CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1In view of the ongoing breakdown of a wide range of ecosystems, the notion of an ecological debt might seem self-evident, now that we are directly confronted with the limits of the earth that for too long were either ignored, underestimated, or considered simply as obstacles to be overcome. The task of elaborating on this debt, however, is fraught with difficulties.

2In the neoliberal world, debt – usually conceived in general terms or in the form of public debt – is stigmatized: it is seen as an aberration, a burden, and a menace to society. At the same time, neoliberal economics also encourages debt, and the frenzied rush toward accumulation facilitated by the availability of credit has prevented us from mourning the loss of the world. Yet there is no paradox here; in this world of globalized finance, collective debts are considered illegitimate, and it is only private financial debts that are accorded legitimacy. Within this framework, ecological debt can only be conceived in monetary, contractual terms, as a form of compensation for ecological degradation whereby we return in cash what we have borrowed from various ecosystems. This form of debt opens up a new financial playing field, in which debt is ultimately cancelled out through financial transactions.

3In our interpretation of it, however, ecological debt cannot be equated with financial debt. At the anthropological level, it symbolizes a form of solidarity and reciprocity between human beings on the one hand, and between human beings and the earth on the other. Therefore, it involves ethical and political questions that can be restored to their rightful place by following the path forged by Marcel Mauss. Understood in this way, our ecological debt can be neither erased nor offset. Just as Mauss considered debt to be the bedrock of human societies, a sense of ecological debt might serve as the bedrock and cornerstone of human societies that are sustainable and habitable. It would thus constitute an affirmation of the fact that human beings are embedded in various histories and in the biosphere, and of the inscription of lived time within a historical continuity between the past, the present, and the future.

Toward the Notion of an Ecological Debt

4This notion was developed by Latin American NGOs during the 1990s, particularly by the Chilean organization Acción Ecológica. For these organizations, the unsustainable exploitation of natural elements and resources, and the unequal burden imposed on those societies that suffered most from this environmental degradation, particularly from the widespread despoiling of the natural resources of the South, called for the acknowledgement of an ecological debt. This notion emerged within the very specific context of the explosion of these countries’ financial debts during the 1980s. The pressure imposed on them by international financial institutions, which ordered them to repay their debt by submitting to structural adjustment policies, led to significant financial transfers from the South to the North. The ecological debt, on the other hand, is owed by the “developed” countries of the North to the “developing” countries of the South that take the role of creditors. The political significance of this perspectival and conceptual shift lies in its emphasizing that the industrial countries’ development was made possible through the exploitation of non-renewable natural resources, and extracted from the South at very little cost. In this case, the acknowledgement of an ecological debt was conceived as a way of establishing social justice between human beings.

5This ecological debt, however, has often been interpreted in a restricted and calculable manner – as the possibility of reducing or cancelling these countries’ financial debts so as to reverse the flow of money and thus do justice by way of financial compensation. While this interpretation may have had a mobilizing effect, it is nevertheless extremely harmful in that it reduces the debt to its economic and financial dimension and can lead to the legitimation of a financial appraisal of ecosystems and the “services” they render. Furthermore, it dispenses with another task implied by the debt: a critical reflection on industrialism, development, and the productivist growth that became widespread after 1945 in the so-called developed world and that is currently spreading throughout the “emerging markets.” Finally, to put financial and ecological debt on the same level is to obscure the fact that, unlike financial debt, ecological debt cannot be cancelled through political decisions. Although in the financial world, time can be reversed and debt can be cancelled, in the ecological domain, time is irreversible, as the definitive destruction or exhaustion of many non-renewable resources shows.

