Debt, Socio-Ecological Systems, and Education

In passing, one of my best friends from China mentioned last year that he once cut down a tree on a forested mountain to pay school fees. He was from a Hakka farming village in the mountains of Guangdong province. He often spoke of not having electricity until the late 1990s and of only eating meat once or twice a month. So let us start with this: a peasant boy deeply interconnected and interdependent with the natural environment resorting to diminishing the local ecosystem that supported him to pay a debt.

He’s not alone. In my own research on farmer field schools, I asked Kenyan extension workers why subsistence farmers needed to move towards commercial farming when everything they needed should be provided by the farm itself. For starters, they said, “they have to pay for school.” There are also the costs of hospitalization, weddings, and funerals. An individual’s wallet, rather than the land and traditional distribution systems, bear the costs and responsibility for food the further these farmers get from subsistence agricultural systems.

I find it useful to turn to David Graeber’s new book on economic history called Debt: The First 5000 Years. Graeber wants to fundamentally re-interpret the origins of money and capitalism, both challenging and strengthening arguments like World System Theory and Dependency Theory. I think his work overcomes my largest problem with these conventional leftists interpretation of development: the question of agency. What is it about capitalism that makes people so destructive? Specifically  what exactly is the context to my friend cutting down a tree to pay for school? Contrasting it with the conventional narrative, Graeber argues:

The story of the origins of capitalism, then, is not the story of the gradual destruction of traditional communities by the impersonal power of the market. It is, rather, the story of how an economy of credit was converted into an economy of interest; of the gradual transformation of moral networks by the intrusion of the impersonal—and often vindictive—power of the state.

Central to Graeber’s thesis is that pre-modern economies were “human” economies. Consider that today many homeowners don’t know how owns their mortgage. In most pre-modern economies, debt was used to sustain communities and relationships. Being perpetually owed or being owed something sustained relationships. Never trying to make the balance sheet even out concerning who owe’s who how many rides, meals, beers, or cigarettes is what sustains friendships even today. One pays a taxi driver for a ride, and a store for cigarettes and beer, precisely because there is no expectation of a long-term relationship.

For lack of a better term, in “healthy” pre-modern societies debt and accrued interest weren’t allowed to grow so large as to destroy people and families. Where debts remained unforgiven and allowed (and encouraged) to grow ever larger, ethical monstrosities like slavery emerged. For Graeber, global capitalism’s inequities and rapacious appetite for natural resources is part of this legacy.

“To make something saleable in a human economy,” Graeber writes, “one needs to first rip it from its context.” Communal land, “The Commons,” needs to be fenced and transformed into private property. Learning needs to be decontextualized from its social and cultural roots to become “schooling” to gather tuition fees. And mass schooling had to be decontextualized from the fee-free rights-based discourse it was born it. The tree my friend sold had to be decontextualized from the social contexts and imagery of the local Hakka people that had left the forest largely healthy and largely unmolested until the modern age. It further had to the decontextualized from the ecological services it provided – like flood and erosion protection.

The issue isn’t so much that ethics fail. It’s that people face personal ruin on one side and exploitation on the other. People are structurally pushed into quieting their inner conscious for self-preservation. I’ve elsewhere used his story of Cortez as an example:

 [Cortez] arrived in the New World in debt. He appealed to a monarch that was also highly in debt to launch an expedition to pay off both of their debts. Lenders lent huge sums further still to finance the expedition. Immediately after conquering an the Aztec empire, he couldn’t afford to pay off those debts so tried to rip off his conquistadors – who Cortez put into debt to for their horses, weapons, and even medical care with promises of huge returns. He in turn put them in charge as governors who could extract as much gold and silver as they could in the shortest amount of time – to pay back their debts to Cortez, who needed to pay back lenders, who themselves needed to pay back the Genovese…. it wasn’t some capitalist or mercantilist ideological transformation, or some new logic of ‘self-interest.’ It was that a new and impersonal system of debt had taken hold, replacing earlier systems based on trust and social obligation. There was a new legal (and increasingly moral) obligation to settle all debts, with the power of the state capturing debtors earnings for the lenders.


