By Andrew L. Rypel
“Every time you borrow money, you’re robbing your future self.” ~N. Morris
When I was younger, a close friend of mine struggled with a crippling debt. It was during that unique period shortly before and after college graduation. He had, in relatively short order, maxed out three credit cards, plus taken out a line of credit as a ‘student loan’. The borrowed money was being used to fuel a series of bad habitats, including early 20s party life. I watched my friend, and just didn’t know what to do or how to help. Quickly, the debt and bills and interest stacked up to a breaking point. Finally, the collectors were after him. Eventually, he told the parents, and together, they crafted a plan to solvency. It was hard. He moved home, changed his day-to-day behaviors, and took an entry level job as a teller at the local bank. It took almost two years of living at home, an abrupt end to college life, and placing any savings above minimum needs into paying back the debt. He did it though, and went on to graduate school and a successful career.
Being young at the time, watching this unfold was a formative experience. It taught me the important and timeless lesson: There is no free lunch. Recently, I have been reflecting on California’s intractable environmental woes: its ecosystems, water, and the communities who rely on them. For many, these problems seem too difficult to solve, so much as to classify them as ‘wicked problems’. Sometimes however, solutions require fresh perspectives. For example, there is much we can glean from economics and study of debt. In this essay, I explore the concept of ecological debts, the extent to which California has amassed ecological debt, and what a return to solvency might look like.
What are ecological debts?
The concept of ecological debts arose in the early 1990s by two independent teams of researchers focused on environmental liabilities transmitted to future human generations (Robleto and Marcelo 1992, Jernelov 1992). Over the years, applications of the environmental debt concept has been quite broad, with many applications showing connections to environmental justice. For example, many of the most degraded ecosystems are associated with marginalized communities and/or stolen lands. During the mid-90s, ecologists began to focus on variants on these concepts, like “extinction debts” (Tillman et al. 1994). That is, that extinctions often occur years or generations following habitat fragmentation. Speed of extinction following fragmentation can therefore be fast or slow, depending on the severity of amassed debt (Kuussaari et al. 2009). I think of ecological debts as impacts and/or resource consumption by humans in excess of the natural productive capacity of ecosystems. The concept of environmental debts seem unpopular with conventional economists, perhaps because it conflicts with the notion of economic growth as being unlimited. Yet as an ecologist by training, it is obvious to me time and again, that natural resources have limits, and that without proper management, ecosystems and species just collapse.
Examples of ecological debts abound. They are especially obvious in highly modified landscapes. Given poor agricultural practices for example, landscape modifications fragment and alter wildlife habitat, strip top soils from land, and send nutrients barrelling downstream into lakes and estuaries where toxic algal blooms ensue (Bailey 2020). Similarly, overfishing or poaching tends to benefit a select few, but the impacts of these activities are felt broadly (Carrizo et al. 2017). In other cases, we all take out a note from nature together. For example, when we collectively drive cars, we exact a toll on our climate and the metals, minerals, and land that support them.
Climate change is just another example of ecological debt, at the planetary scale. Scientists knew as early as the late 1800s that even minor changes to the composition of the atmosphere could substantially alter surface temperatures. Original theories of climate change based on carbon dioxide were formulated in the 1950s (e.g., Plass 1956). US Congressional hearings were held in the 1980s on the topic. All the while, a carbon dioxide debt continued to relentlessly build. And while some continue to deny the existence of climate change altogether, many opposed to climate action, often admit that climate change is real, but hold that the financial cost is too great to do anything about it right now. In essence, folks acknowledge the debt, but don’t want, or know how, to begin paying it back.
Has California amassed ecological debt?
Yes. As a student of the native freshwater species of the state, the scope of the debt that I am most familiar with is large and scary. A review of the status of native California fishes shows that, since the 1970s, the number of stable species has declined, while the number of threatened and endangered species continues to increase (Quiñones & Moyle 2015). The number of extinct species has not increased to the same degree, yet. This discrepancy between the number of threatened species and the number of extinct species clearly illustrates the status of our debt, and the stakes. This is an extinction debt – and it’s growing.
We see the scope of our ecological debts clearly when examining the story of California salmon. California was once the epicenter for the salmon industry in the USA. Chinook salmon abundance in the Central Valley might have approached 2 million fish annually (Fisher 1994). In 1880, 10 million pounds of salmon were caught within the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta alone, roughly equivalent to 750,000 salmon (Yoshiyama et al. 1998). The most recent projection for all Sacramento River fall-run Chinook in 2023 is just 169,767 adults; a result that prompted closure of the fishery this year. Spring-run Chinook salmon were historically co-dominant with fall-run Chinook salmon, and were especially abundant in the San Joaquin Basin (Rypel et al. 2021). Spring-run Chinook salmon are now federally threatened under the US Endangered Species Act.
