Sustainability and Three Debts of Mankind

Shortened from 29th Distinguished Speaker Lecture at Hiram College, Ohio, US

I would like to discuss the linkages between three greatest debts of mankind: ecological debt,  financial debt, and karmic debt underlying the three cracked pillars of sustainability that holds up our world. In doing so, we have to grapple with the concepts of debts to the dead (past beings) and the unborn (future beings), by exploring the metaphysical idea of karmic debt (lan chags) and the popular ideas of financial and ecological debts. The Buddhist concept of karmic debt is an incalculable debt to the beings in the past owed by the present and future generations. It is the basis of gratitude to all beings for their kindness that remains unpaid. Ecological and financial debts are owed by the present generation to the future generations for imposing arbitrary burdens on them. We owe not only gratitude to the past but to the future generations. The awareness of living beyond means in moral and material senses found in these three debts should reorient our consciousness towards eco-centrism. So this article will consist of

  1. Ecological debt to the future generations
  2. Financial debt
  3. Karma debt towards past generations, and
  4. Future orientations

Ecological debt to the future generations

Ecologists have estimated debt to the future generation in terms of overshoot. We deprive future generations of the sources of their food. We destroy common assets bound up with land, such as water and forest. We liquidate finally their personal wealth by undercutting all of these broader natural assets. Take the case of challenge to social sustainability. How can we – 7 billions – be socially harmonious and fulfilled when 20% of the global population get all three quarters of the world income. The idea of a just world has clashed with the idea of libertarian rights, the idea of sovereignty of nations, and the idea of corporate rights instead of state responsibility. Take the case of economic sustainability. Industrial output could not be constrained. Production of oil, lumber, metal, gas, and other raw scarce materials has increased.  Take the most obvious case of environment: the sky above our head. We think everyone owns it equally. But no, it is not. Those who pollute it in a way own and use it more (Barnes 2007, 2008). If the sky is owned by all, we would implement ‘cap and dividend’ approach to cool the earth and protect people from price rises that will follow reduction of fossil fuel use.1

The present generations since mid 1980s are ecological debtors to future generations because we consume more than the earth can produce sustainably. “Drawing down existing ecological capital creates ecological debt…” (Kitzes, J., et al 2007).  In 1961, humanity used only half of biosphere’s total capacity. In 2002, humanity used exceeded biosphere’s total capacity by 23% (Kitzes, J., et al 2007).  By 2011, humanity used exceeded biosphere’s total capacity by 1.5 time.2  It roughly means that the Earth will need one year and six months without its resources being used if it were to regenerate what we use in a year. But this is theoretical now because we do not allow the Earth to take rest-period of regeneration nor does CO2 in the atmosphere gets reabsorbed in a year and half.3  The ecological overshoot is an ecological debt we owe to future generations because we are liquidating resources such as top soil, fish stocks or forest they should have. We are compounding our mounting debt to them. But we will not be present in the future to pay it. It is just a metaphor unless you believe in rebirth.  We will leave the future generations with less food, biodiversity and wildlife, forests and land, and more build-up of CO2. By 2050, humanity’s overshoot will be 2 times the earth biosphere capacity each year, under moderate growth projections scenario (Kitzes, J., et al 2007).

The question of sustainability is how we can decrease humanity’s use of biosphere to the level the biosphere can support) by reducing pressure on biosphere to leave more for the future generations. If the biosphere’s capacity is consistently exceeded wealth cannot keep on increasing and that will bring a collapse of civilization. If that happens, the logic of cost-benefit analysis do not apply because the collapse of civilization means poor or negative rate of return (Cowen 2008). Consistently overstepping the ecological limits will make the basic rights of the people in the future unrealizable (Dower 2004), Thus in this sense we have a duty not to deprive their basic rights to a decent livelidhood.  Contracting consumption, redirecting investments towards sustainable path, reducing population, increasing bio-capacity and creating institutions and laws that enable doing so are some of the ways  (Kitzes J., et al 2007).

However, from the innovators and technologists point of view, the most important aspiration is investment in factor x technologies to increase resource efficiencies (Weizsaecker et al 1997). The intensity of material use (the quantity of material used per unit of economic output) (Moreau et al 2008) can be decreased in relative terms,4as green high tech spreads, it is hoped.These possibilities are known as dematerialization of economy. And it is believed that GDP can thus grow forever (Ayres and Ayres, 1998 cited in Moreau et al 2008) and prosperity is forever.

