Act Five – The nature of nature

 I put my slip in. I would be on the Mic next.

“It was good to see you take him on,” she continued. “His influence is spreading over our world like the toxic chemicals he and his ilk produce as they rip the riches from said world in their search for wealth and power.  Sadly they seem unstoppable, those who supposedly represent us are either disposed of or simply acquiesce or fall victim to the power of the economic discourse.”

“Happily I still have hope,” I replied, “discourses can change and move in different directions. I don’t pretend to know how or why – many refer to the role and use of resources (Hannigan, 2006) and the use of media for example (Bingham et al, 2003) – but whilst there is hope we can look for allies and resist the onward march of greed.  But before we get to whatever it is you would like to chat about tell me a little about yourself, if you don’t mind that is.”

“Hmmm,” she paused for a while. “I am timeless, I am everywhere, I am life, I am so many things in the eyes of humans.  Mind you it took a long time for them to notice me.”

“C S Lewis,” called the librarian, “notes that the ancients of Greece and Rome barely mentioned her though pre-Socratic philosophers had the idea that ‘the great variety of phenomena which surrounds us could all be impounded under a name and talked about as a single object’ (Lewis, 1964, p37).”

“Object indeed,” objected Mother Nature, “As they lived so I live, and they only lived because I live.”

“Eventually I became something more than an idea,” she continued, “indeed for many I became reality itself, or at least a version of me that they sculptured and modelled and re-modelled.”

“His lot,” she said pointing at Professor Science, “became fixated with that and today declare their model to be me. How can they possibly hope to model me when in fact they are part of me, stand within me and can never be outside me to see who I really am?

Clearly exasperated she then pointed at Mr Commerce and continued, “Of course he, as he told you earlier, loves models and has worked tirelessly to use Sciences’ model to his own ends – the making of money or perhaps more accurately the acquisition of power and wealth.”

“But before I talk about that, and that is indeed why I want to talk to you, I will continue with my answer to your request. Who am I?”

“I am life itself, I am everywhere yet I am unknowable. Nothing, in particular no living thing, knows me; each, should it want to know, must draw its own conclusions which will inevitably be painted by its own experiences.”

“So you are a social construct?” I asked uncertainly.

“No I am real,” she replied, “but your image of me is a construct which you share with some and which is completely at odds with others. You, dear child, see me as beautiful for which I thank you but others see me as dangerous and threatening, to be controlled at all costs.”

“Others such as Daniel Defoe,” interspersed the librarian. “He wrote Robinson Crusoe as an allegory depicting the victory of man over nature.  For Defoe places such as the Lake District in England were, as you say, dark and threatening (Hinchliffe et al, 2003).

“Precisely,” answered Mother Nature.

“Just a minute,” a voice broke in, “I am a scientist, a geographer, and yes I see you as real. I am not taken by this social construct business at all although I accept some in my view mislabelled geographers might (Castree, 2005).  I can measure aspects of you just as I can measure my height or weight.  I am not seeking to model you I am seeking to describe you.  And out of interest I too find you beautiful and I actually want to protect you not dominate you.”

“Thank you to you too kind Sir,” Mother Nature replied, “but what you are doing is claiming your view of me is the only one, a view which you share with some like-minded folk and which you all choose to describe in some pre-agreed format. It is an interesting view but you cannot impose it on the rest of the world as the only one or even as the most important.”

“As for protecting me, if you do not, that is cannot, know me how can you protect me. You can only protect your image of me,” she finished.

“I have to say I am with the mislabelled geographers,” offered another voice. “I am actually a sociologist and in my field we have moved away from the idea of biological or environmental determination, we have focused more on ‘the influence of social and cultural factors’ (Hannigan, 2006).”

“And in doing so have lost sight of the reality of the environmental crisis,” retorted the Geographer.

