Debt, sustainability and solidarity

| Jason Adkins | July 21, 2016 | 3 Comments

As we commemorate the passing of one year since Pope Francis released his encyclical “Laudato Si’” (“On the Care for Our Common Home”), it is worth reminding ourselves how the pope’s representation of Catholic social doctrine through the lens of “integral ecology” can help us address some of the most challenging socio-political problems of our day, especially as we evaluate candidates in this election season.

Integral ecology is an ethic that respects both persons and the environment and does justice to both. In other words, it seeks to foster right relationships between people and communities, as well as between humans and the created order with which God has blessed us.

Being in right relationship with others includes being in right relationship with future generations — not saddling them with challenges that will burden their well-being, and embracing the responsibility to leave the world better than we found it.

Sadly, a culture of instant gratification and ideological rigidity has blinded us to our inter-generational responsibilities, and has led us to pile debt in various forms upon those who will come after us. Both our national debt and the accumulating ecological debt are regularly (and rightly) described as “unsustainable,” and both pose grave threats to future generations and to the planet itself.

Mass consumption

By one measurement, the U.S. government had $76.4 trillion in debts, liabilities and unfunded obligations at the end of fiscal year 2015. That amounts to $237,284 for every person living in the U.S., and $613,531 for every household in the U.S.

This is a major policy crisis for the American public. According to a 2014 report by the Congressional Budget Office, some potential consequences of unchecked government debt include reduced “future national income and living standards,” “higher inflation” that decreases “the purchasing power” of citizens’ savings and income, and increased “probability of a fiscal crisis in which investors would lose confidence in the government’s ability to manage its budget.”

Similarly, our ecological debt — the disparity between how much we use and waste and how much our local environment can produce and absorb — is staggering. Not only do our consumption patterns entail the creation of an excess of greenhouse gases that may contribute to climate change and a host of accompanying problems, but they also rely on extracting natural resources from developing countries, harming their natural environment while leaving them with few returns.

As Pope Francis notes in “Laudato Si’” (51-52): “A true ‘ecological debt’ exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time.” As a result, “the developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programs of sustainable development.”

Seeing the whole

Unfortunately, public officials tend to see the potential impact of only one form of debt, and sometimes they minimize the impact of other forms. And there is often an unwillingness or inability to make a connection between the national debt and the ecological one, limiting their ability to address either. Our attachment to ideologies, along with our own biases and limited horizons, often prevent us from seeing the right solutions.

By contrast, Catholic social doctrine, deepened by the discussion of integral ecology in “Laudato Si’,” helps us see the connectedness of things, and beyond the dis-integrated politics of half-truths and either/or solutions. Seeing the whole may lead us to restrain both government spending and consumption patterns (even though they might benefit us materially today) to preserve our common home for future generations.

The earth, its people and its goods are God-given gifts. They are not ours to spend as we see fit, but instead are given to us to steward — to till and to keep. We’ve done too much tilling and not enough keeping.

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference. Learn more about “Laudato Si’” and integral ecology at


Engage your local candidates
Help end political homelessness

Given the state of national politics, many Catholics are frustrated and feel a sense of “political homelessness.” Neither major party seems like it advances a consistent ethic of life, and it can be difficult to see where Catholics of principle fit in. Catholics should always have a sense that their views don’t fit neatly into either party in a two-party system, but it need not be the case that Catholics are so alienated by the parties that they cannot work prudentially within them for the common good.

Now, the Minnesota Catholic Conference is giving you the tools to help change this dynamic in the place that matters most: your own community.

The entire Minnesota Legislature is up for election this year. This means that a united Catholic voice in Minnesota can have a real impact on our state’s political landscape. We can use this election as an opportunity to end political homelessness in our own backyard.

The Minnesota Catholic Conference has developed an entire resource center to help you engage with your candidates, including:

  • A questionnaire to help you find out where Catholics stand on the most important issues facing Minnesota
  • Tips for having effective conversations with candidates
  • Easy ways to share the results of your conversations with MCC

Access these resources and more at

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Category: Faith in the Public Arena

  • Charles C.

