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Why the Biggest Debt We Owe Has Nothing to Do with Money

It's time we looked at the creditor-borrower relationship that has created our climate debt.

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So I wanted to start off by saying hello and introducing myself, and also tell you why I couldn’t fully do that it in long, fluid sentences in Guarani. I could do it, of course, in Spanish, fluently. As an immigrant to the United States from South America, I could use that narrative to explain myself. And both of those narratives, in certain ways, would come from a place of loss. From a place where many of us have already been divested of our language, of our land, of our resources. And I’ll be talking a little bit about immigration in a bit anyway.

And don’t worry if you didn’t understand those first few words. Because, as it turns out, you might actually know a few more Guarani words than you might think. Because the Guarani, we’ve always had names for every plant and every animal around us.  Piranhapetunia and jaguar—those are some of the loanwords to English from Guarani.

And I want you to think about that: loanwords. It implies that one people had something—in this case, words—that another people borrowed. Perhaps they changed it a bit.  Pira aña is not piranha, but you can hear where it comes from.

And among linguists, at least, there’s this recognition that the words are loaned. There isn’t a contract about it, there was no compensation for borrowing these words, but it’s fascinating to me that we call them loanwords, because it acknowledges this loan, it acknowledges this debt. It doesn’t lay out the covenants of that debt: it doesn’t apply an interest rate, or repayment plan, or even imply that there’s any kind repayment at all between creditor and borrower. And it’s also fascinating to me because words aren’t a concrete object. I can’t physically pick up words, but they can be transferred.

And it got me thinking about another kind of creditor-borrower relationship: and that’s climate debt. This is this debt that’s been accumulating over time. A long time. Specifically, we’re dealing with the last 100 years or so of pollution, during which time there’s been a destabilization in the balance of the atmosphere by the extreme over-pollution of carbon emissions.

And we tend to think of colonization in terms of violence and land grabs. And I reference the land here specifically because for a lot of people, before contact, the idea that land could be owned was absolutely absurd. There might be territory, there might boundaries. Hard boundaries, and softer boundaries. But this legal concept around owning land—the land itself—was absurd to a lot of people in the Americas. And do me a favor, just keep that in mind. Keep the land portion of what I just said in mind.

But it was more than just land that was being taken, of course. It was resources. Entire forests were wiped out not only to clear huge swaths of land for European immigrants and enslaved Africans, but the lumber was also exported for profit around the world. Precious metals like gold and silver were mined, and stripped from ornamental structures in the Americas, and melted down and repurposed in Europe. It’s said that so much silver was extracted from what’s present-day Bolivia, that you could build a bridge with it from South America all the way to Spain.

And Britain’s agricultural revolution was successful in no small part due to saltpeter extracted for fertilizer in the Andes. The same goes for the extraction of guano, which had already been used as fertilizer by people in the Andes for some one thousand years before the Brits even had any idea that they could do anything with it. And as the indigenous people of the Americas toiled to provide wealth, Europe, meanwhile, grew increasingly powerful as a result of these extractions.

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