In her book, Payback: Debt and the Dark Side of Wealth, Margaret Atwood deals with the manifold concepts of debt in our lives, from its prehuman beginnings (even chimpanzees understand the notions of fairness and reciprocity) through its religious, literary, governmental and financial roles. In its final section, she arrives at “Payback”: what happens when the orgy ends, when the wealth—monetary and natural—is consumed, and the collection agency is at the door. In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge learned, in the nick of time, all about the varied meanings of payback. Atwood wonders if her Scrooge, Scrooge Nouveau, will be so lucky:
I’ll try to make this as painless as possible. No, on second thought, I won’t do that: because if it were painless, it wouldn’t be about payback, would it?
In my part of the world, we have a ritual interchange that goes like this: First person: “Lovely weather we’re having.” Second person: “We’ll pay for it later.”
My part of the world being Canada, where there is a great deal of weather and many varieties of it, we always do pay for it later. As one person commented, “That’s not Canadian, it’s just Presbyterian.” Nevertheless, it’s a widespread saying.
What this ritual interchange reveals is a larger habit of thinking about the more enjoyable things in life: they’re only on loan or acquired on credit, and sooner or later the date when they must be paid for will roll around. And that is what this is about: pay-up time. Or payback time, supposing that you haven’t paid up. In any case, the time when whatever is on one side of the balance is weighed against what is on the other side—whether it’s your heart, your soul, or your debts—and the final reckoning is made.
Every debt comes with a date on which payment is due. Otherwise the creditor would never be able to collect, and would therefore never lend anything, and the whole system of borrowing and repaying would stop cold. In the financial services industries, the due date is written right on the mortgage or the loan papers or the credit card agreement. You must pay by that date, or you’ll have to renew the loan; or, if you go overtime on your credit card charges, the interest rate shoots up, and then things can quickly get unpleasant.
In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge has had a reprieve. He’s been given extra time—an extra life, in fact. And now he will use it to pay back what he’s taken; to make, as he says, “amends.”
Let’s pause here to ponder the derivation of the word “amends.” It comes from a word that originally meant a payment, in money or goods, for something you’d done wrong. By making amends, then, Scrooge is paying a moral debt. To whom does he owe this debt, and why? In Dickens’s view, he owes it to his fellow man: he’s been on the take from others all his life—that’s where his fortune has come from—but he’s never given anything back. By being a creditor of such magnitude in the financial sense, he has become a debtor in the moral sense, and it’s this realization that’s at the core of his transformation. Money isn’t the only thing that must flow and circulate in order to have value: good turns and gifts must also flow and circulate—just as they do among chimpanzees—for any social system to remain in balance.
So let’s contemplate Scrooge as he would be if he were among us in the early 21st century. I’ll call this one Scrooge Nouveau, because when you’re introducing a high-end quality product it’s just as well to make it sound a little French. Scrooge Nouveau is the same age as Dickens’s Scrooge Original, but he doesn’t look it. He looks much younger, because, unlike Scrooge Original, he does spend his money: he spends it on himself. So he’s had a hair transplant, and some facial adjustment, and his skin is tanned from the many voyages he’s taken on his private yacht, and his very white and expertly restored teeth gleam eerily in the dark.
Some of Scrooge Nouveau’s wealth has gone to the four ex-Mrs. Scrooges that feature so prominently in celebrity magazines about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Two of these ex-wives have given bitchy tell-all interviews about Scrooge, who likes this kind of attention, in moderation, because he likes anything about himself. But it’s not his fault that he’s a self-centred narcissist: he grew up surrounded by ads that told him he was worth it, and that he owed it to himself. He’s on his fifth Mrs. Scrooge now. She’s 22, a stunning girl with very long legs. He owes it to himself, because he’s worth it.
We join Scrooge Nouveau in his lavish villa, somewhere in—where?—let’s say Tuscany, though he’s thinking of selling this joint because the neighbourhood’s getting cluttered up with tycoons of lesser worth than himself whose show-off globs of architecture are ruining the vistas. Mrs. Scrooge the Fifth is in Milan, shopping for state-of-the-art stiletto heels.
It’s evening. Scrooge has enjoyed a modest dinner of Chilean sea bass—an almost extinct fish, but delicious, and anyway somebody’s got to eat it, because it’s already dead, so why waste it? He’s relaxing over a mellow but fruity and audaciously nosed post-prandial glass of (fill in the vintage yourself), when he hears a foreboding sound, and smells a horrible smell. The sound is a wet, slurping, sucking sound, as if of someone trudging through a swamp; the smell is the smell of decay. And the whole sideshow is coming up the marble staircase of the villa, straight toward him.