Several impacts and ecological loan generating activities are responsible for these trends, none of which happened overnight. Dams were a major factor. Construction of the major dams blocked access for salmon to all the best spawning habitats. Then at lower elevations, water was extracted from the rivers, and the wetlands/floodplains summarily drained. At times, so much water was extracted that rivers would simply run dry. This one-two combo finally did in the San Joaquin River spring-run Chinook population (Rypel et al. 2021; Hause et al. 2022).
Occasionally, it is suggested ‘people didn’t know what they were doing back then’, implying that impacts of dams on salmon were unknown. This is false. Just as with climate change science, numerous reports painstakingly detail the impending impact of planned dams on salmon (e.g., Brennan 1938; Hanson 1940). Rather, the thinking seemed to be that the ecological loan would be worth it. Whether it was because of war time needs, or the need to grow the economy, or our tendency to undervalue nature, this was the decision. There was also hubris; for example, that hatcheries could effectively mitigate the problem. For this reason, most large rivers in California’s Central Valley with natural runs of Chinook salmon, now also have a production hatchery (Katz et al. 2013). But the hatcheries didn’t work (Rypel and Moyle 2023), and salmon continue to decline throughout California and the Pacific rim. These trends unfolded over generations and centuries (Munsch et al. 2022), often so long ago that we don’t recognize or grapple with the reality that these are debts from previous generations that we are still paying.
California’s ecological debts surround and haunt us. From salmon to delta smelt (Moyle et al. 2021), forest management (Hutto 2008), the attempt to eliminate Lake Tulare (Moyle 2023), the decline of the Salton Sea, decisions surrounding water rights (Börk et al. 2022), theft from California’s Indigenous communities (Hanks 2006), groundwater overdraft (Gray 2018), the accumulation of nitrate in groundwater (Harter et al 2012), a global loss of insects (van Klink 2020; Jähnig et al. 2020), and other important axes of biodiversity like freshwater mussels (Rypel 2022) or our herpetofauna (Halstead et al. 2010). All are ecological debts for California that remain unpaid.
What might a plan look like to pay back California’s ecological debts?
As with financial debt, acknowledging the problem is a critical first step. And just as one tries to come to grips with financial debt, a full-scale accounting is essential. This could show where we have borrowed and how much. It could suggest specific areas or actions that might have disproportionately positive conservation outcomes. Such an effort could be a special project, a blue ribbon report, or an interagency task force.
The good news is we don’t need to reinvent the wheel from scratch. There are many examples we can learn from. The case of Mono Lake comes to mind, where diversions from the lake, including Rush and Vining Creek needed to be stopped. As flows to the lake improved, aquatic habitat and salinity conditions also recovered, and even today, lake levels are actively managed. The San Joaquin River is becoming another example. As the San Joaquin River Restoration Program gains steam, more water and fishes will be in the ecosystem. Recovery will take time, but payments (in the form of additional flows and habitat) are beginning to be made, which in turn is resulting in positive results for salmon (Rypel et al. 2021). The California State Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) is aimed explicitly at solving debts in groundwater levels that have accumulated over decades. These groundwater debts ultimately resulted in subsidence, and ironically reduced capacity to convey surface water. The full socioeconomic impacts of SGMA have yet to be realized, but are large. Does this mean SGMA was a bad idea? Perhaps not, but it illustrates the kinds of hard decisions that sometimes need to be made to repay environmental debts. And of course Putah Creek continues to teach us how ecosystem services can be recovered with modest tweaks to water management (Rypel 2022; Jacinto et al. 2023). Public repayments must be collaborative endeavors – this is why solutions like the salmon-rice project, where growers and conservationists collaborate will be increasingly needed to craft payment structures that actually work in today’s human-dominated landscape (Rypel et al. 2022).
Debts are an unpleasant aspect of life. They are undoubtedly frustrating because, in the case of the environment, loans were taken out by previous generations that may or may not share our contemporary values. Those generations profited from these loans that we still owe, and even worse, engaged in nefarious activities by today’s standards. And in some ways, we have benefited from the debts they incurred. Yet they are debts whose balance comes due nonetheless. Nature continues to unambiguously signal that our existing loans are too heavy, and bankruptcy is on the horizon. California has a history of innovation and problem solving that has defied its critics. Dealing with our ecological debts is one of our biggest current challenges. Just as my old friend had to finally face his financial debt, so must we with ecosystems. Doing so necessitates that we collectively face the dragon and attempt to deal with our ecological problems with clear eyes and a full heart.
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