Environment in Debt

Every winter millions of monarch butterflies migrate from the United States and Canada to forests in central Mexico. The sight of their arrival stops people and traffic not only by virtue of its uniqueness, but also due to the physical barrier created by the volume of butterflies crossing like planes aiming to land on the boughs of fir trees. This natural phenomenon remains elusive to scientists aiming to understand how these butterflies know the route to forests in Michoacán. Considering that they embark on this migration about every five generations, it is extraordinary that the beautiful winged insects who blanket many acres of forest are the great, great grandchildren of previous generations of monarch butterflies who undertook the same migration. How it is encoded in their biology to gravitate towards and land on Oyamel fir trees in Mexico remains a mystery.[ref]News stories consulted for this essay include: Jason Beaubien, “Mexico’s Drug War Keeps Tourists from Monarchs” for NPR, February 9, 2011. Available at: ; Seth Doane, “Saving the Monarch Butterflies’ Migration” for CBS Evening News, March 30, 2010. Available at: ; John Roach, “Internal Clock Leads Monarch Butterflies to Mexico” for National Geographic News, June 10, 2003. Available at: ; Stan Sesser, “Defending the Monarch” for The Wall Street Journal, December 19, 2008. Available at: ; Mark Stevenson, “Monarch Butterflies Make Partial Comeback in Mexico” for The Associated Press, February 14, 2011. Available at: ; UNESCO, “Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve” for World Heritage Convention. Available at:[/ref]
Efforts to protect the site of this unique, natural occurrence began in the 1980s when UNESCO classified the area as a Biosphere Reserve World Heritage property. Despite global recognition of this area as a place of intrinsic value, the butterfly reserves are threatened by severe deforestation, illegal logging, increased tourism, and Mexico’s drug wars. That the butterfly reserve should be protected might be without question, but the landscape is embedded in a social environment that guides human action as much as the natural world inspires it. In the case of the butterfly reserve, but also on a much broader scale, how nature’s resources are used or preserved is determined by the twin processes of measuring and valuing, which are intimately tied to notions of debt.
If financial debt refers to an obligation to repay money owed, environmental debt takes account of nature’s wealth and measures its value based on patterns of consumption, preservation, and degradation. We might consume its resources for economic gain, preserve its aesthetic value, or attempt to balance environmental use by compensating for its degradation. Regarding nature’s wealth, how have we borrowed against it? When is debt pertinent to negotiating systems of preservation and notions of value regarding land-use? What’s at stake in aiming to recover or having to repay environmental debts?
Citizens from Latin American and Caribbean countries were first to apply the term ecological debt in 1992 to argue that “industrialized countries have incurred an ecological debt with the world.[ref]Andrew Simms, Ecological Debt: Global Warming and the Wealth of Nations, Second Edition (NY: Pluto Press, 2009), 90. The term ecological debt formally entered the policy debate in 1992 at the Earth Summit when Latin American and Caribbean citizens drafted a report titled Our Common Agenda.[/ref]
Developing countries began to take account, both rhetorically and in financial terms of the disproportionately high consumption and exploitation of the world’s natural resources by industrialized countries. Applying notions of debt constituted a new vocabulary and approach; the utility of debt being that it implied payback. The difficulty was that recovering ecological debts required specificity. How would the ecological debt of industrialized countries be tallied? Paid for? Collected? Who would enforce such obligations? Would it be possible to measure and balance which nations have used more of the world’s resources and which suffer the greatest consequences of environmental degradation? If not, another option for giving an ecological debt concrete monetary value emerged: if they did not repay ecological debts, would industrialized nations be willing to forgive the financial debts owed to them by the developing world? In 1998 the answer was no. The World Bank refused to cancel debts owed by countries in Central America that were left devastated by Hurricane Mitch.[ref]Simms, Ecological, 90.[/ref]
As wild fluctuations in weather patterns escalate and are increasingly attributed to the consequences of global warming, the balance of ecological debts and payments remains part of a conversation that aims to place some measure of responsibility for repayment on nations that have exacerbated problems of polluting, over-fishing, and species destruction.
