Repaying Our Ecological Debt by Taking Innovative Action

We're all accustomed to receiving those sober ecological pleas: to make a donation or contact political officials or perhaps take more direct action to stop environmental degradation, save species or biosystems, end water and air pollution, and so forth. In general, these entreaties are couched as requests for our money, time, or attention. They might appeal to our guilt or to an innate desire to do good, but it is up to us to decide if and how we will share our largesse.

Contrast these typical pleas with the following words:
• A true "ecological debt" exists, particularly between the global north and south.
• Developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future.
• The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries.

The words above come from Pope Francis' recent encyclical--a letter by a pope to all the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church but also intended for general circulation as a social teaching. This encyclical marks an important distinction: It is an ecological appeal framed not as a request, but as a fundamental moral obligation to "all people of good will."

 Photo credit: AP

Quite simply, we in the developed world owe a debt to the world's poor because our extraction and consumption of non-renewable natural resources--which are all part of the planet's shared common good--not only has fueled our economic success, but also threatens the health and livelihood of the poor, who depend more directly on those ecosystem services for their daily existence.

Social, Moral, and Scientific Convergence

The Pope's historic address to the joint session of the U.S. Congress, followed by his address to the United Nations General Assembly, comes as the U.N. prepares to adopt its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the next 15 years. This timing represents an unprecedented convergence of social, moral, and spiritual imperatives--as voiced by Pope Francis--with scientific and economic imperatives--as codified in the U.N.'s SDGs.

The 17 SDGs include the end of poverty and hunger; reduction of inequality within and among countries; sustainable management of water and sanitation; affordable, reliable, sustainable universal energy access; conservation of marine and terrestrial resources; a halt to biodiversity loss; and urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

The words of the Pope's encyclical letter, Laudato Si, echo essentially similar themes. He calls for an "integral ecology" to address poverty, hunger, global inequality, fresh water and sanitation, fossil fuel extraction and use, preservation of oceans and forests, and more research into ecosystems and biodiversity. He puts special emphasis on the need to tackle climate change and to foster "climate resilience" among the developing countries, which will be the first to suffer the impacts of climate change.

The convergence between the scientifically based U.N. SDGs and the morally inspired encyclical is profound, especially at a time when science and religion are too often seen as incompatible or contradictory. The difference between the two entreaties, though, lies in the ethical dimension.

The U.N. declaration for its global Sustainable Development Goals invokes three dimensions of sustainable development: economic, social, and environmental. The Pope, by speaking of the "ecological debt" and "grave social debt" owed to the poor by the developed world, adds an ethical and moral dimension to the imperatives.

This debt transcends questions of personal beliefs or religious practices. It's basic, kindergarten-level ethical behavior. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you break it, you fix it.

Pope Francis notes differentiated responsibilities for tackling climate change: "The countries which have benefited from a high degree of industrialization, at the cost of enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, have a greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problems they have caused."

And that's where the real opportunity lies. Framing ecological crises in simple ethical terms circumvents the usual incentives of either avoiding guilt or making ourselves feel virtuous. This perspective encourages new ways of approaching the problems and finding solutions.

I work in Silicon Valley, at Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University. Silicon Valley is the most successful entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem in the world. Here, it's natural to approach issues by looking for creative, ingenious new answers. But Silicon Valley is by no means the only reservoir of innovation, creativity, or ingenuity.

Once we in the developed world accept that we owe an ecological debt to developing countries, we can tap into a different motivation for action. What kinds of global debt repayment models could we invent that could lead to the kind of integral ecology advocated by Pope Francis, the United Nations, and scientists everywhere? How can we use entrepreneurial enthusiasm and resources as a kind of "jet fuel" to accelerate these efforts? What new ideas can you bring forth to help care for our common home?

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