Ecological Accounting and Spirituality: Data Reciprocity and Data Localism

Our relationship with the natural world has been a topic of discussion and contemplation for thousands of years. In recent times, the urgency of addressing the ecological crisis has brought the need for a more integrated approach to the forefront. Exploring the intersection between economics and spirituality argues that incorporating spiritual values into economic decision-making can lead to a more sustainable and equitable world.

Data Reciprocity and Data Localism address the urgent issues of data sovereignty, privacy, and equity in the digital age. It recognizes the need for a radical transformation of our economic and social systems in order to achieve these goals.

The ecological crisis is one of the most pressing challenges facing humanity today. Climate change, habitat destruction, and the loss of biodiversity are just a few of the many problems that threaten the survival of countless species and the well-being of the planet. The root cause of these problems is often traced back to a human-centered worldview that sees the natural world as a resource to be exploited for human benefit.

Economics, as a discipline, is primarily concerned with the allocation of scarce resources to meet unlimited human wants and needs. However, the current economic system often prioritizes profit over other values such as social and environmental well-being. This has led to a number of negative consequences, including income inequality, environmental degradation, and the depletion of natural resources.

Spirituality, on the other hand, offers a different perspective on the relationship between humans and the natural world. Many spiritual traditions view the natural world as sacred and see humans as part of a larger, interconnected whole. This worldview emphasizes the interdependence of all living beings and the importance of living in harmony with the natural world.

The integration of ecology, economics, and spirituality offers a path toward sustainability by incorporating both scientific and spiritual perspectives on the relationship between humans and the natural world.

One of the key benefits of this intersection is the creation of a more equitable and sustainable economic system. Data measuring our well-being, for example, can be a tool addressing our spiritual values such as compassion and cooperation, and result in economic decision-making guided by a deeper sense of purpose and responsibility. This can lead to a more equitable distribution of resources and a greater emphasis on environmental protection and sustainability.

Throughout history, the spiritual exchange of goods and markets has played a significant role in many cultures and civilizations. In ancient times, bartering was a common practice, where goods and services were exchanged without the use of currency. This exchange was often guided by spiritual beliefs and values, such as the belief in the interdependence of all living beings and the importance of mutual support.

In some indigenous cultures, the concept of the “gift economy” was central to the exchange of goods and services. In these societies, resources were shared freely and individuals were encouraged to give generously to those in need. This was seen as a way of building community and strengthening social bonds and was often guided by spiritual beliefs about the interconnectedness of all living beings.

Religious markets, such as the Suq in the Islamic world, have also played a significant role in the exchange of goods and services. These markets were often a hub of economic activity and served as a place for merchants and traders to exchange goods and services. They were also a place for religious and cultural exchange, where individuals from different backgrounds could come together to exchange ideas and goods.

The concept of “fair trade” and provenance in supply chains has emerged as a way of incorporating more holistic values into an economic exchange. Fair trade is based on the idea of creating a more equitable and sustainable economic system by ensuring that workers and producers in developing countries receive a fair price for their goods and services.

Data Reciprocity and Data Localism

Data Reciprocity and Data Localism recognize that data is a valuable resource that has the potential to empower communities and individuals, but that this potential is often exploited by large corporations and governments. Therefore, any solution to these global challenges must prioritize the rights and needs of people over the profits of a few.

A 21st-century economy integrates the intrinsic value of data and its role in shaping our lives. We must acknowledge the rights of individuals and communities to control and benefit from the data that they produce and shift from a paradigm of surveillance and exploitation to one of transparency and reciprocity.

Prioritize data localism. We must empower local communities to take control of their own data, and promote decentralized systems that allow for greater autonomy and self-determination. This includes advocating for open-source software, community-owned data centers, and community-led data governance structures.

• Foster a culture of data reciprocity. We must recognize the importance of mutual exchange and collaboration, and promote systems that allow for fair and equitable sharing of data. This includes advocating for data cooperatives, data commons, and open data initiatives that benefit all members of a community.

Prioritize data privacy and security. Individuals and communities have the right to control how their data is collected, used, and shared and that this data is protected from unauthorized access and misuse.

Prioritize education and awareness. All people have access to accurate information about their data and are empowered to make informed decisions about their impact on the digital landscape.

Recognize and honor the interconnectedness of data and our lives. Break down the false dichotomies of data versus privacy, and individual versus community, and realize that we are all part of a larger, interdependent web of data.

Recognize and honor the potential for data to create positive social change. Promote data justice and equity and ensure that data is used to facilitate social and environmental sustainability, rather than perpetuating systemic injustices.

Data Reciprocity and Data Localism recognize the urgency of the global crises we face in the digital age.

