Drowning in Debt: Intergenerational Mortgage, Student Loans and the Effects of Climate Change

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Drowning in debt, we say. Trying to get one’s head above water. Hoping to stay afloat. These water images are appropriate metaphors for personal debt and the intergenerational mortgage of climate change as the sea levels rise.

There are many ways to foreclose the future. Here’s one: the “intergenerational” mortgage, a relatively new lending practice in the U.K.–and an image for our times. Described as “the debt that never dies,” the idea is that the children take over the mortgage after the death of their parents. The dead hand of the past, the invisible hand of the market in an economic afterlife, holds the child’s head underwater until the debt is paid.

Drowning in Debt

For young people in Britain and the States, the future is being foreclosed through unaffordable house prices, the introduction of steep student loans, an economy that privileges a wealthy minority, and, back behind all of these, the terrible foreclosure of the world’s climate. “We have no future” was a frequent statement given by the predominantly young people taking part in the U.K.’s street riots in the summer of 2011, unable to see how they will live, how they will dwell, in all senses of the word.

To dwell well is to be who we truly are: to know a place that shelters the best of our humanity, a place from which to see the future with tranquility. So intrinsic is dwelling to the human condition that philosopher Martin Heidegger drew parallels: As the root of the German verb “to be” is cognate with “to dwell,” so a human being is a human dwelling. The old High German word meaning “to dwell,” buan, also means to cherish and protect what surrounds you: your environment, in other words. In Heidegger’s analysis, dwelling involves caring for the “fourfold”: earth, the divine, other humans, and sky.

• The house as a dwelling place for the body: the earth.

• Education as a dwelling place for the mind: the divine.

• The economy as a dwelling place for the other 99 percent of humanity.

• The climate as a dwelling place for all, like the unownable sky.

Now, as the intergenerational mortgage is applied in all categories, young people are demanding their rights to every kind of dwelling: through the student protests of 2010 against loans, the youth riots of 2011, the climate change protests, and, most recently, the Occupy movement. This well-named movement took its protest to Chase Bank, which occupies a leading position in foreclosures in the U.S. and is under investigation for allegedly fraudulent foreclosures. What is happening to the younger generation is a fraudulent foreclosure; it is unfair and oddly unnatural, a reversal of the normal flow of things according to which the older generation bestows many forms of dwelling on the younger.

Drowning in Debt: The Student Debt Crisis and the Mortgage Crisis

Education is a home for the thinking mind, and universities can give young minds their early dwelling. The U.K. riots took place in areas where the younger generation was less educated and poorer than average. The government’s decision to withdraw grants, which had enabled poor 16- and 17-year-olds to attend school or college, was given as a reason for the fury on the streets. Every society in every generation has housed its intellectual heritage by educating children so they become dwelling places for its technologies, crafts, laws, stories, and philosophies. No tribe except ours demands that its children go into a polite form of bonded labor for the privilege. Meanwhile, high house prices tie people into mortgages, and the media, amazingly, informs us repeatedly that our indebtedness is “good news” as house prices rise. It is not good news for anyone suffering the effects of indebtedness. It is not good news for the younger generation who may never be able to afford a home.

Effects of Climate Change

Drowning in debt, we say. Trying to get one’s head above water. Hoping to stay afloat. These water images are appropriate metaphors for personal debt and the intergenerational mortgage of climate change as the sea levels rise. As individuals are evicted from their houses due to debts, climate change threatens an eviction from the sheltering sky, an undwelling from the deepest possible sense of home. The wrong things are being sheltered and the wrong things are being evicted: the wrong things are living and the wrong things are dying.

The coral world is thousands of years old, a gossamery, spiny, feathery, fiddle-headed phantasmagoria of shuttlecocks, foxgloves, parachutes, mosaics, frozen reindeer horns, elephants’ ears, and the pawns of an underwater chess set. But while banks are bailed out, and the wealthy few are sheltered, the Great Barrier Reef will die due to climate change if we don’t take significant action. This news, shared with me in an e-mail, was written with utter heartbreak. I feel as if a friend is dying, the writer said. The effects of climate change debt, like all debt, include depression, anxiety, a sense of powerlessness, stress, fear of the future, and, at worst, suicide.

So destructive is the idea of debt interest that for 1500 years, in the West, it was banned. The powers-that-were, located in the Christian church, opposed it, citing Exodus, in which lending money at interest is outlawed. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic church vigorously opposed bankers’ loans. Psalm 15 asks: “Yahweh, who can find a home in your tent, who can dwell on your holy mountain?” The answer: “Whoever . . . asks no interest on loans.” Today, the Occupy protesters in London put up tents for temporary dwelling at Saint Paul’s, finding an ancient refuge there as a canon of the church, interviewed on the mountain of steps at the cathedral, defended their right to protest. When it looked possible that force would be used to evict the protesters, both the canon and the dean of Saint Paul’s resigned.

Year of Jubilee

If there is a way to avoid another Great Depression, it is to reduce private debt dramatically and jubilantly, declaring a “Jubilee”: the Old Testament idea that every 50 years all debts are canceled. For, according to one of the few economists who predicted the 2008 financial crash, Steve Keen, a crucial cause of both the Great Depression and the 2008 crash was high levels of private debt relative to GDP.

Economy, at its root, has to do with oikos, “home.” This ancient Greek word is also at the root of ecology. While all we human being/dwellings want is a home for the body, mind, and the world’s ecology, what we find is that the one thing well housed is the wealth of the 1 percent. Not us. And all the other ideas of home are lost for its sake.

The younger generations are being turned into exiles, denied their dwelling in the future, and they dramatized their exodus in the summer riots. Asked to underwrite a debt to the climate that they did not incur, the young predominate in climate change activism. Students, priced out of the dwelling that shelters the mind, are in revolt against their debts. And the Occupy movement, disgusted at the abuses of capitalism, put their tents on the mountain, dwelling in protest against the great undwelling.

Jay Griffiths is the author of Wild: An Elemental Journey. Excerpted from Orion(March-April 2012), a bimonthly magazine devoted to creating a stronger bond between people and nature.

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