    Sustainability in the budget and in the environment. OK, start with the budget.

    Assume that the Feds take in One dollar out of every five which the country produces (Gross Domestic Product). That’s a little higher than the historical average and the Government Accounting Office (GAO) projections, but so what?

    The GAO tells us that about 20 years from now we’ll spend more on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and interest payments combined than all of the money we take in. No, it’s not a sustainable level of spending. Let’s start cutting it. But I’ll bet you don’t want to.

    How about raising taxes so that the Federal Government takes one dollar out of every four produced in the US? Great, now we’re good for about 35 years before all federal revenue goes to those programs.

    OK, let’s give the government a full third of every thing the country produces. In 45 years, every dollar of federal money is swallowed up there. And we’re not even looking at spending for food and agriculture, transportation, energy and the environment, housing, science, homeland security, international aid, or the military. Sorry, none of those get any money because it was all used up for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and Interest payments.

    (In case you’re curious, in 65 years half of the value of everything produced in the country will be taken by the federal government and spent on those four programs.)

    So if you’re not talking about reducing federal spending in those four areas, you’re not serious and can safely be ignored in budget matters. Unless, of course, you don’t care about sustainability.

  • Charles C.

    Besides dealing with the budget, we should look at the environment. Who exactly is the writer’s audience here? The World? The US?

    A website named Numbeo has a pollution index by country for 108 countries. It uses air and water quality information gathered by the World Health Organization. The 108 countries may be divided into nine groups of 12 countries, from the 12 most polluted to the 12 least polluted. Call the least polluted 12 countries Group 1 and the most polluted, Group 9. (Unfortunately, most of Africa is not included in their listing for want of complete information.)

    Where is the US? In Group 2. We lose out to a number of European countries, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Where are the problem countries? In the Middle East, Asia, Russia, and South and Central America.

    America, with all of it’s production, manufacturing, automobiles, oil and gas drilling, and the third largest population in the world ranks 19th out of 108 countries. (The top three are Iceland, Finland, and Sweden.)

    By any fair standard we are doing quite well, thank you. If you want to talk to people about stewardship, try talking to Russia (57th), Mexico (61st), Venezuela (78th), India (82nd), Iran (93rd), or China (100th).

    Pollution in the US has been falling for decades, even before regulations were instituted. Combining environmental with budgetary sustainability should mean that we consider the cost of every action claimed to help the environment. But here we run into a potential trap. There are people who say we should clean up the environment whatever the cost; they would be willing to have the government spend any amount of money if the air would be 20% cleaner.

    The idea that we should spend elebenty gazillion dollars to change the level of a pollutant from two parts in a billion to one part in a billion is not just silly, it’s harmful. It’s a call to spend every dollar and every hour we have to remove one more dust mote from the air. We’ll never reach the degree of cleanliness desired by some. The EPA set standards, then when the standards were met, they set tougher standards. This can go on forever. Then, when the US becomes the spotless home of Mr. Clean, we will get clouds of smoke drifting in from China and India with the prevailing winds and we’ll be dirty again.

    What’s the real goal here? Is it to make the US as clean as humanly possible regardless of the cost? Who voted for that? If someone came to me offering $100 million if I was to accept a pollutant in my back yard which would have the sole effect of shortening my life by a year, I’d accept the offer. I’d sell a year of my life for half of that. Think of the suffering I could relieve with that money, the poor who could be helped, the missionaries who could be supported. I suspect the vast majority of people would.

    So the question is not how to get the cleanest possible environment, but how to find the balance point where the environment is cleaned to the extent which people want to sacrifice other things for it. If a person makes $50,000 a year, how much is he willing to spend to clean up his environment by 1%? Find that number and you are well on your way to finding what “sustainable” environmental efforts look like.

