In such a case, obviously it would be impossible to continue using it to allocate the share.

However, the fact remains that the communications network is the most efficient means we have to allocate the share at present, and it makes sense to use whatever is available to get things moving quickly. Even if our success in allocating the share is short-lived because of a system collapse, there’s a reasonable chance that we will have improved the medium-term and perhaps even long-term stability of many regions of the world by decreasing inequality, helping to secure key commons rights and encouraging investment in locally- based energy and food production. This will help many ordinary people cope with the coming shift to an economy without fossil fuels.

Moreover, there’s a certain poetic justice in using the very technologies that are considered by many to symbolize an exploitative and rapacious economic system to help to bring that system to as smooth an end as possible. Or, to put it less loftily, simple decency would suggest that we put these things to as good a use as we can while they’re still available to us.

Effects of share distribution

We have taken a look at some techniques for distributing allocations, and this hopefully has allayed at least some of our fears that such a distribution scheme would be fundamentally unworkable. Now let’s turn back to some of the other challenges described earlier: the lack of good things for individuals in some places to spend share money on, and the possibility that the large influx of money that could take place in some areas would cause inflation or destabilize the economy in other ways.

With regard to the latter problem, as already mentioned, if we look at past experience we can find many examples of per-capita distribution of resources, but thus far the amount of money distributed to each person has been relatively modest. We can also find plenty of examples of areas which experienced a sudden, large inflow of funds, such as gold rushes. However, to the best of my knowledge there has never been an occurrence of both together – or in other words, a situation where every single adult member of a community has received a series of rather large sums of money. The closest thing is probably the Alaska Permanent Fund, which allocates a part of its revenue to every adult citizen of Alaska each year. This is around $2000 per person at the moment[20] and for some people it represents 10% of their annual income, but we have seen that Cap and Share in India could dwarf that, increasing the income of many people fivefold or more.

Historically, gold rushes have been characterised by their unpredictability – the fact that nobody knew in advance that they would take place – and by the unevenness with which the revenue from the newly-discovered resource was distributed, with some people becoming wildly rich in a very short time while others were left behind entirely. Both of these factors have a highly destabilizing effect on an economy. However, neither of them would apply to the share in Cap and Share: everyone would know in advance that they would be receiving money, and everyone would get the same allocation.

Even so, it seems clear that we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of destabilization. For one thing, countries which experience a sudden surge in income because of the discovery of an important raw material can sometimes run into problems with exports because their currency gains a lot of value owing to demand for that raw material, making their exports more expensive (‘Dutch disease’). In the case of Cap and Share the “raw material” would be emissions rights, and countries whose inhabitants mostly didn’t use much fossil fuel, such as India and much of Sub-Saharan Africa, would be “exporting” the rights elsewhere. Their currencies might then rise in value, which could adversely affect other sectors of their economies; many of these countries export other raw materials, and it’s possible that they would experience a slowdown in those exports. But on the other hand, the increase in value of their currencies would make it rather easier for them to pay off international debts, which have had a crippling effect on their economies[21]. Indeed, this ability to pay off debt painlessly is a strong point in favour of Cap and Share.

As with any macroeconomic issue, there are enormous complexities and unknowns here. We could probably get a clearer idea of the effects of the share in those countries where it would be very valuable to individuals by doing a more thorough study of the historic effects of gold rushes and other “rushes”, while taking into account factors such as the degree of income inequality already existing in places that experienced them, and the extent to which the incoming wealth was distributed among the population.

Another possible problem we’ve mentioned above is that the sudden increase of cash in local economies would lead to inflation of prices for basic staple products and perhaps also for land. People would still need the same essential goods that they needed before the money arrived, but there would be a lot more money chasing the same goods – a classic recipe for inflation. They would also be looking for secure places to park excess money and so there could be a scramble to buy up land. Since land is always limited in supply, there could then be all kinds of problems with some people being left behind in the dust while others in their communities charge up the property ladder, and with speculative bubbles forming. In the long term, a land value tax such as Nick Bardsley describes would take care of such problems, but very few places in the world have implemented such a tax at the time of writing.

With a view to these threats, let’s assume that there would be a strongly destabilizing effect if we simply divided up the allocations and made them immediately tradable into cash for everyone, and look at a way to try and forestall it.

French taxpayers subsidise theatregoers

The problems described above could easily be assumed to derive from some fatal element of human nature – the greedy, grasping side to human beings. We’re all frail and flawed, after all.

Indeed, some may argue that it’s naïve to believe that ordinary people can be trusted at all to make sensible decisions about ‘windfall’ cash that they receive. Perhaps it would all be spent on beer or fast motorcycles.[22]

While I can certainly understand – and share – a certain skepticism about the benefits of money in itself, we also need to be careful not to make assumptions about what ‘ordinary’ people are capable of which could turn out to be rather patronizing. As mentioned above, experience with existing cash transfers has shown that they tend to be used carefully and sensibly. So there are practical reasons to take the per-capita approach. But there are also strong reasons having to do with ethics and justice: if the ‘ordinary’ people aren’t deciding where the allocation money should go, who is? What right do they have to do so?

And in any case it seems much more accurate to regard the source of this particular problem as deriving from the nature of money rather than that of people. Specifically, it’s the assumption that the share would have to be in frail, flawed, debt-backed, bank-issued, bond-market-dependent money that could lead to problems. Here we’re led back to the very first problem from our list at the beginning of the chapter: the knack that our money has for becoming ‘funny’, in an unamusing kind of way.

So perhaps we should take a creative approach to the type of money that is used for the share.

In France, if you have a young child or are retired, you are entitled to a certain amount of “cheques vacances” per year. These can be spent like cash in a wide variety of places, such as campgrounds, hotels, restaurants, amusement parks, and theatres. Businesses can apply to accept these cheques – they just have to be involved in some way with recreation in order to qualify. The cheques expire after three years, so once you get them you have an incentive to spend them.

One effect of this programme is that individuals who might not have found the time or energy to go on holiday are much more likely to do so. It also ensures that the economy as whole is stimulated in a way that it might otherwise not have been. Those businesses who accept the cheques will benefit financially, and there is a multiplier effect in their local economies.

So perhaps a helpful approach would be to make the share in Cap and Share tradable with something analogous to cheques vacances, rather than normal currency. Let’s call them clear air cheques. In a Cap and Dividend-type scheme, for example, the trust would auction off emissions permits and collect the revenue in ordinary money. Then it would issue an equivalent amount of clear air cheques to the population on a per-capita basis. (They wouldn’t have to be paper cheques of course – they could simply be credited to “clear air accounts” that people would have on their mobile phones or smart cards).

The clear air cheques would have an expiry date, so they wouldn’t be hoarded, and they could be spent just like cash, but only on certain things. These could include legal aid for the securing of commons rights, renewable energy projects, and investment projects that would not use a great deal of fossil fuel – ideally, none at all – but that would nonetheless be important to community wellbeing, such as health care and education, or that would support carbon sequestration activities, such as organic farming and tree planting for agro forestry and water catchment protection. Those receiving the cheques would be able to redeem them with the trust and get regular money back[23].

For the recipients of the allocations, this would be a very similar set-up to the pay-as-you-go accounts that many mobile phone users have, which also often expire after a certain length of time if they are not topped up. In fact, it should be no harder to grasp than one of those accounts is: the allocation would go in in much the same way as a top-up and then you would use the credits. For the retailers, it would be like dealing with any voucher or coupon, or a currency different from the usual one they deal with – it would involve slightly more work than regular cash but would be worth it for the extra business. All the transactions could be handled electronically with no more fuss than existing mobile phone accounts.

Some readers may now be thinking that this is all very well, but how would it help with the lack of infrastructure? As we already noted above, there is no use in having a lot of money available for individuals to pay for their childrens’ education if all the schools in an area are overcrowded and badly designed, or nonexistent.
Health care facilities are also very thin on the ground in some areas of the world, and renewable energy technology, which would be an ideal thing for individuals or small groups to spend Cap and Share money on, is probably still in its infancy.

One approach might be for the trust that administers Cap and Share to divide up the revenue from the permits and use some of it for top-down infrastructure development. It may well be a good idea to use part of the revenue set up a Children’s Fund as suggested by Laurence Matthews in his chapter. However, the greater the portion of the revenue that was used in this way, the further away we would arguably get from the idea of treating the atmosphere as a commons, as it would take some power away from ordinary people who would no longer have their total share of the revenue. It takes us further away from the principle of subsidiarity which John Jopling describes in his chapter, that suggests that decisions should be made at the lowest possible level. We could then run into the same old problems with bureaucracy, corruption and inflexibility that arose in the era when top-down developmental decisions were considered the only way forward, not to speak of the ethical issues described above.

