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Calculating Our Natural Deficit

| Thursday June 10th, 2010 | 0 Comments

As the country begins to emerge from the economic downturn, we are hearing more and more discussion about our soaring national debt, which currently stands at more than $13 trillion. This kind of number is almost too high to comprehend, but we can safely assume that future generations will be impacted. Now think for a moment about tabulating the debt we owe to the Earth?

In other words, what would our bill look like if we accounted for the goods and services we have consumed, and not replenished, from the Earth.

I know this sounds like a depressing calculation, but it is an exercise that might help us change our destructive ways. After all, you cannot manage what you don’t measure. The number would theoretically account for things like the years of unsustainable utilization of the planet’s natural resources and the pollution we have introduced to the land, sea, and air from our overwhelming quest for economic prosperity.

Unfortunately, we have yet to adequately quantify the value of the goods and services provided to us by our environment, and have been naively operating under the guise that Earth’s bounty is endless. The biggest problem relating to the over-consumption of resources is climate change, but effects also include deforestation, falling agricultural yields, and overfishing.

Overfishing is one of the clearest examples of the abuse of nature. If not curtailed and allowed to rebound, the fisheries we rely upon will collapse, causing the loss of an essential protein source for nearly half the planet. What do you think will happen to the cost of a salmon steak? What will the people eat that depend on the ocean for survival?

Today, as we begin to experience first hand the consequences of our ignorance, we are finally beginning to put a price tag on things like carbon emissions, deforestation, water pollution, dependence on foreign oil, and climate change. We can see that our historical practice of pitting economic growth against ecological sacrifice will only lead to environmental peril.

The world’s population is closing in on 7 billion people and studies show that at least 80 percent of humanity lives on less than $10 a day. Population growth and mounting poverty will only further contribute to environmental degradation, creating a never ending cycle. If these issues remain unaddressed, future generations will find life on Earth even more challenging. At some point in the future, it isn’t going to matter how much money our country owes as part of our national debt if Earth’s resources run dry.

The real truth is that the economy and the environment are more intertwined than many want to admit. If we don’t begin to place a real value on things that have been viewed as “priceless,” we could be faced with a debt, and subsequent interest, that we are unable to place on the shoulders of future generations.

It might seem like placing a value on an endangered plant species in the tropical rainforest of Brazil is in effect devaluing it. After all, who can say what clean air costs, or how much a redwood tree is worth? However, consider that extracts from many plant species are used to make life saving treatments for cancer patients. Realize that trees absorb a fifth of carbon emissions pumped out by humans.

Yet, both trees and the carbon they store have not been accurately valued according to their environmental impact.

Viewing our ecosystem as “priceless” has not stopped us from abusing it. If we place a value on environmental goods in situ, then we might be able to find enough incentive to use them more sustainably or find alternatives.

Humanity is overdrawn at the Earth’s resource bank. Unless corporations and governments begin to fully understand the true value of natural capital, engage in triple bottom line accounting and embrace the economic, environmental and social benefits of employing and mandating sustainable practices, we will be straddled with an ecological debt that far outweighs our national one.

Image courtesy of the Guardian UK.


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