Forgiving Debt to Invest in Environmental Healing
Fir seedling, in author’s hand [photo by author]
“I want you to act as if the house is on fire. Because it is.” —Greta Thunberg
The US economy is awash in debt.
- As of the fourth quarter of 2018, household debt in the US totaled $13.54 trillion. The largest portion of this is mortgage debt, which totalled $9.12 trillion. [source]
- As of March 2019, total credit card debt is $1.057 trillion, which is an average of $8,286 per household. The average debt per card-holding adult is $5,839. Much of it is incurred to pay healthcare costs. [source]
- As of February 2019, student loan debt is $1.56 trillion. This is held by 44.7 million people, with an average debt of $29,800 and average monthly payment of $393. $101 billion of it is in default. [source]
- In the first quarter of 2019, auto loans totaled $1.28 trillion. About 6.5% of these loans were 90 days or more delinquent in February of this year. That’s around 7 million people. [source]
This explosion in personal debt is not normal or healthy and is hobbling an increasing number of people. A state of de facto peonage is emerging. The levels of inequality in the US today are literally medieval (though peasants had it better when it came to days off: “Altogether there were about 80 days of complete rest with over 70 partial holidays, that is, about three months of rest spread over the year” [source]).
More and more people are struggling financially. According to National Payroll Week’s 2018 “Getting Paid in America” survey, 38% of respondents would find it “very difficult” to “meet [their] current financial obligations if [their] next paycheck were delayed for a week” and 31% would find it “somewhat difficult.” Those who answered “not very” or “not at all” difficult totaled 28 1/2% together. If this situation is not yet “dire,” it sure is headed in that direction.
When securing necessities becomes so arduous, then stress, anger and depression result, and from these, conflict, violence and self-harm.
Just at a time when we need to come together and work collectively for change, more and more of us are distracted by mere survival and, failing at even that, are sliding into addiction, disease and dysfunction. At some point, society reaches a breaking point, and under such circumstances is unlikely to instantly evolve into, say, an enlightened socialist utopia. Not without first passing through a brutal period of ramped-up state authoritarianism, anyway, and I, for one, ain’t gonna wish for that.
The pressure needs to be released. Space must be made for something new. One thing we have to do is to forgive all the debts.
This is where skeptics will want to steer the subject into the supposed impossibility of such a thing. They will sound very sensible, peppering their arguments with appeals to “fairness” or “pragmatism.” Don’t listen. What they’re really saying is that in the choice between survival and extinction, survival is not feasible. This is not “realistic;” it is deeply cynical, as well as self-hating. That’s not where we want to live.
In the ancient world (pre-Roman), “jubilees” were regularly declared, when personal/household debt was forgiven. However, this was easier to do then since the main creditor in a society was a king. The rise of financial institutions eventually usurped the royal role and that’s the trap we’re in now. (For those interested in an in-depth discussion of historic jubilees, and alternatives that could be implemented contemporaneously, see “Could/Should Jubilee Debt Cancellations be Reintroduced Today?” by economists Michael Hudson and Charles Goodhart.)
Rather than getting hung up on the how, we can assume that where there’s a will there’s a way, and move on to what would need to happen next (which will include demonetizing all necessities so that no one will be distracted from participating).
“The one word you never hear during all these discussions on climate change is: Sacrifice.” —Forrest Palmer
Debt forgiveness cannot be about simply relieving us of financial concerns and leaving our lifestyles otherwise intact. This isn’t about trading useless toil for pointless leisure, or even for “innovation.” With the dismissal of debt must also come the end of business-as-usual, which is to say, of ecocide.
Let me stress this point: We need debt forgiveness so that we can pay off who we really owe: Mother Nature.
This thought occurred to me recently on a farm job. The owner cut down some trees to expand greenhouse space, including two big oaks that turned out to be old growth upon inspection of the rings on the stumps. Later, while weeding beds for this year’s crops, I potted up many of the Oak and Fir seedlings that I found. I considered that the owner had put himself in debt to the land by taking out full-grown trees, and that tending new ones was therefore an absolutely essential task. He saw my collection of babies one day but had no comment when I said (very politely and non-judgmentally) they were toward the trees that had been taken out. I doubt there’s much of a chance he will pursue the project after I am gone, but I felt compelled to do it anyway. Just putting such things out there has a real, if small or subtle effect on the universe (as would his dismissal of the debt, if that is his choice).
Oak seedling, with stump of old growth oak [photo by author]
Just as this one person has been cutting down trees and not replacing them, so has our society been transforming half of the planet into “resources” that we pillage without replenishing, and then treating the other half as a dumping ground for the toxic pollution that results.
Our financial debts are ultimately imaginary. These days, most are recorded only as ones and zeros in the digital ether. One solar storm—well-timed or badly-timed depending on your perspective—could wipe it all out, as nearly happened in July, 2012. But our debts to the planet—to life—are wholly tangible. The trees cut, the waters poisoned, the soil depleted, the air tainted, the species made extinct. That list doesn’t even include climate change.
Much of the damage is not repairable in the lifetime of any human currently walking the earth, but that’s not the point. We must acknowledge what we owe and do our damnedest to start making payments. This will keep us busy. Tasks will include:
- Transitioning agriculture from monolithic monocropping to small-scale polyculture, and relearning wildtending
- Reshaping cities from alienating sprawl to community-based walkability
- Picking up the trash, which will include massive clean-up operations of rivers, soil, the oceans and the atmosphere
- Reforestation and rewilding of rural spaces to restore the homes of their original denizens (keeping in mind that shifting climate zones will prevent everything from being just like how it once was)
And most important is Forrest Palmer’s point: Sacrifice. We must cut our consumption drastically. Building new “renewable” energy structure is not the first step. Reducing our energy use is. If solar panels, for example, are actually needed they should be installed at-source, not out in the wild where they will displace more flora and fauna.
I hasten to add that individual conservation right now with no other systemic change doesn’t do much, if anything, in the big picture. This effort must be collective, top-to-bottom, bona fide revolutionary, and must target institutional operators like corporations and the Pentagon. That’s who’s doing the most damage.
Of course, individual lives will also change. It won’t just be no new pipelines and no new power plants but no new server farms and no new smart phones.
The next generation of humans born can live without screens; in fact must live without them. Reconnecting with the actual, under-our-feet earth and over-our-heads sky is our most important task. Now we fill our ears with noise and our eyes with flashing images. We must learn to listen and to see again. With such a shift, the new children will look on us with a mixture of sorrow and horror. How could we have been so numb to the condition of the world? How could we have ignored the screams for help and turned away from the desperate pleas of all the suffering creatures? How could we even think of ourselves as alive, let alone human, when we behaved in such despicable ways?
I would not blame the next generation if they turned on us and took us out. Is a better fate deserved by the monstrosity that we’ve become?
I look around at the mess we’ve made and I am sickened not only by the destruction but by our attitude: That we somehow can’t help it. That there is no other way. That it’s “human nature.” That’s some BS that at once conveniently exonerates our bad behavior and excuses us from doing anything about it. I don’t buy it. We have responsibilities.
In order to pursue those very real responsibilities, we must abandon the immaterial set of fakes ones under which we are currently suffering, such as debt and money. Freedom is what we must grant ourselves, at once. And when we have it, we must take up devotion. Life is calling. Will we answer?
Oak and Fir forest clear cut in Humboldt County for a Cannabis operation, 2017 [photo by author]