In any case, much of the development needed is actually on a small or intermediate scale and decentralised, rather than on a large scale and centralised – things like solar power installations, primary health care clinics and schools which function best when they are not too large and unwieldy -in addition to organic farming methods and agro-forestry which would address another aspect of commons erosion. Such investments make most sense when done on a community level, rather than by individuals acting entirely separately or by regional or state governments.

Here is where we get to the interesting part. Since mobile phones are so helpful for social networking, they could possibly be used to help make community-wide decisions about how to allocate larger amounts of money. Whenever members of a community heard that allocations of the share were on their way, they could hold a meeting and compile a list of projects that they considered to be a priority for the whole community, such as getting legal aid for establishing commons rights, building a school or a primary clinic, or sending one or two people from a village to a Barefoot College to train as solar engineers. People could then pool their clear air to pay for the projects. They would have choices as to which projects they wished to prioritize and they could “vote” with their mobiles or smart cards to allocate their funds accordingly. In this way the decision-making process would be kept as broad as possible (and out of the hands of local élites who might otherwise co-opt it), but the local currency would be spared the burden of dealing with everything
at once: much of the money would be kept out of immediate circulation for dealing with larger, medium-term or long-term community-based projects[24].

Obviously this is just a rough overview and there are many ways in which a system such as this could be fine-tuned. For one thing, it would probably be a good idea to make at least a
small portion of the allocation convertible into the local currency right away, rather than into clear air, so that people with immediate needs for essentials such as food could meet them[25].

For another, as Laurence Matthews mentioned in his chapter, there are some areas of the world that are not in the cash economy at all, and people in those areas might well prefer to keep them that way. As mentioned above, many cultures and traditions believe that money should be treated with extreme wariness, and for good reason. Individuals or communities should therefore be able to simply opt out of the scheme if they wish, or to donate some or all of the proceeds from their allocations elsewhere [26]. This decision needs to be made by ‘ordinary’ people, though – not by powerful people acting on their behalf, including powerful people from within their own country or culture. Again, the logistics of this is something that communication technologies could help with.

One other point to make about the share is that it represents an entitlement – a right – rather than justice in and of itself. What I mean by this is that per-capita shares follow the same logic as one-person, one-vote political systems. Just as voting rights grant individuals a certain amount of power but we also need a legal system to handle issues of justice, the share in cap and share ought to represent a step towards greater justice for those who are disempowered by the current world situation, but certainly shouldn’t be considered to deliver complete justice. Much more is needed for that, possibly including the legal enforcement of Greenhouse Development Rights.

In the meantime, while such legal issues are being thrashed out, we could at least get on with distributing the share. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it could save many lives in the short term.

Guatemalan schoolchildren. Individuals could pool part of their share to build infrastructure in their community for schools and hire teachers.
Guatemalan schoolchildren. Individuals could pool part of their share to build infrastructure in their community for schools and hire teachers. Photo source: Author: jwarletta

But what about the rich?

Observant readers will have realised that there’s still a problem, though. It might be possible to distribute the share effectively, and it might prove very useful in the effort to reestablish commons-based land use and to eradicate poverty, as well as for encouraging investment in a renewable-energy-based economy, but there is a powerful élite in the world – the top 30% – which may not be terribly happy to see those things happening, particularly if they believe that it would impact on their own wellbeing.

This brings us onto the topic of power dynamics and the ways in which the less-powerful relate to the more-powerful in the world. That’s clearly an enormous subject. I’ll limit the discussion here to possible triggers for decreases in income inequality, since that is something that relates directly to Cap and Share. What sorts of things make the rich willing to fork over some of their money to the poor?

It’s easy to get the impression from the media that the gap between rich and poor is widening all over the world right now; that’s certainly the case in some important countries such as China and India. However, there are also exceptions to this trend, and if we look at real-life places with decreasing inequality we can see that a certain political momentum can build which makes it quite difficult to undo various changes once they have taken root. The clearest examples of this are probably Brazil and Mexico, both of which have notoriously powerful and unscrupulous elites, but which also have extensive social transfer programmes.

Mexico remains a highly unequal society, but over the past two decades its level of inequality has begun to decrease. A UNDP study[27] on the reasons for this concluded that it is caused by a better-educated workforce and by its massive social transfer programme. In fact, there’s a connection between these two things because the social transfers encourage people to enroll their children in school.

A quarter of Mexico’s population, or 5 million households, is covered by its Oportunidades programme, which started in 1998 and has been greatly expanded over the years. Under the programme, families receive cash transfers in exchange for enrolling children in education programmes and ensuring they have regular health care check-ups.