For developing countries in debt the earth’s resources provide a tangible and immediate form of capital. Poverty and environmental resource problems are linked in ways that hinder efforts to save landscapes such as the forests in Michoacán. This does not mean, however, that poor people inevitably destroy the environment as a method of sustaining their livelihood. International trade agreements, pressure from government and industry, have had the effect of removing poor and indigenous people from environments they once used, or of impairing their ability to use land in local and sustainable ways. Furthermore, the consequences of development programs imposed by industrialized nations exacerbate disparities in wealth and promote destructive land practices.
Trade liberalization policies under agreements such as NAFTA, for example, contribute to severe deforestation in Michoacán and hinder local strategies for sustainable development. According to one estimate, “about half of the native forests in the area have been lost since 1963. [ref]Daniel Jaffee, “Confronting Globalization in the Community Forests of Michoacán, Mexico: Free Trade, Neoliberal Reforms, and Resource Degradation,” 7. Paper presented at Latin American Studies Association (LASA) Congress, April 1997, Guadalajara, Mexico. [/ref]
The major cause of deforestation involves clearing large expanses of land for other uses. Efforts to expand agricultural production include replacing native forests with avocado plantations that produce what is referred to in Michoacán as “green gold.” In the 1990s, Michoacán exported this crop mainly to Europe and Japan, and later, in keeping with NAFTA requirements, began supplying avocados to the United States for the first time in 80 years.[ref]Daniel Jaffee, “Confronting,” 11-12.[/ref]
Forest lands not suitable to grow the cash crop are also affected by the industry’s expansion, as the demand for pine packing crates used for shipping avocados and other products grows.
In contrast to land cleared for agricultural production, the area protected as a Biosphere Reserve is relatively small and the surrounding deforestation greatly affects the health of these ecosystems. The loss of pine forests that previously protected butterflies against winter rain and cold contribute to the dramatic drop in butterfly populations, which are increasingly freezing to death in winter temperatures.[ref]Seth Doane, “Saving the Monarch Butterflies’ Migration” for CBS Evening News, March 30, 2010.[/ref]

In addition to large scale illegal logging, forest losses are attributed to peasant and indigenous communities who live in and use these forests for cooking and heating their homes and to sell for revenue. Forest communities in Michoacán are economically marginalized and they respond by economic necessity to local and international markets and trade conditions.
Looking at broader trade patterns the organization Acción Ecológica estimated that: “Between 1980 and 1995, the volume of exports from Latin America increased by 245 percent…  The amount of resources that were transformed, destroyed or moved in order to produce these exports has not been calculated, nor has the number of people affected or displaced. Meanwhile, between 1982 and 1996, Latin America repaid $740 billion in debt… Yet the debt has not diminished, but has rather increased.”[ref]Accion Ecologica, as cited in Duncan McLaren, “Environmental Space, Equity and the Ecological Debt” in Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World, edited by Julian Agyeman, Robert D. Bullard and Bob Evans, 19-37 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 32.[/ref]
For Latin American countries, the rhetoric of debt is a method for addressing natural resource consumption and exploitation in conjunction with wealth imbalances and debt distribution. Andrew Simms posits that: “Ecological debt reveals a world turned upside down. It’s a place where costs get passed on barely questioned from wealthy ecological debtors to cash-poor environmental creditors.”[ref]Simms, Ecological, 13[/ref]
Linking patterns of resource consumption to matters of financial debt also calls attention to discrepancies of value regarding the products of nature and the conditions of the natural world. Although the value of commodities such as avocados are contingent on markets, the assessment is concrete, whereas the intrinsic and aesthetic value of a butterfly reserve and its surrounding forests are not easily preserved given our current methods for measuring the worth of the natural world. Under these conditions resources are exploited without sufficient attention to consequence because the full environmental cost remains unaccounted for and the accrued debt unpaid.