“There are some who have perhaps,” responded the Sociologist, “but for many of us we now see our science, to quote Alan Irwin (2001, p178) as poised to enter ‘a more exciting – and risky territory where existing categorizations – the social, the natural, the scientific, the technological, the human, the non-human – are seen to be fluid and contextually constituted rather than pre-determined’ (cited in Hannigan, 2006, p33). We know we cannot know reality but accept that it is there, and we work within that constraint to try and understand how categorizations such as those I just mentioned come together in any particular situation.”

I heard Arne Naess mutter somewhere, “Hoorah for complexity, I think they have got it.”

“And so what do you understand by global warming, pollution, over-population, water shortages and all the other real problems that face us? (Hinchliffe et al, 2003)” asked the Geographer with more than a hint of cynicism.

“Well I am not sure they are real problems,” said Mother Nature. “I think they are rather anthropocentric and are primarily a function of your worldview.  Effectively they are a social construct.”

“What?” replied the Geographer somewhat incredulously. “We are on the verge of mass extinctions, even threatening our own species, and you do not see them as real problems.”

“Well I wouldn’t would I?” replied Mother Nature, “I am life, I am everything. I don’t go in for categorizations, species and all that, that’s what you do.  We have lived through global warming before, more than once, and we adapted.  My forests spread throughout the world, grew in the Tundra in fact, and we recovered our equilibrium in the face shocks originating elsewhere in my universe (Crowley, 1996).”

“What you worry about is life as you know it, and like it, disappearing. Generally speaking that is anthropocentric, ie you worry about mankind; and, in part, it is also based on socially constructed values in that you want to save a certain type of reality that you favour.”

“Nonsense! Surely you are an imposter or a liar?” retorted the Geographer.  “Where is the real Mother Nature, the one I see, hear, feel and smell?”

“Good question,” said Professor Science enthusiastically. “One I should have asked, would have asked had I not been so taken aback by the suggestion that she didn’t exist.”

“I am neither,” said Mother Nature, “but it is for you to realise that. To realise that what you see, hear, feel and smell is precisely that, what YOU see, hear, feel and smell.  Nothing is separate from you, it is you who gives it shape, purpose, even value.”

“But what of moral considerability (Goodpastor, 1978) and intrinsic value (Belshaw, 2001; Keller, 2010)?” I asked.

“Existentialism, so Mary Warnock (1970, p6) suggests, tells us ‘only acts of will create anything which can be valued, high or low’” interspersed the Librarian.

“And once we know that,” added Soren Kierkegaard lost now amongst the other tables in the room, “we are on the way to freedom.  We must take responsibility for our beliefs, it is not enough just to follow others.”

I heard Nietzsche chuckle again.

“I have struggled so much with inherent value,” I said, “I so want to believe. Everything about you Mother Nature, it is so beautiful, surely it can’t just be me?”

Arne Naess stepped forward and put his hand on my shoulder, “It’s complex, always complex,” he said, “it is unlikely we will ever know the truth if indeed there is such a thing (Naess et al, 1974) but you are not alone. Remember my Apron diagram, many have come to the same place as you though they may have travelled very different routes.”

“And remember the subjective nature of our relationship with truth,” interrupted Soren Kierkegaard once again, “’if only the mode of this relationship is in truth, the individual is in truth, even if he should happen to be thus related to what is not true’ (Kierkegaard cited in Warnock, 1970, p10).”

“So as long as I am honest to myself about the nature of my beliefs, and make them clear when talking to others, then I am in truth; and as likely to in truth as any other,” I concluded.

“Well I would agree with that,” said the Romantic, “I think we can assume something is true if it helps us make our way through life and it doesn’t contradict our actual experience in any inexplicable manner.”

“Even scientists could work within that frame of truth if only they didn’t insist theirs was the only knowledge,” I mooted.

“But you forget about the will to power,” said Mother Nature. This time Nietzsche laughed out loud.

“’Our cognitive apparatus is an abstracting and falsifying mechanism directed not towards knowledge, but towards mastery and possession’ (Nietzsche cited in Warnock, 1970, p14),” he called across the room.

“He believes mankind instinctively seeks security, a security that it can only find in absolute certainty,” continued Mother Nature. “Accordingly mankind seeks to dominate and control the world and, put simply, science reflects that.”