What’s particularly relevant to our argument is that the programme has proved to be politically robust. According to the UNDP study, “The programme is […] notable in having survived not only a change of administration (no other major anti-poverty initiative over the past two decades has done this), but also in having survived the first change in 70 years of the political party in power. In fact, rather than discard the programme, the new party’s administration
changed its name from Progresa to Oportunidades, and starting in 2001 the new government increased coverage from 2.3 to 4.2 million households (mainly in rural areas), and added semi-urban and urban localities to the already established rural ones.” [28] During the election of 2006, the two biggest parties both put considerable effort into claiming credit for the programme.

We mustn’t be too starry-eyed about this; an article in Policy Studies from 2009 claims that “both Progresa and Oportunidades were specifically aimed at appeasing and depoliticising the increasing presence of resurgent popular movements, whilst acting as a bromide for the masses, so as to signal political stability and a disciplined labor force”[29]. There seems little doubt that Oportunidades played a major role in enabling the re-election of the right- wing PAN party in 2006, which is hardly a champion of the poor. At the time when Oportunidades was extended, corresponding cuts were made to general social welfare programmes.

However, we also mustn’t ignore the fact that Oportunidades has genuinely improved life for a great many people, not only by increasing their immediate income but also by improving their health – including life-and-death health issues such as infant mortality rates – and their nutrition and education. If these people voted for the PAN because they perceived it as being responsible for such major life improvements, succeeding where others had failed, it’s hard to blame them.

And if the author of the article is correct, then Oportunidades was implemented in direct response to popular movements. This doesn’t mean, of course, that recipients aren’t entitled to any more than they receive at present, or that they should allow themselves to become ‘depoliticized’. What it does show is that there’s a dialectic at work: the élite were responding to pressure from below. So what would happen if there was a push from below for a specific, easily-grasped, efficient scheme such as Cap and Share in a place like Mexico?

Now let’s take a look at Brazil. As in Mexico, Brazil’s major social transfer programme is popular and politically robust, and has achieved real results in reducing inequality. A New York Times commentary on Bolsa Familia, the Brazilian equivalent of Oportunidades, states that “today […..] Brazil’s level of economic inequality is dropping at a faster rate than that of almost any other country. Between 2003 and 2009, the income of poor Brazilians has grown seven times as much as the income of rich Brazilians. Poverty has fallen during that time from 22 percent of the population to 7 percent.”[30] This is in a country that used to be among the most unequal in the world.

Also as in Mexico, the programme is a source of political wrangling, not over whether it should exist, but rather over who should be rewarded for creating it. A BBC article about it claims that “there seems to be a fairly broad consensus in support of such initiatives, with the only argument about who should get the credit for projects, some of which have been in existence for many years[…]The government of President Lula insists the investment is much bigger now, and that in recent years 20 million Brazilians have been lifted out of poverty.” [31]

Bolsa Familia is popular “among all demographic groups”, according to a 2010 Pew Foundation survey[32]. This doesn’t mean that it’s universally popular of course – a glance through the comments section of any online article about it will quickly demonstrate that it isn’t – but it’s worth exploring what might be making it attractive to at least some of the rich in Brazil.

In this case it seems unlikely that they view it solely as a political tool for getting their favoured parties elected. If that were so, it wouldn’t be very effective, since the centre-left has been in power for some time now in Brazil. Perhaps there are other factors involved. What could they be?

Equal is beautiful

Here we come to the third phenomenon which could act as a boost to Cap and Share. This time the phenomenon isn’t a trend or a technology, but rather a book that has already been mentioned in several other chapters: The Spirit Level – why equality is better for everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

Although many of us have always had a hunch that people were better off in more equal societies, it’s been difficult up until recently to muster a coherent practical argument against the fear-based stance of those who believe otherwise. What could you say to argue against people who believe that human nature divides us inexorably into predators or prey, so that the only meaningful thing you can do in life is to look after your own, by the most ruthless means if necessary? The Golden Rule and other moral arguments in favour of fairness sound woolly and flaky to them.

I referred above to a major World Bank study which tracks the relationship between inequality and violent crime and shows that there is a strong correlation between those two phenomena[33]. What’s particularly interesting, though, is that everyone in society is affected, not only those who are less- privileged. In a more equal society, the rich are also less likely to suffer the effects of violent crime.

