Ecological Indebtedness: Who owes what to whom?
Frans C. Verhagen & Anita L. Wenden - November, 2009
Creating Sustainable Communities
It is, mainly, due to the vagaries of history that nations in the global North have achieved a high standard of material life. And presently even though they are in the minority among the member states that make up our global community, they maintain that standard through their control of the monetary, financial, and economic systems, which enrich the few, impoverish the many and imperil the planet. As a result, the transfer of natural resources necessary to maintain the needs of a mass consumer culture and unsustainable economic activities in developed countries still flows from South to North. And debt payments by the South, incurred to finance similarly unsustainable development projects which aim, in part, to emulate the life style of the North and to alleviate poverty, appear to have made financial indebtedness of the South to the North a permanent part of their relationship.
However, the question of “Who owes what to whom?” becomes more complicated when indebtedness is considered in environmental rather than solely economic terms, i.e. as ecological indebtedness. While left-wing economists in Latin America have long argued that Western powers owe an ecological debt to the continent for the centuries during which colonial powers took control of their land and extracted their resources (Klein, 2009), this has been largely ignored in discussions of North-South relationships. In part, this is because world leaders and policy planners are conditioned to think only in economic terms, influenced by economists for whom the environment is an afterthought and an externality.
The upcoming Global Climate Conference, however, has contributed to the growing awareness that, as Simms (2005) writes, there are global commons which provide ‘public goods’, like the capacity of the atmosphere and seas to absorb pollution, and that these are goods which Earth’s citizens can all innately claim but which have been very unequally used. And ‘ecological indebtedness’, a concept and term originated in the 1980’s by Southern analysts of the third world’s financial debt (Dillon, 2001), has emerged to give voice to these perceptions.
Ecological indebtedness is a notion that refers, first of all, to the gradual appropriation and control of the Earth’s natural resources by industrialized countries and the destruction of the planet caused by their patterns of production and consumption. Secondly, it includes appropriation by these countries of the planet’s absorption capacity and the occupation of its atmosphere, by polluting it with the emission of greenhouse gases (Donoso, 2006; World Council of Churches 2009). The Southern People’s Ecological Debt Alliance (www.ecologicaldebt.org) lists examples of how this debt has accrued to the North through:
• extraction of natural resources, such as petroleum, minerals, marine, forest resources;
• ecologically unequal terms of trade caused when goods are exported without taking into account the social and environmental damages caused by their production;
• intellectual appropriation and the use of ancestral knowledge related to seeds, the use of medicinal plants and other knowledge, upon which the biotechnology and the modern agro-industries are based, and for which, the South has to pay royalties;
• use and degradation of the best lands, of the water and air, and of human energy, for the development of export crops;
• production of chemical and nuclear weapons, substances and toxic residuals that are deposited in the countries of the Third World.
Ecological indebtedness, therefore, is primarily the debt owed by industrialized countries in the North to countries of the South. However, it is also the debt owed by economically and politically powerful national elites to marginalized citizens, by current generations of humanity to future generations, and, on a more cosmic scale, the debt owed by humankind to other life forms and the planet (WCC, 2009). Climate debt is the term used by climate activists to refer to this idea that rich countries should pay reparations to poor countries for the climate crisis (Klein, 2009). This has given rise to the call for ‘climate justice’, a slogan that appears on many of their websites. (See, for example, the civil society campaigns listed on page 20 of this issue.)
Indeed five billion people in the developing world are justified in demanding their right to the ecological debt owed them and their fair share of the reduced environmental space. They are also justified in demanding a fair process in making the important global decisions to accomplish that goal, particularly now that the world is facing an economic crisis that is aggravating their standard of life and even threatening their survival.
• make evident the illegitimacy of the foreign debt as a means of looting that increases the ecological debt;
• stop the external flow of primary materials, food and financial flows, which as part of an ecologically unequal exchange prevents the development of a nationally focused and autonomous economy that is in harmony with the environment;
• make evident the inequalities of the present economic model, and promote resistance to the imposition of a monoculture based on money and the market which works against cultural diversity, the well-being of communities and environmental sustainability. (Ecological debt campaign.. www.ecologicaldebt.org)
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