Debtors All: Facing, and Embracing, Our Ecological Indebtedness

In the face of the environmental crisis, the narratives about debt in our culture and faith communities are flat broke.

Progressives talk about debt through the lens of the “greedy lender,” a narrative about out-of-control financial institutions. Conservatives frame debt as a story about lack of self-control in the face of temptation.

These two story lines appear in almost every discussion about debt within faith contexts. Both narratives have merit. But despite the different audiences that they engage, they are, at their heart, strikingly similar.

The Greedy Lender

According to the narrative of the greedy lender, which is most common on the cultural and religious left, developed nations and financial institutions lend large amounts of money to developing countries and to the poor. These borrowers, facing dire needs and the false promises of neoliberal economics, amass unsustainable levels of debt. In essence, the rich hoodwink the poor, entrapping and exploiting them. Over time, interest and principal payments become financially crippling.

In response, religious advocates have traditionally pressed lenders to provide relief, either through debt restructuring or outright forgiveness. The most familiar example of this is the Jubilee campaign through which faith communities and NGOs worldwide have urged lenders to restructure and forgive billions of dollars of debt owed by developing countries. Their advocacy has made an enormous, positive difference. Developing countries have received billions of dollars in relief, enabling them to increase education and health services, combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, and more.

The Responsible Householder

The second narrative, more commonly embraced by religious and cultural conservatives, responds to personal or consumer indebtedness—a common experience in twenty-first-century America. This narrative focuses on the experience of individuals and families who fall deeply into debt, seduced by the allure of easy credit and false visions of consumerist fulfillment. In addition to being a devastating financial burden, debt is emotionally traumatic and damaging to family relationships, a source of suffering which can only be resolved by the borrower’s conversion to financial responsibility, self-control, and smart planning. Dave Ramsay, the well-known Christian financial advisor, embodies one transformative response to this particular kind of suffering. “I have been broke. I know how scared I felt, and I know how fast I wanted to get out of debt,” Ramsay writes. “I know how you feel.” Hundreds of thousands of people have enrolled in Ramsay’s courses to learn to “break the chains of debt” and find financial freedom and peace.

It should be noted that many people fall into debt not because of excessive consumption, but rather because of a health or family emergency. This narrative, obviously, doesn’t apply to these circumstances.

Different Audiences, Same Goal

These two narratives, while they appeal to different audiences, are identical in their narrative structure. In both, vulnerable borrowers are hoodwinked by predators—whether in the form of consumer marketers or multinational financial institutions. In both narratives, debt is bad, lenders are greedy, and salvation means independence from debt’s shackles.

Both of these narratives are explicitly moral. Both identify victims and villains, right and wrong. Both promote a vision of financial independence as the equivalent of salvation.

But neither adequately captures the reality of our inevitably indebted relationship to nature.

Unavoidably In Hock

To be human is to be indebted to nature.

Tree stumps and trunks littering the ground.

Deforestation, like this in Victoria, Australia, is one of the most visible and remediable ways we borrow unsustainably from the earth. Credit: Creative Commons.

It is impossible to live a human life without taking from the natural world. Even in our highly technological age, we’re still massively dependent. Every time we eat a meal, something—animal or plant—dies to nourish us. Many of our homes are still made from timber. Our cars rely on ores mined from the Earth. The digital platforms that facilitate our lives rely on “rare earths” from the far corners of the planet.

We cannot live without borrowing from nature’s bounty and generative capacity. For better and for worse, we are all in hock to nature. And will be for the rest of our lives.

Acting Like There’s No Credit Limit

For most of our existence, it was unthinkable that through our excessive consumption, we could bankrupt nature. For millennia, we’ve lacked the technological power to crash the natural capital markets on a wide scale. Human-induced ecosystem failures, while they have happened, have been largely local phenomena. People learned to live within the carrying capacity of their bioregions, growing to understand their ecological credit limits. Or, when they exceeded these limits, they paid stiff overage charges, in the form of hunger and poverty.

But in the past two centuries, as the blunt force of our presence has increased and the size of our footprint has grown, our inevitable withdrawals from nature’s storehouses have taken on a genuinely dangerous meaning. Still unable to survive without nature, we are now a very real threat to its healthy functioning. Our withdrawals of natural capital have become too big for the planet’s balance sheet. If the Earth is too big for us to allow it to fail, our behavior doesn’t give evidence that we understand.

Beyond Independence

In our ecological age, our most common narratives of debt fail to capture the counterintuitive dynamics of our indebtedness to nature.

In an ecological narrative of debt, the lender—nature—is generous and life-giving instead of rapacious.

The borrowers—all of us—are not so much victims as a combination of needy and greedy, often unaware, or unwilling to become aware, of the real cost of our appetites.

The prior debt narratives, which conflate salvation with independence from debt, fail to recognize that our real salvation is in an intelligent and deeply felt interdependence with natural systems.

The simple moral-emotional calculus of the old debt narratives (lenders are bad, borrowers are victims, independence is the goal) are poor guides to our inescapable reliance on nature.

Our new narrative of debt must reflect a gratitude for Earth as lender, must inculcate restraint by people as borrowers of natural resources, and must embrace our interdependence with nature as a guide for our future behavior.

Pricing Nature’s Generosity

We’ll find the embodiments of our new narrative of ecological debt in two places. First, we’ll find them in economic systems that place a higher value on nature’s services. Setting a price on the Earth’s life-support systems prevents our tendency to unsustainable borrowing from bankrupting our host. We must learn, even in our growing disconnectedness from nature, to respect the value of nature in economic terms.

A rainforest in Costa Rica.

Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica, one of many to protect against habitat loss. Credit: Creative Commons/jdforgotson.

A growing body of research points to how this can be done. In 1996, Costa Rica had the highest rate of deforestation of any country in the world. Recognizing that this was a trajectory of death, the Costa Rican government began paying farmers $42 per hectare to preserve forest instead of cutting it down. Within two decades, the country’s deforestation rate was among the world’s lowest. Unsustainable borrowing was replaced with state-sanctioned payments to reverse ecological debt. The result was an increasingly healthy national ecosystem and economy—a real win-win.

From Debt to Life

Ecologically minded economics, while vital, aren’t the full answer. We also need a new spirituality that respects our obligation to the Earth and that engenders respect for the planet’s limits as a bracket on our own limitless wants. And, we need inspiration not only to modify our consumption so that it becomes “less bad,” (i.e., cars that get 75 miles per gallon instead of 30) but also to envision what it might mean for us actually to become a source of the Earth’s regeneration.

The Living Building Challenge exemplifies this thinking. As a “green” building certification system, it certifies buildings that give back more to nature than they actually take—more renewable energy or more clean water, for example. The challenge is about creating a pathway toward a truly sustainable future. “Nature doesn’t do zero,” its website declares. “It is net positive in energy, food and flows.” By giving back more than they take, “Living Buildings” help pay down the balance of our debt to nature. They embody an attitude of respect.

When it comes to our relationship with the Earth, the sooner we grasp this new narrative of debt, the sooner we can start to repay our considerable ecological arrearage. Only then will we be able to pass on to our children and grandchildren a planet that supports life as abundantly as the planet we’ve been blessed to inherit.


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