What Climate Change and the U.S. Federal Deficit Have in Common

Let’s start with two facts.

First, the human population continues to change in unprecedented ways how the Earth’s systems function.  Originally this was called global warming.  The realization that changes in the global climate included more than just temperature changes led to use of the term climate change.  Now we understand that more in nature than just the climate is changed by human behaviors, so the appropriate term to use is global change.  The term includes accelerated rates of species extinction, ocean acidification, increases in earthquake activity, and other aspects of change in natural systems caused by humans.

The scientific evidence for this change is so overwhelming that only hardened climate change deniers refuse to accept it.  Revered naturalist David Attenborough goes so far as to see global change as an existential threat to modern human civilization.

Second, the deficit of the U.S. national government continues to grow at unsupportable levels.  The massive tax cuts of last year, despite the false promise that they would stimulate economic growth sufficient to pay for themselves, resulted in an addition to the Federal debt of nearly $800 billion.  It is projected that the Federal deficit will be over one trillion dollars this current fiscal year. This leaves us with a total Federal debt of over $21 trillion at the end of last fiscal year.  $21 TRILLION!  The number is incomprehensible, a debt four times what it was just at the turn of the Century.


At a time of unprecedented economic prosperity, we should be paying off our debts, not adding to them.

So how are these two facts related?  They both reflect a phenomenon that I have called disdain for the future.  This is the idea that in modern American culture we have become so concerned with our needs and ever larger material wants that we will do anything to satisfy those wants, regardless of the implications for future humans or for the vast non-human parts of nature.  It is the ultimate form of selfishness that scholars have characterized as presentism.  Only the present matters; the future is left to fend for itself.

This is in marked contrast to earlier generations that considered how their public policies and private behaviors affected those who were to come.  This attitude was beyond the conservative approach of “saving for a rainy day,” which focusses on the future needs of those alive in the present.  Rather, it recognized that there is an unwritten compact among generations, something I have termed intergenerational bargains.  Responsible generations are those that recognize they have a debt of gratitude for what they inherit from previous generations and an obligation to treat future generations at least as well, maybe better.

We can all think of examples of things past generations have done for which we are grateful and for which we have regrets.  Many Maine people are grateful to Percival Baxter for his vision and generosity in creating Baxter State Park.  This created wellbeing for countless people that we must guard against taking for granted.  Conversely, many in the Bangor area regret the demolition of Union Station during “Urban Renewal” in the 1960s.  This was a loss of cultural significance and of potential for the City of Bangor unrealized.

The issues of global change and our growing collective indebtedness are both extreme examples of disdain for the future.  They basically ask future humans to shoulder the costs of our enjoyment today.  It is akin to going to the drive-through window at a fast food joint and telling the clerk, “I’m not going to pay for this meal.  There’s a Ford F-150 that will come through here in an hour, and they’re going to pay my bill.”  Try that and you won’t get your burger and fries.  Yet this is exactly what we are doing in the present.

So, it is time for an attitude change.  We need to ask ourselves simple questions.  When it comes to issues like global change and the national debt, what would the future have us do?  How will they remember us should we fail to take responsibility for the future impacts of how we act today?  Do this and we will start to uphold our end of the bargain.  We will begin to think about how we can nurture the gifts from the past and leave a future that will be grateful for what we passed on to them.


Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.