“In many ways science is the Modern religion,” added the Religious Man. “in the past mankind sought certainty in a Deity or perhaps many deities.  Today in the western world, having rejected God for humanism, we turn to science for certainty.  Perhaps that is why science cannot allow other voices to speak.”

“Yes perhaps that’s it,” answered Mother Nature slowly.

Then she added, “It hurts watching your children grow up sometimes.”

“This chat?” I said.

“Oh yes,” she replied. “You are an accountant.  Why do accountants think they know the value of everything?”

“Well first,” I said, “we all don’t. I don’t for example.”

“Having heard you speak from time to time this evening I am not at all sure you are an accountant,” spoke a voice in a somewhat superior tone.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I am a Policy Maker,” came the reply, “and if an accountant isn’t objective, can’t measure things and won’t follow rules then I would say he or she isn’t an accountant.”

“That seems a fair comment,” said the Librarian, “Jesse Dillard reminds us that the American Accounting Association (1966, p1) describe accounting as ‘the process of identifying, measuring, and communicating economic information to permit informed judgements and decisions by users of the information’ and that ‘the objecitivist paradigm (is) the surface through which accounting is predominantly viewed’ (Dillard, 1991, pp 8 and 10).

“I will therefore tell you why we need to value everything or at least why we need to value ‘Nature’,” continued the Policy Maker before I had chance to respond. “When we cost projects, large or small, business or community, we fail to factor in the value of the, often vital, services and other resources that nature provides.  As a consequence we are in danger of over utilizing these services and resources, perhaps to the point of extirpation.”

“This danger was highlighted by Pavan Sukdev and colleagues (TEEB, 2008),” he continued enthusiastically, “when he informed us that companies were damaging the environment, that is nature, to the tune of $2.2 trillion per year (Carrington, 2011). The answer, he suggested, is giving an economic value to our ecosystems and biodiversity.”

“Your ecosystems and biodiversity?” asked Mother Nature raising her eyebrows.

The Policy Maker didn’t seem to notice and continued, “We have already initiated a valuing nature programme and have made funds available – up to £1.1 million – for a Programme Co-ordination Team.”

“Surely the value of nature is a personal thing?” I suggested.

“Yes I heard all that chat you were having about values,” he replied, “but we countries to run and a world to look after, we have got to have rules to make sure no-one queers the pitch as it were. You know causing global warming, reducing biodiversity etc; the sort of things the United Nations Secretary-Generals High-level Panel on Global Sustainability (2012) and WWF (2012) have warned us about.”

“Well I know that people have tried to attach values to such things (Markandya and Richardson, 1992; Hodge, 1995),” I said, “but I am not too sure they have been successful.  It seems estimates vary wildly depending on the methodology used.  There is Full Cost Accounting as well but this has had limited application.  Puma is a famous example adjusting its accounts to fully account for carbon emissions and water use (Guardian Sustainable Business, 2011) but beyond that there has been little acceptance of FCA.  I don’t really count reducing waste and utility costs or packing costs, to me these are standard management accounting practices aimed at greater efficiency and profits.  I can also think of examples where it has been tried and failed.  Kathleen Herbohn (2005) tells us of such an attempt undertaken by AN Australian Government Department.”

“All explaining precisely why we have made funds available for a valuing nature programme,” returned the Policy Maker.

“I am so glad you brought this up,” added Mr Commerce looking pointedly at Mother Nature and myself, “You see we do think about the environment. My friends in the World Business Council for Sustainable Development helped organise a World Forum on Natural Capital in November 2013 (Smedley, 2013).  We know nature has a value, we call it natural capital, and we know for example that through our activities we used up about $1.35 trillion of it last year (Carrington, 2011).”

“The UN estimates biodiversity services to humankind are worth over $72 trillion a year (Raingold, 2011),” continued the Policy Maker.

“Which is a huge market,” said Mr Commerce hardly able to control his enthusiasm now.