An integrative approach to ecological economics and spirituality is the creation of a more holistic understanding of our interactions with ecological biodiversity. Translocal markets recognize the importance of protecting the natural world not just for its own sake, but for the well-being of all living beings and for future generations.

The intersection between economics and spirituality offers a path toward a more sustainable and equitable world. By incorporating spiritual values into economic decision-making, we can create a more holistic and compassionate economic system that prioritizes the well-being of all living beings and the planet as a whole.

The Intemerate Equation can be a counterweight to the unbalanced weight of our GDP

In very concrete terms, how we move the global economy is to reform our national accounting system. As long as the wrong things are valued without the counterweight of the right things being valued (like our environment and wellbeing), the global economy will be incapable of a just and equitable change.

The Intemerate Equation addresses this very issue. The equation is tangible in that how we account for restoration fulfills three things: 1) it embraces indigenous and local methodologies to value and interact with their environment; 2) encourages data ownership so that communities can be more self-determining; and 3) promotes people-to-people translocal and interglobal exchange. From a national perspective, a new accounting framework provides the Global South with a path away from the trappings of debt dependency and boomerang aid schemes towards a true mirroring of our economic value, seeking the elimination of the tiered structure that provides advanced economies advantages over developing countries as well as greater access to capital for disadvantaged, displaced, and impacted communities.

Progressive International published an excellent article by Max Ajl called The NIEO in a State of Permanent Insurrection” where he writes, “Production of goods under the law of generalized commodity production, accumulation of value, and for exchange value cannot deliver a decent world. Capitalism cannot be reformed. There must be a shared horizon of production of goods and services for use, with prices engineered to achieve a worldwide just distribution of these goods, social rights guaranteed, and political institutions created to allow for the human reproduction of the ecology. There must be appropriate and ecologically modulated sovereign industrialization alongside regional collective self-reliance.”

We mostly know what the problems are. While we may not know the history that has led us to this place, collectively, we understand the failures of free market capitalism, the myopic pursuit of neoliberalism, and the enforcement mechanisms used to entrench peoples and countries. It is time to sit down and address a tangible pathway forward.

Three Little Pigs: Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands: The tall tale of resilience

Pasifika could draw upon the story of the three little pigs to illustrate how Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands might be the very countries to stand up to the economic tyranny of eco-neoliberal efforts to devalue their homes.

Providing solutions for the climate crisis requires the collaboration of local communities, national governments, and international policy stakeholders. Currently, financially based climate solutions ultimately benefit the very same countries most responsible for the climate crisis. Whether aid-for-climate adaptation initiatives, insurance schemes, cap and trade, or blue/green bonds, these schemes are either unsustainable or predatory, systemically excluding people and communities from benefitting from advancing their own interactions with their environment.

Focusing on local methodological engagement as well as the slippery topic of political and economic self-determination, Intemerate Earth has produced an index to gauge countries that would most benefit from rethinking how we account for our ecological biodiversity while providing inclusive market solutions for local and sustainable well-being. For example, as we begin to produce indicators of National well-being, how we aggregate that data as a cooperative side table to adjust GDP, we could collectively build upon our economic capacity for resilience, adaptation, and/or mitigation.

The children’s tale of the Three Little Pigs is generally understood as a story of adaptation. One pig builds a house of straw that does little to protect him from the hungry wolf who will huff and puff and blow his house down. The second little pig assembles his house out of wood, once again succumbing to the terror of the wolf. The third little pig constructs a brick house that withstands the wolf’s advancements. The story concludes with the wolf being driven away by the resilience of the pig who had adapted technologies to stop the wolf’s aggression.

If this were a story about the predatory ambitions of international finance and the profit motivations of capitalism’s worst abuses, then the wolf would not stop at a brick house. The geopolitical ending would result in the demolition of the brick house through either military force, legal shenanigans, or debt. The wolf in this story is a persistent predator and as long as we remain in this fairytale, the wolf will continue to find back doors and cunning motivations to get what he wants.

Pasifika could draw upon the story of the three little pigs to illustrate how Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), might be the very countries to stand up to the economic tyranny of capitalism’s effort to devalue their home. A policy consultant has described the situation of these three atolls as such, “Tuvalu has an amazing plan, but no money; RMI has an idea for a plan but hasn’t consulted and has no money; Kiribati has no plan but a ton of money!” Despite over a quarter-century of data measuring the fragility factors of low-lying countries, the very survival of these countries has been compromised by dismissive inaction, revealing how climate-based solutions have only been as good as profit-based motivations. By regionalizing alongside a multilateral system, a better outcome for the three little atolls would be to manage a market for their own ecological data, one that would provide better access and more capable technologies for resilience. People should benefit from their interactions with their environments as it is that value that is intrinsic to the ecological biodiversity of the region.