6The development of the notion of ecological debt also had its roots in an increased ecological awareness at the global level, which became particularly evident at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which resulted from this summit, indirectly expressed the idea of ecological debt, an idea that also found a place in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. It acknowledged that its member states were jointly, though not equally, responsible for the consequences of climate change. Every member state would have to play a part in implementing the policies formulated to bring climate change under control or even reverse its direction, but the particular historical responsibility borne by the industrialized countries was noted. Not only were they the largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita, but they were also responsible for 75% of the greenhouse gases that had accumulated in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. This was why, in the Kyoto Protocol, only the industrialized countries were obligated to reduce their emissions. This acknowledgement of responsibility enjoyed a short period of grace, despite the introductory address given in 1992 by then-U.S. President George H. W. Bush, when he memorably declared, “The American way of life is not negotiable.” Yet the general thrust of the international negotiations on climate change, at least since the Copenhagen Summit in 2009, has consisted in eliminating this obligation and replacing it with voluntary and contractual commitments undertaken by individual states in the absence of a binding framework, and in implementing market-based mechanisms in order to ensure climatic stability. It has consisted, then, in the attempt to break free of this debt. As for the emerging markets, which are now significant contributors to the growth in emissions, beyond their rhetoric, they are now de facto allied with the old industrial powers whose accumulative growth models they have adopted.

7Until this point, we have considered ecological debt as a debt between human beings or between societies. The notion of ecological debt, however, exceeds the sphere of human relations; it also includes the debt that human beings and human societies owe to the earth and its ecosystems. It is thus no longer sufficient to speak of the exchange of “credit” between human beings and human societies, and the promotion of social justice, for the creditor here is the biosphere. We can already see, then, that we are confronted with something quite different here – above all, with the impossibility of liquidating this debt and the dangers that would be inherent in wishing to do so. The extent of the degradation of the earth’s ecosystems and the threat to biological and social life is now clear. The natural world is not outside the social world and not simply a constraint on it; this becomes clear as soon as we begin to reflect on the way in which they intersect. This interconnection is affirmed by recent social movements, whose practices of resistance might be characterized as systematic in that they aim not only to improve existing social conditions but, more fundamentally, our way of inhabiting the world – the natural world and the human world:


We will thus set out from a historical fact: the massive political investment in the border zones between the social and the natural, those regions in which the human world revolves most clearly around the natural world […] These regions have also proved to be perhaps the best places from which to attempt to bring about otherwise desirable social transformations. [1]

9Some of these movements have developed the idea of an ecological debt on the basis of an acknowledgement of the rights of the earth, a notion that we will clarify below.

10Nevertheless, the rapid global expansion of productivism has heightened fears that certain natural resources might become exhausted. It has made it necessary to control access to these resources and to optimize their use. It is to such an extent that the ecological debt, or rather one of its avatars, might well come to represent a promised land for the development of economic and financial activities which aim to follow the project of capitalist accumulation to its logical conclusion by evaluating pollution and destruction levels, allowing debts to be paid off, and accounts to be settled through compensation and payment.

The Economic Analysis and the Liquidation of the Ecological Debt

11The dominant economic analysis is ultimately based on a utilitarian conception of nature, according to which it is only relative to its utility for human beings, as a stock of “resources” that can be exploited and harnessed for the purposes of production, that nature can present a source of interest and meaning. Nature is a form of capital that can be endlessly transformed into and improved by technical capital. On this worldview, ecological debt is quite simply unthinkable. Nevertheless, when ecological questions became unavoidable and began to pose a threat to economic balance and the unlimited accumulation of capital, neoclassical economists, remaining faithful to the simplest anthropocentrism, began to factor “environmental impact” into their models. The market was still conceived as self-regulating; fluctuations in the prices of “environmental goods and services” were to serve as incentives or signals to change our behavior with regard to, and to facilitate the optimal allocation and management of these goods and services.

12To this end, classically inspired environmental economics developed assessment methods in order to put a price on environmental violations. Pollution and environmental nuisance were deemed undesirable, external factors, which negatively impacted either the community or other economic agents, without the costs of environmental damage or its repair being taken into account on the market. The prices are therefore flawed and the assessment and adjustment mechanisms skewed. On this basis, it is thus not possible to reach an optimum collective ecological state. Therefore, it became necessary to put a price on environmental violations to estimate the ecological debt. Many ways of doing so have been explored.

