Swallowing The Context Of “Earth’s Ecological Debt Crisis”

The Bland Leading The Bland

October 9 saw one of the Independent’s explosive front-page stories on the global environment: “Earth’s ecological debt crisis.” According to a new study, humanity is “putting an intolerable strain on nature”. Martin Hickman, the Independent’s consumer affairs correspondent, explained:

“For the first time a green group, the London-based new economics foundation (nef), has sought to pinpoint how quickly people are expending global raw materials – fertile land, forests, fish, air and energy.

“By analysing data from the US academic group Global Footprint Network, the think-tank has worked out the day each year when ‘humanity starts eating the planet’.” (Hickman, ‘Earth’s ecological debt crisis: mankind’s “borrowing” from nature hits new record,’ The Independent, October 9, 2006)

Just like a company bound for bankruptcy plunging into the red, the world starts falling into ecological debt on 9 October:

“Problems, affecting everything from the seabed to the stratosphere, range from carbon dioxide emissions to the destruction of rainforests to the intensification of agriculture.”

The crisis described in the article could hardly be more serious; humanity really is devouring the planet’s life-support systems. And yet, typically for a mainstream media report, Hickman’s analysis of the causes was lost in bland cliché: “rapid population growth” and “rising living standards” around the world.

But consider the deeper, taboo issues behind these “higher living standards”. In a series of incisive books, historian Mark Curtis has shown how the traditional aim of British policy-makers is to protect “favourable investment climates” for big business around the globe, while targeting governments who refuse to comply. Hence the need for numerous British and US military interventions in Iran, Iraq, Kenya, Indonesia, British Guiana, Central America, and elsewhere.

Curtis writes:

“Britain’s global economic policy [is] promoted in bilateral ‘aid’ programmes, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s ‘structural adjustment’ programmes and in the shaping of the rules of the World Trade Organisation.

“The consequences of promoting privatisation and economic liberalisation have often been devastating for hundreds of millions of people around the world. The most basic of British goals bears significant responsibility for maintaining, often deepening, global poverty.” (Curtis, Unpeople, Vintage, London, 2004, p.124)

Rising global population, the Independent’s other supposed root cause, is once again trotted out, distracting attention from the systemic pathologies of global capitalism.

Michael Albert, co-founder of ZNet (, has addressed this chimera, noting that:

“there is no evidence that current poverty, hunger, and environmental degradation etc. owe their origins or tenacity in any significant degree to a population problem, but, instead, the evidence is abundant that these particular crimes against humanity are rooted in oppressive institutional structures and the abhorrent misallocations of labor and energy and maldistribution of product that they foster”. (Albert, ‘Population?!’,

An Independent journalist might scratch his head in befuddlement at such rational remarks, but would never discuss them.

There are other gaping holes in the Independent’s recent news report about the planet’s “ecological debt crisis” and, indeed, in its reporting generally:

  • The role of business in promoting unsustainable patterns of consumption.
  • The massive corporate propaganda campaigns and relentless backdoor lobbying of governments to shape state policies in support of private power.
  • The billions spent on business advertising of consumer products and services.
  • The collusion between powerful companies, investors and state planners installing compliant dictators in client states around the world.
  • The extensive use of loans and tied aid that ensnare poor nations in webs of debt, ensuring that the West retains control of their resources, markets and development.
  • The deployment of threats, bribery and even armed force against countries that attempt to pursue self-development, rather than economic or strategic planning as designed in Washington.
  • The role of the corporate media, including The Independent which is owned by billionaire businessman Sir Anthony O’Reilly, in promoting the planet-devouring aims of private power. (See ‘A Special Kind of Independence‘, October 11, 2005)

Understanding of these issues is vital in any rational analysis of the problems facing us. But they are conspicuously absent from almost all mainstream news reporting and commentary. They have, however, been substantiated in numerous careful studies and books.

A short list of such work might include ‘Global Spin’ by Sharon Beder (Green Books, 1997); ‘Web of Deceit’ by Mark Curtis (Vintage, 2003); ‘Confessions of an Economic Hit Man’ by John Perkins (Ebury Press, 2004); ‘Manufacturing Consent’ by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky (Pantheon Books, 1988); ‘Deterring Democracy’ by Noam Chomsky (Vintage, 1992), ‘The New Rulers of the World’ by John Pilger (Verso, 2002); ‘The Growth Illusion’ by Richard Douthwaite (Green Books, 1999); and ‘Taking the Risk out of Democracy’ by Alex Carey (University of Illinois Press, 1997).