The Spirit Level picks up on this study and on a great many others from the voluminous research carried out on equality over the last few decades. It demonstrates that the rich would benefit in almost every way imaginable from a more equal society. They would be healthier, longer-lived, better educated and less likely to become addicts. More equal societies also tend to be more innovative and their members are more willing to trust each other, qualities which could prove very helpful during the coming adjustment to a zero-fossil-fuel economy. This correlation between greater equality and wellbeing holds in places with widely differing cultures and levels of overall wealth[34].

In fact, the sole way in which the rich might not benefit from greater equality is that they might possibly have less money than they do now. And of course money is only valuable if you can spend it on things that you value. If people are willing to spend $230,000 on a guard dog to protect their property[35], it’s possible that they might begin to see the sense of sharing out some of their money in order to help prevent their fellow citizens from turning to violent crime.

Of course, it’s also possible that some of them are just too out of touch with reality to be reasoned with at all. It would be naïve beyond absurdity to assume that everyone in the top 30% will accept these ideas without demur, saying “ah yes, I see we were wrong all along to try and preserve our wealth at the expense of everyone else – here, take some of my money!” The book Treasure Islands[36] gives plenty of examples of people who are unlikely to be swayed by any appeal to share their wealth, even when the sharing-out would clearly work to their own benefit; their mental state is simply too pathological for them to be reachable.

The fact remains, though, that not everyone in the top 30% always behaves that way, as we can see from the attitude of rich Brazilians. Of course we don’t know for sure whether the support expressed by some rich Brazilians towards Bolsa Familia derives from a feeling that life is better in a more equal society; it could also derive from a (hitherto unguessed-at) sense of basic fairness, or else perhaps from some deeply cynical line of reasoning that I can’t fathom.

But in any case, the examples of Brazil and Mexico show that the political dynamics leading to social change are complex and not always what one might assume; the rich do not simply crush the poor, always and everywhere. While we certainly shouldn’t blithely assume that everything will work out for the best, we should note that pressure from below can sometimes trigger real change, as seems to be happening in Mexico. And other factors may be at work too: it’s possible that at least some rich people recognize on some level that they themselves would benefit in various ways from greater equality. So it’s quite handy to have the hard facts regarding equality and wellbeing at our disposal while promoting a scheme that would increase equality. Sometimes facts do work against fear.

Possible Ways Forward

So to summarize: We’ve taken a look at two questions to do with global cap and share, namely, whether it would be possible to distribute the share globally on a per-capita basis, and whether it would be wise. We’ve noted how development theory is now broadly in agreement with the commons-based philosophy behind Cap and Share, which maintains that the decision-making process about resource allocation should be kept as broad as possible. We’ve seen how recent technologies such as smart cards and mobile phones could help to make the share distribution feasible, even in areas that are off-the- grid, or have high levels of illiteracy or crime. We’ve explored a possible way to use the new technologies in order to ensure that an adequate amount of investment is put into infrastructure development, while at the same time keeping inflation and other sources of economic instability at bay. And finally, we’ve taken a look at the political dynamics that underlie the implementation of existing large-scale allocation schemes, in light of the vast amount of research that has been done into the relationship between equality and wellbeing.