Presently, we are in a time when the hegemonic system of predator and prey could potentially be dismantled, giving way to a mutual understanding that the rules of nature need not be defined by privatization and predatory capitalism. Climate negotiations should be applying a notion of mutual fair play in market economies, where the rules of an economy reflect the well-being of straw dwellers, branch dwellers, and brick dwellers as they do economic predators. The ecological biodiversity of our planet is entwined with the economic stewardship of peoples, traditions, and communities and it is the interaction of these markets that should benefit from ecological services most.

If the wolf were the global capitalist institutions, the three little atolls would have little or no defense against the predatory advancements of large economies leveraging aid or citizenship for duplicitous resource or data management schemes. However, if the three island nations were to change the rules by adopting a regional plan that would altogether sidestep its relationship with the wolf, then we could begin to transition away from the predatory nature of spurious climate financing.

Financing mitigation and adaptation, the three atoll nations should consider a regional alliance where they would own their ecological data across their combined EEZs, and leverage that data to create the kind of infrastructure that would allow them to stay in their own homes, research and develop their own technologies, and develop their own accounting protocols to account for the value of environmental data that is both global, as well as locally owned and derived.

Profit and privatization motivate eco-neoliberal economies to undermine sound climate policy. Over the years, we are seeing both green and maritime protected areas created and normalized in the non-self-governing territories of the Pacific, and that includes the occupations and territories of Australia, France, New Zealand, and the United States. The accounting of these large swathes of maritime areas is not owned, managed, or accounted for by Pasifika governments or the customary rights holders, rather they are for the benefit of the administering power. The creation of these maritime protection programs utilizes technologies developed by Department of Defense contractors and the environmental data is owned by federal agencies.

By itself, this may not seem like much, but that is because the little pigs are only concerned about mitigation and adaptation. As time goes by and severe weather becomes more and more of an issue of existence, the large economies understand very well that small economies will surrender their territories for citizenship. What the little pigs might not know is that how we account for our environment may soon be adopted into national accounting matrices.
But what if the three little pigs understood that sharks, a lion, and a bear would create a biodiversity of power that facilitates a program to determine their own future, whether straw, stick, brick, or reconstituted plastic waste, and devise their own resilience schemes?

Consider that the combined exclusive economic zone and total interior area (EEZ + TIA) of Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the RMI is about 6.18 million square kilometers (an area in size between Australia and India) and that the combined population is about 183,000, this would put their population density at about .0004. As a reference, the population density of Australia is about 3.3 (population/area). When you consider the population index of an area of Kiribati, Tuvalu, and RMI and realize that the average GDP per capita is about $2,444 annually (compared to Australia at about $58,000) one should wonder if a new accounting scheme that embraces environmental stewardship would essentially raise the national accounting figures of the population several thousand percent, thereby affording these atoll nations with the ability to not only stay in their homes but to access the kind of financing that could produce technologies as inspired as Laputa, the floating island in Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

If left unchallenged, it may take decades for national accounting systems to fully transition from GDP to an SEEA (System of Environmental-Economic Account), but for the smallest and most vulnerable economies to initiate that transition away from a unipolar market to a new multipolar market and begin to write the rules for what this accounting scheme should look like, financial benefits might be measured in years, if not months. Without an appropriate institution that is inclusive of the customary, indigenous, and national rightsholders, no market economy of any significance is possible, and all climate policy will be driven by the same hegemonic institutions and industrial entities that benefitted from exploiting and perpetuating our climate crisis.

Regime change is a threat that is more immediate than any typhoon and the huff and puff of the most militarized economies coupled with the manipulations of the media can topple nearly any government.

Adopting a multipolar financial scheme that would create a market for ecological data (one that is outside the rule-making processes of Wall Street) would have been impossible after the advancement of the 1991 post-Perestroika Washington Consensus that enforced a global economic and legal regime dominated by the United States and the international institutions.

While the unsustainable markets of this economy had been challenged, alternative systems were undermined by regime change, uprisings, sanctions, and any number of advancements that the wolf could muster. Regional groupings like the Bolivarian Alliance, BRICS, the EEU, and the Melanesian Spearhead Group had sought to provide economic stability outside the dominant sphere of the Washington Consensus and there have been many attempts to undermine these integrations through a litany of coups and assassinations reminiscent of the decade of decolonization in the 1960s. Even the containment and obstruction of the China-led Belt and Road Initiative is hypocritical and provocative, particularly as the debt of the advanced economies has far surpassed the GDP debt thresholds by trillions of dollars, far more than the collective debt of the developing countries. When you consider that trillions of dollars of debt can only be leveraged by militarized promises of private access and ownership, one must wonder why the relatively low debt obligations of developing countries should be an issue of concern to the stability of global markets.