    A government, at least of the kind the US claims to be, can’t continually spend more on a particular program than it’s citizens are willing to pay for. Regulators and some scientists (many relying on government grants), say that the world is going to end soon through any of several causes unless we dedicate billions and billions of dollars to scientists and regulators who are interested in this kind of study. Of course, they’ve been saying that since 1970 when climate change was first introduced to the public as a coming Ice Age. That kind of alarming prediction is used to try to sway public opinion, not to provide actual facts or science.

    Since “The Coming Ice Age” and “Disastrous, Man-Made Global Warming” predictions have turned out to be wrong, articles are beginning to appear advising writers to switch their terms to something less alarming (That’s also why some talk about “Climate Change” now.). The article suggested stressing “Stewardship” and “Sustainability,” as positive words which would generate more support. Compare “Increasing taxes and the prices of goods to super clean the air to avoid a problem which may or may not exist and which no scientist has been able to accurately predict,” with “Invest resources to ensure responsible stewardship and provide for a sustainable environment for our children.”

    Sustainable environment? What in the name of the Great Bureaucrat does that mean? How much do you want the US to spend in order to get the US to what level of cleanliness? What do you propose we do about the pollution coming from other countries (which totals more than ours)? When we shut down mining and manufacturing as a result of your plans, how do we support those out of work? Increase welfare?

    Like those calling for budgetary sustainability, people demanding environmental sustainability are unwilling to identify the costs involved in reaching their goals, or being honest and forthright about those costs when talking to Americans.

  • Charles C.

    The third part of Mr. Adkins’ article is also worrisome. He suggest using the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s (MCC) questionnaire to find out where a candidate stands on issues important to the MCC. The problem is that it’s not really a questionnaire, it’s a lobbying tool designed to pressure candidates to express a particular position. Not very honest and forthright, but hey, this is an election year and anything goes, right?

    Here’s the difference. A questionnaire might say something like:

    “Do you think the legislature should pass a law banning football in Minnesota High Schools? If you think it shouldn’t be banned, should there be more restrictions and safety requirements, or do you think the situation is best left as it is?”

    A political questionnaire might say:

    “Thousands of innocent boys are injured each year playing high school football. Some die, and many have life changing skull injuries. Responsible parents, of whom I and all my voting friends are representatives, cry themselves to sleep over the terrible effects this barbaric, so-called “game” has on the next generation. All enlightened people want to end this practice. Can I put you down as being one of the moral and sane candidates who wish to ban this evil sport? We’ll publish your name in mailings sent to all the Catholics in your area so watch what you say.”

    If i went to a candidate with a question like that, he would be completely justified in thinking that I was either a nut, a rabid (but clever) partisan trying to pressure him, or a naive voter being manipulated to campaign for a certain issue.

    Do you think that’s extreme? Well, look at the questionnaire. (MCC will appreciate the Internet “clicks,” I’m doing them a favor.) We could discuss any of the five questions but consider just one, the one dealing with the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP). MFIP is one way Minnesota transfers money from the taxpayers to low-income families with children.

    The MCC questionnaire tells the candidate that payments for this program haven’t increased in thirty years, and implies that if the candidate doesn’t support increasing the allowance by $100 each month, then he is a cold, heartless, soul who is failing to help the deserving poor.

    The question could have been phrased this way:

    “In 2005-2006, Minnesota ranked seventh highest among the 50 states for welfare spending per capita. Ten years later it has become the third most generous, behind only Alaska and Massachusetts. Minnesota also has higher than average taxes, with a state tax burden of 10.2% compared to a national average of 9.16%.

    “Minnesota has higher than average taxes, and is in the top three for giving money in welfare payments. Should we move to even more extreme positions by raising already high taxes to pay for even higher welfare payments?”

    The section of the article entitled “Action Alert” claims to want to end “political homelessness.” What it actually does is eliminate the MCC as a possible cure for the problem. The MCC is announcing what issues are important to Catholics and what positions it supports on those questions. End “Political Homelessness?” They’re slamming another door shut in the faces of those looking for a reasoned discussion on the issues concerning the voters.