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If, at first sight, the public debt seems to be an economic or financial issue, it should however interest the movements and citizens concerned with the respect of ecological balances. Both in the South and in the North, debt is indeed part of the assault on
nature driven by the capitalist industrial system and which has reached its climax since the 1950s. Therefore, it is urgent that the various environmental movements take up this issue and integrate the fight against illegitimate debt among their demands. 


Since the end of colonization, the debt mechanism has been used to promote access to the various natural resources that Third World countries have in abundance. In many cases, the very reason for indebtedness was to promote the extraction and transportation of these resources, in particular through the construction of various infrastructures (port infrastructures, roads, railroads, dams, mines, power stations, etc.). World Bank loans were thus explicitly aimed at « developing » the country by encouraging it to export its raw materials(1), all justified by David Ricardo’s famous theory of comparative advantage. Following the debt crisis of the 1980s, the financial difficulties of debtor countries forced them into the clutches of the IMF, which forced them to specialize more and more in the export and privatization of their wealth in order to pay their debts. Since sustainable management of ecosystems does not fall within the criteria of this institution, « Third World governments, in order to service this debt, have had to extract even more minerals, cut down more trees, pump more oil, even in the most remote regions »(2). Thus, among the many arguments that demonstrate the illegitimacy of the debt(3), the fact that it is at the heart of a mechanism of human and ecological plundering must be underlined. The respect of the environment will remain a dead letter in a context of neo-colonialism of which the debt is one of the cornerstones. 

Far from having disappeared, this trend continues beyond North-South borders, since European countries that are victims of debt are also encouraged to exploit the potentialities of their territory (shale gas and oil, minerals, etc.) to satisfy their largely illegitimate financial commitments. 


Whatever the region of the world, the policies imposed by the IMF in the name of debt repayment have aggravated inequality, increased poverty and reduced access to basic public services through privatization (fattening a corrupt and parasitic minority in the process). The environmental implications of these measures are manifold. 

First of all, a population that is highly precarious will be more likely to consider its life from day to day to the detriment of a long-term vision. The priority given to the satisfaction of one’s primary needs (food, housing, heating, income, etc.) can therefore be in complete contradiction with a sustainable ecological perspective(4). René Dumonton already denounced this situation in 1986, pointing to « rural poverty as an essential cause of the Sahel’s desertification »(5), the cutting of trees and the collection of dead grass depriving the soil of many nutrients. More recently, in South Africa, « the privatization of electricity supply has excluded millions of social housing units from the national grid, forcing the poorest to resort to cheaper but more polluting sources of energy »(6). As geographer Sylvie Brunel points out, the fact that The fact that « two out of three Africans do not have access to electricity forces them to find solutions that are as unsustainable as they are unsatisfactory: kerosene lamps, televisions plugged into car batteries, dirty, energy-hungry and noisy generators, expensive wood fires, charcoal responsible for accelerated deforestation around cities and in poor countries, which sell their forests for fuel to their neighbors… ».(7). The height of the link between poverty and environmental degradation is probably reached in the Niger Delta. In this region, which not so long ago was still a treasure trove of biodiversity, the destruction of fishery resources by the oil industry has forced many fishermen to turn to smuggling crude oil to survive in an environment with no other prospects. These few examples illustrate that social and environmental exploitation are only two facets of the same neo-colonialism that is at the root of our system of production and consumption. This tendency is also found in European latitudes since in Greece, the worsening of poverty following successive austerity plans has led to an increase in the illegal cutting of wood as well as the burning of various materials in thatched cottages with important tropospheric consequences(8).

More generally, a situation of economic disarray can lead to a lack of interest on the part of everyone in the environmental issue in favor of the fight against unemployment or precariousness. Perhaps one of the best illustrations of this trend is the implicit support of much of the U.S. population for shale gas extraction, seen as a source of jobs and immediate growth. In addition, the forced poverty of millions of people pushes many of them to the slums of large cities, which often lack coherent land-use policies and exert considerable pressure on local ecosystems (lack of water drainage systems, construction on fragile areas, accumulation of waste, etc.). However, as Mike Davis has shown(9), the proliferation of slums has been accentuated by the structural adjustment policies imposed by the IMF in the name of debt repayment. Therefore, in an increasingly urban world, cities will be an integral part of any solution to the global crisis, and achieving sustainable cities must involve reaffirming the « right to the city »(10), especially for the excluded and the poor. 

In short, if the fight against exploitation and misery is obviously a social emergency, it is no less an environmental necessity which should encourage ecological organizations to take up this issue as soon as possible(11). However, it is undeniable (even in the speeches of the IMF) that debt is a major obstacle to improving the living conditions of a population that pays the price every day. 


