We’re in debt.
Yes, I know — the United States owes its balls to China. But I don’t mean that debt.
Yes, I know — your college education turned you into a lifelong indentured servant to the bank. But I don’t mean that debt, either.
Yes, I know — predatory loans have hung mortgage-albatrosses around the necks of the un-bailed-out. But I don’t mean that debt either.
We’re in ecological debt, too. This is much more unfortunate, because here we’re not just dealing with numbers sliding around on some investment banker’s screen. This is not the fiction of currency, in other words — it’s real-world natural resources. We’re using the Earth itself, earlier and earlier each year.
As a planet, as of today, we have already spent all of the Earth’s resources for the year. And, in case you have forgotten, it’s still summer. Called “Earth Overshoot Day,” Aug. 19 marks the day on which we’ve used all the resources the Earth can produce in a year.
If you’re wondering why all commerce and industry have not ground to a halt, it is because we do not simply use what the Earth produces in a year for that year. (If only.) We’ve been mining the Earth’s historically produced resources for generations. Mother Nature had billions of years to churn out biological and mineral goodies before we hairless apes came up with first agriculture and then industry. So, we’ve largely treated the Earth as an infinite resource. You can understand the mistake: You “arrive” on the scene with resource needs/desires, and start chipping away at billions of years of production, it feels like that shit’s just going to keep on keepin’ on.
Somewhere along the line, however, modern humans learned about scarcity. Even industrialized humans figured this out. But the United States still has a problem, collectively, wrapping its Mountain Dew-addled grey matter around the idea of ecological debt.
Again, unsurprising. As a nation, we’re clearly not good on debt or long-term-planning-type things. We tend to treat plastic like a bottomless cup of hot steaming free money, with average U.S. credit card debt at over $15K per household (!). More broadly, people in the U.S. are more likely to cast shade on climate-change claims, with one of the two major political parties routinely pushing for more drilling — because there’s always more to get.
That makes sense. At a smaller scale, the colonization of the American landmass recapitulated the appearance of agricultural and industrial societies on a 4.5-billion-year-furnished planet. For people in the pre-United States and early United States, here was a wonderland of forests, minerals, farmable land and other resources that had barely been exploited.
I recently interviewed a West Virginia agronomist for an article, and he talked about how early colonizers and U.S. pioneers dined on 100s of years of forest growth. The U.S. land mass, from sea to shining sea, had pumped centuries of photosynthetic industry into miles of free wood. It seemed like a free lunch. An Olive Garden never-ending-pasta-bowl of old-growth forest, if you will.
Nowadays, by contrast, U.S. loggers nibble at a mere 70 years or so of arboreal growth.
But that feeling, that the United States is a land of Olive Gardenian plenitude, remains with us. It is the, ironically, “conservative” position, to believe that you can just keep drilling. Conservative, because it harkens back to America’s early glory, when we were young and the top soil went down for miles and the forests were infinite and we could throw a perfect spiral right into the end zone from 50 yards out.
But not, you know, “conservative,” in the actual dictionary meaning of the word. Quite the opposite. In the ecological equivalent of racking up a ledger with China to finance wars and tax cuts, we are spending through the Earth’s yearly resources in 8 months — and that number has steadily shrunk, with Earth Overshoot Day not falling until October in 2000.
Such numbers should maybe shock us into some sort of truly conservative actions. But so should the data on rising average temperatures. In a country in which college students will be paying off credit card debt into their 70s, I imagine we’ll just slide that eco-debt onto the ledger and buy something nice for ourselves.