This week, or 21 August to be more precise, the global population entered into ecological debt, according to the new economics foundation (nef) and Global Footprint Network. Putting to one side the way this budget was devised (it’s all to do with estimating the annual environmental resources generated minus the rate at which they are consumed) if the concept of ecological debt has any credibility, then there is something disturbing about its implications.
It is disturbing in the sense that the year’s provisions are used up before the summer is out, that the day this happens is creeping earlier each year, that the global haves are first in the queue for yet more resources, that the wastage is not generally for investment in future benefits, and with a growing population the increased expectations of consumption are demanded from all quarters irrespective of the pool of resources available to share.
Thinking of global consumption in terms of a budget has its advantages (and disadvantages) and it is not as if economists haven’t thought about debt in such terms before.
Those interested in sustainability issues have devised many measures and metrics to account for the use of resources relative to their availability, and accounting for time in resource depletion or externalities is a fairly mainstream notion. Notions such as discounting, hedonic pricing and contingent valuation are widely used, at least conceptually, in assessing the value of biodiversity or the relative costs of climate change mitigation. The problem is that of quantifying resource availability and consumption in a coherent way is unfeasible, although the new economics foundation and Global Footprint Network have had the courage to open the debate.
Returning to the concept of ecological debt and the calculation that the date in which the global population “spend” their annual ecological budget is occurring earlier, it is not clear how powerfully the concept resonates. While older generations might be horrified by this inability to balance the budget, the inability to live within our means, the need to pawn the family silver just to get by, younger generations are used to, indeed tolerant of, a heavy burden of debt, maxed out credit cards, easily obtained loans and, of course, trillion dollar government debts. Of course, though, it should be obvious that unsustainable debt can’t be consolidated, be they monetary or ecological, but an ecological bailout is more difficult to envisage than a bankruptcy agreement or a debt write off.
Sure it’s a contested measure and I don’t imagine a movement developing over balancing the eco-budget just yet, but imagine if such a concept were to be taken seriously and we saw it as a collective duty to live within our ecological means: we would then be free to celebrate 31 December with enough credit to see us into the New Year. We could then start thinking about the concept of an ecological legacy. For a start, though, next year let us try and make it to the end of August before going into debt.