When ecological costs of resource extraction are not fully accounted for, environmental degradation becomes economically viable. Furthermore, methods for valuing the non-monetary beauty and benefits of the natural world require that those places be separated from human use and living.[ref]See William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, edited by William Cronon, 69-90 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995).[/ref]
Reverence for the natural world has historically elicited a process of preserving beautiful places at the expense of native and local land use. In creating national parks in late-nineteenth-century America, for example, conservation legislation led to the dispossession of the rural poor and Native Americans who relied on those wild places for subsistence.[ref]Karl Jacoby, Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). By criminalizing necessary timber-use, hunting, and fire practices, in places such as the Adirondacks, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon, local residents were forced to endure punishment, impoverishment, or to turn to wage labor. As historian Karl Jacoby points out, the process of preservation helped foment both historical and contemporary notions that rural, working-class, and indigenous populations exploit the natural world. This rhetoric erases the memory of local people who were interested in regulating and protecting common land and resources for their continued use and benefit.[/ref]
Preserving wild places for their aesthetic value led to land appropriation and dispossession. The process of valuing beautiful places was imbricated in social inequalities and as a consequence, land value and human debt were inextricably linked. Establishing national parks in the U.S. created social debts to displaced peoples. These past efforts mirror current policy debates concerning places such as the butterfly reserve in Michoacán. Citizens who first applied the rhetoric of debt to the natural world did so to address historically unequal access to land and resources.
Forest communities in Michoacán have both legal and clandestine access to forest resources. Conservation efforts focus on helping local users transition to sustainable practices because they cannot prevent development altogether. The notion that the natural environment is inseparable from economic activity is pervasive in current discussion about environmental debts. For developing countries, the means towards achieving economic progress involves exploiting more resources. Some question, for example, why the developing world should refrain from exploiting its natural resources when industrialized nations achieved their status through those very processes. That humanity will continue to incur environmental debts has become a given. Thus, according to this model, humanity will first take advantage of nature’s wealth, and then construct an estimate of the debts borrowed against the natural world.
Whereas notions of ecological debt were first used to emphasize the unequal and destructive use of resources, the legal concept of environmental assurance bonding claims to be a means for maintaining nominally sustainable resource extraction. Within the assurance bond scheme — before commencing an industry such as logging or mining — firms would be required to post a bond equal to the perceived amount of potential environmental damage. The bond would later be returned if no damages were assessed, or used to help rehabilitate disturbed landscapes. This market-based regulatory system assumes that the potential for environmental harm should not arrest continued use of resources and land.[ref]Douglas A. Kysar, “Ecologic: Nanotechnology, Environmental Assurance Bonding, and Symmetric Humility” UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy 28: 201 (2010).[/ref]
However, firms that calculate environmental debt, in the form of bonds, are not required to account for non-monetary notions of value and compensation. What if the aesthetic value of land used for logging is spoiled? That does not enter calculation. Furthermore, the moral sense of obligation and responsibility that accompany the process of going into debt is diminished since indebtedness is normalized from the onset rather than perceived as a regression.
Environmental assurance bonds conflate land value with human debt by measuring environmental worth in solely monetary terms and compensating for environmental degradation through systems of debt. Both land value and human debt are taken out of context in order to simplify processes of industry development and economic compensation. This is the least effective way of preserving the more elusive aspects of nature’s wealth. Ecological debt, on the other hand, is a useful method of making social inequalities visible by proposing more explicit and comprehensive ways of valuing the natural world. This is a way of contextualizing both land value and human debt and weighing the broader implications of each. This is an important method for destabilizing our assumptions about debt by characterizing industrialized nations as ecological debtors and developing countries as environmental creditors. However, this form of corrective justice — which admittedly would do well to balance accounts — does not ultimately provide a method of transforming human engagement with the natural world.