But efficiency in resource use, however high, does not mean absolute reduction in total material and energy input. Firstly, construction industry, fueled by urbanization and infrastructure building by its very nature is material-based. Secondly, resource efficiency, ie., relatively less use of materials in an output, does not imply less pollution or hazard (Moreau et al,  2008). The bulk of waste, like radioactive material, can be small but of much greater environmental consequence. Thirdly, technical fixes and natural resources is ultimately not substitutes for each other. Technology and natural resources are complimentary (Daly, 1999). A point in time can be reached when environmental cost will outstrip economic gains, if economy expands on and on (Daly, 1999 cited in Moreau et al 2008). Growth and prosperity cannot be forever because nature has absolute limits. Technology cannot invent way out of limits of the earth. Fourth, dematerialization does not resolve fully the problem of rebound effects (Schneider 2008).

So it seems likely that we will continue incurring ecological debt to the future generations. A major underlying problem is our conditioned perception. Can we see anything of value beyond currencies? We cannot see intrinsic values, values are now indicated only in terms of cash values. It took a figure in dollars expressing the value of global ecosystem services to awaken people to an old fact. The total value of environmental services was estimated to be in the range of annual average  of US $ 33 trillion per year” which much larger than the global GDP in that year  (Costanza et al 1997, 2011). Bhutan’s bio-capacity should be much higher than its footprint. Bhutan’s GDP is about US 1.4 billion dollar, but the value of its ecological services has been estimated at US 14 billion. So GDP is really a small part of the ecosystem. Methods for valuing all ecosystem services are improving. This should increase awareness about public benefits people have always got from various kind of services for human-wellbeing (Costanza and Daly 1997, Costanza et al 2011, MEAB, UN 20055).

Financial debt to future governments and society

Though it is not easy to link, questions about unsustainability is connected to credit expansion that fuels demand of goods by the private individuals and government. Modern mass production and over consumption is fueled by the availability of both household and government or public debt. And those who can extend credit are eventually those who extract or manufacture resources and sell their goods around the world. OPEC as a creditor and financier of US deficits is an easy example. But the confidence in repayment is also a confidence in the possibility of money being redeemed in goods, which means that long term credit is psychologically based on the optimism that resources will be available to produce those goods.  In general, capitalist expansion is necessarily dependent on credit expansion and vice versa. Some scholars have also noted that credit expansion, as a vent for channeling surplus capital, is deeply connected to process of urbanization and property markets. Global urbanization sustains credit expansion (Harvey 2008).

A debtless person is wealthyvi, is a popular saying in Bhutan. On the contrary, a wealthy man is not necessarily debtless. In fact, there is also a concept of lay Buddhist happiness in as being free from debts of all kinds in our daily life. That is to say, to be self-sufficient. , The joy of debtlessness is proclaimed in the Anana Suta  as part of the four blisses and joys of a householder. A household lives well in the joy of ownership, the joy of making use of or enjoying wealth, the joy of debtlessness, the joy of blamelessness” in terms of bodily, verbal and mental karma (Thanissaro Bhikkhu (b), 2012, Tan P (b) 2003). In Dighajanu Sutta, similarly, a householder is advised that one of the four things that can led him to welfare and happiness is his expenses not to exceed his income (Tan P.,(b) 2003). But increasingly, all of us, everywhere, are locked in the process of credit expansion directly or indirectly. Commercial banks’ lending and re-lending is certainly one of those things creating ‘a dense web of debt’ (Douthwaite 2011) within which everyone is caught. Yet some countries, like the US and Euro area, have more to do with global financial transactions than agrarian societies of Nepal and Bhutan in South Asia. More money is made now from financial services than from real economy in financially oriented economies. Speculative gains have become more important source of wealth than production. Those who work in finance such as investment bankers, hedge-fund and private-equity managers earn the most in the US and their roles in the rise of income inequality is significant. The share of the top 1 percent has reached an astonishing 23 percent of the total income (The Economist, January 21 2012, p.35).

The amount of public or government debt for the world as a whole as of this moment (22.2.2012) has crossed US $ 41, 392 trillions.7 The total global public debt was 34.4 trillion in 2011. Of this, $ 29.5 trillion were debts of advanced economies whereas emerging economies’s debt accounted for $ 4.9 trillion. The world’s net debt was 57 percent of the global GDP in 20118. Public debt has been rising since early 1970s (IMF 2011, p.14). Not all of public debt will have to be borne by the future generations. Some of this will be paid off within this generation as governments’ bonds mature but a lot will be rolled over into future generations.