1. Some notable thinkers, such as Gandhi, challenged this approach to development from early on.
2. Hanlon, Joseph et al (2010), Just Give Money to the Poor: The Development Revolution from the South, Kumarian Press, page 4.
3. See for example “Catching People Before they Fall: Social Safety Nets Take Center Stage”, World Bank website,,,contentMDK:22632052~pagePK:64257043~piPK:437376~theSitePK:4607,00.html . The World Bank favours conditional transfers, which is a matter of some controversy.
4. Many such problems with implementation, as well as bureaucratic delays, are caused by difficulties in figuring out who to include in targeted or conditional transfer schemes. Cap and Share would not be affected by such problems as it would be universal and unconditional.
5. Wakeford, Jeremy (2008). Potential Impacts of a Global Cap and Share Scheme on South Africa, Feasta, page 28
6. Sharan, Anandi (2008), Potential Impacts of a Global Cap and Share Scheme on India, Feasta, page 28
7. Such long-term transfers would probably be much more modest in size however, and so once again, accurate information would be important to beneficiaries.
8. “Delivering Social Transfers” (no date), Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Program.
9. See for example the company Hypercom’s line of contactless smart cards and terminals, described on their website here: of-payment-terminals
10. Brewin, Mike (2008), Evaluation of Concern Kenya’s Kerio Valley Cash Transfer Project, April-June 2008. http://www. july08.pdf
11. “Hanging on a Telephone”, Jack Hancox, New Statesman, 18 September 2008
12. “Half the World’s Population Will Be Using Mobile Phone By End Of Year”, The Guardian, 26th September 2008.
13. For a fascinating glimpse into the ways in which mobiles are being used worldwide, see the website, and in particular their section on the developing world.
14. Samson, Michael et al (2006), Designing and Implementing Social Transfer Programmes, EPRI, page 15
15. ibid, page 129
16. Brewin, Mike (2008), Evaluation of Concern Kenya’s Kerio Valley Cash Transfer Project, April-June 2008, p 22.
17. Prasad, Naren (2008), “Policies for Redistribution: The uses of taxes and social transfers”, International Institute for Labour Studies, dp19408.pdf
18. Fajnzylber, Pablo et al (2002), “Inequality and Violent Crime”, Journal of Law and Economics, vol. XLV (April 2002) This study tracked the relationship between income inequality and violent crime in 36 countries over the course of several decades.
19. See for example David Korowicz’s article ‘On the Cusp of Collapse’ in Fleeing Vesuvius: overcoming the risks of environmental and economic collapse, 2010 Feasta.
20. Source:
21. It has been suggested that a new world currency, the emissions-backed-currency-unit or ebcu be introduced along with Cap and Share. See Share-May08.pdf. Ebcus would be allocated to each country according to their population, with the stipulation that a part of the allocation would have to be used to pay off international debts. This would be easy for highly-indebted countries to do as their currencies would be strong in relation to ebcus. However, it may not be wise to introduce a currency that is backed by something – carbon dioxide emissions – which we eventually want to eliminate altogether.
22. The beer-and-fast-motorcycles argument is very interesting because it touches on an important aspect of the world economy: the fact that it triggers stress which can then lead to unhealthy addictions. ‘Shopaholism’ and over-consumption in general have been linked convincingly by researchers to other, ‘harder’ forms of addictions with common roots in brain chemistry that has been distorted by a stressful environment. If the economy were less chaotic and more equitable, the stresses that drive people to spend money unwisely would probably diminish. See http://www.feasta. org/2011/07/16/is-over-consumption-hard-wired-into-our-genes/.
23. Of course, this “regular” money needs to be redesigned as its existence depends on the use of fossil fuels, as described elsewhere in this book.
24. Such community meetings could make use of already-existing political structures if these seemed appropriate , such as the Indian panchayat raj that James Bruges describes. The main difference between my proposal and his is that I believe funding decisions, including those which require pooling of money, should primarily be made by individuals acting within small community groups rather than by elected officials acting on their behalf.
25. These emergency funds could eventually be replaced by a permanent basic income scheme as described further back.
26. There is nothing fantastical about the idea of ‘underdeveloped’ people donating to help others, including supposedly more developed communities, in times of crisis. At the time of the Irish famine in the nineteenth century the impoverished Native American Choctaw tribe, who had themselves experienced a famine a couple of decades earlier, made a donation to Ireland. Probably the most recent example is the donation of $50000 from the city of Kandahar in Afghanistan to the Japanese relief effort in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake in Japan.
27. Esquivel et al (2010), “A Decade of Falling Inequality in Mexico: Market Forces or State Action?”, UNDP
28. ibid, p 26
29. Soederberg, Susanne (2010) ‘The Mexican competition state and the paradoxes of managed neoliberal development’, Policy Studies, 31: 1, 77 — 94
30. Rosenberg, Tina, “To beat back poverty, pay the poor”, New York Times, January 3 2011
31. “Family-friendly: Brazil’s scheme to tackle poverty”, BBC, 25 May 2010 news/10122754
32. “Brazilians upbeat about their country despite its problems”, Pew Research Center, September 22 2010
33. A notable exception to this rule is Mexico. Violent crime there has risen sharply in recent years, despite the success of the Oportunidades social transfer programme. This increased crime rate appears to derive from extensive drug trafficking between Mexico and its much wealthier neighbour, the USA, with whom it shares a long border. The violence is concentrated in areas of the country that are strongly affected by the drug trade.
34. Wilkinson, Richard and Pickett, Kate (2010) The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone, Penguin
35. “For the Executive With Everything, a $230,000 Dog to Protect It” New York Times, June 11 2011 http://

36. Shaxson, Nicholas (2011) Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World, Bodley Head