What Do We Owe?

by Adrienne Buller

13 November 2020

Design: Bronte Dow

Covid-19 has brought a new meaning to isolation, but the wearing down of our connections to community, to the natural world and to politics has long been a symptom of the neoliberal project. In this series, Adrienne Buller explores the new forms of connection we need to tackle the challenges of climate and environmental breakdown.

“Say the planet is born at midnight and it runs for one day… Anatomically modern man shows up four seconds before midnight… by midnight, most of the globe is converted to row crops for care and feeding of one species. And that’s when the tree of life becomes something else again. That’s when the giant trunk starts to teeter.”

– Richard Powers, The Overstory

The history of our planet is told in tree rings and ice cores. Through variations in width and tiny air bubbles trapped in glaciers we can trace how – over a brief fraction of the existence of life on Earth – industrial capitalism has dramatically reshaped its systems and created an increasingly uncertain future. With every upward revision of projections for the pace, sensitivity and severity of climate and environmental breakdown, the message is clearer: the future is arriving faster than we thought. 

But as frantically near as 2050 or even 2100 seems – comfortably within the lifetime of a child born this year – our political and economic systems are incapable of making the same connections between our present and future that the “industrial flow of carbon” from earth to atmosphere does so adeptly.

Yet for those who advocate against decisive action on the climate crisis, arguments about intergenerational debt are popular. The idea that we cannot borrow more money now to avert ecological catastrophe because of an unfair burden of debt for future generations now seems as common a trope as outright denial of climate science. Rightwing think tanks and commentators have spent years arguing that the costs of action would be debilitating for growth and future prosperity, even falsely stating that 2°C or more of heating – a death sentence for significant parts of the global population – would be a net positive economically. In 2019, then-chancellor Phillip Hammond warned of the supposedly exorbitant costs of the government’s net zero 2050 target – a warning now echoed even by those who championed it, like the chief of the Committee on Climate Change who, in a bid for a coherent government plan to meet the target, has resorted to praising the cheapness of doing so.

Even some of the key models informing IPCC pathways are based on deeply flawed economic assumptions – such as the notion that some 90% of the economy, from finance to real estate to mining – will be unaffected by the climate crisis because it takes place ‘indoors’. The apparent conclusion of these assumptions: even a world 4°C warmer than pre-industrial levels would see only a modest impact on GDP, never mind the collapse of biodiversity, food systems, or civilisation as we know it.

In unfortunate timing for the climate, increased government borrowing necessitated by the Covid-19 crisis has breathed new life into the tired ‘too much debt’ boogeyman, and renewed the sober war cry of ‘balancing the books’ at the earliest convenience. We owe it to our children, so they say, not to shoulder them with unsustainable debt incurred to benefit ourselves. When it comes to many things – but none more so than the prevention of catastrophic climate change and ecosystem collapse – this is a deliberately misleading and profoundly dangerous claim. The technical details for why are beyond the scope of this brief contribution, but the fact that the UK government owes much of its debt to the Bank of England, effectively nullifying it, and that the cost of servicing our debt is at historic lows and is likely to continue falling, should be indication that the headline figures used by scaremongers are not quite as they seem.

More importantly, while the argument that present generations could theoretically loot the wellbeing and prosperity of younger and future generations is not wrong, it’s simply not relevant here – at least not in the way it tends to be used. As Simon Wren-Lewis argued at the height of austerity debates in the UK, most economic decisions involve trade-offs between generations; however, the cost of debt incurred to mitigate and adapt to climate change is so small in contrast to the costs – both economic and otherwise – of business as usual as to be negligible. The benefits, on the other hand, are immeasurably vast, and will be shared between ourselves and as many future generations as occupy the planet, both human and non-human.

The critical question in evaluating debt, then, is what is its purpose? Using debt to achieve justice, sustainability and collective prosperity is clearly worthwhile; indeed, as Ann Pettifor writes in The Production of Money: “There need never be a shortage of money to solve the great scourges of humanity… and to ensure the ‘livability’ of the ecosystem,”; rather, our limits are found in our collective willingness, humanity, and ability to cooperate.

Because we can deliver it, we owe a habitable planet, full and healthy life, education, security, prosperity, a thriving natural world, joy – to both current and future generations. Our prevailing economic and political systems are not built to deliver this; worse still, they entrench a way of thinking that innately resists the communal, forcing a deeply atomised, short-termist zeitgeist. As an ideology, neoliberalism relies on the valorisation of the individual, while globalisation has allowed us to offshore the concerns and costs of pollution, human rights and displacement. Orthodox economics, meanwhile, falsely constructs the natural environment as external to the economy, and perpetual growth as the ultimate intergenerational duty.

In short, we’ve written a recipe for catastrophe. Remedying it will require us to make new intergenerational connections in our thinking, our economics and our politics, building an understanding of ourselves as a collective that spans not just geographies, but timescales. This is a tall order. How can we reasonably be expected to plan for the welfare of those living 200 years from now when we fail to extend the same care to those suffering the impacts of climate breakdown today? Year after year, wealthy nations fall short of their already insufficient global climate financing commitments; the binding decarbonisation targets of countries like the UK are distinctly rare, and along timelines of action that condemn large swathes of the Global South to sacrifice zones; and at the first sign of trouble early in the pandemic, private capital fled so-called ‘emerging markets’ investments at breakneck pace, hindering the finances of these countries when funding is most urgent.

But here, too, we need intergenerational thinking: wealthy nations are more resilient to a changing climate despite having contributed overwhelmingly to its cause, while those on the frontlines of its impacts tend to be citizens of places whose wealth has been systematically plundered and undermined by colonial histories and structural adjustment. Transferring wealth to the Global South to support climate mitigation and adaptation should therefore not be in the form of interest bearing loans or corporate subsidies dressed up as international aid; rather, justice demands it take the form of reparations, reflecting that today’s affluent, largely white world owes its comparative safety in the face of environmental catastrophe to generations of enslavement, exploitation and extraction. Doing so is not only right – it’s also necessary for efforts to tackle the climate crisis to succeed.

Getting there will be an uphill battle, requiring us to challenge the short-termism and free market individualism that presently guides everything from finance and corporate behaviour to the ambitions of politicians tethered to four and five year election cycles. There are emerging blueprints for doing so close to home, like the Wales Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. But ultimately, for a deeper rewriting of our economic rules we should look beyond the Western liberal consensus for conceptions of collective responsibility across both space and time that can help chart the alternative we need. The diverse understandings of interdependence of Indigenous communities around the world, for example, are consistently sidelined – despite their being the custodians of a stunning 80% of global biodiversity – and their efforts to protect nature criminalised; this must change.

Time is of the essence. The stumps of trees we’ve cut down to feed the ravenous engines of growth tell a history of rapid industrial expansions and rising temperatures. As governments the world over plan hollow ‘green’ Covid-19 recovery plans and fixate on reducing the debt, we should be asking what the rings of the trees we plant today will show. What is it that we owe?

Adrienne Buller is a senior research fellow at Common Wealth think tank.

Earlier pieces in this series can be found below.

Part one: What’s the Value of a Whale?

Part two: Global Capitalism Has Pushed Our Food System to Breaking Point

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