Affirming the silence: putting the Earth first, starting with the Reef

‘What is the link between nature and accounting? I must confess, I do no know.’ So wrote accounting academic Ruth D. Hines in her 1991 note ‘On Valuing Nature’. Fourteen years later, in 2005, Hines vanished into legend. Her friends and former colleagues at Sydney’s Macquarie University have been unable to trace her. It’s said she now writes poetry and children’s books. Hines ended her 1992 essay ‘Accounting: Filling the negative space‘ like this:

‘There are no “conclusions” to this paper, to fill and close off the “negative space” of the Feminine or Yin realm, much less hard directives for future research … Unpopular though it may be, in the world at present, I wish to affirm the silence.’

Nick McGuigan

Nick McGuigan

Vanishing, affirming the silence, seem to me like sane responses to the trauma inherent in any attempt to link nature and accounting. I first read ‘On Valuing Nature’ while researching Six Capitals in 2013. It struck me as a provocative meditation. I reread it last month after being reminded of it by Nick McGuigan and Thomas Kern, rebel accounting academics in transit to Melbourne’s Monash University formerly based at Macquarie University.

I now think Hines’s writing contains some of the most important thinking I know on the problems that beset not only accounting but all human life on this planet. In the two and a half pages of ‘On Valuing Nature’ Hines thinks through questions I’ve been grappling with since 2008, the year I began to investigate the material underpinnings of the Renaissance which threw me into the turbulence of contemporary accounting, a world gripped by existential crisis and revolution.

The crisis is this: the vast work accountants do every day to measure the wealth of businesses and economies increasingly diverges from what most of us understand to be the most important wealth of the planet. Today accountants can capture only 16 per cent of this value. Or, in accounting-speak: ‘country-specific and global accounting standards are “irrelevant and meaningless” given that intangibles constitute over 84% of the value of today’s international corporations.’ So wrote Richard H. Kravitz MBA, CPA, from Wall Street this month in the CPA Journal, of which he is editor-in-chief.

And yet these appallingly skewed measures still direct the global economy—so no wonder it’s veering out of control, in a constant state of collapse. The missing 84% of value is in the living systems of the earth: ‘nature’ broadly construed, which includes not only the earth’s ecosystems but also us humans, our communities and all the wealth of our hearts and minds. Hines puts the conundrum like this:

‘Nature is excluded from accounting valuations. And how could it be otherwise? All in nature are interdependent: my little rain forest cannot be bounded and separated from the Rubber Tree. It depends on the Rubber Tree. As I do. People are part of nature, aren’t they? But accounting, like any language, names, bounds and thus separates.

‘To reduce [Rubber Trees] to a number or, worse, a money equivalent is likely to have even worse consequences than excluding them from accounts altogether. Nature can be given prominence in accounting reports without reducing it to a number. Quantifying our environment must inevitably further alienate people from nature.’

Hines continues: ‘It seems to me that the best thing I can do for nature, as a person who is an “expert” in financial accounting-speak, and thus its limitations, is to speak my love of nature; to call attention to the limitations of the planetary-wide financial accounting language, and to make an issue of refusing to speak of nature in this language of numbers. It seems to me that, if other “experts” in accounting around the planet were openly to speak out, in all kinds of forums, to all kinds of audiences, about the limitations of accounting, thus demystifying it and reducing its power to entrance people, this would constitute a powerful addition to a too-slowly changing planetary consciousness.

‘It is in the name of Net Profit, Budget Surplus and Gross National Product that the natural environment in which we all co-exist is being destroyed. Those who speak this language have more social power to influence thinking and actions than they perhaps realise, or utilise.’

When I was invited to write an essay for the latest Griffith Review reimagining economic orthodoxy based on my travels in accounting, I accepted because I wanted to explore this relationship between nature and accounting, and economics, whose language is written by accountants. As I mentioned here, last month I joined Julianne Schultz and other contributors to Griffith Review 52: Imagining the Future in a discussion at the National Library of Australia.

National Library of Australia, L-R: Brendan Gleeson, me (on screen) Libby Robin and Julianne Schultz

National Library of Australia, L-R: Brendan Gleeson, me (on screen) Libby Robin and Julianne Schultz

At the end of the session Julianne asked us to describe what an election campaign that was really concerned about the future and aware of global constraints might look like. For me such a campaign would put the Earth first, starting in Australia’s case with the Great Barrier Reef. Every other policy would follow from that base, the planet on which we depend for our existence.

For six years the question of the link between nature and accounting/economics has plagued my days and kept me awake at night. It’s leaked everywhere, including into this bookish blog, which curiously enough I also started six years ago. Startled by questions from accountants Nick McGuigan and Thomas Kern about language, poetry and art, and inspired by Ruth Hines, I’ve decided to affirm the silence, head off to contemplate ways of putting the Earth first, and return bookishgirl to its original purpose: blogging about reading and writing, about books I love and books I’m reading.

Stephanie Bishop

Stephanie Bishop

So what am I reading? While I was on holidays last week I devoured Stephanie Bishop‘s beautiful, award-winning novel The Other Side of the World. In a fantastic interview with Booktopia’s John Purcell, Stephanie talks about the genesis of her novel, how she teaches fiction writing (at the University of New South Wales), and how issues like postnatal depression are pathologized today rather than being understood as normal responses to radically changed circumstance such as having a baby. Next up I’ll be writing about Herman Hesse’s novel Narcissus and Goldmund. I’m also reading the third novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. More on Ferrante another day.

The Other Side of the World

The Other Side of the World


This entry was posted in Can accountants save the planet?, Luca Pacioli and Double Entry, Six Capitals, The Earth and environmental activism. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Affirming the silence: putting the Earth first, starting with the Reef

  1. Pingback: Building the new economy, 16-17 August 2016, Sydney – and Janet Laurence’s Deep Breathing: Resuscitation for the Reef | bookish girl

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