It wasn’t until the 2008 financial collapse that fissures in unipolar global governance emerged, and a new multipolar system occurred with the rise of the BRICS economies. Having created an alternative operational system that can bypass US sanction power, currency exchange, and investor-state enforcement, the possibility for countries and economies to transition towards a more balanced trade and infrastructure development seemed promising. Unfortunately, as every government has become aware, regime change is a threat that is more immediate than any typhoon and the huff and puff of the most militarized economies coupled with the manipulations of the media can topple nearly any government.

But while the shroud of the wolf looms large, that should not prevent a new operational system that accounts for the management of our ecological biodiversity to occur. We should not have to surrender to Wall Street’s climate financing schemes to reverse climate change, particularly when the option for a fair and equitable transition is rooted in our very existence.

COP 27: Why “loss and damage” is a bust before it begins

Tangible? Potent? Spectral? Will the Intemerate Equation be a thing to behold, free-floating between the gravity of capital markets and the spirit of ecological and economic justice? Image from AG Roja’s video “Naeem.”

Expressing the failure of COP 27 is neither a pessimistic avowal that global climate policy is incapable of meaningful change, nor is it a nihilistic admission that the restoration of our planetary capacity to survive has moved beyond the tipping point. The failure is the systemic disconnect between the rich industrialized economies of the Global North and the inability of the Global South to advance an alternative multilateral system that can operate in parallel with the rich countries. As long as a unilateral network of dependency is enforced, one without the option of access and infrastructure, developing countries will remain tethered to corporate interests and the investment regime.

The pronouncement of success at COP 27 is that vulnerable countries will now be able to access funds to tackle loss and damage. The reporting of the details remains vague, but we should already be prepared to challenge this initiative as a backdoor investment scheme. The pathway for this fund appears to be dependent upon commercial industries investing in our most vulnerable countries. The debt-laden governments of the Global North will be unable to sustain a loss and damage fund and it will thereby fall upon the commitments of private sector interests that can afford the insurance policy to cover the risk of loss and damages, particularly as they will be the ones to profit from their “future anticipated losses.”

New Accounting Standards

To really appreciate the obtuse justification for these new accounting standards, I recommend following the hyperlinks as they illustrate just how different financial standards are between the OECD countries and the rest of the world. In 2021, new accounting standards were adopted by the Federal Reserve to mitigate “current expected credit losses” (CECL), estimating allowances for that loss. In the 2008 UN SNA (Chapter 12: The Other Changes in Asset Accounts), those losses are reported in national accounting aggregates not as liabilities, but as assets that can contribute to how the too-big-to-fail financial institutions would report this to national statistical offices. However, the only ones that would benefit from such convoluted designs, are the very countries and economies that have the ability to make these spurious claims and get away with it.

Private sector industries are easily poised to pay multi-million dollar insurance premiums, particularly when they are structured so that future “anticipated losses” will cover the risk

The BIS (Bank for International Settlements), has addressed how to account for risk and losses, and in 2020, published a paper that forecasted the time-varying probability distribution of future losses due to extreme conditions. Essentially what this means is that insurance companies have an instrument with which to predict and account for climate-based catastrophes in the most vulnerable countries, countries that will also be most receptive to attracting corporate industries like Big Ag, aquaculture, R&D, tourism, and nature-based investments like water (now a Wall Street traded futures index), marine energy, ecosystem management, waste, and renewables. Private industries are easily poised to pay multi-million dollar insurance premiums, particularly when they are structured so that future “anticipated losses” will cover the risk. The only real benefit that might come to these host countries will be new tax revenue, but that will be dependent upon the terms of these negotiations and whether they accept or reject tax-avoidance conditions by foreign-owned entities.

Other climate fund options that have been devised recently are the blue or green bonds, but these are unsustainable and eligibility for these funds usually comes with a cost that will ultimately boomerang back to the funder.

Transitioning away from capitalist solutions

Finding solutions to our global ecological and economic crisis requires an understanding that our ecological biodiversity is shared between the oldest, largest, youngest, and smallest of our species and the mutual interconnectedness of everything in between. The Anthropocene, the geological recording of humanity’s impact on the planet, locates the very industries that have degraded, depleted, and exploited our health and environments, tracing our residue along geological striations that read like a roadmap to our own extinction. While there is controversy among geology departments over the legitimacy of an Anthropocene, there was also once a group of scientists denying manmade climate change. And even with an abundance of divine oracles and soothsayers distracting us from real solutions while predicting chaos and doom, the causes of our climate crisis have never been a secret to anyone.

