We Need to Raise the Ecological Debt Ceiling

08/02/2011 10:12 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2011

The recent "end-of-the-world" hysteria raised by political wrangling surrounding the U.S. government's debt ceiling -- amid the most blistering summer on record for many places -- should be a wake-up call that we all owe more than just financial debt: there is an ecological debt to pay. Like the government's monetary debt, it can't be avoided, interest is accruing daily, and the longer it is delayed, the harder it will be to repay in full.

Debt is a simple concept. You borrow to make some kind of purchase or investment when you have insufficient capital to make the full payment. You incur a debt. The debt is paid down through time, ideally from the earnings generated from your investment. If you can't pay down the debt, you're in trouble.

Ecological debt is the same, simple concept. In this case you borrow from the environment. A farmer borrows nutrients from the soil to raise a crop. She must pay them back, in the form of fertilizer, manure or compost, or next year's crop will fail. She must also protect her soil from erosion: lost soil cuts deeply into the ecological balance sheet (we are still paying down the soil debts of the dust bowl eighty years later). A forester who harvests trees from a forest must allow more trees to grow before he can harvest that forest again. How terribly annoying and expensive it is to have to move on to the next forest because the chainsaw-denuded landscape is not recovering fast enough. Fishermen must catch fish no faster than their stocks can recover (the truism "there are plenty of fish in the sea" is beginning to sound like a sick joke).

A second form of ecological debt adds pollutants to the environment rather than removing resources from it, but the ecological balance sheet is affected in the same way. Sulfur dioxide spewing out of coal-fired power plants may fall as acid rain, damaging trees and crops, and causing asthma. We pay in lost board-feet, lower tomato yields, and visits to the ER. Fertilizer and pesticides leaching from Midwestern farms flow down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico, causing a massive aquatic dead zone. We pay in lost fisheries. Plastic bags in the ocean: we pay in turtles. Cheap garbage disposal: we pay with super-sized landfills. Mountaintop-removal mining: we pay with poisoned waterways (and missing mountains). The list goes on and on, of course, and the grand-daddy of them all is global climate change. Carbon dioxide spewing out of, well, everywhere, is changing the climate: and we are beginning to pay. We are paying in lost glaciers, heat waves, wildfires, drowned islands and droughts, to name a few. And we will be paying for centuries.

We all know that this ecological debt is a problem that will have to be addressed sometime -- but is now the time to pay it down? Of course not. Can you imagine what problems that would cause? We're in an ecological recession already. We wouldn't want to make things worse. It's really important that we keep tearing resources out of the planet as fast as we can and continue to toss our waste into it. We assume that only this way can we hope to be able to afford to save the planet.

The debts are mounting, and there are murmurings among our creditors that we may be in danger of default. It seems we are in great danger of losing our ecological credit rating -- and that cannot be allowed to happen. Nobody would trust us with the environment anymore, and we may face environmental foreclosure. We need to make one last call for reason. Why can nobody see the obvious and only possible solution? To avert calamity, we urgently need to raise the ecological debt ceiling.