But – as we have seen in many media alerts over the past five years – the serious, evidence-based arguments in such books are too dangerous and subversive for the corporate media.

In a comment piece accompanying the Independent’s news article on the ecological debt crisis, Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation noted that:

“It is shockingly easy for politicians, economists and planners to forget that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.” (Simms, ‘The human race is living beyond its means,’ The Independent, October 9, 2006)

But such private interests do not simply “forget”; rather, they do not +care+ in any meaningful sense. Their primary focus is the legal responsibility to shareholders to provide a profitable return on investment. Naturally, it is “shockingly easy” for corporate media to avoid making the obvious links between the symptoms of a dying planet and the corporate plunderers – together with their enablers in high political office – who are responsible.

Simms added:

“Mainstream economics says that nothing must get in the way of economic growth and competitiveness.” (op. cit.)

But again the reader is left in limbo: offered a tantalising glimpse of fundamental truths before being distracted on subsequent pages by ads for cars, cheap flights and British Petroleum’s greenwashing ‘target neutral’ campaign.

Fire In The Belly

Earlier this month, The Independent had a further front-page story about the impending dangers of climate change; this time the severe risk of drought that could kill millions of people in the 21st century. We wrote to Michael McCarthy, the paper’s environment editor, about his story and also referred to an earlier piece he had written for The Tablet, the British Catholic weekly magazine:

Dear Michael McCarthy,

Your excellent front-page story today (‘The century of drought’, The Independent’, October 4, 2006) suggests strongly that homo sapiens is still “slouching towards disaster”. (Michael McCarthy, ‘Slouching towards disaster’, The Tablet, February 12, 2005)

But something doesn’t stack up. What has happened to the fire in your belly from earlier this year?

In March, you reported the conclusions of the Commons all-party parliamentary climate change group, led by Colin Challen MP. The Commons group put “the case for abandoning the ‘business as usual’ pursuit of economic growth, which has been the basis of Western economic policy for two hundred years.”

You noted: “the pursuit of growth, which essentially has not changed since Victorian times, is misleading, and the terms need to be redefined. Instead, we need a different policy which looks at how much carbon we can afford to emit.” (Michael McCarthy, ‘Global warming: Your chance to change the climate,’ front-page story, The Independent, March 28, 2006)

Why, since that report appeared, have you never addressed the folly of “economic growth”? Where are your front-page stories reporting that Western economic policy, unless fundamentally overhauled, will be responsible for the death of huge swathes of humanity?

I hope you will respond, please.

(Email from David Cromwell, October 4, 2006)

Despite a gentle nudge via email a few days later, McCarthy has never replied.


Ecologist Franz Broswimmer wrote accurately that:

“At its very core, the prevailing capitalist ethos and liberal world view of the modern industrial era remain expansionary and imperial, involving a calculated form of indifference to the social and ecological order.” (Broswimmer, ‘Ecocide,’ Pluto Press, 2002, p.57)

The social insanity of this capitalist-fuelled expansionism leads to “inverted priorities”, to adopt the phrase used by social scientist Emmanuel Wallerstein. Hence, a trillion-dollar global arms budget, depletion of the planet’s natural resources and deepening economic apartheid between rich and poor.

These inverted priorities are, as eco-feminist Mary Mellor wrote so well:

“not the neutral decisions of a market; they are the priorities of powerful people in powerful nations, mostly men whose gender, race, and class interests drive the capitalist political economic system and its worldwide system of accumulation and deprivation.” (Ibid., quoted, p. 81)

These are damaging truths largely hidden from the consumer of corporate news, but painfully revealed with every passing day in the real world around us.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Martin Hickman, Independent consumer affairs correspondent:
Email: [email protected]

Write to Michael McCarthy, Independent environment editor:
Email: [email protected]

Write to Imogen Haddon, managing editor of the Independent:
Email: [email protected]

Write to Ian Birrell, deputy editor of the Independent:
Email: [email protected]