Since the 19th century, the captains of industries have rejected the most decent of principles in the name of progress, profit, and nationalism, and have done so under the banner of capitalism. As long as the structures of capitalism are in opposition to the health and well-being of people and the environment, there can be no transition to a just, fair, and equitable economy. But anti-capitalist motivations should also not come at the expense of people gaining access to finance, capital, modes of production, and exchange. What we need to focus on is how we transition from their economy to ours. We cannot rewrite the trajectory of the last 200 years, but we can equitably regulate how capital is exchanged in ecologically based markets by accounting for our interactions with restoring our environments rather than as commodity-based natural capital.

The Anthropocene, the geological recording of humanity’s impact on the planet, locates the very industries that have degraded, depleted, and exploited our health and environments, tracing our residue along geological striations that read like a roadmap to our own extinction.

While it is undeniable that the operations of free-market capitalism, liberalized trade policies, and deregulated markets have caused irreparable damage to communities and environments, the answer to the problems of capitalism may not actually be the flow of financial and investment capital itself, but the accounting structures embedded within our current economy that privilege privatization and commodity markets over collectivization and ecological ones.

Behind the Curtain: National Accounting Systems

An overlooked, yet viable action that would transition the global economy towards one that values sustainable development is to reform our national accounting system. This includes the accounting of degradation and depletion as a liability rather than as an asset. Sustainable development includes household work, and rejects the accounting of military systems as a fixed asset unless we can include our ecological biodiversity as a national security issue, and repurpose weapons to be tools for restoration, regeneration, and reparation, repurposing weapons as tools of mass reconstruction.

Where this action needs to be directed is the obscure but highly essential System of National Accounts within the UN Statistical Division, (SNA, UNSD). Currently, the SNA codifies how we measure our national accounts, or GDP, and is dominated by OECD members. The United States is the only major economy that does not conform to the SNA international standard, stubbornly clinging to its ability to liberally and quickly maneuver through its own accounting revisions with NIPA (National Income and Product Accounts). As with much of the international order, it is the SNA that follows NIPA, indicating just how U.S. exceptionalism exploits the rules-based system it claims to uphold.

If we are to restore our ecological biodiversity and reverse climate change, the Statistical Division needs to be more inclusive of developing countries, indigenous peoples, and impacted communities. We achieve this by altering how we account for our interactions with our environment and value what is most sacrosanct in all our myriad and diverse ways. We cannot accomplish a just and equitable economy as long there is a top-down imperative to value environments on commodity-driven initiatives that seek to manage and privatize what we have traditionally stewarded. It is up to us to own our data, value our interactions with our green and blue spaces, and facilitate our own distributive networks of exchange by choosing our own multi-faceted pathways for development.

The intersection of diverse peoples and communities, our spiritual networks, and our local and customary agencies is evident everywhere and nothing should interfere with our mutual interconnectedness.

There are two ways to achieve this. The first is to campaign and petition the SNA to include us in the revision of national accounting systems. That is likely to be a slow and cumbersome process as large economies will bully us with technical jargon that will keep us playing catch up despite the fact that our customary knowledge is far more valuable than their lexicon of obtuse terminology. The second, or preferred option, is to utilize our own tools and methodologies to measure our interactions with the environment and incorporate a regulated exchange of capital with the kind of access and infrastructure necessary to uphold sustainable markets and development.

Our community networks are strong. The intersection of diverse peoples and communities, our spiritual networks, and our local and customary agencies is evident everywhere and nothing should interfere with our mutual interconnectedness. The profit-motivations of market-driven industrial interests are stalwarts for containing and obstructing genuine security and development.

As we step back to really examine our economic interactions, we should be amazed by our protocol and reciprocity. How is it that the governments of advanced economies are the most heavily indebted? If we consider these governments as proxies for industrial self-interest, we would find that the rhetoric of democracy, justice, transparency, and rules-based mechanisms are misaligned with so much hypocrisy that those who define those terms most are the very ones that weaponize those ideals for the benefit of industrial greed.

The Audacity of Debt Repayment

The United States alone currently has a nearly 120% debt-to-GDP ratio, meaning that government taxpayers currently hold about $27 trillion in public debt. For perspective, the combined public debt of the ACP countries (Africa, Caribbean, and Pacific) is ~$1.3 trillion. When you consider that the total population of the ACP is ~1.2 billion, and the population of the United States is ~337 million, the per capita holding of debt in the U.S. is well over 50 times greater than in the ACP. Another way to read this is that each U.S. taxpayer owes ~$80,000 and each ACP citizen owes ~$108. This is a population-to-debt difference of 740-to-1.

Ecological and economic justice cannot happen unless the United States addresses its hegemony and unfurls the sail that will set economies free to engage in multilateral markets of exchange.

