The Price of Prosperity: A Case for Ecological Debt in Response to the Climate Crisis
Updated: Feb 6
At this point, there can be no question that Climate Change is a serious issue with both present and long-reaching negative impacts on our all of our personal and societal welfare. The question that stands for us to discuss is not whether Climate Change is an issue but how we address it and, more importantly, who should bear the brunt of paying for and implementing Climate Change solutions.
The book Climate Challenged Society by David Schlosberg, John Dryzek, and Richard B. Norgaard offers a more academic yet profound and thought-provoking introduction to the political and societal ramifications of Climate Change and how we can begin to address it. Today, in honour of Earth Day, we will explore the concept of ecological imperialism, or ecological debt, as covered in this book and how this concept can shape the way we consider the burdens of Climate Change.
Ecological imperialism as a concept refers to the production and exploitation of unbalanced power dynamics between nations of the Global North and Global South.
(In the global sphere, we have historically referred to these dynamics as First and Third World Nations; however, it is more accurate to use the terms Global North and Global South or Core Nation, Semi-Periphery, and Periphery system. No matter what term you choose to use, those nations in the Core/Global North/First World are those that have historically benefitted from unequal colonial and slave relations with other countries, allowing them to advance their own economies at the detriment of others. The Third World/Periphery/Global South countries are those that, through these same colonial relationships, have been exploited or stripped of their natural resources or industries, cultural practices, people, or political systems and have further been systematically barred from gaining power or wealth in the global economy. Periphery nations hold the smallest share of the global economy, where the core nations hold the largest. When we differentiate the semi-periphery, we are referring to those nations that have historically been colonies or have historically held a smaller share of global influence or wealth, but in modern times have been gaining in power and wealth, sometimes referred to as the "BRICS" countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa). We sometimes also include core nations touched by war (such as Ukraine) or colonies that still host large numbers of colonizers (such as Canada or Australia) in the semi-periphery.)
The abuse of these relationships permits the appropriation of both natural resources and natural carbon sinks, mainly to the economic benefit of the Global North and the capitalistic and environmental detriment of the Global South. Ecological debt logically extends this theory to suggest that, because of historic colonial relationships, countries in the Global North should bear the brunt of the responsibility for solving Climate Change. This theory sees nations of the Global South that have historically been colonies as having had to bear the brunt of the negative impacts of Climate Change while also not reaping the benefits of development and prosperity that comes with amassing and burning through natural resources. As a result, those countries that have gained these resources through patterns of unequal exchange now owe a debt to those countries they pillaged resources from. This debt must be repaid by taking on the deepest cuts to carbon emissions and paying the most to invest in new technologies to address Climate Change.
Let’s back up. If you’ve taken a High School Social Studies course (or your local equivalent), you are probably familiar with the concepts of imperialism and colonialism. If not, I enjoy the quick reference videos brothers Hank and John Green produce on their YouTube channel Crash Course, and they have a few on the topic. As a quick recap, imperialism can be defined as a system in which a dominant power (historically, the countries in the Global North) controls trade, labour, and natural resource capital. In the case of ecological imperialism, this dominant control is measured in (often detrimental and irreparable) alterations to the natural ecosystem, the biodiversity of native flora and fauna, the prevailing traditional relationships between people and the environment, and the preservation of global commons and carbon sinks.
Cases of ecological imperialism can involve either the flow of raw materials out of the Global South or the introduction of new flora and fauna to colonized nations to facilitate the migration of settlers from the affluent core. Cases can be seen historically, such as the introduction of settlers and a new economic order to northern Canada, or in modern times such as the control of foreign investment in the control of natural commodities on the African Continent. In all cases, what remains clear is that the planet Earth's resources are nearing their capacity, creating a limit to growth that impacts both our natural surroundings and the socio-economic order of humans in the current geopolitical system.
The behaviours that demark these relationships have the result of irreparably altering the human and natural ecosystems of all parties involved. Critically, ecological imperialism is predicated on the assumption that human populations, their health, livelihoods, and economic potential rely on the natural systems they reside in. Therefore, to unjustly exploit another nation's resources or to excessively pollute the global commons is to deprive the development, economic, and living potentials of another country or group.
Fueled by capitalist attitudes that prioritize the endless accumulation of goods and wealth, the Global North leveraged colonial relationships to transform global economies. These new economic systems are known as systems of “unequal exchange.” Ecologically unequal exchange is a form of economic analysis that considers the flow of raw materials, energy, eco-productive space, water, land, and labour through the market system in addition to the flows of money considered by traditional economists. The United States, Japan, and the European Union are frequently identified as being those nations that benefit from ecologically unequal exchange.