“And which is why the UNEP Finance Initiative and others set up the Natural Capital Declaration in 2012,” continued the Policy Maker. This was the first step on the road to encouraging the financial sector to account for nature in its future investment and lending decisions (Mitchell et, 2012).”

“You asked me earlier who I was,” said Mother Nature turning to me, “it appears I am a resource, maybe a market.”

There was no irony in her voice, just a sense of sadness.

“Pure reductionist gobbledegook,” I heard a voice say. “Numbers can say anything, it depends on who uses them and this cost-benefit analysis is simple a means to deliver the natural world into the hands of those would destroy it (Monbiot, 2011).”

“Putting a price on nature,” continued the voice, “‘forestalls democratic choice. No longer will we be able to argue that an ecosystem or a landscape should be protected because it affords us wonder and delight; we’ll be told that its intrinsic value has already been calculated and, doubtless, that it turns out to be worth less than other uses to which the land could be put’ (Monbiot, 2012).”

“We can still argue that nature is valuable for its own reasons,” replied another voice, “the trouble is that’s not enough; ‘there are quite a few people in the world who don’t think that and don’t see it.’ I think we have to insert the economic data into the conversation.”

“Mind you,” continued the second voice wryly, “how well can economists measure economics – even in their own terms? We have just been through a financial catastrophe which most of them didn’t see coming (Juniper, 2013).”

I looked at Mr Commerce. “Just another one of your models then I would say, this natural capital?”  I said.

He shrugged his shoulders and said, “It works for me.”

“And, as I said earlier, will detract us from thinking about the important issues in life such as community and spirituality (Crompton and Kasser, 2009),” spoke the Religious Man.

“Well,” said Mother Nature looking directly at me, “I asked you why accountants think they know the value of everything and you asked me to tell you something about myself. Are we any further forward?”

“Well I hope you believe me when I say this accountant does not think he knows the value of everything,” I replied. “In fact he abhors the way business puts a value on everything, turning everything – people, yourself and all things you represent – into a cash figure.”

“That may mean you are not a real accountant,” she responded.

“There are those who may think that,” I replied in turn, “but I would disagree. We all need to be able account because ultimately we are all responsible for what we do, and only in accounting for what we do – if only to ourselves – can we be said to be taking responsibility.  What we need is a new form of accounting, an accounting freed form the ideologies of greed that dominate our lives at present.  With that in mind and thinking of you specifically Mother Nature ‘in the present symbolic order accountants should not attempt to account for the environment’ (Cooper, 1992, p37).”

“You have answered my real question,” she admitted, “In all honesty I was looking for and expecting an argument. I was guilty of the same prejudices and narrow-mindedness as Professor Science and Mr Commerce.  I had a placed all accountants in a box and assumed they were all the same.  But what will your new accounting look like?”

“I alone cannot determine that,” I said, “what we need is a change to society; emancipation, some would say, from the discourses that dominate our lives. It is along with that emancipation we need to find a new accounting, an accounting that allows, celebrates even, the resulting diversity of ideas and outcomes. Only such an accounting will truly show you in all your beauty, your wisdom and your splendour – your diversity – Mother Nature.  How we can bring about emancipation?  Well my first intuition would involve reacquainting your children with you.”

“Thank you,” she replied.

I walked to the Mic, “Recollections of CSEAR 2008. Where it all began,” I said.

With not a little apprehension I arrived in St Andrews. I had drafted a paper (a first), prepared a presentation and was, in theory, ready to roll.  But did it all make sense, would anyone be interested?  The thing about presenting an academic paper is that you reveal how you think, you open your mind to others in a way you never would in practice.  As Rob was to tell us later in the week, you allow yourself to doubt, and apprehension is a natural corollary to doubt.

I went down to Reception to find where we were having dinner and the first person I saw was Rob. A welcoming friendly face and a warm greeting dispelled the nervous feelings.  Soon we had gathered into a small crowd and Rob set us off to the restaurant.  I had a map and found myself at the front with Stacey.  Route finding was easy, just one moment of uncertainty near the building works around the Gateway.  Jesse wanted to go anti-clockwise, no surprise there, but Stacey and I went left and the rest followed as one.  So absorbed were we in pleasant conversation that we arrived at McKay’s Bar but forgot to go in.  Rob arrived fifteen minutes later and not for the last time put in a passable impression of a sheepdog and herded us inside.