13On the basis of his theory of “negative externalities” (1920), the economist Arthur Pigou advocated a taxation system whereby the polluter would pay for the cost of the pollution they generated. It is the forerunner of the “polluter pays” principle. For Pigou, the failings of the market meant that a system of compensation could only be implemented through external intervention – in this case, by the state. The debt could be paid off in this way. The rise of liberal economics in its most radical form, however, saw this regulatory approach being abandoned in favor of the attribution of transferable property rights over natural resources. Particularly inspired by Ronald Coase’s analyses (1960), the policies that were implemented in order, without invoking a public authority, to rectify the failings of the market, price distortion, and the provision of erroneous information to consumers and producers, relied on direct financial negotiation taking place between the polluter and those affected by the pollution. The aim of such policies was to improve the functioning of the markets by structuring them in such a way that they would put a price on, and so internalize, their external effects; this was to encourage the agents concerned to reduce these negative, external effects and rationally manage the “natural capital.” The state was only needed in order to authorize the attribution of negotiable property rights to the resources and commodities in question. The European carbon market (established in 2005), a platform for trading greenhouse gas emissions quotas assigned by the various states, was based on this analysis. Although this system is completely ineffective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and is even in many respects harmful due to its reduction of the fight against climate change to a carbon accounting-system, it has been and will be kept in place as long as priority is given to financial negotiation between polluters and those affected by pollution, a mechanism that serves to cancel the ecological debt.

14Today, the implementation of such property rights has become almost the sole basis of environmental policy. Beyond the possibility it offers of liquidating the ecological debt, in every sense of the word, it has also been seen as a response to what, in a famous article published in the journal Science in 1968, Garrett Hardin analyzed as “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Drawing on Malthus’s law of population, Hardin argued that the problem of exponential and inexorable “natural” population growth within a finite world cannot be solved by technological means and requires instead a reexamination of our freedoms in light of the tragic fate of our common goods. The existence of the latter is under threat from unsustainable demographic pressure. Insofar as the commons can only be conceived by liberalism in terms of goods to which there is free, unregulated access, they cannot but be overexploited. They can only be conserved and effectively managed through the establishment of clearly defined property rights. The ecological debt is thus ultimately cashed out in terms of a lack of property rights, which must be rectified.

15These economic analyses are rooted in an anthropocentrism and a nature-culture dualism in which nature is ultimately conceived as a dead object containing a stock of extractable resources. The idea of a “green economy,” promoted by various international authorities and the United Nations at the new 2012 Rio Earth Summit in particular, amounted to a significant shift in perspective. Here, nature is no longer considered simply as a stock of resources, but rather as a living object, a connected network capable of endlessly reproducing the conditions of life. The “natural capital” that the green economy aims to protect by developing is no longer constituted by fixed entities alone, but also by relations, functions and hybrid objects. The green economy fits very well with a postmodern vision of nature as a living commercial enterprise, capable of endlessly producing and reproducing processes that amount to ecosystemic services, such as carbon capture, pollination, water purification, waste treatment, etc. According to these analysis It is because they are perceived as free that these services are continually degraded and their existence is threatened. In order to preserve them, these processes must then be transformed into ecological credit instruments, the prices of which are to be fixed by the markets on which they are traded. This presupposes, of course, that these complex entities can be divided into quantifiable units. This is why the relevant property rights are no longer applied only to entities, but also to natural processes such as the carbon capture services provided by tropical forests. Having already privatized and commercialized the elements constitutive of biodiversity, the aim is now to privatize and commercialize natural processes. The ecological debt could now be settled, as these credit instruments can be exchanged across the planet according to the principles of substitutability and compensation. [2]

16Such a treatment, or avoidance, of ecological debt illustrates the extent to which the links between human societies and their habitat (the earth) have been shattered. The commercial exchange of ecological credit instruments ultimately renders a durable alliance impossible.