What was in that bottle of (fill in the vintage yourself), anyway? thinks Scrooge. He casts his mind back to his youthful days of drug experimentation. He barely has time to process his inner defence (“I never inhaled!”) when his former corporate partner, Jacob Marley the Fourth—dead these many years, having had a heart attack on the treadmill in the high-tech corporate gym—materializes in the armchair facing his. Wound around him and trailing on the floor is a long chain made of stinking fish, wildlife specimens that are falling apart, and the skulls and hair of developing-world peasants.
“Jake!” says Scrooge Nouveau. “You’re dripping on my priceless oriental carpet! What are you doing here anyway, and why are you wearing that trash heap?”
“I wear the trash heap I forged in life,” says Marley. “You ought to see yours! It’s three times as long and stinky as mine. And I’ve come to warn you, in order that you may escape my fate. Three Spirits will visit you.”
“Do they have appointments?” says Scrooge Nouveau, vowing that if they do he’ll fire his executive assistant. “I can’t see them. I’ll be in a meeting.”
“Expect the first Spirit tonight when the clock strikes one,” says Jacob Marley the Fourth, vanishing in a puff of stench. Scrooge looks out the window, sees a lot of decomposing codfish flying through the air with a Chair of the Board attached to each one, takes a shower to clear his head, pops a sleeping pill, and conks out in his authentic and costly 17th-century four-poster bed.
None of this keeps the first Spirit from appearing at his bedside at one a.m. sharp. She’s female—a pleasant-looking damsel, clad in green, with a wreath of flowers in her hair. She looks like an all-natural-and-organic shampoo ad. Maybe this won’t be so bad, thinks Scrooge.
But in fact it is, as the Spirit of Earth Day Past takes Scrooge on a bird’s-eye tour of ecological disasters past—like the “overcrowded, unsanitary, and malnourished Europe of the 14th century,” and the monocropping of early modern times—and nature’s payback: the Black Death and the Irish potato famine. Matters don’t improve much when the Spirit of Earth Day Present, a pleasant young fellow in a bike helmet and a hemp T-shirt that says “Hug My Tree,” arrives to take Scrooge to a series of “disasters-in-the-making,” from the vanishing Ama
zonian rainforest to melting Arctic tundra, and then to an affluent Canadian home.
Descending from the stratosphere, they find themselves at a dinner party in Toronto. No starving peasants here; the table is loaded with food and drink. Well-dressed people are engaged in friendly converse. The subject is the world food shortage of spring 2008, and the food riots that have quickly resulted.
“It’s the food speculators,” one guest is saying. “They’re hoarding. Do you know how many billions the big corporations have made out of this?”
“No, there really isn’t enough food,” says a second guest.
“We always can grow more,” another says.
“Sure,” says the second. “Until we can’t. You can’t keep taking and taking without putting back.”
“What about when all the Chinese and Indians get cars?” says a fourth. “We’ll suffocate!”
“Rising gas prices will put a stop to that,” says the first. “They won’t be able to afford to drive them.”
“Too many people,” says the second. “Only 20 per cent of the earth is dry land. Out of this 20 per cent, only three per cent is suitable for crop production. Most of the people on earth live on two per cent of the land. We’re running out of habitat, and destroying what we have left.”
“We’ve heard these Malthusian predictions before,” says the second.
“That doesn’t mean they aren’t true,” says the fourth.
“Well, anyway,” says a fifth, “nothing I can do will stop whatever it is that’s happening. It’s too big for us! We might as well enjoy ourselves while we can.” And they all lift their glasses to that.
“Don’t be so stupid!” Scrooge barks at them. In his anger he clutches the Spirit of Earth Day Present by his hemp T-shirt, and begins shaking him. But under his hands the Spirit is dissolving, changing to something dry and scaly. Now it’s a giant cockroach. “I am the Spirit of Earth Day Future,” it says in a rasping voice.
Scrooge recoils. He hates bugs. “Can’t you look like a human being?” he says.
“That depends on which future you’d like to see,” says the cockroach. “In some of the medium-distant futures, humanity will be extinct, and I can hardly take the shape of a bioform that no longer exists.”
“How about something closer in time, then?” Scrooge wheedles.
“All right,” says the cockroach. He wavers and dissolves and re-forms. Now’s he’s a glinty-eyed 35-year-old in a dark suit and a gold earring; he’s carrying a briefcase. “There,” he says. “Now I’m a futures trader. Which of your own futures would you like to visit?”
“I’ve got more than one?” Scrooge asks.
“With futures, it’s all probability,” says the Spirit, “Futures are infinite in number, as many science fiction writers have told us. For instance, in one future, you have advanced gene therapy and live to 150, and in another, you get run over by a bus next week.”
“I’ll take a pass on that one,” says Scrooge hastily.
“It’s not all bad,” says the Spirit. “In that future, you’ve made a choice for natural burial, so you get reincarnated as a tree. But I see your point. So: the good news, or the bad news?”
