President Konrote of Fiji considers Ecological Accounts

Officiating the Voices in the Deep (VOID) art exhibition, it’s really good to hear the President of The Republic of Fiji, His Excellency Major-General (Ret’d) Jioji Konusi Konrote, speak so favorably about the Reweaving the Ecological Mat movement.

With his attention fixed on these issues around our ecological biodiversity and the process for national accounting, the hope that he references might turn to practice and action.

Towards our Ecological Economic Star Line

Our Pacific Voyagers carry a tremendous burden.  They carry the weight of our history and who we are as Pacific Islanders.  They are risk takers who defy western conventions to prove that our traditional knowledge has a place in the world. They are revolutionaries who defy decades of the colonial system that has sought only to diminish our customary knowledge and technologies.  As heroes of the Pacific, they have also become metaphors for struggle, for faith, for diligence and resilience.

As Pacific Islanders, we hold our traditional navigators high because they represent the value of who we most identify with in the world.  Culturally, we move through the world with the regality of ambassadors. When we speak, our voices are heard and our music and dance brings joy.

Yet when it comes to valuing our inherent Pacific assets, why do we suddenly become weak, dependent, our hands wide, arms stretched across the ocean as if we have lost our way home. How do we not know our own value?

Our ecological assets are immense, yet for some reason, we do not believe in the value of our ecological assets. As part of the global economy, we have the ability to interact with the world as equals– with mutual cooperation and exchange.

There is a constellation that our Pacific Navigators have traditionally followed. In Hawaiian it is called Hanaiakamalama (“cared for by the moon” otherwise called the Southern Cross) and its alignment with the navigational starline to Ka Iwikuamo’o was a backbone for our Pacific Voyagers to traverse our Liquid Continent.

Our ecological way forward is in view, and just as our Pacific Voyagers can stand on the shore and look towards the heavens to know when it is time to voyage, it is time for our leaders to move us forward now, rather than hold us back by signing legally binding investment and trade agreements that will further tether us to the post-colonial ambitions of our so-called big brother countries.

The navigational star line is in front of us. Our regional economic well-being is in front of us. There is a rational accounting framework that reflects who we are and measures our engagement in the global economy.

When one considers the wake-up call that is Covid-19; or that the western economy is in shambles; or that Australia’s fear of losing its control over the Pacific to China who is offering the region access and infrastructure; or that there are new data technologies in communication, finance and artificial intelligence that would benefit our regional security; or that there may be an economic incentive to finally liberate us from our struggles against extractive industries, depletion and degradation… it is as if the heavens finally heard the clarion call of Epeli Hauofa and lifted the obstructions and barriers that have kept us tethered to the yoke of colonialism.

And so, if we are so free then why are we still standing on the shore with our hands and arms outstretched? Maybe we have lost our understanding of value, the way that we almost lost our ability to read our navigational star lines. What motivates our liberation in the Pacific must be more than cultural, it also has to be economic, for if it is not, we will not be able to adequately address climate change on our terms, nor will we be able to remain in our homes. But what is the future that we want? Is it to enhance our well being and steward our environment with our own resilient technologies?

This requires investment and capital that neither Australia nor the US will provide, unless they can own and privatize it.  With a new ecological accounting framework, we can increase our national accounts and provide our own services to meet the needs of our region.

Who is really saying that the Pacific cannot assert an economic-ecological scheme independent of the post-colonial privatization agenda?

For those who say “no,” then they are no different from the early colonizers who set fire to our voyaging canoes, ensuring that they restrict our movements. Whose vision do we really hold when we dream, what language do we speak?  It is evident that the only ones who would seek to inhibit our attempts to advance our ecological-economic ambitions are the very same ones who want to continue exploiting our resources.

A Pacific economy should not simply be a dream or something one hopes for.

But what is the cost of this Just, Fair and Equitable society? Is there a value of the dream?

Ecological Economic Accounts provides a formula for how we can actively protect and restore  our ecological biodiversity. Rather than simply give value to what we extract, we can also account for the cost of environmental damage, revalue our food and water security and our well being?

Value and costs are tricky because they are terms that can slip in and out from being measured with money. Not everything that one buys is valuable, while what has the most value can often not be monetized no matter how much investment markets try to assign a monetary value on our public and existential goods.

If we approach the world as a commodity, then it is only the few who expend capital that are setting the costs by placing its value in the marketplace.

