The commonwealth of the Earth is a Gift for which no interest is due.
The air we breathe, the earth under our feet, the waters from vast oceans that rain from the sky refreshing body and spirit, the plant and animal life sustaining us; over all this, we have been given dominion, and there is no guilt. In modern phraseology, without overtones of the patriarchy, we have received this gift and our responsibility is stewardship. All the resources of the Earth have been ours to oversee and enjoy as we see fit. To imagine we should do otherwise is to deny the humanity we share.
By some accounts, we have entered a new geologic period, the first ever to be characterized by the pervasive impact of human activity on the Earth’s ecosystems. There is hardly a place on Earth that does not carry our mark. And most would agree, rather than good stewards, we have been dominators and conquerors. But the time is now when good stewardship is our only viable choice.
While the known resources of the Earth are finite, there is no assurance that our appetite for consumption is also finite. By every measure of global environmental health, we are on the vertical rise of an exponential curve that crashes against limits. These limits mark the points at which ecosystems, from global to local, can no longer withstand the impact of human civilization without threat of collapse. Meanwhile, our appetite for consumption goes largely unabated. Fundamental change is inevitable because the economic growth we have known throughout modern history is now a physical impossibility. The commonwealth on which that growth is based is exhausted.
This Earth we inherit is our commonwealth. Mountains are part of the commonwealth of the earth. What we have done, on a massive planetary scale, is convert our commonwealth into a commodity. That commodity is money. This is not so easy as it once was. There was a time when our efforts at exploitation were miniscule compared to the natural wealth at hand. We could harvest the forest at will and not change the forest ecosystem. But now our forest resources are depleted, and when we harvest the forest, the land may never support but a modest fraction of the life we once found there. Everyone knows this is true, not just with forests but with all our resources. Still we harvest the forest, not knowing what else to do.
There is a problem with converting our commonwealth into money. Since there is now less to convert, the cost is greater. When forests are few, the forests that remain are precious. Every resource we extract from the Earth now comes with greater cost. To extract low-grade coal, we now will blow the top off of mountains, where once we would bore small tunnels to mine high-grade deposits. The cost is a mutilated mountain, a landscape so abused as to bring tears to the soul. To obtain precious oil, at great cost and risk, we now drill thousands of feet under the ocean floor to access deposits of oil, where once on dry land with simple machinery we tapped into vast fields just hundreds of feet under the surface.
We expend more energy than ever before to procure our new sources of energy. The difference between the energy expended to harvest an energy source and the amount of energy gained from that harvest is called net energy. Net energy is nothing less than our investment account, endowed by the commonwealth, for the development of human civilization, and that account is looking perilously thin. We invest time and energy to provide for ourselves, but receive a diminishing return on our investment because our commonwealth is near exhaustion.
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It may be, though, that the greater problem is how we create money itself. Our money is created out of debt. Our central banks create new money to “buy” assets. These “assets” are always debt instruments that pay interest. For instance, the central bank will create new money to buy a bond that pays a certain interest. When the central bank buys the bond, money for the face value of the bond has been created, but not money for the interest on the bond. It is the same when your bank makes you a loan. The bank creates money for the loan, but not money for the interest. Therefore, the debt we owe, which is the face value of the bond, or the loan, plus the interest, is always greater than the money that has been created. We never have the money to pay our debt, unless we have growth, and real growth has never been more difficult.
Just as the limits of the global ecosystem are being reached and exceeded, so too are those of our monetary system. This is no coincidence, as the two are fundamentally and inextricably linked. No economic activity takes place independent of the abundant resource base upon which our economy rests. Our commons are our wealth. The increasingly frantic and reckless search for continued economic growth is the search for new ways to monetize the commonwealth. Without growth, our monetary system fails because we have no means to service the burden of debt. With continued growth, our commonwealth approaches the point of exhaustion. To live in harmony with the Earth is our spiritual crisis reflected in three dimensions.
As long as we achieve real growth greater than the rate of interest, at least our monetary system does not fail. If our growth is 6 percent, and the interest we pay is 4 percent, we can pay the interest with something to spare. There is still a problem with how we measure “real” growth. If some natural disaster destroys our town and we rebuild, this increase in economic activity boosts our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and we consider this real growth, even though we are just recovering lost ground. If we convert the last forest into the commodity of money, our GDP has increased, even though there is no reckoning of the external cost to humanity for having ceded that last forest to the moneychangers.
These and other problems with measuring growth and our GDP are well known. Also, consider money itself. We must always have new money to pay the interest due for the money that exists. Money must always increase, which exerts unrelenting pressure to convert the commonwealth. We must have growth at all costs. As a last gasp to stave off monetary collapse, to ease the creation of new money, our central banks have now taken interest rates to historic lows.
We have converted our inheritance, the commonwealth of the Earth, into the commodity of money, for which we owe interest because we create money out of debt. We owe interest for the commonwealth of the Earth, and it will never be paid, and should not be. For true it is: The commonwealth of the Earth is a Gift for which no interest is due.
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