11/16/2011 11:39 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2012

The "Super Committee" That's Not Meeting This Week

This "super committee" does not have any meetings scheduled this week, and despite the urgency and importance of its mission, it has no legal mandate or deadline. It doesn't even have a formal membership. For all practical purposes it doesn't exist.

The accumulating debt that it needs to address is so large that it defies computation, but it easily dwarfs the worst of the federal debt projections. By the standards of Wall Street financial analysts, the entity which it seeks to save is "too big to fail." Nothing, however, guarantees that it won't. Indeed, unless the "super committee" gets busy, failure in some form is almost inevitable. The signs of impending collapse are all too apparent.

The debt, of course, is the ecological debt that humanity is racking up. Like the sovereign debt that is now threatening to undo Europe or the federal debt that now consumes the debate in Washington, humanity's ecological debt is the logical consequence of living beyond our means.

In the case of government debt, deficits are incurred in hopes that they will spur enough economic growth that the debts can easily be repaid by future generations. Similarly, ecological debts are incurred in hopes that we can repair the damage later, when living standards are presumably a lot higher.

China's a good example. Several decades ago, in a desperate attempt to feed its people, China converted large chunks of forest to farmland, but after massive flooding ensued, it's now repaying its ecological debt with a massive $100 billion reforestation project designed to ward off further desertification and flooding.

Similarly, in the U.S. and elsewhere enormous quantities of wetlands have been destroyed owing to urbanization and the need for more farmland, and now that the value of those wetlands is more apparent, efforts are underway to restore them.

The problem with ecological debt, much like the problem with government debt, is that we keep on falling behind. The debt just keeps on growing and, at some point, the debt becomes unsustainable.

Every year, the Global Footprint Network calculates the extent to which humanity is "over-budget" in our use of nature. This year, they declared that September 27 was Earth Overshoot Day. "In approximately nine months, we are demanding a level of ecological services - from producing food and raw materials to filtering our carbon dioxide emissions--equivalent to what the planet can provide for all of 2011."

The danger, of course, is that in over-stressing the world's capacity to meet human needs, we will one day collapse the biosphere that supports human and other life forms on this planet. Scientists and economists have been trying in recent years to put a "price tag" on the economic value of natural capital. Fourteen years ago, when a group of ecological economists looked at the current economic value of 17 ecosystems, they concluded that the value of the biosphere was "in the range of US$16-54 trillion (1012) per year, with an average of US$33 trillion per year." At the time, the global gross national product was about $18 trillion a year.

The biosphere is clearly "too big to fail," but no rescue is in sight. To date, we haven't had a major ecosystem failure. Fisheries are being exhausted, but the oceans still harbor life. The world's rainforests are under fierce assault, but we haven't yet eliminated them. Lakes are shrinking and major rivers are being reduced to a trickle at various times, but the hydrological cycle persists. And, of course, we are overtaxing the Earth's capacity to absorb greenhouse gases, but that has yet to generate the kind of concerted international action needed to avert the worst effects of climate change.

The closest thing that we have to an ecological "super committee" is next year's "Rio+20" Earth summit. If all goes well, the world leaders will achieve what climate change conferences have failed to accomplish: a commitment to act on a scale that is commensurate with the size of the problem. But "Rio+20" won't have the kind of clear mandate that the Congressional "super committee" enjoys. If nations fail to make or keep commitments, no action-forcing mechanism will kick in.

Decades ago the Cuyahoga River had to catch on fire before Congress got serious about water pollution. No one knows what form of ecosystem collapse will be needed to stir action on global sustainability. International support for family planning and agricultural assistance are on the wane. And action on climate change? Forget about it.

In all probability, there will never be anything close to a global "super committee" to resolve our ecological debt crisis. We will have to rely upon a loosely-knit international framework to ward off any kind of ecological collapse. Let's hope it's enough.