Keeping alive butterfly populations for posterity requires different methods for valuing land. Forests in Michoacán are continually destroyed and as a result butterfly populations in the Biosphere Reserve have dropped dramatically in the past few years. Many efforts to save their winter homes depend upon revenues from tourism. The impact of human visitors puts a strain on butterfly habitats; however, drops in tourism result in a loss of revenue that is used to offset income lost from logging. Butterfly survival is contingent upon human pursuits and desires. In a different time, butterflies might have found representation in a court of law capable of defending the insects’ interests to preserve the environmental quality of forests in Michoacán. Thinking of animals and the natural world as legal subjects independent of human consideration has historical roots. One such case in 1547 involved an Episcopal judge defending a colony of weevils summoned to trial by inhabitants who took legal action against the beetles’ invasion of local vineyards. Arguing that weevils shared the human right to consume plant life, the judge secured a victory for the weevils. The notion that the natural world possesses its own interests no longer has the potential to secure separate rights for the environment. However, a more recent attempt to maintain the intrinsic value of land — on grounds that it possesses rights — occurred in 1972 when the Sierra Club filed a suit against Walt Disney Enterprises for wanting to embark on a Disney-like development project that threatened the aesthetic value of the Mineral King valley situated in the Sierra Nevada. During the case Professor Christopher Stone argued that the trees and surrounding environment should have legal standing and more broadly, “that we give legal rights to forests, oceans, rivers and other so-called natural objects in the environment — indeed to the natural environment as a whole.”[ref]Christopher Stone as cited in Luc Ferry, The New Ecological Order, translated by Carol Volk (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), xvii.[/ref]
Stone lost the argument by a small margin and his point that the natural world should have a right to exist as it is remains a useful method of valuing the natural world on its own terms.
It was more common prior to the eighteenth-century to assign legal status to non-human nature. Now it is difficult if not comical and absurd, first, to imagine animals and the natural world being summoned, as they once were, to appear in a court of law and second, to think of those rights preserved despite their courtroom absences. We no longer mete out justice as though the human and non-human world share legal status and representation so people apply other theories of debt and justice to the natural world. In Payback, Margaret Atwood argues that eventually the debt and credit account will have to balance out; that all debts will be accounted for, particularly in the natural world. Atwood concludes her book by inventing a character inspired by Charles Dickens: the Spirit of Earth Day Past. The spirit warns readers that: “Nature is an expert in cost-benefit analysis. Although she does her accounting a little differently. As for debts, she always collects in the long run.”[ref]Margaret Atwood, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (Toronto, ON: Anansi Press, 2008), 180[/ref]
Atwood posits that the natural world has the option to balance accounts through retribution: pandemic plague, crop failure, perhaps ultimate extinction.[ref]Atwood, Payback, 187.[/ref]
Naturalizing our debts to the environment, however, impairs the extent to which we are able to balance debts created through unequal land-use; it undermines the capacity to submit environmental debts to arbitration.
A more promising approach involves keeping separate the processes of valuing land from notions of human debt. This method was central to the work of preservationists such as Aldo Leopold who privileged an aesthetic valuation of land at the beginning of the twentieth-century. As one of the founders of the Wilderness Society he helped initiate preservation efforts designed to protect places of wilderness from the encroachment of automobile-based tourism.[ref]Paul Sutter, Driven Wild: How the Fight against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002).[/ref]
Unlike conservationists who believed that resources should be consumed, preservationists argued that nature’s value did not derive solely from its capacity to serve human needs. In A Sand County Almanac Leopold lamented the degradation of the great Wisconsin Marshland for the purpose of economic gain. For him, the processes and technologies required to commodify the natural world served as catalysts for debt. He considered debt a distinctly human construct applicable to the world of human occupation.[ref]Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, Illustrated by Charles W. Schwartz (NY: Oxford University Press, 1949), 100.[/ref]
Our ideas about the natural world guide us to bestow value and determine how we use and relate to the non-human world. Moving about in the natural world a caterpillar does not anticipate one day becoming a butterfly. As the caterpillar hangs inside a chrysalis dangling from the branch of a fir tree it undergoes an incredible transformation whereby its organs and tissue dissolve only to be reconstituted into a butterfly. Unlike this metamorphosis, human transformation is a conscious, not a biological matter that requires the work of envisioning and then creating different circumstances. In the vein of transformative possibilities we might envision alternative practices. We might designate, for example, that the things we consume be produced and distributed by systems designed by specialists, rather than established by markets. Along these lines, ecologists would design agricultural systems that preserve the logic of balanced ecosystems. Furthermore, we might also imagine an economic system that values preservation over production. Rather than pay people to produce as capitalism does, an alternative system would be able to reward people for their preservation efforts.

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