So the question we should be asking is how does the proverbial 1% have access to 99% of the debt without any strategy of debt repayment while the ACP countries remain tethered to debt repayments, all while the economies of the Global North continue to degrade, deplete, and exploit peoples and environments? The clearest answer is that the United States has something to leverage to the international investment cabal– the owners of the debt–and that is its military. The United States has 750 bases in 80 countries. No other country has a military presence remotely close and all countries face the threat of destabilization, regime change, and sanctions. The winds of ecological and economic justice will blow when the United States addresses this hegemony and unfurls the sail that will set economies free to engage in multilateral markets of exchange.

The history of the UNFCCC Conference of Parties has been a trajectory where the agenda of the advanced economies, led by the United States– a proxy of the international investment cabal and industrial regimes– has continually asserted its own interests over the security and well-being of people and planet.

Since the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and President Bush’s withdrawal from the COP 3 Protocol in 2000, we have only seen consolidated efforts to destabilize, undermine, and reject sound climate policy. Additionally, with the advancement of the Sustainable Development Goals, we have seen tremendous global efforts to create a viable program that seeks to address the 17 goals and the 169 targets. These targets, however, are mostly designed with a pathway for privatizing the management of data through private investment and industry. It is the accounting of that data that the large economies seek to own and use to create a value on nature for the benefit of investors and industries. And since this data cannot be accounted for twice, developing countries, indigenous peoples, and impacted communities will once again be removed from the value chains of our ecological biodiversity and public health.

COP 28: We’ll bring the bread.

In this regard, COP 27 is a ruse. For COP 28, we might want to consider regulated versions of capital exchange where developing countries, indigenous peoples, and impacted communities benefit from our own traditional or customary data sets and engage in a regulated form of market exchange that protects our biodiversity and profits from a growth model that restores our environments, revitalizes our communities, and repairs our histories.

Urgency matters. We may not have time for a picnic at COP 28, but between now and then, consider protocols for exchange and methodologies for valuing our interactions to restore environments. If all we are concerned with is reversing climate change, it may be as easy as surrendering one’s home to private capital and global wealth funds, but what we need to be fighting for is an equitable redistribution of global wealth because this planet and our future belong to all of us.

Disentangling DSM: Accounting for Spirituality and Wellbeing

An aerial view shows wooden pontoons equipped to dredge the seabed for deposits of tin ore off the coast of Toboali, on the southern shores of the island of Bangka, Indonesia, on May 1. Willy Kurniawan/Reuters

Deep seabed mining (DSM) is the latest extractive industry threatening the ecological biodiversity in a little known frontier we call the deep seabed. The entanglement of extractive industries in the Pacific is a vestige of its racist and imperialist past when the Pacific was little more than a ripe fruit targeted at being picked, a follow-up to economic interests that degrade, deplete, pollute, oppress and profit from a long history of despair, dispossession and alienation. In the Pacific, DSM will exploit our common heritage while undermining the genuine security of our customary ocean home. Yet, the talking heads of these mining interests asserts that for remote islands and poor impacted peoples, this new industry will generate huge economic windfalls and provide the missing piece guaranteeing sustainable development in the Pacific.

There are about 30 Pacific Island Countries and Territories* with varying political and economic administrations. While there are twelve fully independent Pacific Island countries the rest have populations and economies dependent upon colonial or former colonial metropoles amassing an area approximately 31 million square kilometers (19 million sq miles). Pasifika or the Pacific Continent is a body of water that is about as large as the entire land mass of this planet. And within this vast area is a population of about 11 million people, most of them poor by World Bank standards, with the independent countries classified as least developing or low-performing countries. The territories and occupied nations, however, are an exception since their economies are tied to the advanced economies. The populations of these areas while comprising only about 16% of the total regional population, generally reflects the high GDP of the administering powers.

Indeed, perhaps the greatest obstacle for small developing countries under the current economic system is that there are few options outside of tourism and our fisheries for participating in the global economy. We are classified as underdeveloped or low performing because of poor infrastructure, lack of access, or corruption. Our governments are reminded that we are cursed by remoteness and small size and that we are hindered by a reliance upon a development aid scheme that refuses to recognize or value our inherent wealth, since only our extracted resources have a market value. In this context, one can perhaps see why DSM appears as an attractive option to the developing states of the Pacific.

Consider Nauru, for example, a small Pacific Island state once rich with guano. After having depleted its commodity resource it was close to becoming a failed state, with few available options for viably participating in the global economy. Nauru has since become an offshore tax haven for the rich and a detention center for migrants seeking asylum in Australia. Although the detention centers are closed, this tiny country had become notorious for human rights abuse and global health violations from lack of infrastructure and oversight. Nauru is now the target for DSM, which the government wholly embraces despite the regional protests of Pacific peoples who understand that the promotion of this industry will create conditions that will not only threaten the biodiversity of the region but disrupt the traditional livelihoods that people and communities depend upon.

