books climate change development economics equality

Book review: Ecological Debt, by Andrew Simms

Ecological Debt has been on my reading list for ages, but I won a copy recently from nef on Twitter and read it last week. It’s an unusually wide-ranging book, from a writer who understands that climate change, debt, resource depletion, development and lifestyle are all intricately bound together. To do justice to one issue, you have to follow the threads through them all. That could have resulted in a complete tangle of a book, but the idea of ecological debt serves as a locus that keeps it from unravelling.

So what is ecological debt? In short, it’s taking out an environmental overdraft, either on the earth itself or on somebody else. If we assume that everyone has an equal right to emit carbon, for example, then some countries and individuals are using more than their fair share of the atmosphere. That creates climate debtors and climate creditors, and the usual roles of debt are reversed. We are used to thinking of poor countries as heavily indebted, but “it is the inescapable debts of the rich that threaten our collective future”.

In some cases this is a very literal debt. The vast quantities of silver that were plundered from South America by the early European settlers basically amounted to a start-up loan for European development. That loan has never been repaid, stolen as it was. Neither was the huge input of unpaid labour from the slave trade, or the resources extracted from Africa and Asia during the colonial era. Add all this up, and it becomes apparent that it’s the developed countries that owe the unpayable debts.

 It’s hard to see how reparations could be made for many of these debts, but they can inform our response to climate change. If so much of our development was subsidised by poorer countries, and continues to be so, then we cannot hold countries back from developing now. And since the constraints of the climate are very real, that means we have to limit our own development and oversee a transfer of wealth. “There is no more fundamental issue than the distribution of wealth in a climate constrained world economy” writes Simms.

That’s the basic premise of this blog too. Simms is using the lens of ecological debt, mine is a global downsize, but as I’ve already mentioned, the argument is the same. We have already overshot the earth’s capacity in providing a consumer lifestyle to a billion of us, so the only way to extend development to the poor is for the rich to share. What Simms does here is show that economic rebalancing is a moral imperative. It’s not charity or socialist idealism, or a benevolent G20 ‘sharing the wealth’ – it’s righting a wrong, and repaying a debt.

‘Ecological debt’ is a really useful idea, and that’s perhaps one of Andrew Simms’ particular gifts – coining or popularising new language for vital ideas (see the vampire squid or the impossible hamster).  The book is full of new ways of thinking about things, creative descriptions that crystalise a problem. “If you had a toaster that could neither accept slices of bread nor heat them up, would it be a toaster or an ‘un-toaster’?” goes one such passage. “Similarly, if you have an expanding economy that is both anti-poor and damaging to the biosphere upon which it and we depend, do you have economic growth, or ‘uneconomic’ growth?”

There’s a lot more useful stuff in the book. There’s an exploration of Britain’s WWII mobilisation and whether or not it could be replicated, a legal discussion on whether or not we could be sued for climate change, diversions into psychoanalysis and denial, and a fascinating history of climate science. Yes, it rambles a little, especially in the later chapters of the updated edition – a lot happened between 2005 and 2009, you may have noticed. Overall however, this is a powerful exercise in joining the dots between the several converging crises of the 21st century.

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