And if the few who expend capital enforces the commodification of the world, then it is we in the world that has to change what things are worth.

National accounting is supposed to mirror our economy, our society, our interactions. If GDP is the standard by which we measure our economy, it is obvious we have no place in it.  If we do not manufacture, if our populations are too small to have a viable well rounded labor source, if our production capacity is limited to just a few resources like coconuts, shells or fish bones, if the transport of our goods across borders cost too much, if we do not have an aircraft carrier, then clearly we are not looking at ourselves in a mirror. We are not seeing who we are, that we are all Pacific voyagers.

Have a Good Day: Measuring Data Offsets

I hope everyone is having a good day, and that everyone is well. 

Intemerate Accounting addresses a subject that many find to be technically challenging and I can’t say that I have been successful in my attempts to engage people with the fundamental question about national accounting systems—that question, primarily, is why do small economies and developing countries not have the same access to valuing their economies as the large, industrial, advanced economies do?

But I think that maybe I’ve been asking the wrong question all along, what I should be asking is, “Has everyone had a good day? Are you all well?”

If you are not well or if your day was not as good as it usually is, if you feel tired, or anxious because things seem bleak, or if you feel like the work that you are doing is underappreciated, or that your household cannot support itself and you’re having to rely upon your uncles and aunties for help even though you know that they too are struggling, then maybe we have to rethink what is of value to our lives, or our families, or our communities, or our countries, or our region, or our world.

On the other hand if we are hopeful, and motivated and as a whole feel that what we do has purpose and that there is food and clean water and that there is security in our environment and that in mutual aid we can help provide for others, these are the qualities of well being.

An economy is after all, a measurement of all of these things and how they interact with each other, and especially with nature.

Well-being is very important.  When I ask, have you had a good day? It has value.  Our homes have value because we are raising our families. Our houses of worship have value because they are nurturing our communities; our governments have value when they provide for our general welfare.

And if we are fed and provided for, what is the value of giving thanks or helping the household? What we generate has value. Our education, the road we travel, the sights , sounds and fragrances we pass, the litter we pick up from the side of the road and shorelines, our environments and the ecological biodiversity that sustains us, these are our natural, cultural and well being assets and they are important. What we do counts. And that is our economy. And so imagine, that we all have a baseline, or a standard by which we measure our good days and bad.

And so as we look at our lives, we know that some things can be monetized and some things can’t. Can my personal well being or my household be bought and sold on the market? Well, yes, our personal health data can be bought by insurance companies or health services, and of course our homes are put on the market, but not everything can be monetized, nor should it be.

There are some things that are sacrosanct, sacred, pure, intemerate, and should not have a monetized value placed upon it.

One example of this is our ecological biodiversity. Should our environment be valued against the cost of carbon in our atmosphere? Why should the large economies that make trillions of dollars offset their pollution by managing or accounting for our environments that we have stewarded for generations.

The value of our environments are far more valuable than the pollution and waste that they use to produce and consume goods in trade. So why do the people who manage their companies, the CEOS and COOS be more valuable than we who manage our environment, our elders and kupuna who hold deep knowledge over our interactions with our environment. National accounts make no sense in what and how they value, they are irrational.  So what about rational accounts?

This is what this intemerate accounting touches upon, it is about how we transition from a GDP national accounting system to a rational accounting system. We know what has value and how to account for things.  We all have the opportunity to measure, to count, to examine, to protect, to nurture, to analyze, to collect, to describe, to compile, to publish, to monitor and manage our environments.  This is a service, and it should be accounted for in our national economies.

Whether some things can be monetized or not is a technical question that is valued in marketplaces. While some values are highly personal and cannot be accounted for in markets, other values can. By recognizing that we live in a global economy and that our interactions count does have value.

The intemerate offsets (N) are the data measuring the changes of where we are currently to the baseline. If we are speaking about restoring a particular crab specie on a remote island, that may not have such consequential value compared to another crab specie that is bought and sold in urban or regional markets, but what happens when that data is merged with a regional index, or aggregated in an index of marine life restoration or a remote island restoration index or any other aggregates that can be “packaged” and “traded” in data markets and exchanges? That data has value and those collecting that data are providing a valuable service.

There are so many factors that go into how we account for monetary values, and by no means does that not take value away from that which is not monetized, but what an accounting shift will do is address our access to markets.