Patterns of unequal exchange accommodate the transfer of natural resources from what are frequently periphery nations (those nations that were and are colonialized during Imperial conquests) to core nations (Imperialist parties who pillaged, colonized, or settled other states). These imposed export economies transformed whole ecosystems. Not only were natural resources removed en masse, but frequently alien flora and fauna were introduced into local ecosystems resulting in the replacement of local biodiversity with monoculture cash-crops. The trade and export of natural resources and material goods also required the mass-migration of human labour that could facilitate extraction. The historical legacies and ongoing exploits of ecological imperialism have resulted in an unstable Global Climate that has proven advantageous to the development of the core nations and the inversely proportional displacement of environmental burdens onto the periphery states.
Additionally, the presence of ecologically destructive industries in any periphery nation is greatly exacerbated by the levels of foreign investment from those nations at the core, resulting in the increased degradation of land, climate, and biodiversity from those plundered nations of the Global South.
Beyond the direct cultural and ecological impacts created by Imperialist relationships, Ecological Imperialism has also benefitted Imperial nations by allowing them to use a disproportionate amount of the global commons and the global carbon sinks. As core nations have raced to develop as quickly and cheaply as possible, they have exceeded the planetary system’s limits to growth and over-extended the ability of natural carbon sinks such as the atmosphere, forests, and oceans, to cycle carbon outputs of development. This fast-paced and disposable development has left behind many of the periphery nations of the Global South as under-developed and without sufficient land, resources, or carbon-sinks to engage in the level of development achieved by the Global North without further accelerating failure of the global system. Not only has the Global South been excluded from the benefits of fossil-fuel driven development, but the negative impacts of ecological imperialism and the highest brunt of ecological degradation has also fallen upon the Global South. This places an undue ecological burden on those who have benefitted the least from the exploitation of the environment.
Ecological imperialism can also be considered a form of environmental racism. Environmental racism is any environmental policy that differentially disadvantages communities based on race or colour. This racism forms a practice of institutionalized discrimination that is reproduced through relationships with the environment, including access to national resources, food sources, and a stable living environment, and flora and fauna connected with traditional ways of living. While these relationships may have been initiated historically, their ongoing legacies are currently reproduced with devastating social and environmental effects.
Take a look at this graphic from the United Nations Environment Programme. If we divided the entire global carbon carrying capacity of the planet by all the people on Earth, we would have the per capita carbon footprint. Those nations noted in shades of orange and yellow have a higher carbon footprint than allotted by a per capita carbon footprint based on their populations. Those in shades of green have a higher population than would be expected by their relatively low carbon output. This map visually demonstrates that the responsibility for exacerbating Climate Change falls on the Global North.
Are you with me so far? If, at this point, you are convinced that our historical relationships have advantaged different states disproportionally, then our next question is what we do about it. This is where ecological debt comes in.
Ecological debt can be considered a proposed policy of restitution to remedy the legacies of ecological imperialism. John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark in their 2004 work, Ecological Imperialism: The Curse of Capitalism, present the definition of ecological debt as “the debt accumulated by Northern, industrial countries toward Third World countries on account of resource plundering, environmental damages, and the free occupation of environmental space to deposit wastes, such as greenhouse gases, from the industrial countries." In short, the Global North must make reparations that would allow the periphery nations to pursue their own development and advancement in the global order without placing additional strain on the ecosystem’s carrying capacity. In monetary terms, this debt can be calculated to equate to an estimated $13 trillion per year. The repayment of this debt would act not only to allow periphery nations to pursue development but would force countries of the Global North to bear the brunt of emission reductions to forestall the impacts of Climate Change.
This framework is not new, and there are agreements in position to guide states, but these have not been sufficiently adhered to in the nearly three decades since they were introduced. In 1992, after receiving 165 signatories, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) entered into force. This landmark international agreement acknowledged the threat of climate change, identified its key dimensions, and defined a framework for climate justice. Briefly explained, climate justice addresses the question of who has the capacity and responsibility to bear the brunt of the effort to reduce and reverse climate change and how fundamental human rights and rights to development are addressed through this question. The framework of climate justice identifies that those most responsible for the existence of problems are not the same people or countries as those likely to be most affected by the consequences, nor are they necessarily the same as those most capable of doing something. This framework essentially advocates for the repayment of ecological debt, holding that the developed nations not only owe the developing nations for the creation and exacerbation of the climate crisis but are also in a position to be most able to address the crisis without sacrificing the fundamental human rights of their citizens.
In outlining climate justice, the UNFCCC outlined five guiding principles for all member states seeking to take action towards realizing climate justice. First, the UNFCCC urged the Member States to implement environmental protections for the benefit of present and futures peoples, acknowledging that these protections must accommodate for differing capacities between states. This principle assumes that states have a responsibility not only to their current citizens but also to preserve rights for future generations. This recognizes climate change as having adverse impacts on not only environmental rights but also on developmental and fundamental human rights. This principle identifies climate change as being antithetical to the ability of states to fulfill the rights of their citizens. Further, it acknowledges the differentiating capacity of states and outlines that, to be just, the Global North must take the lead in addressing Climate Change.
