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Ecological Debt: the Need to Learn to ‘Settle the Accounts with the Landlord’

From Messaggero Cappuccino, February 1989
“For the first time in the history of the planet we are not only consuming the ‘interest’ but we are also drawing on nature’s ‘capital’”, in a world in which everything has become a commodity and is measured according to the parameters of money. That is how one could describe the current situation regarding our relationship with the biosphere.

It sounds like a crude financial equation, but perhaps it serves to help us understand things better. It has always been known, in fact, that nature offers a surplus in respect of all living creatures, and that its ‘investments’ are far in excess of the demands - so much so, that the majority of disasters up to now have been successfully compensated for and absorbed, or at least recovered from, in an acceptable way. For some time, probably a little over twenty years, this has no longer been the case. Our planet no longer resembles a boy, who knows, when he hurts himself, that he will soon be well again, but rather someone who is seriously ill, and must fear that after the first heart attacks, each new trauma could be fatal. The state of pollution (not just radioactive), deforestation, the greenhouse effect, the covering of the earth’s crust with concrete and the accelerating loss of ‘humus’, the chemical mortgaging of the soil, the water supplies and the air, and many other injuries, have reached such a point, and are accumulating and reinforcing one another in such a way as to no longer allow any irresponsibility towards ‘mother earth’. Such an industrial civilisation, motivated by the search for profits and expansion, not satisfied with the fruits of the earth, has started, in an increasingly frenetic way, to ‘undermine and fell the trees’ (figuratively as well as literally) and now faces a veritable mutation in the course of history. Many cyclical processes (such as the seasons, the water cycle, and the cultivation cycles of agriculture...) have been forced and violated, so as to become uni-directional and irreversible. Once one has made the transition from tens of thousands of varieties of seeds to a few hundred ‘industrially convenient’ ones, there is no way of returning from simplification to multiplicity, and once thousands and thousands of dangerous, toxic and radioactive substances have been released into the biosphere, it is no longer possible to get rid of them.

Thus, the environmental impact (an expression fashionable nowadays in our civilisation) has become enormous, and our exchange with the Earth has become predatory. We live in a state of permanent ‘fraudulent insolvency’ in regard to the planet. In other words, we do not settle our accounts with nature; on the contrary, we fraudulently attribute them to others, to avoid having to pay. In this way, the cost of our impact on the planet is off-loaded on to the poorest (who have to be satisfied with the most degrading and exhausted sectors of the environment and of resources that should be the patrimony of everyone), and on to the most remote populations (we send our refuse, our toxic factories, our pesticides and our arms to the peoples in the southern hemisphere) on to those who will come after us (we leave a polluted world, full of waste and lacking in resources that can be regenerated, to future generations). And while, in the financial system, one can perhaps hope (above all if one is a large debtor with strong contractual power) not to have to pay the full amount and, if possible, to delay payment, our ‘ecological debt’ towards the biosphere has now reached such a point that it does not allow for future delays in the search for a systematic settlement to balance our insane accounts. This is also because we are beginning to feel the effects on ourselves, directly, like a boomerang, and delays are seen to be increasingly illusory. It is not only that ships with poisonous chemicals are returning: it is sufficient to think of the drinking water situation, or the increase in cancers and stress, to convince one immediately of this.

This is why it is necessary to set an immediate objective, common to all humanity - but as a priority for those who have the major responsibility in having so fundamentally erred in their accounts with nature - to settle our ‘ecological debt’. This is the first and more authentic ‘fight against inflation’ that must be undertaken. We cannot continue nowadays to withdraw and spend from the biosphere, resources that we will be able to regenerate and rebuild only over very long periods (if ever) and, in any case, only if the damage inflicted nowadays is not irreparable. The true ‘reform of the public accounts’, which is urgently demanded today, is that of the ‘ecological budget’, which our false public and private accounting, however, carefully conceals. It is paradoxical and suicidal that collectively we know how to manage in a certain way the financial ‘income’ and ‘expenditure’, but do not take into any consideration the disastrous balance between the (many) outgoings and (few) real incomings. For the time being, a proposal of the greens - that there should be an ‘ecological budget’ (forecast and final) kept alongside the financial ones, in order to assess from year to year the state of the environment, the deterioration noted, the objectives to pursue regarding recovery, and any success which ensues - has not been accepted anywhere. It is clear that in such a budget, the return of an area of land to natural cultivation (that is: its recovery from drug addiction) or the revival of mixed integrated cultivation in place of monoculture, would be noted under “income”, while the over 2 million private cars bought in Italy in the course of a year would count heavily under ‘losses’. And perhaps it would not be difficult also to imagine a more equitable and effective taxation system, with the intention to settle the accounts with the biosphere as a specific objective, rather than that of making the system’s economic and financial carousel rotate better.
In another of the paradoxical perversions of which the prevalent way of thinking (and the associated language) abounds, nowadays, the greatest debtors regarding the environment appear instead as ‘creditors’ in the countries and peoples in the so-called ‘underdeveloped’ world, who are supposed to sell off their natural and human patrimony in a rush to pay the interest on this ‘debt’. But it happens that to demand the payment of this (financial)‘debt’ means increasing the deficit towards nature. It is not beneficial even to the populations of the ‘creditor’ countries (USA, Italy, Germany etc.) if the ‘debtors’ have to fell their forests or destroy the varied nature of their lands to put additional money into the destructive upward spiral of industry, profits and growth.

Enough. We must stop incurring new debts, which become ever more impossible to settle, in respect of the environment, and take measures to balance the unsound ‘ecological budget’. The true debt is not the economic and financial one of the poor or the ‘Third World’ (on the contrary, to cancel it in return for sound decisions to protect nature would be beneficial for everyone), but the ecological one. And we cannot go on delaying its payment, or continuing to send the bill to others.

From Messaggero Cappuccino,
February 1989

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