So with our resume and qualifications, how is it that our national accounts are so low? Why are we poor?

Why are we classified as developing countries? Is it because we’re remote?

It can’t be, because being remote should be accounted for as an asset.  Is it because our populations are small? They are small, which means that our GDP per capita should be the highest in the world…

As we begin to think about these questions, we should begin to see that our local interactions can impact the global economy, and that is at the heart if this economic justice campaign. We do not need to put a price tag on our water and commodify it to know that it is valuable.

Measuring data offsets CAN be quantified. This is why building our data baseline is so important.  By including the intemerate accounts as an accounting side table to GDP, it will modify how we value extraction, degradation and depletion, as it directly correlates to our well being, stewardship and restoration.

There is a technical aspect to this accounting matrix that I will elaborate upon in another post, but this formula is very much worth exploring. In fact, I would go further and say that we cannot afford to ignore the math.

Intemerate Accounting

Intemerate Accounts provides an ecological accounting methodology that promotes the wellbeing of peoples and cultures in the context of climate change.

While the focus of this paper is on the Pacific, this accounting scheme is scalable to include a grouping of Africa, Caribbean, and Pacific peoples, other developing countries, including impacted First nations regions within the advanced economies. 

Focusing on integrated ecological accounting in the Pacific provides Pacific Island people and communities with access to the development of new, resilient technologies that will allow us to remain in our island homes and restore our shared environmental wellbeing through our collective stewardship as we have for generations.

Addressing COVID-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has tested the strengths and weaknesses of our global interconnectedness and its implications for our environmental, economic, and social well being.  In particular, as the outbreak has spread we have witnessed in real time the limits of the global economy. While some economies were not only able to address their national needs, but simultaneously provide assistance to other countries, many western governments looked to private markets as the only route for addressing the needs of the people.  The fact that some countries even weaponized the virus by withholding aid while maintaining sanction power can only be seen as an immoral affront to humanity. There is something very wrong with an economic system that places capital markets and the pursuit of profits in front of the global needs of human and environmental well being. Time and time again, neoliberalism has failed communities in need, and this includes large countries with immense multi-trillion dollar public debts that can never be repaid. Covid-19 may have triggered a financial collapse, but by no means was it the cause. Therefore Covid-19 is a wake-up call for regions to embrace another system if it is to coherently prepare for future stresses.  The combination of western economic decline, environmental distress, the rise of the multipolar system, new 21st-century technologies, and now Covid-19 has created an unprecedented opportunity for global political and economic transformation for the wellbeing of our planet.

 Indeed, we should see Covid-19 as a test for the inevitable global environmental catastrophe to come. From this perspective we can only conclude that relying on a failed paradigm is not the route to choose.  In the Pacific, indicators of our vulnerability and dependencies are defined and measured against the priorities of the advanced economies that have historically ignored our Pacific identity and value. Typically, these economies emphasise our remoteness, our relatively small population and land area as liabilities for our developmental.  Therefore, that fact that we have never participated in the global economy as equals has not been because of our lack of value or regional self-determination, rather the conditions for recognizing our value in the global economy has been overshadowed by commercial and industrial needs of the wealthy. 

Unlike the advanced economies, who rely upon large militaries or industrial capacities, or western conceived notions of production and consumption as economic indicators, we in the Pacific have a long history of voyaging and customary stewardship that highlights the strengths of our vast liquid continent that are unaccounted for. Our shared rights for reciprocity and ecological well being should motivate how we account for the economy.  If we believe that such alternatives are possible, then we should recall that GDP (the dominant way in which national economies are measured today) reflects nothing more than a choice over which indicators we want to prioritize. Currently the GDP system prioritizes production, consumption, trade and research, which remain heavily weighted in favour of advanced economies. But alternatives are not only possible, but necessary. For example, in Soviet-era Russia their MPS prioritised labour and transport to account for the interconnectedness of remote areas. The current global climate is ripe for a new paradigm shift”

There is an opportunity for the Pacific to prioritise its shared ecological value as an alternative measure of a regional economy. Through the United Nations Statistical Division, work is already underway to effectively value ecological indicators through the System of Environmental and Economic Accounting (SEEA).  However, this is no automatic win for the Pacific, and indeed the SEEA has been compromised by competing national and corporate private interests.