The proponents for DSM– investment regimes, the military subcontractor Lockheed-Martin, many in the tech industry who greenwash precautionary principles by asserting that the minerals in the deep seabed will lower greenhouse gas emissions–are looking to secure licensing with small island states and are offering what seem like lucrative contracts to fragile Pacific Island governments. The ISA, the International Seabed Authority, tasked with protecting our common heritage of humankind, is ultimately deciding upon the future of DSM. But DSM is not simply another fruit to be picked, a benign nodule that has fallen from a fruit tree to be sold at the market. DSM is an extractive industry predicated upon the inherent racism, degradation and depletion of our human dignity and ecological wellbeing. The heritage of humankind should be measured by our interconnectedness with life, our mutual interaction with people and planet.

Against this seemingly inevitable buildup towards DSM, over the last decade environmental, scientific, indigenous and civil society organizations have all flagged precautions against DSM. People are organizing to resist DSM through a moratorium or ban on mining. The Pacific Conference of Churches have also put forward a spiritual dimension challenging DSM and the further degradation and depletion of our regional resources, arguing that our wellbeing is intrinsic to our interactions with the ocean, our home and our economy.

Framing the Problem: It’s Accounting Stupid!

The question we should be asking is how it has come to be that a territory as vast as the Pacific Continent, rich with culture, traditional practice, and an immense ecological biodiversity has one of the lowest performing measurements of GDP per capita? Pacific peoples should be the wealthiest in the world. with per capita wealth like the fictional country of Wakanda from the movie Black Panther, or at least Dubai.

When advanced economies exclude countries based upon their lack of commodities or resources for exploitation, that is not the failure of small countries, it is the failure of an international accounting regime that has willfully and woefully excluded populations for the benefit of embracing their own industries and profit.

When advanced economies exclude countries based upon their lack of commodities or resources for exploitation, that is not the failure of small countries, it is the failure of an international accounting regime that has willfully and woefully excluded populations for the benefit of embracing their own industries and profit. This is the institutionalized theft and legalized fraud common to the economics of extraction.

Countries like Nauru with its population of just over 10,000 shouldn’t be cozying up with DSM industrialists just to receive a piddling of percentage points of profits and some infrastructure.  Rather, a Pacific-wide population of 11 million responsible for the ecological stewardship of 31 million sq. kilometers has tremendous value if we were to measure our economies according to conservation systems rather than in extraction, degradation and depletion. Yet there is no inclusion for this data in the current economic accounting system.

Revisions of the UN System of National Accounts (SNA), as far back as 1993, included considerations to account for ecological degradation and depletion. Yet despite revisions and alternative accounting programs, they were continually rejected, accused of being too experimental. On the other hand, the inclusion of military systems and R&D is deemed legitimate because somehow “national security” and “anticipated losses” could be adjusted into GDP aggregates. The accounting of degradation and depletion could have already begun to reverse greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, reduced poverty indicators globally, and provided greater protections to our ecological biodiversity decades ago.

In 2021, the UN Statistical Division did finally adopt a System of Environmental and Economic Accounts (SEEA), even though it was far less rigorous than the 2003 manual. With each revision, the influence of industrialized economies readily dismissed the obligations of good environmental governance, until it could mainframe a system that would ultimately benefit corporate investment and privatization regimes.

If we were to charge industrialized economies with an unprincipled, immoral global negligence, the perpetrators would be those who would sacrifice our climate security to ensure that all our natural assets would conform to a market economy. Unless our Pacific leaders can initiate their own regional accounting revisions, small Pacific Island states will never be able to contribute to the global economy on par with other regions. Governments should be lobbying the UN Statistical Division to demand that they explore alternative accounting methodologies that benefits all regions, not just industrialized ones.

Spirituality and Wellbeing are Rightsholders in the Global Economy.

Until we begin the process for revising our national accounts we need an accounting that is informed by our spirituality and wellbeing. We cannot genuinely understand the value of our ecological biodiversity, until we have a principled and moral base with which we can measure our interactions with people and our environments. This is not to say that organized religions should determine an economic value based upon our spiritual practice, rather, that our houses of worship are like divining rods guiding our assessment of what is pure and sacrosanct in the wellbeing of our people. And it is precisely this fostering of our wellbeing that is grossly lacking from our economics.

An organization is challenging this very issue. The IF20, a G20 Interfaith Forum, is promoting a webinar, “Ecological Racism and Deep-Sea Mining in the Pacific.” One of the organizers of this event, Rev Dr Upolu Luma Vaai from the Pacific Theological College in Fiji– at the forefront of addressing ecological issues regionally– forwards that “racism is not just a human issue, it is also an ecological issue,” and it is the very systemic racism inherent in the global economic system that threatens our ecological regional stability.