In many countries, the amounts spent on reimbursements are often considerable and far greater than those used for social and/or environmental expenditures(12). The most common objection to supporters of energy saving, public transport, renewable energy or economic relocation projects is the lack of means. Therefore, like many social movements, it is essential that people who want to be environmentalists ask themselves the question of the legitimacy of a debt that encourages an increased exploitation of nature and labor, and that constitutes most of the time a transfer of wealth from public budgets to creditors, mostly banks and other institutional investors. This demand, linked to a program of reappropriation of the commons and of the great means of production, will certainly be more coherent from an environmental point of view than projects such as eco-taxes, which not only do not question the substance of the problem but also generally penalize low incomes (thus only stirring up a rejection of the ecological question, caricatured as such). 

it is essential that people who claim to be environmentalists question the legitimacy of a debt that encourages increased exploitation of nature and labor 


More generally, the very idea of debt as the engine of our economy is to be questioned. Debt(13) assumes (and is only sustainable in this case) unlimited growth of the economy. In the event of a recession or stagnation, we see what some people call the snowball effect, i.e. a spiral of endless indebtedness, generating billions more in foreign currency (this is what has been happening in Western societies for the past thirty years). Therefore, it is necessary to question the repayment and especially the benefits of cancelling the illegitimate part of the debt. The latter can be defined by means of a debt audit, i.e. an analysis of the creditors, the origins, the conditions and uses of the various loans. However, as the Greek example has unfortunately shown, it is essential that this audit be accompanied by a political will to break with the past as well as by massive popular mobilizations in order to influence the balance of power with the creditors. 

It is clear that achieving a society that is more in line with the ecological balance of the planet cannot be done without questioning the economic framework in which almost all countries find themselves. Because of its centrality to the current capitalist system, the debt must therefore be challenged at all costs(14) and fought against. Of course, the cancellation of this debt will not solve all the problems and should only be a first step towards an energy « transition » and another economic model. Other measures are to be promoted, such as the degrowth of certain socially and ecologically harmful sectors (armaments, advertising…), the generalized reduction of working hours without loss of salary or the placing under democratic control of the banking and energy sectors. 

Renaud Duterme , co-author with Eric De Ruest of The Hidden Debt of the Economy, Les Liens qui Libèrent, Paris, March 2014. He has also just published De quoi l’effondrement est-il le nom? published by Utopia. 

Notes et références
  1. À noter que ces prêts comportaient également une dimension géopolitique importante puisqu’ils permettaient d’empêcher des gouvernements de se tourner vers le bloc soviétique. Lire à ce sujet Éric Toussaint, Banque mondiale, le coup d’Etat permanent, Paris, éditions Syllepse, 2006.
  2. Franz Broswimmer, Une brève histoire de l’extinction en masse des espèces, Agone, Marseille, 2010, p.188.
  3. Le lecteur désireux d’en savoir plus peut se référer aux nombreux travaux du CADTM (
  4. Loin de nous l’idée répandue que seuls les riches peuvent avoir une conscience environnementale. De nombreux exemples prouvent que de nombreuses populations démunies œuvrent avec une certaine symbiose avec leur milieu naturel. D’autre part, la plupart des « riches » ont une empreinte écologique individuelle bien plus importante que la moyenne. Sur ce débat, lire Guha Ramachandra et Juan Marinez-Alier, « L’environnementalisme des riches », dans Emilie Hache (dir), Ecologique politique, cosmos, communautés, milieux, Editions Amsterdam, Paris, 2012.
  5. René Dumont, Pour l’Afrique, j’accuse, Paris, Plon, 1986, p.11.
  6. Patrick Bond, « Johannesburg, De l’or et des gangsters », Dans Mike Davis et Daniel B.Monk, Paradis infernaux – Les villes hallucinées du néo-capitalisme, Les prairies ordinaires, Paris, 2008.
  7. Sylvie Brunel, L’Afrique est-elle si bien partie ?, Paris, éditions Sciences Humaines, 2014, p.91.
  9. Mike Davis, Le pire des mondes possibles, La Découverte, Paris, 2010.
  10. Pour une actualité de ce concept, lire notamment David Harvey, Le capitalisme contre le droit à la ville, Editions Amsterdam, Paris, 2011.
  11. Chez de nombreux écologistes, la cause majeure évoquée pour expliquer la « crise » écologique est la variable démographique. Bien que souvent nuancée, cette posture revient souvent de facto à pointer la responsabilité de cette crise sur les pays pauvres, le taux de natalité y étant nettement supérieur que dans les pays ayant terminé leur transition démographique. Ceci s’explique en particulier du fait que la baisse du nombre d’enfants par femme surgit avant tout suite à l’avènement d’un système de sécurité sociale et d’éducation (en particulier des femmes) équitable. Or, les politiques du FMI s’attaquent prioritairement à ces dépenses dites « non productives ». Par conséquent, même les facteurs démographiques s’expliquent en grande partie par les rapports d’exploitation. Lire à ce sujet Ian Angus et Simon Butler, Une planète trop peuplée ?, Ecosociété, Montréal, 2014.
  12. A titre d’exemple, en 2013, l’Argentine, le Brésil et la Colombie consacraient respectivement 38,4%, 42,2% et 24,3% de leur budget au remboursement de la dette. Voir
  13. L’endettement dont il est question est essentiellement public. Cela dit, la partie privée obéit grosso modo à des logiques similaires.
  14. La dette n’est pas un mal en soi. Une dette contractée pour mener à bien des projets d’économie d’énergie, d’éducation peut par exemple tout à fait être légitime.

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