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The Natural Debt Crisis:
Learning to Live Within
Our Planet's Means

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Time Magazine February 22, 2011,8599,2052930,00.html


The Natural Debt Crisis:
Learning to Live Within Our Planet's Means


By Bryan Walsh


Ask any Republican - from the Speaker of the House to a local sheriff

- what the biggest problem facing the country is today and you're

sure to get the same answer: Debt. Conservatives believe a public

debt of $14 trillion and growing is crippling the economy and

condemning future generations to penury. In Wisconsin, new Republican

governor Scott Walker says that a $137 million deficit leaves him no

choice but to force public unions in the state to accept drastic

benefits reductions and curtailed bargaining rights - a stance that

has brought tens of thousands of protesters to the streets of

Madison. In Congress, the Republican-controlled House has passed a

budget that would slash $60 billion in government spending, most of

it from discretionary programs. "We're broke," Speaker John Boehner

told Meet the Press last week. "It's time to get serious about how

we're spending the nation's money."


It's not that President Barack Obama and the Democrats don't talk

about the danger of spiraling public debt. Obama's own fiscal 2012

budget included a five-year freeze on nonsecurity discretionary

spending. But when it comes to serious slash-and-burn deficit

reductions - and alarming rhetoric about what unchecked public debt

will do to the country - Obama just can't compete with his friends

across the aisle. "We face a crushing burden of debt," Wisconsin

Republican Paul Ryan said in his response to last month's State of

the Union speech. "The debt will soon eclipse our entire economy, and

grow to catastrophic levels in the years ahead."


Now, I'm not a political reporter - thankfully - but I've heard that

sort of rhetoric before, this warning that we're living beyond our

means, running up a tremendous debt that will one day cause

catastrophe. It's the call of the environmentalist, and it was on

display just a few blocks away from the Capitol in Washington this

weekend at the annual summit of the American Association for the

Advancement of Science. Speaker after speaker took the podium in

stuffy halls around the Walter E. Washington Convention Center to

warn that we had exceeded the planet's carrying capacity - with too

many people, too much pollution and too much carbon dioxide - and

that unless we cut back drastically on consumption, our world would

collapse, and us with it. "Right now we're living at about 1.5

planets' worth of consumption," says Jason Clay, senior vice

president for market transformation at the World Wildlife Fund. "We

are living beyond what is sustainable. That can't go on forever."


Even the terms we use to describe our two debts are similar, as the

language used in finance bleeds over into ecology. Conservationists

like to talk about "natural capital" - the stuff provided by the

planet that underpins prosperity. Clean air, clean water, soil,

forests, fish, biodiversity - this is the natural capital in our

balance sheet, and without it there would be no life, let alone

business. One study done in the mid-1990s estimated that the total

value of such ecosystem services was approximately $33 trillion -

considerably more than the global GDP at the time. The business of

the planet is the environment.


If we act sustainably - if we live within our means, as conservatives

might put it - our natural capital will regenerate and sustain us,

like a bank account delivering interest. But we're not living within

our means - not even close. Just to take one example from the

conference, Villy Christensen of the University of British Columbia

(UBC) Fisheries Center looked at global fish stocks and found that

big predatory fish like tuna and cod have declined by more than

two-thirds over the past century. Fifty-four percent of that decline

has taken place over the past 40 years, when factory-fishing boats

began sweeping the oceans. Christensen explained the dramatic

disappearance of our favorite fish in terms that might be familiar to

any budget hawk. "You can think of the fish biomass as our capital in

the bank," he said. "We can draw an interest from that capital every

year. But we have been eroding the capital year after year, and we

are now left with so small fish stocks that the world catches are

smaller now than they were in the 1980s."


Admittedly, there are economists who argue that these fears are

overblown, that humanity has been able to keep growing through

technological innovation that has multiplied the carrying capacity of

the planet. There were doomsayers in the 1970s who predicted imminent

global starvation; instead, we've thrived economically, pulling

hundreds of millions of human beings out of poverty. That's exactly

how most conservatives talk about the natural debt, if they talk

about it all. We'll keep growing, keep innovating our way out of

anything nature throws in our path. And if that doesn't work, there's

always divine intervention. "God is not capricious," Minnesota

Republican Mike Beard said recently. "He's given us a creation that

is dynamically stable. We are not going to run out of anything."


But the truly scary possibility is that the collapse could come quite

suddenly, after what may seem to be a long period of global

prosperity. It would only be in retrospect, after the fall, that we

would see that what we thought was success was built on eating into

our capital, like a consumer maxing out his credit cards to buy a

second house. The global rise in food prices, which have hit their

highest level globally in several decades, might be an early sign

that the agricultural system that sustains (some more than others)

nearly 7 billion people with the help of fertilizers and irrigation

may be hitting its limits. "When the crisis hits, we'll act rapidly,

but by then it might be too late for hundreds of millions or even

billions of people," says William Rees, an ecologist at UBC.


What's amazing to me, though, is that the very politicians who are so

worried about the public debt - and who want deep spending cuts now

to save our future, whatever the cost - utterly dismiss the idea that

we could face an equal crisis of natural debt. Politicians like

Boehner and Ryan order us to tighten our belts immediately, but they

utterly deny the climate and resource crisis the world faces. In

fact, the Republicans in Congress are going well beyond simple denial

- they're now using their budget to erode America's ability to

prepare for that very scary future.


The Republican budget would cut the Environmental Protection Agency

(EPA) budget by one-third - $3 billion - and would prevent the agency

from setting any limits on CO2 and a number of other pollutants. It

would eliminate U.S. funding for the Intergovernmental Panel on

Climate Change - which would save all of $12.5 million. It would cut

Department of Energy budgets that promoted renewable energy by $1.7

billion - a 23% reduction at a time when the U.S. is in a

clean-energy race with China. The National Science Foundation budget

would be cut by $395.5 million. "This is probably the single most

irresponsible bill I have seen either Chamber of Congress pass in the

more than 20 years I have been in Washington," wrote Dan Lashof, the

director of the Natural Resource Defense Council's climate center.


To which the Republicans would respond, We face an unprecedented

fiscal crisis, and tough choices have to be made. All right - but if

you believe public debt is such a potential catastrophe that it must

be defused now, no matter the short-term pain, it only seems right to

take our natural debt just as seriously. Either way, we're broke -

and it's time we acted like it.


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