Debt, sustainability and solidarity

As we commemorate the passing of one year since Pope Francis released his encyclical “Laudato Si’” (“On the Care for Our Common Home”), it is worth reminding ourselves how the pope’s representation of Catholic social doctrine through the lens of “integral ecology” can help us address some of the most challenging socio-political problems of our day, especially as we evaluate candidates in this election season.

Integral ecology is an ethic that respects both persons and the environment and does justice to both. In other words, it seeks to foster right relationships between people and communities, as well as between humans and the created order with which God has blessed us.

Being in right relationship with others includes being in right relationship with future generations — not saddling them with challenges that will burden their well-being, and embracing the responsibility to leave the world better than we found it.

Sadly, a culture of instant gratification and ideological rigidity has blinded us to our inter-generational responsibilities, and has led us to pile debt in various forms upon those who will come after us. Both our national debt and the accumulating ecological debt are regularly (and rightly) described as “unsustainable,” and both pose grave threats to future generations and to the planet itself.

Mass consumption

By one measurement, the U.S. government had $76.4 trillion in debts, liabilities and unfunded obligations at the end of fiscal year 2015. That amounts to $237,284 for every person living in the U.S., and $613,531 for every household in the U.S.

This is a major policy crisis for the American public. According to a 2014 report by the Congressional Budget Office, some potential consequences of unchecked government debt include reduced “future national income and living standards,” “higher inflation” that decreases “the purchasing power” of citizens’ savings and income, and increased “probability of a fiscal crisis in which investors would lose confidence in the government’s ability to manage its budget.”

Similarly, our ecological debt — the disparity between how much we use and waste and how much our local environment can produce and absorb — is staggering. Not only do our consumption patterns entail the creation of an excess of greenhouse gases that may contribute to climate change and a host of accompanying problems, but they also rely on extracting natural resources from developing countries, harming their natural environment while leaving them with few returns.

As Pope Francis notes in “Laudato Si’” (51-52): “A true ‘ecological debt’ exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time.” As a result, “the developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programs of sustainable development.”

Seeing the whole

Unfortunately, public officials tend to see the potential impact of only one form of debt, and sometimes they minimize the impact of other forms. And there is often an unwillingness or inability to make a connection between the national debt and the ecological one, limiting their ability to address either. Our attachment to ideologies, along with our own biases and limited horizons, often prevent us from seeing the right solutions.

By contrast, Catholic social doctrine, deepened by the discussion of integral ecology in “Laudato Si’,” helps us see the connectedness of things, and beyond the dis-integrated politics of half-truths and either/or solutions. Seeing the whole may lead us to restrain both government spending and consumption patterns (even though they might benefit us materially today) to preserve our common home for future generations.

The earth, its people and its goods are God-given gifts. They are not ours to spend as we see fit, but instead are given to us to steward — to till and to keep. We’ve done too much tilling and not enough keeping.

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference. 


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