At the global level, the objectives of the large institutions and big-brother economies are to privatise value and remove barriers to property rights over our ecological biodiversity. Furthermore, what started out as an international mandate to include environmental degradation and resource depletion into national accounting systems ended up as an industry-specific guideline that measures environmental resources (such as water) as a commodity valued under patterns of production and consumption.  Within the region, UNESCAP has already attempted to introduce an ecological accounting framework in a manner limited to national water and waste accounts. These kinds of conservation and sustainable-use methodologies are designed to favor corporate investments and privatization regimes allowing the open-access paradigm that resorts to short-term exploitation on a first-come, first-serve basis. Except for the task of accounting for our ecological data, these kinds of environmental accounting mechanisms do not benefit the Pacific.

Rather, we have the opportunity to account for our shared ecological value—our literal Pacific Ocean of Data— is a tremendous resource. Just as OPEC was created to protect and regulate petroleum resources by setting the price of its oil, the Pacific too, with its ocean of ecological data can ensure that the value of our biodiversity is measured and accounted for in a way that is fair and commensurate with the size of our area, our population and our identity. This will require the political determination to confront upcoming challenges collectively, as one Pacific continent, through ecological integration.

Recalibrating Pacific wellbeing through regional ecological integration will finally shake off the colonial/post-colonial yoke that continues to undervalue the region. The value of Pacific ecological integration can be maximised through what I term a Pacific-led Intemerate accounting framework.  This framework will ensure that it is the Pacific that owns the data and that the value of that data is equitably measured for the protection and sustainability of its ecological resources. This will enable us to raise the economy of the Pacific towards a much higher per capita standard, measured to be on par with, for example, those OPEC countries.  While the entire world has an ecological base that can be measured for sustainability (e.g., the 1987 baseline of 350ppm CO2), a regional ecologically integrated Pacific has the vast quantity and the ability – particularly if it were to be a first mover – to set the value of that data by negotiating an international market for ecological and social well being.

Immaculate inspiration

The spirit for establishing an intemerate accounting scheme was inspired from a discussion that took place in Los Angeles, California with Reverend Francois Pihaatae, the General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC). Meeting on the sidelines of the U.S. premiere of their film “The RE-Birth—the Call of our Mother to Renewal,” we discussed how Pacific Regionalism gives legitimate meaning to the notion of self-determination. The Five Points contributing to PCC’s “Rethinking Oceania” project included: 1) Governance and Leadership; 2) Development in Oceania, 3) Peace and Security; 4) Climate Change and Resettlement of Populations; and 5) Cultural and Social Cohesion.

Addressing these five points, for our sea of islands to truly be chartered by our people, there needed to be a regulatory ecological framework that accounted for our integrated regional equity in the global economy and that the UN System of National Accounts (SNA) had proposed early drafts of a System of Environmental Economic Accounts (SEEA), that could aggregate data for environmental degradation and resource depletion as deficits to national accounting systems.

Further, in a rather profane attempt to address economic valuation, I drew upon themes addressed in “Rethinking the Household of God in the Pacific,” and cautiously proposed an accounting scheme that was not dissimilar to how we might “value” the mystery of Immaculate Conception.

Just as the economy of the Catholic church is to some degree predicated on the mystery of Immaculate Conception, an intemerate account assumes that what is sacred has another kind of value that resists monetization while simultaneously providing value equity that can be leveraged for economic sustainability. In seeking to describe an accounting pathway, we have to acknowledge that the mystery of Immaculate Conception assumes that Mary’s virginity is sacrosanct. Monetizing that virginity would be to deviate from an economy based on the miracle and mystery of Immaculate Conception into one of common prostitution. This does not, however, constitute a paradox, as it is not her virginity that is monetized, rather, the belief of Immaculate Conception.

Unlike how we normatively measure goods and services, there are other processes that measures our interactions in an economy. What is immaculate, for example, has unlimited potential value, but it is our interaction with our faith that provides for the economic sustainability of one of our longest held institutions.

Allegorically, if we apply this to environmental accounts and consider that our ecological biodiversity is sacrosanct to how we rethink the Household of God, then we should consider that the value of our ecological biodiversity also resists monetization in natural accounting schemes, because by doing so, we are figuratively monetizing Mary’s virginity.

How this can be approached, however, is to establish a baseline for accounting the value of our ecological biodiversity by leaving it “inviolate, pure, and undefiled” and equalize that value against the assets of industries and economies that benefit most from environmental degradation and resource depletion.