Let’s examine the debt chain that links my friend’s tree to the market economy the same way Cortez’s debts linked to the decimation of the Aztec. The local government that provided the schooling for my friend was almost certainly deep in debt, as was the provincial Guangdong government (see China’s Superbank). An important revenue stream for the government was collecting various student fees and tuition. In many ways, tuition itself can be seen as a form of imposed debt. When the debt becomes too high and the servicing stops, the student is largely frozen in the socio-economic status of the grade level she’s at.

And thus a tree was converted into Chinese Renminbi, and counted towards the nation’s economic growth. My friend, like any successful entrepreneur, squeezed ever more from that which he had power over to generate another round of debt servicing. Curiously, my friend is deeper in debt than he ever was. Instead of squeezing from nature, he squeezes factories and their workers – those who couldn’t find enough trees to pay for school, perhaps – for ever-tighter profit margins to pay off the debts his business has accrued. And his lifestyle improves ever higher.

Which leads to one of Graeber’s most important insights: the historically standard rate of interest on a loan is 3-5%, which is now the expected growth rate of countries too. Economic growth is interest by another name. Describing the etymology of the term self-interest, Graeber shows it, “what is ‘interest’ but the demand that money never cease to grow? The same was true when it became the term for investments—’I have a twelve-percent interest in that venture’—it is money placed in the continual pursuit of profit”

The story of Cortez is the story of epic human destruction. An empire collapse, humans “stripped of their contexts” and often worked to death as slaves. Key to Graeber’s argument is that all debtors, to an extent, become mini-Cortez’s. We’re forced to do whatever is in our power to service our debts or face ruin. We often take on more debts in hopes of finally breaking free, once and for all, and just get sucked deeper in.

[Capitalism] structure designed to eliminate all moral imperatives but profit. The executives who make decisions can argue—and regularly do—that, if it were their own money, of course they would not fire lifelong employees a week before retirement, or dump carcinogenic waste next to schools. Yet they are morally bound to ignore such considerations, because they are mere employees whose only responsibility is to provide the maximum return on investment for the company’s stockholders.

Debt demands commodification to service it, which “rips” things from their ecological context as much as their social context. Three decades ago, my friend’s village supported more than a hundred and fifty people. Today it’s almost abandoned. Governments and institutions across the world want to move peasants like him from “subsistence to exchange,” to borrow Peter Bauers term. As Bauers – and nearly everyone else – acknowledge, this requires access to credit and investment (which are essentially the same thing). And governments, almost everywhere, are trying to extend “formal” credit to their farmers – usually from international sources. This builds a debt chain from Wall Street to dirt roads of rural South. Almost universally, these governments owe virtually unpayable debts. And, like Cortez, they service their debts by turning the people and natural systems they have power over into debtors too.

Just as students became payers of tuition fees, farmers become taxpayers and their crops objects of trade – for further taxing and/or for foreign exchange (crucial to repaying foreign debt). Plants (ecological objects) and food (social objects) become cash – stripped of their socio-ecological contexts. Everything surrounding the plant is now an input to increase output capable of servicing debt. This is the fertilizer, the biocides, and the irrigation – which in turn are largest source of off-point water pollution, carcinogens, and the largest use of freshwater. Those selling the inputs are often those supplying credit to farmers and themselves often owing business debts.

Like the modern interpretation of Cortez, we think the problems of sustainability in China lay somewhere between ignorance and immorality. If only “those” people knew what “we” know; if only “they” valued the environment like “we” do. Instead, I’d ask you to consider an irony that would occur were to time travel back to the late 1990s, in the days after my friend sold that tree, were we to then provide a conventional Education for Sustainable Development course.

We would teach the peasant boy about the ecological systems we seek to remove him from. We would teach him to respect the environment. We would teach this as we concurrently demand that his local government open schools, “no matter what,” to rip peasants out of Hakka villages and prepare them for work and life in the new Chinese economy. We would teach this just as we demanded that parents bear any burden to educate their children. We would, in short, be demanding my friend deforest the mountains to hear our lectures about sustainability.

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