Ecological Indebtedness: Who owes what to whom?

Frans C. Verhagen & Anita L. Wenden - November, 2009

Creating Sustainable Communities

Frans C. Verhagen, M.Div., M.I.A, PhD. is a sustainability sociologist, co-founder of Earth and Peace Education International (EPE) and director of its sustainability education and research program. He is also the founding president of the International Institute of Monetary Transformation (IIMT) and serves as NGO representative for the International Peace Research Association at UN headquarters in New York City.

Anita L. Wenden, Ed.D. is co-founder of Earth and Peace Education International and Director of peace education and research for the organization. She is Professor Emerita of York College, City University of New York, where she co-founded and served as director of the College’s Cultural Diversity Program and presently serves as the main NGO representative for the International Peace Research Association at UN headquarters in New York City.

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 ( 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.)

“Who owes what to whom?” Ecological indebtedness answers this question by adding to the financial indebtedness of the South the fact that the North owes the South an ecological debt. As noted above, for the last two hundred years the North has overused and exploited an inordinate share of Earth’s commons for its economic development. As a result, countries from the South, members of the majority world who seek to raise their standard of living, are now faced with a degraded and limited environmental space and an increasingly hostile climate which limits their economic growth. They cannot fuel it with cheap polluting energy as did the North since that would only add to the climate crisis. At the same time, they do not have the funds to switch to renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar (Klein 2009). In a statement submitted to the climate change negotiations, Eva Morales, President of Bolivia brings ecological indebtedness to bear on the debate over funding for developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change. He states:
Developing countries are not seeking economic handouts to solve a problem we did not cause. What we call for is full payment of the debt owed to us by developed countries for threatening the integrity of the Earth’s climate system, for over-consuming a shared resource that belongs fairly and equally to all people, and for maintaining lifestyles that continue to threaten the lives and livelihoods of the poor majority of the planet’s population. This debt must be repaid by freeing up environmental space for developing countries and in particular the poorest communities. (Morales, 2009).

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.
The basis for these justified demands is reflected in Article 3 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which contains the ethical position of the signatory nations. It not only recognizes that the “largest share of historical and current global emissions of GHGs has originated in developed countries” but also clearly states that the problem must be remediated “on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common, but differentiated responsibilities”. Friends of the Earth International takes up this ethical challenge in the following actions, which they recommend be taken to redress ecological indebtedness, i.e.
• establish the responsibility and the obligation of the industrialized countries of the North to repair and to stop the damage caused to the biosphere and to the countries of the Third World by the ecological debt, as it is putting the entire planet at risk;
• 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..

Dillon, J. (2001). The History of the Ecological Debt Movement. Paper presented at the Benin conference, 2001.
Donoso, A. (2006). An Alliance to stop the destruction of Southern people’s livelihood and sustainability. Retrieved
November 18, 2009 from
Ecological debt campaign background. Retrieved November 18, 2009
Friends of the Earth Scotland. (n.d.) Credit Where It’s Due: The Ecological Debt Education Project.
Klein, N. (11 November 2009). Climate Rage.
Morales, E. (29 April 2009). Statement submitted to the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Simms, A. (2005). Ecological Debt: The health of the planet and the wealth of nations. London, Pluto Press.
World Council of Churches (2009). Statement on eco-justice and ecological debt.
Retrieved November 19, 2009 from