Sunday, July 31, 2011

On debt and indebtedness

It is clear that the current debt talks that are going on in the US have serious implications for the future of the economy that this country, and much of the world, chooses to subscribe to. I can appreciate that. Honestly, though, I have avoided following much of the media and discussion surrounding this issue. Because regardless of the outcome of the talks, whether the US Congress extend the debt ceiling or not, what has been reinforced to me is that we have chosen to live beyond means, financially, and of course ecologically. The wheels for living beyond our means were set in motion a long, long time ago. But it doesn't matter when it started, what matters is what has happened as a result.

How the notion of debt has been playing out is fascinating and sad, particularly when it has such massive ecological ramifications. When you are in debt, it seems logical that one must be and feel indebted. What does it mean to be or feel indebted? It means that you have an appreciation of what has been offered to you by others - other nations, the air, the water, the land - and you show gratitude. It means that there a responsibility to repay the debt, at some point in the future (a massive sticking point, it seems!). It is difficult to pass through a contemporary life now and not be indebted to anyone or any institution at some point. We are all indebted.

Are we acting in a way that expresses our indebtedness? It doesn't seem so. If we were indebted for what we have, we would be led down of a path of thought known as "sufficiency". Rather than looking to the new and to the next, we would be grateful for what we have, and we would cherish and respect. On the contrary, rather than appreciate what has been given to us, we choose to want more. Of course we have tamed many segments of the natural world, and can continually abuse them, but we also demand more and more from other nations of the world, and they choose to subscribe to this system of operation, for some reason, and give us what we want. (I guess "choose" is a loaded term.)

The ecological implications of this debt are severe. If we live beyond our means financially, and the only way to bring value in to the world is through natural resource extraction (or the Federal Reserve just adding zeroes into the economy), that means that we are continuing to "borrow" from the environment. We continue to use and degrade what we cannot justify as "ours," while at the same time hoping that we can somehow repay the debt in the future. How is it possible to repay such an ecological debt? What does it even mean to be in ecological debt?

The mortgage crisis of three years ago stemmed from the exact same mentality - people choosing to accept debt, and people willing to offer others a debt-ridden situation. This may be obvious and cliche to say, but it bears repeating - we must live within our means. Living means that we should not take more than what we need, we should not borrow more than we can repay. In the end, it is impossible to wrap your mind around what fourteen trillion dollars of debt means. If you cannot understand what the debt means, how do you repay it? Does this just mean that we can continue to borrow? The types of debt we should take upon ourselves are those that we know we can repay, whether in kindness or community.

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