Stacey had to go to the naughty corner because she had not pre-ordered her food. I joined Foon Yen, her mother and Paula at another table in the opposite corner.  I was struck by the geographical diversity.  Stacey was Australian, Paula American and Foon Yen Malaysian but here we all were together with so much in common that conversation flowed as freely as a highland stream in spate.  What could be more important than our common concern for our planet and the people and creatures that inhabit it.

And so it was to continue through the congress, easy conversation with warm and friendly people. Stacey and Paula were excellent company over the next two days and I came to understand their worlds a little better.  Chris and Jared were equally good company.  I knew Chris from an earlier conference and he teaches just down the road from me at Edge Hill.  Jared teaches at Newport and leads the CIMA programme there.  As I lead the CIMA programme at Manchester Metropolitan we had plenty to talk about.  There were many other conversations as well but perhaps the list would be too long.

I had bought a map before starting out for St Andrews. I had never been to this part of Scotland before and was determined to have a look at the local flora and fauna.  On Wednesday morning I was up at six heading out with a view to looking at the East Sands and surrounding cliffs.  As always I stuck to my plan for about five minutes but then I saw some large brown birds in the fields across the way.  They were curlews and they connected me with home as some of their distant cousins spend the summer on the moors above where I live.  I ended up walking around the edge of town staying as close to the shore as possible.  There was an abundance of birdlife as it was early and quite quiet.  That said the golfers were already gathering.

Memories of that morning include surprise at seeing fulmars on the relatively small cliffs near the harbour. Also I felt a sort of spiritual experience engendered by the historic buildings around St Andrews.  It has been a port for a millennium or so and I was reminded of humankind’s history and how it is interwoven into the natural environment.

I got out again two or three times but the best walk was on Thursday. A summer shower fell just before the workshops ended at five but the wind was blowing the clouds in front of me as I walked north along the metallic road leading to the Eden Estuary.  I had seen a sign saying there was a nature reserve up there and I was determined to go and have a look.  As I walked I noted several showers were falling from the leading edge of the giant and somewhat grey and foreboding cumulous cloud in front of me.  As I watched these columns of rain seemed to gather together into one huge storm column over the bay.  Then three jagged forks of lightening crackled from cloud to sea spectacularly and thunder rolled over me.  Gaia was showing off.

I eventually reached the estuary and was rewarded with views of two skuas chasing sandwich terns and stealing their catches. Terns are beautiful fliers, they float and bob in the air in a way that defies gravity before diving down for their fishy prey.  As for skuas, they have to eat.  There were also several seals about and their heads would suddenly pop out of the sea and they would stare at me with their dark wondering eyes.  I shared some thought waves with the seals.  On my way back a great cloud of seagulls took off from the sea just in front of me.  I looked for a reason.  A big bull seal broke out of the waves momentarily before gliding back under the water.  Somehow I felt at one with the gulls and the seal, we had each shared in a cameo role in each others’ lives.

Friday was a day of mixed feelings. I was looking forward to seeing friends and family back home but I was sad at to be parting from new found friends.  I decided on short goodbyes and a quick exit.  Hopefully I could pack my memories into a quiet corner of my mind and pour on time until the sadness had grown out.

On the bus back to the railway station we passed through Guardbridge. There was a peregrine floating above the river mouth.  I thought it was a kestrel until it stooped on a passing crow.  The crow saw it coming and was quick enough to get out of the way and big enough to see it off, another piece of nature, another environmental story.

And so the Congress of Social and Environmental Accounting Research lived up to its name. A wonderful social and environmental experience – and I haven’t even mentioned the presentations and workshops.  I felt mine went OK in the end and I am grateful to everyone else who presented, for the education and the entertainment.  I am also grateful to Sue and Lynn for organising it.  Between us we will change the future – for the better I believe.

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