As this column goes to press, there is a glimmer of hope that American lawmakers, in their debate about the national debt ceiling, have reached a compromise that charts a course between the dangerous Scylla of even greater budget deficits and the potentially catastrophic Charybdis of a national default. Aside from the self-serving political theater, I have been especially frustrated by the utter lack of attention paid to a large elephant in the room. Even if by some legislative miracle we could cut government spending and raise enough tax revenue to balance the federal budget, the U.S. economy (like the global economy) would still rely on another sort of insidious deficit spending: the natural capital on which all economic activity depends.
Examples abound, but two suffice to make the point. Energy is the fundamental engine of almost all modern economic activity. Try to think of any good or service money can buy—Ikea furniture, a Starbucks latte, a car wash—that is not subsidized at every step by massive amounts of energy used to produce it, get it to you (or you to it) and keep it functioning. The U.S. Energy Information Administra-tion projects global energy consumption will rise almost 50 percent by 2035, but most energy will still come from finite and quickly diminishing sources like coal, oil and natural gas.
Economic activity also depends on food production, since we cannot go about our business on empty stomachs. Yet a Cornell University study in 2006 estimates that U.S. agricultural practices erode soil 10 times faster than nature rebuilds it; in China and India soil loss is 30 to 40 times the natural replenishment rate. Over the past four decades, almost a third of the world’s arable land has become unproductive because of erosion. Modern food production is also an energy hog: it consumes between three to 10 calories (depending upon how you count) of nonrenewable energy for every one calorie of edible food it produces.
Deficit spending of natural capital is like heating a library with a furnace that burns books. Unlike the Federal Reserve, which can create billions of dollars at will, we cannot simply print more soil, oil or other natural resources. When they are gone, they are gone; mother nature always collects on her debts. And although all of us will eventually feel the pain as these resources diminish, the global poor feel it first and feel it worst.
The Catholic tradition speaks eloquently about the need for faithful stewardship of God’s creation. It also reminds us that our economy is simply a reflection of our values; our economic decisions are always moral decisions, creating weal or woe for our fellow human beings, other creatures and the earth as a whole. Unfortunately, however, most Catholics are just as complicit as others in deficit spending of natural capital. We often tend to bracket our religion off from our economic lives. Sometimes we even claim that our prosperity results from God’s blessing rather than credit-bingeing on energy and natural resources.
It need not be this way. In fact, when commenting about the church’s role in environmental concerns, Pope Benedict stated recently that the church is “often the only hope” when it comes to summoning the moral motivation to address such large-scale and seemingly intractable problems. As individual Catholic households, as parish communities, as dioceses and religious orders and as a universal church, we have tremendous potential to help fashion a different sort of economy. How?
We would begin by advocating for and trying to engage in honest accounting of natural capital alongside monetary capital, so that we know whether our books balance on nature’s ledger. Including the true costs of limited resources would likely increase the price of energy and goods. We in developed countries would have to pare down our lifestyle, and we would need to put special safeguards in place for the poor. Overall, however, higher prices could usher in a more modest, less growth-addicted economy, based on humility, prudence, efficiency and the preservation of natural capital. We could shift the core value of our economy from consumption to community, which is a truer form of wealth.
All of this is necessary, all of it is complex and none of it is easy. But we must address our deficit disorder, starting now. God’s creation hangs in the balance of our budget.