The Gift, Debt, and Belonging to the Earth

17In order to understand this alliance and thus resituate human life within one continuous whole, we must leave the give-and-take world of the market. Let us follow the path forged by Marcel Mauss and take the origin of our ecological debt to be a gift of life, an event that opens a relation as soon as this gift is received and perceived as such. This event is gratuitous – it occurs by chance. It is not the work of human beings, but precedes and enables all such work. If we choose to interpret this gift and its reception non-religiously, it is a gift that comes from nowhere. We are not attempting here to diminish the complex origin of the cosmos and the earth. Let us merely note that this event has often been interpreted on the basis of an initial or beginning point, and thus on the basis of the idea of creation. This is the source of the richness of mythological thinking. Likewise, the idea of creation forms the basis of the monotheistic explanations of the origin of the world. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Recent scientific developments, by contrast, have shown that research into the founding moment, the beginning – often identified with the Big Bang – ought to be replaced by an attempt to understand a series of complex processes that continue today. The gift of life, of the earth, and its ecosystems, is not then made once and for all, at a certain, unique moment. The alliance between human beings and the earth can only be a continually renewed process, which cannot come to a halt without threatening the existence of human societies. We can gain a sense here of the enormous loss of knowledge caused by the rupture between the human sciences and the natural sciences during what Edgar Morin called the century of “great simplification.” [3]

18Independent of the question of origins, we hold that while human beings and human societies shape nature and the universe; they are also shaped by it. We inherit an initial gift which does not truly belong to us, whatever its ultimate origin may be and however we attempt to come to know or represent it. To speak of a gift here ultimately amounts to accepting the physical and sensible reality of human societies, acknowledging the positivity of nature, the specific properties of matter, and life. Furthermore, it is also to accept the relative alterity and exteriority of natural entities. This alterity is attested to by the permanence, autonomy, and effectiveness of those natural phenomena over which we have no control. To think in this way is to go against a broad section of the social sciences which, without further consideration, has abandoned any idea of nature that cannot be grasped on the basis of socio-cultural mediation, or linguistic, cultural, and belief systems. It thus goes against the idea of a socially constructed nature. The constructivist approach assumes that nature by itself cannot constitute a solid material substrate, an autonomous reality and presence, and that it exists only as produced and represented by human beings. This ultimately amounts to the perpetuation of a modern dualism between nature and society, object and subject, in that the border erected between subject, object, nature, and society remains an impenetrable wall which serves to oppose these domains, rather than acting as a border zone through which links could be formed and developed between them.

19Nevertheless, new technologies have made it possible to go one step further, for not only is nature supposed to be a social creation, but, thanks to these new technologies, it can also be endlessly recreated. We now have the capacity to produce elements that have never existed in nature and to artificially reproduce life. The extension of the traditional dualism is now leading toward a synthetic monism, through nature’s absorption into the technological and socioeconomic sphere. If everything is constructed and acquired, then there is no longer any gift nor any possibility of distinguishing between what is given and what is produced. Soon it will no longer be possible to experience nature directly, as the world will be populated by hybrid entities, various kinds of cyborgs, and biotic combinations that mix the biological and the technological. If the gift disappears, then so does the obligation to receive, and along with it, the obligation to preserve and give back what has been given. Beyond their differences, these schools of thought affirm the triumph of nurture over nature, as the natural gift – assuming that it even exists – can be endlessly transformed. It is true that the border between the natural and the artificial tends to disappear in proportion to the growth of our technological power:


As soon as we begin to initiate natural processes of our own invention […] we have not only increased our power over nature; we have not only become more aggressive in our manner of relating to the forces of nature; but for the first time we have also enclosed nature within the human world and have effaced those defensive borders between the natural elements and human artifice which limited all previous civilizations. [4]

21It is only by recognizing this border and the alterity it entails that we can receive the gift as such. Attempting to ignore it or make it disappear inevitably leads us toward the desire to infinitely master, possess, and lock up the natural elements. Unlike the dualism that separates nature and society in order to pit them against each other, the border between the natural elements and human artifice does not break the continuity of the link between human beings and nature, nor does it in any way abolish the natural dimension of the human condition. To deny it, on the other hand, is to surrender to a process of fusion whereby human society and social and political processes become both naturalized and technologized. It is not only the claim that nature and society are opposed that is problematic; it is also the claim that there is no distinction between them. The alliance required to reverse the present course of environmental collapse presupposes the acknowledgement of these two distinct entities.