A crisis comes after an abnormal credit expansion, above trend level. This is true globally as well as for Bhutan in the case of rupee crisis that struck Bhutan in early 2012, which was preceded by credit/deposit% exceeding 100%. In the recent global financial crisis, fall in house prices came with a fall in credit and equity prices (IMF 2011, pp.43-45). When borrowers in the US or Euro cannot repay their housing loans, it should have nothing, indeed nothing to do with rest of the world. But in today’s financially integrated world, housing prices, equity prices and credit markets move together in roughly synchronized way not only in the developed countries but between the developed countries and emerging economies.

The US as the principle debtor to the world, drawn, for example, by Harvey (Harvey 2007, pp.193-198), borrowing US $ 2 billion a day (Harvey 2007, p.190), mainly from China and Japan and Arabs. But there are also debts of developing countries with no visible prospect of repayment.

But it is not out of place to single out the role of US as it drives the global debt. Thinkers have pondered on various scenarios of debt ridden global capitalism. One is generating hyper-inflation by which real value of debt owed by US is simply reduced and paid off. The lenders will get back a fraction of what they lent in real value.  The other is to induce a long deflation where global demand slumps. From the point of view of sustainability, the global slump in consumer good production may in fact lead to more dematerialization of global economies, and a slower churning of goods and services for ourselves, and paradoxically leaving more for the future generations, and leaving us with more to enjoy with less (Miegel 2011, Schor 2010).

Karmic debt (lan chags) towards past generations

What is needed is not only change to the structural conditions of our competitive consumption (Schor 1999, 1910, Meigel 2011), but also a psychic or consciousness shift and that later demand would need re-envisioning ideas that make man feel more profoundly for and by the planet. Different cultures produce different ideas, and one such ideas of the Himalayas is the notion of karmic debt. We might situate debts of all kind in larger karmic concept known as karmic debt. Karmic debt and the concept of ecological debt is somewhat similar in one respect. They are both debt to the invisible and non-existent people, who cannot be present among us to cannot vote or cannot voice their interests. So the underlying conceptual entity we are dealing is the same. Karmic debt is owed to the dead, ecological debt is owed to the unborn. If the debt of any kind is multigenerational, to see social contract as one between population of a present nation and its government is limited and misleading. “[S]ociety is not a contract among the living but a trusteeship that binds the living to the unborn and the dead.”9 It is this notion of trusteeship and stewardship that we need to discuss.

Buddhism talks about debt to beings from our interaction with them in our past lives. The beings of samsara consists of hell realm, animal kingdom, titanic realm, human realm, and heavenly realm (Nibbedha Sutta)10 or six realms in Tibetan version (Imaeda 2010). Of course, the total number of beings from the pasts is vast, To put into a demographic context of this abstract idea, leaving aside the question of other creatures, demographer Carl Haub’s (2002) semi-scientific estimate for the total number of people who have ever been born since the dawn of the human race was 106 billion. If the world lasts, the possibility of interacting with beings in future is of course infinite,  meaning our ecological debt to the number of beings is large.

By Dasho Karma Ura



Revkin A., 2008. Paying the cost of climate control, The New York Times, January 2 2008, Available at Accessed on [25.2.2012]


See Ecological footprint update. Available at [Accessed on 23.2.2012]

The relative is defined (by Carpintero 2002 cited in Moreau et al, 2008) as slower growth in material consumption compared to growth in GDP.   Moreau et al estimated comparative material consumptions from 1994 to 2002 in Germany and China. But they show that physical trade balance is a better indicator of dematerialization of an economy. An economy whose physical trade balance is positive and growing, like that of China, shows higher materialization of the economy.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Board, UN, which produced the Living beyond our means-Natrural assets and human wellbeing, 2005.

Bu lon med na phyugpo yin.

See World debt clock. Available at Accessed on [].

See Prasad E., and Ding M,. 2012. Debt burden in advanced economies now a global threat. Available at Accessed on [28.2.2012]

Scruton R, 2012. One minute with Roger Scruton, New Scientist, 7 january 2012, p. 25. He cites Edmund Burke.

See Tan P., 2003. Nibbedhika Sutta


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