Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Debt Crisis
distributed 5/6/11 - ©2011

We have a monumental debt crisis. Our constant deficits are creating an insurmountable burden for future generations. We are not living within our means. Something has to be done -- now.

Those are words that we're hearing from Washington, DC, in relation to the impending collision between the federal government's expenditures and its borrowing limit. Highly politicized statements, and now some more fruitful negotiations, are setting the stage for a congressional vote within the next two months about raising the debt limit.

What is not in the daily headlines is a corresponding discussion about the natural debt crisis. Even more so than the financial matters of US borrowing, the depletion of the planet's (and our nation's) natural wealth is monumental, and insurmountable for future generations. Something has to be done -- now.

The parallels between fiscal debt and natural debt were described very well by Brian Walsh in a February Time Magazine article, "The Natural Debt Crisis: Learning to Live Within Our Planet's Means". I urge you to read it, because I will not plagiarize his essay too much, and he raises excellent details that I won't address here.

That natural debt -- the depletion of natural capital, the draw-down of natural resources and ecological resilience -- was also highlighted in my Notes three weeks ago. In "Damaged, Depleted, Destabilized", I simply listed the clinical "truth about God's creation": "Powerful and populous human civilizations have reduced both the quantity and quality of our planet's life and resources." That factual truth has powerful implications, both practically and ethically, that were not spelled out in the Lenten series.

It is as if we had inherited a plentiful estate, one that had been self-sustaining for generations, and then started to bankroll a wave of riotous living by selling off the fine artwork, cutting down the forests, and eating all the livestock. Indeed, that's pretty much what we have done with our inheritance of this bounteous planet. Our current prosperity has been possible largely because we've used up half of the planet's oil in just 100 years, we've slashed forests for the sake of cheap paper and lumber, we've strip-mined the world's oceans far beyond any sustainable level, and we've pumped water out of deep aquifers that won't re-charge for thousands of years (if ever).

That rapidly increasing natural debt has been hidden because of stupid and deceptive bookkeeping on national and planetary levels. The unsustainable use of the planet's wealth -- its soil and water, forests and fish, minerals and fossil fuels -- hasn't been counted as deficit spending. The measurements used in calculating the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) see the consumption of those valuable reserves purely as an economic gain. The family banker has looked at our desecration of the estate, and expressed delight that we're spending more cash than ever before -- never mind the bare walls, clear-cut trees and empty barns.

For the moment, our global splurge of deficit spending is great fun. It is creating a superficial prosperity that is enjoyable for the fraction of the human population that benefits the most. But that moment of artificial prosperity cannot last, and future generations will be stuck with the reality of massive debt. Our proverbial "children and grandchildren" -- youngsters who are alive now, and those who will come after them -- will have to deal with a world who's natural wealth has been squandered unsustainably.

Those youth have a right to object to the debt and diminished future that we're sticking them with -- and they are starting to do just that. Over the next week, tens of thousands of youth will be marching and speaking to name their rejection of this debt crisis. The "iMatter" marches, culminating in the May 14 event in Denver, are an appropriate and urgent call to us all that we need to live within our ecological means. (Again, I urge you to take part if there's a march near you.)

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Although it is often denied in the national financial discussions, there are options for reducing the monetary deficit both in spending cuts and in "revenue enhancements" (political cover for "tax increases"). We don't have the same range of options for balancing the natural budget. We can't increase the income side.

So, if we take that natural deficit seriously, we need to echo the language and urgency that has come from the most adamant fiscal conservatives in Congress. We need to talk about slashing the irresponsible spending that is creating the debt. What does that manifesto sound like?

  • All human use of renewable resources must be at certified sustainable levels. Standards already exist for defining "sustainable" in the harvest of forest products and fish. Those need to be applied universally, and expanded to other resources.
  • Water should only be pumped from wells where it can be shown that the water table is not depleted (with some allowance for short-term fluctuations to buffer through droughts). Dams and river diversions must maintain stream flows that preserve ecological health.
  • Oil, gas and coal are not renewable; their use always represent deficit spending. Not only should there be no drilling of new wells and mining of fresh coal deposits, current production should be brought down to zero as rapidly as possible. Stopping the use of fossil fuels will solve the corresponding problem of the carbon dioxide pollution debt that has been imposed on the atmosphere and oceans, and that will have such a huge impact on future generations through climate change and acidic oceans.

These extreme statements indicate the depth of the natural debt crisis. Political objections to cutting Medicare and Sesame Street become trivial compared to the outcry that would erupt -- will erupt -- when these measures for sustainability are taken seriously. Our way of life depends on the rapid depletion of natural capital, and I fear that we won't let go of that privilege easily.

But the fact remains that our deficit is real and increasing. We can be more careful and efficient in the use of some resources, and we can do much more to develop renewable energy, but we also need to "cut spending". We need to stop depleting the precious resources that we have inherited as residents of this planet. We need to abandon the arrogant ethical claim that they can be used up for the benefit of just a few human generations.

The political talks about US budgets and debt limits are frustrating to me because they don't go to the depth necessary to really address the problem. They tinker with how to pay for health care expenses without asking if we can afford ever-more elaborate and costly services. They don't ask if the US can afford to extend our military, cultural and economic empire around the planet (or if it is really in our best interest to do so).

So, too, our occasional attention to the natural deficit is far too shallow. Certainly, talk about getting off of "foreign oil" by increasing domestic production is ludicrous. Simply trying to change energy toward renewable sources without also dramatically reducing energy use will be inadequate.

The natural debt is not just a bookkeeping problem for the financial geeks. Our depleted and diminished world is a real threat to our survival. At the very least, we need to start naming and discussing this crisis, and we need to be far more urgent in exploring how to transition into new and sustainable ways of structuring our society.

It is a hard and unpopular task, and one that must be done. Will you join me in pushing that difficult set of questions?


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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