If the “antidote for ecological racism is to accept and embrace the full dignity and sacredness of ecology,” then the outcome of this meeting should be to identify actionable paths where the anti-racism initiative in the IF20 can influence policy making both in the Pacific and the international community. It is precisely through the actionable path of ecological accounting, that spirituality and wellbeing can begin to repair the damage from commodity driven mining ventures.

Ending the Violence of GDP.

If we are proposing to revise National Accounting systems to be reflective of equity, human dignity and community self-determination, we need to have a much more robust conversation about the international classification of indicators and how we measure and value our economic interactions with people and planet.

For the weight that GDP is given, it provides a very poor measurement of the global economy and is arguably the leading structural deficiency most responsible for climate change, the loss of our ecological biodiversity, and conditions of poverty on our health and wellbeing.

Factors of production and consumption, distribution and exchange of our goods and services are economic aggregates, and as such have been used extensively to determine the wealth of our economies. The current global standard is GDP 0r Gross Domestic Product, and certainly since it was adopted as a standard measurement in the post-war era, it has been described as an economic mirror measuring the inputs and outputs of production and consumption and the flow of capital between countries. But for the weight that GDP is given, it provides a very poor measurement of the global economy and is arguably the leading structural deficiency most responsible for climate change, the loss of our ecological biodiversity, and conditions of poverty on our health and wellbeing.

There are historical postwar reasons that GDP was adopted to be the global standard for measuring our economy, and it has not come without cautionary warnings of what an unprincipled pursuit over these standards would result in and the potential negative impacts on the health and wellbeing or our populations. By ignoring the warnings of national accounting requiring comprehensive and considerable adjustment and engagement with global needs, GDP has ceased to be a useful measurement of our economic interactions and has instead become a weapon, a tool for oppression, degradation, depletion and wealth consolidation.

Simply put, economies measure our interactions with each other and environments and if all we are doing is measuring industrial inputs and outputs, then we are reflecting an economic measurement that is as accurate as a house of mirrors at an amusement park fun house.

As the current economic measurement, GDP is an optical illusion that does little to reflect our interaction with each other and the environment. image link

Towards a Fair and Just International System of Ecological Accounting

For the Pacific, the decision is simply whether the region wants to advance climate objectives on its own, or wait for the industrialized Global North to invent another eco-neoliberal top-down consent scheme that will provide some immediate cash in hand while greenwashing climate objectives for the benefit of the wealthy few. Since GDP has been weaponized and used to justify systemic theft of human and environmental capital, the authority over the 21st century requires that we immediately put into practice a revised statistical accounting system focusing on the three things that GDP has ignored: global wealth redistribution, reversing climate change, and restoring our ecological biodiversity.

Ecological and economic justice issues like climate change, our ecological biodiversity, systemic racism, and wealth disparities should have always been a factor in the way that we measure national economies. The importance of statistical national accounting is to raise the development and engagement of our populations, which means to end poverty, not cause it; to sustain our common heritage, not exploit it for the benefit of the few; to pursue an accounting of peace, not privilege the profits from war and armaments; and to promote health and wellbeing, and recognize that what is spiritual is our planet and the interdependence of life.

We know that ecological accounts can be financialized and self-sustaining, so it is important that the Pacific establishes a regional regulatory framework that accounts for its ecological data on its own terms. How we do that does not necessitate that we throw the global economy into shock, because there are transitional approaches that governments and national central banks can utilize to adjust new statistical inputs and outputs the same way monetary controls are used to prevent inflation.

What most stands in the way, however, are the industries that cling to their share of global wealth and who have primarily benefited from the social instability caused by exploitation, degradation, and depletion. Captains of industries have the means to incentivize all kinds of destabilizing, obstructive, and containment strategies but they also have the ability to cooperate and understand that co-opting or controlling environmental and social governance should not be their sole objective. We are all responsible for our collective future and should work together to shift our statistical global accounts to reflect the needs of future generations. Transitioning our global economy should not be a top-down policy initiative, but a bottom-up peoples approach that is inclusive not exclusive; with benefits that are accountable to all rather than arbitrary and capricious for the few.

Disentangling extractive industries from the Pacific is a moral obligation that speaks to the systemic racism and disregard for our ecological biodiversity. Deep seabed mining is no different from the terrestrial degradation and depletion that has impeded the development of our own ecological and economic interactions. If we are to repair this systemic fraud around national accounting systems, the only action is systemic reparations. If only as an anti-racism initiative, the ISA needs to recognize that the common heritage of our ocean is not simply another fruit to be picked. Our common heritage of humankind is our interaction with people and planet.

*Occupied or dependent territories include Christmas, Cocos, Norfolk (Australia), Rapanui or Easter Island (Chile), West Papua (Indonesia), New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna (France), Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau (NZ), American Samoa, Guam, Hawaii, Northern Marianas Islands (US), and the Pitcairn Islands (UK).