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Will Americans Ever Realize That a Good Life Is More Important Than Money?

Money is the least of our problems. It’s time to pay attention to the real deficits that are killing us.

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A viable human future, however, must be based on living world realities rather than financial world fantasies.

What We Steal from Future Generations

Any normally intelligent 12-year-old is fully capable of understanding the distinction between a living forest or fishery and a system of financial accounts that exists only as electronic traces on a computer hard drive. Unfortunately, this simple distinction seems to be beyond the comprehension of the economists, pundits, and politicians who frame the public debate on economic policy. By referring to financial assets as “capital” and treating them as if they had some intrinsic worth beyond their value as a token of exchange, they sustain the deception that Wall Street is creating wealth rather than manipulating the financial system to accumulate accounting claims against wealth it had no part in creating.

Real capital assets have productive value in their own right and cannot be created with a computer key stroke. The most essential forms of real capital are social capital (the bonds of trust and caring essential to healthy community function) and biosystem capital (the living systems essential to Earth’s capacity to support life). We are depleting both with reckless abandon.

  • Social capital is the foundation of our human capacity to innovate, produce, engage in cooperative problem solving, manage Earth’s available natural wealth to meet the needs of all, and live together in peace and shared prosperity. Social capital is depleted as individualistic greed becomes the prevailing moral standard and the governing institutions of society deprive all but a privileged minority of access to a secure and dignified means of living. Once it is depleted, social capital can take generations to restore.
  • Biosystem capital provides a continuing supply of breathable air, drinkable water, soils to grow our food, forests to produce our timber, oceans teeming with fish, grassland that feed our livestock, sun, wind, and geothermal to provide our energy, climate stability, and much else essential to human survival, health, and happiness. It is depleted when soils are degraded, oceans are overfished, rivers and lakes are polluted, forests cut down, aquifers contaminated and depleted, and climate stabilization systems disrupted. These natural systems can take thousands, even millions of years to restore. Species extinction is forever.

According to the World Wildlife Federation’s 2012 Living Planet Report, at the current rate of consumption, “it is taking 1.5 years for the Earth to fully regenerate the renewable resources that people are using in a single year. Instead of living off the interest, we are eating into our natural capital.” This is a path to never-never land. Unlike with financial deficits, simple debt forgiveness is not an option.

When we deplete Earth’s bio-capacity—its capacity to support life in its many varied forms—we are not borrowing from the future; we are stealing from the future. Even though it is the most serious of all human-caused deficits, it rarely receives mention in current political debates.

When we assess economic performance by growth in GDP and stock price indices, we in effect manage the economy to make the most money for people who have the most money. This leads us to the fanciful belief that as a society we are getting richer. In fact, we are impoverishing both current and future generations by creating an unconscionable concentration of economic power, depriving billions of people of a secure and dignified means of living, and destroying the social and biosystem capital on which our real well-being depends.

With proper care and respect, biosystem capital can provide essential services in perpetuity. The reckless devastation of productive lands and waters for a quick profit, a few temporary jobs, and a one-time energy fix from Earth’s non-renewable fossil energy resources represent truly stupid and morally reprehensible deficit spending. Evident current examples include tar sand oil extraction, deep sea oil drilling, hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas, and mountaintop removal coal mining The fact that we thereby deepen human dependence on finite nonrenewable fossil energy reserves and accelerate climate disruption make such actions all the more stupid and immoral.