“The good news first,” says Scrooge, who’s an optimist about himself, despite being a misanthrope when it comes to others.
The Spirit waves his briefcase, and Scrooge finds himself in a cheerful, bustling, medium-sized city. All the people are wearing natural-fibre clothing and riding on bicycles or driving around in compressed-air vehicles, and using power from wave-generation machines and solar installations on the tops and sides of their buildings; everyone has given up junk food and is eating a lot of fruits and vegetables, grown on nearby organic farms, where the topsoil has been restored by an extensive program of mulching and composting—a process that, not incidentally, has significantly reduced the carbon dioxide in the air. No one is overweight; all tall buildings turn out their lights during bird migrations, so they’re no longer killing millions of birds every year; evil bottom-scraping fishing practices have been abandoned; air travel takes place by airship, water travel by solar-controlled sailing ships; plastic shopping bags have been banned.
All religious leaders have realized that their mandate includes helping to preserve the Almighty’s gift of the Earth, and have condoned birth control; there are no more noisy, polluting gas-powered leaf blowers; and global warming has been dealt with at a summit during which world leaders gave up paranoia, envy, rivalry, power-hunger, greed, and the debate over who should start cutting down the carbon footprint first, and rolled up their sleeves, and got on with it.
There is Scrooge himself, looking very fit in a hemp suit, signing several enormous cheques for conservation organizations: rainforest stewardship, underwater marine parks, bird habitats. “In this future,” says the Spirit, “the albatross has been saved; largely—I must add—through your efforts. I ought to say also that a lot of these miraculous changes have been brought about by a Victory Bond drive, in which people lent to their governments to finance eco-repairs; and through micro-economics, like that already being practised by the Grameen Bank in Pakistan, whereby mini-amounts are leant at fair interest rates to very poor people to help them start local, small-scale businesses; and also through massive and voluntary debt cancellations on the part of the rich nations. Like the ancient Israelites—who decreed a Jubilee Year every 50 years, in which all debts became void.”
“How probable is this future?” asks Scrooge.
“Not very probable,” the Spirit admits. “Or not yet. But many people in your time are busting a gut to make it happen. Unfortunately, there are a lot more people who are actively opposed to any attempts to help clean up the global mess, because they’re making too much money out of the situation as it is. Now for the bad news.” He waves his briefcase again.
At first, Scrooge barely recognizes his future self. He’s gaunt and frantic, pushing a wheelbarrow full of cash. As he watches, his future self tries to exchange this mountain of money for a can of dog food, but it’s no deal.
“Spirit! What’s happening?” asks Scrooge. This is really scary.
“You’re witnessing a moment of hyperinflation,” says the Spirit. “This has happened many times in the history of money. When people lose faith in the value of a currency, you need more and more money to buy anything; and those that have items of real use and value—such as food or fuel, during scarcity—don’t want to sell them, because they fear that the money they receive will be worth a lot less the next day. In effect, money simply melts away, like the illusion it always has been. After all, it’s only a man-made symbol; it exists only if we all agree that it does. And if you can’t change it back into the real things it’s supposed to signify, it’s worthless.”
“But if I can’t buy any food, I’ll starve!” Scrooge cries.
“That is indeed a probable result,” says the Spirit. “Now let’s get the bird’s-eye view.”
What Scrooge sees as they fly above the city is a lot like what he saw in Europe during the Black Death: chaos, mass death, the breakdown of civic order. All five of the erstwhile Mrs. Scrooges are peddling their bodies for tinned sardines, with varying success. They don’t look very good, having achieved the thin-as-a-model figure through no efforts of their own. The Spirit points to three people fighting over a dead cat, which they intend to eat: Scrooge’s future self is one of the three. Nor does he manage to obtain any of the cat for himself: he’s too weak. The other two kick him, and leave him on the sidewalk, and make off with the
“This is terrible!” Scrooge whimpers. “Spirit—show me no more!”
“The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small,” says the Spirit. “Mankind made a bargain as soon as he invented his first technologies, including the bow and arrow. It was then that human beings, instead of limiting their birth rate to keep their population in step with natural resources, decided instead to multiply unchecked and increase the food supply to support this growth by manipulating those resources, inventing ever newer and more complex technologies to do so. Now we have the most intricate system of gizmos the world has ever known. Our technological system is the mill that grinds out anything you wish to order up, but no one knows how to turn it off. The end result of a totally efficient technological exploitation of Nature would be a lifeless desert: all natural capital will be exhausted, having been ground up in the mills of production, and the resulting debt of mankind to Nature will be infinite. But long before then, payback time will come.”
“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge, quoting his famous forebear. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”
“I deal in futures,” says the Spirit of Earth Day Future. “My best offer is Maybe.”
From Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, reprinted with permission of House of Anansi Press. Copyright © 2008 by O.W. Toad Ltd.