The second principle of the UNFCCC holds that developing nations should not be expected to make the same levels of reductions in their emissions as doing so would not only undermine their capacity to achieve basic human rights but would prevent them from developing to a level that is equitably on par with those nations of the Global North. This principle not only reinforces the links between climate change and environmental rights with basic human rights and the consideration for the capacities of Member States as aforementioned but also speaks to the essential right to develop held by nations. The developmental rights approach to these principles assumes that relative development is an inherent precursor to the fulfilment of fundamental human rights and functionality. To deny developing nations the ability to achieve this development in the name of reducing emissions would, therefore, be unjust as it would exacerbate inequalities in living conditions across the international system. This approach frames the burden of addressing climate change as a responsibility of the Global North based on their current capacity to shoulder and fund emissions reductions, carbon sinks, and Promethean solutions as a result of their present prosperity and realization of human rights, rather than as a result of their historical debt. This conclusion is supported by the fourth principle of the UNFCCC, which states that nations have a right to sustainable development, encouraging Member States to integrate climate protections into economic development.
The third and fifth principles each address the need of the international system to work cooperatively to bring the slowing or reversal of climate change and the realization of equitable development and fulfillment of fundamental rights to fruition. The third principle of the UNFCCC encourages implementing precautionary and anticipatory measures into all socio-economic contexts. Further, this principle notes that the measures taken to mitigate climate change should be both cost-effective and enacted without pause for the confirmation of full scientific certainty. This principle effectively urges the Member States to take immediate, comprehensive, and cooperative action in reducing Climate Change. This latter emphasis on cooperation is reinforced by the fifth principle, which promotes a supportive and open international system. The fifth principle outlines ideal interactions in the international system, noting that efforts to create a more stable and equitable environment for all should not be used to seek unilateral economic advancement or to impose discriminatory policies or sanctions. These two principles taken together recognize climate change as a pressing crisis that must be addressed by a unified and comprehensive effort to be effective.
While there are valid critiques to historical approaches to Climate Justice, it is my conviction that there is a comprehensive framework and justification for the need of the Global North to bear the burden of addressing Climate Change to account for their legacies of ecological imperialism and to allow and fund equitable development in the Global South to ensure the equitable realization of basic human rights. This conclusion views environmental racism and justice as being at the root of the issue of the ecological crisis. It supports approaches rooted in historical responsibility and in environmental, developmental, and fundamental human rights as being the best framework for action in addressing the climate crisis.
If you follow the argument that the responsibility to alleviate the impacts of Climate Change falls on the Global North, our next question is who within the Global North will bear the burden of reducing emissions and funding new research and the transmission of technology to the nations of the Global South. By viewing the issue through the lens of environmental racism, we dissect the matter by concluding that within countries of the Global North, there is parallel disparate access to rights and development as there is on an international scale. Therefore, within the Global North, the burden must not fall to racialized communities at a subsistence level to reduce their emissions but to those most who are most affluent and with the greatest capacity to address climate change.
Forms of environmental racism and environmental imperialism reproduced through historical and current colonial relationships are, in my opinion, some of the root causes of both the environmental crisis and of economic, developmental, and functional disparity. All efforts appealed to by state and non-state actors to address climate change must use a climate justice framework, such as the one introduced at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The onus is on the Global North to reduce emissions to maintain a stable climate for future generations. Doing so accounts for historical injustices and allows nations of the Global South to develop to the degree that the fundamental human, environmental, and developmental rights of all citizens are met.
Interested in reading more on this subject? Check out these resources:
Bullard, R. (2001). Confronting environmental racism in the 21st century. Paper prepared for the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) Conference on Racism and Public Policy, September 2001, Durban, South Africa
Dryzek, J. S.; Norgaard, R. B.; & Schlosberg, D. (2013). Climate-challenged society [1st Edition, Kindle Edition]. Oxford.
Foster, J. B., & Clark, B. (2004). Ecological imperialism: The curse of capitalism. Socialist Register, 40, 186-201.
Foster, J. B., & Holleman, H. (2014). The theory of unequal ecological exchange: A marx-odum dialectic. Journal of Peasant Studies, 41:2, 199-233. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2014.889687
Frame, M. L. (2016). The neoliberalization of (african) nature as the current phase of ecological imperialism. Capitalism Nature Socialism, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10455752.2015.1135973
Hornborg, A. & Martinez-Alier, J. (2016). Ecologically unequal exchange and ecological debt. Journal of Political Ecology, 23, 328-491.
Piper, L. & Sandlos, J. (2007). A broken frontier: Imperialism in the Canadian north. Environmental History, 12, 759-795.
United Nations. (1992). United nations framework convention on climate change. FCCC/Informal/84. The Agency.