Climate and debt have always been linked, ancient history shows

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Stone panel from the Palace of Ashurbanipal. Nineveh, northern Iraq, about 645 BC. Image: Frans Vandewalle/Flickr

Indulge me. Michael Hudson, an eminent left economist, has spent decades studying ancient Mideast economies. Ancient as in Sumer or Babylon. His latest book is … and forgive them their debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year. Trust me. It's a gas.

History Begins at Sumer: 39 Firsts was a famed book back when I studied that era myself. It started c. 3000 BC, including math, astronomy, weights and measures -- one enduring first was debt. It might've begun with owing another family for doing them some harm. Or needing a loan when weather went bad or soil degraded.

But, Hudson says, with enduring truth, debt always "rises faster than the ability of debtors to pay" -- exactly as we, and especially the young, have experienced in our lifetimes. Debt skyrockets and makes you crazy. It's been "the major cause of economic polarization from antiquity" to now.

So Sumer's rulers, 4,500-5,000 years ago, decreed periodic, societywide debt cancellations or "clean slates." They didn't do it out of decency but rather to revitalize a farming "middle" class, which could then provide them with labour for public projects like palaces, temples or irrigation; serve as soldiers against invaders; and forestall social fissures. One was Hammurabi, whose renowned "code" recorded many debt amnesties. A thousand years later, the Hebrew Bible copied this in the form of debt forgiveness and Jubilee years.

Back then it wasn't assumed that "all debts must be paid" and all debtors must pay. It was evident that things regularly veer out of control and, at least sometimes, lenders should suffer the consequences. I mean, look at credit card rates and how they devour lives. Why shouldn't banks accept some losses?

Yet after 2008, banks were bailed out as if their survival was sacred while individuals were left to lose their homes, rather than the reverse. It's seen as a law of nature or the mandate of heaven, no matter what damage lenders do. Why doesn't the burden fall on those who push untenable loans on desperate debtors? Instead we feel guilty. Our debts must be paid. But I digress.

The point is that Sumer's leaders, who weren't selfless, acted from the POV of what was socially best overall, not for particular groups like nobles, landlords or lenders. They aimed to restore balance and order when everything went askew. Their subjects didn't seem to resent excess at the top as long as it didn't utterly impoverish and enslave them. The shared aim was to at least get things back to where they were, rather than deteriorating further. Hudson calls this a cyclical view of history, versus our linear ideas of limitless progress.

You can see how this implicates the climate crisis. Right now, the goal is simply to prevent the planet from declining endlessly. To arrest decay and restore ecological balances that existed previously. Revive forests and glaciers. Most of us would be happy with leadership that was merely, but fearlessly, dedicated to that. Don't aim for the sky, just being able to see it.

In addition, climate has always been implicated in the rise of debt, as it was for Sumerian farmers after droughts or floods. It's not so different now, when people lose homes to wildfires or must move inland from the coasts. They need money, they're desperate, so they borrow. The more things change ...

When the carnage created by bankers and their ilk piles up enough profits, they effectively "govern" their societies -- exactly as Bernie Sanders now claims about "millioneahs and billioneahs." The only force that could possibly constrain them was, back then, semidivine monarchs like Hammurabi and today, "the state." This exactly presages today's debates over the priority given to active government versus unhampered "market forces." The more things change ...

So it's not surprising that, in our corporatized milieu, those regimes have a bad rep as "oriental despotism." Hudson says they counted, in their time, as equalizing "progressives" -- though everything's, of course, relative.

But you gotta admire a guy who dismisses perennial darlings like Athens and Rome as the sources of our so-called civilization, in favour of ancient Mesopotamia -- located basically where modern Iraq is: a place relentlessly battered and disparaged by that upstart empire, the USA. Cool.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Frans Vandewalle/Flickr

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