22Once the gift of nature has been acknowledged and received as such by human beings, the opposition between nature and society loses its meaning, and giving back in order to perpetuate the alliance becomes a manifest obligation. The system of giving is opposed to the ideology of ownership, to property conceived in terms of appropriation. It invokes a notion of ownership as presence to the world, which is based on the way we make use of, or collectively decide not to make use of, our natural surroundings, and on our restoration of what we have used. Giving back does not mean giving back something equivalent or identical to what has been taken. Rather, it ensures that the alliance is continually renewed, while bearing in mind that justice between human beings can only come into the political and ethical frame if justice and political practices are established between the human community and the earth. It is in this context that we can situate the movement for the recognition of the rights of the earth – for a universal declaration of the rights of the earth. These rights would be drawn up by human beings who, in order to place limits on their activities and thereby make justice and democracy possible, would formulate rules that would not depend only on their will and their projects. These rules would acknowledge that certain aspects of collective human life are not based on acquisition or construction, but on a gift that remains outside the human sphere of influence.


23Purged of its techno-economic connotations, the notion of an ecological debt can show us how we might inhabit the world more rationally and sensitively. It allows us to perceive the world as something to be contemplated, rather than simply as a stock of resources to be exploited. It indicates that human rights can be neither genuinely fulfilled nor have a concrete meaning for humanity unless they rest on an ethics, an aesthetics, and a politics that are no longer concerned solely with the relations between human beings, but equally with human beings’ relation to nature, as it exists both for them and for itself. The form these mediations are to take is still unclear, but they are already being worked out along the lines of the occupation of Taksim Square in Istanbul as Turkish theater actress Seb Sönmez said:


We are here! For our square, for our park, for our coastline, for our forests. We have all learned from each other that a tree is a source of hope. In Gezi Park we have planted not only trees, but also the seeds of democracy and hope. [5]


  • [1]
    Stéphane Haber, Critique de l’antinaturalisme (Paris: PUF, 2006), 11.
  • [2]
    ATTAC, Geneviève Azam, Christophe Bonneuil, and Maxime Combes, La Nature n’a pas de prix: Les Méprises de l’économie verte (Paris: Les Liens qui Libèrent, 2012).
  • [3]
    Edgar Morin, La Nature de la Nature, vol. 1 of La Méthode, (Paris: Seuil, 1977), 373.
  • [4]
    Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Viking, 1968). Hannah Arendt, La Crise de la culture (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), 82. (back-translated from the French).
  • [5]
    Pinar Selek, “Un mouvement à la Mai 68 s’est emparé de la société civile,” Le Monde, June 6, 2013, accessed May 2, 2014,

The notion of an ecological debt might seem self-evident. The task of elaborating on this debt, however, is fraught with difficulties. In the neoliberal world, the ecological debt is conceived in terms of a monetary, contractual debt, as a form of compensation for ecological degradation whereby we return in cash what we have borrowed from various ecosystems. On our interpretation of it, by contrast, it symbolizes a form of solidarity and reciprocity between human beings on the one hand, and between human beings and the earth on the other; it is thus a debt that can be neither erased nor offset. It therefore involves ethical and political questions that can be restored to their rightful place by following the path forged by Marcel Mauss. Just as Mauss considered debt to be the bedrock of human societies, ecological debt might serve as the cornerstone of human societies that are sustainable and habitable. Thus purged of its techno-economic connotations, it can show us how we might inhabit the world more rationally and sensitively.

Geneviève Azam
Uploaded on on 18/02/2015
Distribution électronique pour La Découverte © La Découverte. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Loading... Please wait