Attention: Deficit Disorder

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.

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barbara McGuire
7 years 5 months ago
Excellently stated.  We have to address the moral dilemma of consumption in our culture.  We cannot create 4 or 5 earths which is what it would take to sustain our lifestyle, so thank you for stating the problem so succinctly.
Virginia Edman
7 years 5 months ago
You say that the Catholic Church speaks eloquently of our need for faithful stewardship of creation. and that the Pope recently said the church is "often the only hope."  Meanwhile the accent in my parish is on a new liturgy, moral lecturing on sexual sins, and never a word about the environment or creation.  A very conservative Archbishop and many conservative clergy want a return to an earlier church model, with no contrception and no gay rights.  If we are in a state of peril with Mother Nature, no one here has mentioned it.  Not from the pulpit or in the church newspaper, or for that matter, on TV (Salt and Light).  Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Doug Demeo
7 years 5 months ago

Thank you, Kyle, for articulating so clearly the stakes of binging on natural capital.  If only more political leaders will join in this chorus! (as with religious leaders)  

Jack Peppe
7 years 5 months ago
Vote the bums out.  Produce a list of bums and publish, publish, and publish it some more. Or continue on the same old course.  Somewhere in old testament, a scripture saying something about if we leave the bums in office, we deserve to suffer the consequences.  Anybody know where that scripture is located?  And don't forget Thomas Jefferson telling us: "Gentlemen, we give you a Republic if you can keep it."  A good steward keeps his Republic.  A slotful steward lets his Republic turn into a Democracy, and currently let it turn into some kinda Oligarchy. 

Yea, but those in Church Hierarchies attempt to excuse our sloth with "we have the seperation of church and state so we cannot be common sense political or take political stances with common sense politics".  Here is where that bogus law came from:

On January 4, 1934 Ludwig Müller, claiming to have by his title as Reich's Bishop legislative power for all church bodies in Germany, issued the so-called muzzle decree, which forbade all church bodies to debate in opposition to political/social policies within the rooms, bodies and media of the church.  The Emergency Covenant of Pastors answered this decree by a declaration read by opposing pastors from their pulpits on January 7 and 14. Müller then prompted the arrestment or disciplinary procedures against about 60 pastors alone in Berlin, who had been denounced by spies or congregants of German Christian affiliation. The Gestapo tapped Pastor Martin Niemöller's phone and thus learned about his and Walter Künneth's plan to personally plea Hitler for a dismissal of Ludwig Müller. The Gestapo - playing divide et impera [divide and conquer]- publicised their intention as a conspiracy and so the Lutheran church leaders Marahrens, Meiser, and Wurm distanced themselves from Niemöller on January 26.
Ana Blasucci
7 years 5 months ago
Mr. Kramer highlights unsavory realities, such as the finitude of natural resources and the ugliness of consumption run amok.  The idea of "accounting" for use of natural capital is at least novel.  But alas, his column, as they are wont to do, ultimately plays the same old tune:

          Ok; you guys in the 'developed' world, you had a good run.  Now, it's time
          to pack up the ol' covered wagon, rig up the horses, and head back to 1870.
          With higher prices.

Americans sacrifice when need crosses their path.  College vs. vacation, repairs vs. new cell phone.  We could do better.  We also appreciate the best of the past.  But what of this mentality that invites us to a perpetual sojourn in circumstances best described by Jimmy Carter's famous "malaise" speech?
Why is the innovative spirit that got us out of 1870 (figuratively speaking) not celebrated as 'man fully alive?'  Why not encourage that spirit to train itself in Gospel values, and lead us all, poor included, to better lots via invention and attendant job creation? 
It should be noted too that many more folks are fed today, in spite of the soil statistics cited, than in past eras.  Why?  Innovation, and, yes, 'evil' chemicals.  But ask the well-fed today, whose ancestors were destitute, whether it would thus even be moral to return to exclusively organic means.  It is this spirit of invention that will, with freedom and positive incentive, also give us 'green' energy, new fuels, etc.
Mr. Kramer doesn't address government's role in his model, but the obvious necessity of government coercion or suppression to keep us in the proposed conditions for any length of time adds a sinister element to all this.  Without such suppression, those who could do better would, and their economic coattails would ultimately bring us all back to our customary living standard.  Or, they might simply migrate away; those whose creative energy and problem solving skills we could greatly use.
If we want to use a presidential speech to sum up America, let's look at JFK's "...we choose to go to the moon!..."
America won't accept anything less.  Onward and upward!  A.M.D.G. 
7 years 5 months ago
Brilliant insight very well stated.

Three comments:

- The other major resource the world is short of is usable water.  It is easily produced by using energy, and can be made as a byproduct of energy production.  When an aircraft carrier was sent to Haiti after the earthquake, a footnote said that it had more than 100k g/d of desalinization capacity in excess of need in its nuclear power plant.  We waste that possibility everywhere, certainly at every coastal power plant.

- I would like to see the assumptions of the USEIA energy usage for 2035.  Likely it ignored the real inability to produce more oil than is being done now.  The only thing right now making the world oil shortage as small as it is and the price as low as it is can be attributed to diminshed economic activity related to global recession.

- all the resource problems in the world today can be summed up in one word - sustainability.  those who say that the earth is endangered over look what Mr Kramer calls the "elephant" - it is the human race that is endangered.
Nancy Gifford-Humphreys
7 years ago
I am a long-time supporter of Christians-in-Conservation/Creation Care organizations like A Rocha and Blessed Earth. Despite a solid message from the current and last Pope, the US Catholic Bishops, and saints and Catholic theologians throughout the ages, there is very little awareness amongst the Catholic faithful about how central protecting God's gift of Creation should be to us as Catholics. Certain Catholic parishes have started initiatives to reduce their pollution footprint, plant native wild plants and promote ecologically sound practices, but they are few and far between. Yet if this sleeping giant of our Church could be awakened, how muh good we could do!


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