The Environmental Debt

Much public concern gets expressed over the federal debt, as well it should be. We can find no moral justification for one generation to leave a large to debt to another generation. Concern over the federal debt even leads some pundits to suggest that we should relax environmental laws to reduce the federal debt.
But we must understand that debt can take on multiple forms, financial IOUs being only one of those forms. Leaving a mess that others must pay to clean up constitutes a debt. Destroying a resource so that others must pay to replace it also constitutes a debt. When we recognize this we realize that we are not just leaving our progeny a federal debt, we are leaving them environmental debts also.
We need to critically examine our environmental debts, estimate the size of those debts, and consider how to reduce our environmental debts. Ideally, we should not be leaving any environmental debts to our own children; we should be creating an environmental surplus, or buffer, that may one day support our great grandchildren.
This page will look at major environmental debts. We will consider how our technological-economic choices create environmental debts, examine who extracts zero-sum profits by creating the debt, and estimate what the cost or payback time of that debt.
One way to understand the size of a debt is to estimate how long it would typically take to pay it back. The federal debt after the Great Depression - W.W.II sequence was larger than Americans could imagine, and yet it was mostly paid back within one generation. We will question how long, or how many generations it will take to pay back our environmental debts, that is return the environmental resource to a state where it can sustainably produce at the rate it once did.

Draft: January 2014

Related pages at this site

 

 

Water acidification
  Primary Causes CO2 emissions from fossil fuels
  How is it a cost Acidified water can destroy the base of marine food chains depleting fisheries. Acidified water extracts mercury & heavy metals from rocks which then get absorbed by fish rendering them dangerous to eat.
  Who will pay All those losing fish as a food resource
  Who profits Fossil fuel companies & executives
  Payback time Centuries
  References CO2 & water pH (2)

Mercury & Heavy Metal Contamination of Water
  Primary Causes Coal emissions and water acidification
  How is it a cost Mercury contaminates food (primarily fish) and if eaten causes brain damage in the consumer.
  Who will pay All those who lose an aquatic food resource and must pay to find an alternative resource, and all those who suffer health impacts from eating mercury tainted foods.
  Who profits Fossil fuel companies & executives
  Payback time Centuries
  References mercury contamination, coal emissions, mercury in Great Lakes

Groundwater Contamination
  Primary Causes Fracking, mine leachate, industrial farming, toxic waste dumping
  How is it a cost Once the water gets contaminated residents must either pay to clean it or pay to ship in another source of water, or absorb the losses and relocate
  Who will pay All residents of the contaminated region
  Who profits Fossil fuel companies, corporate agribusiness, chemical companies
  Payback time Decades to centuries
  References Mine leachate & fracking fluids

Groundwater Depletion
  Primary Causes Crop irrigation, fracking
  How is it a cost Once the water is depleted residents must pay to find other sources of water for drinking, cleaning, & crops, or absorb the losses to relocate
  Who will pay  
  Who profits Corporate agribusiness
  Payback time Millennium
  References depletion, (2), (3)

Nitrogen Cascade, Eutrification, Dead Zones
  Primary Causes Nitrogen fertilizers, especially corn farming
  How is it a cost Nitrogen contamination can rapidly kill off entire aquatic ecosystems destroying food sources, and poisoning of water supplies
  Who will pay Fishermen, citizens depending on the water supply
  Who profits Corporate agribusiness
  Payback time Decades to centuries
  References Nitrogen cascade, Dead zones

Fossil Fuel & Mineral Depletion
  Primary Causes Burning fossil fuels
  How is it a cost Carbon-based minerals have many potential uses. Once they are burned away people must pay to find replacement resources for them. A society that has become dependent on fossil fuels must pay to restructure itself to adjust to the loss of the resource.
  Who will pay  
  Who profits Fossil fuel companies & executives
  Payback time Millions of years
  References peak oil,(2), hubbert curve, time to produce coal,

Soil Depletion & Soil Salinization
  Primary Causes Monoculture & crop irrigation
  How is it a cost Once soil nutrients are depleted or salinity increased the productivity of the soil declines significantly
  Who will pay All residents of the land and those dependent on food formerly produced on that land
  Who profits Agribusiness
  Payback time Decades to centuries
  References Soil salinization soil depletion,
Our impact on our environment constitutes the biggest zero-sum transfer of wealth existing in this generation. A small group of one generation has gotten extremely wealthy by transferring the environmental cost not only to those who live downstream, but also to many future generations. All those who have gotten wealthy off of businesses that have long term environmental impacts owe their wealth to an indirect subsidy. Permitting the environmental impacts of industrialization constitutes the most egregious form of socialistic transfer of wealth from one group to another in existence.  
 
Some industries owe their profit entirely to zero-sum gains realized through environmental externalities. The environmental costs of using fossil fuels are actually larger than the profits of the fossil fuel companies!  

 

Sidenotes:

The list above only includes environmental choices for which the impact has well understood, well studied, and well documented. Many other impacts are being studied but the costs are not highly predictable. Prominent examples include:

 
   

 

 

  Recall that our current federal debt is comparable to the debt we had at the end of W.W.II. If we really desired, we could pay it down in just one generation. But that is not the case with the environmental debts we are leaving.
Some of the pollution and habitat destruction we are leaving could be remedied within one generation. But some impacts will most likely take centuries before the costs are no longer being realized by our progeny. A few of our environmental debts could easily impact future generations for millennium.

When we realize this we recognize that our total environmental debt is actually many times larger than our federal debt. This may seem counterintuitive, but we would do better for our children to risk increasing the federal debt to invest in the environment than reduce the federal debt by damaging the environment. If you are concerned about the federal debt, then the only intellectually honest position you can take would be to show much greater concern about the environmental debts that will cost your decedents for generations to come.

Related Topics

 

Return to: