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.

Development Migration

Regional Meeting on Climate Change and Migration in the Pacific
7-9 December 2016
Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Suva, Fiji
(text below Powerpoint)

Aloha kakou, aloha kakahiaka. Than you to the Forum Secretariat and ESCAP. I am honored to be here at this Regional Meeting on Climate Change and Migration in the Pacific, so please allow me to convey my appreciation to our host, and to Tim for providing me the opportunity to speak.

Since this is a conference about migration and displacement, I should let you know that both of my great-grandparents arrived in Hawaii in the 19th century– one came from Japan during the Kingdom years, and the other came from Okinawa just after the US claimed Hawaii as a territory.

Hawaii and the US are places where I think it’s important to understand its colonial history, and even if you come from generations of settler colonialists, there is still an obligation to engage the customary stewards of the place and trust that native practitioners retain a deep knowledge of customary properties.

With the lure and promises of capital and industry, it is often easy to forget that it is the stewardship that has a value that cannot really be understood or measured  by those who have only settled to impose its colonial ambitions without integrating and without recognizing the bond that people have with their environment.

If any of you have been following the protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline that was recently halted in native tribal lands, many in the US have woken up and realized how right our tribal first nations have been regarding their customary and environmental rights and how arrogant industries and settler colonialists have been. It is difficult to express how deeply deeply moving it was to see U.S. war veterans drop to one knee and beg forgiveness to tribal leaders for their arrogance, theft, fraud, rape, and genocide.

In our Moana nui, our liquid continent, we know very well that it is the ocean that binds our sea of islands, and so as we discuss ocean governance and our people policy, we must do so on our terms. So by flipping this map, I’m hoping that we can reset, rethink, re-imagine and fully realize the economic capacity of resilience.

2. What I hope to convey today is that it is up to the Pacific to account for the equity in the region and that the value of its ecological biodiversity can best be determined if the Pacific island states and territories can approach ecological integration, and rethink how we account for loss and damage, because what we have been led to believe to be deficits may really be assets, and vice versa.

Since ESCAP is in the room, I’m putting this slide up because one of the reasons that it is so difficult to convey how fundamental statistical accounts are– is because we rarely hear about them, and I think that is because accountants and data statisticians are supposed to be non-political.

The purpose Statisticians serve is not to create policy, but rather to aggregate and account data. But this separation between policy and statistical accounting needs to actively change because when we look back 30 years from now and ask ourselves have we done everything we could to save our homes, or make the region a better place, my answer will depend upon whether we were able to integrate ecologically and account for our equity on terms that are meaningful for us.

3. To reiterate, have we done what we can to protect the ecological biodiversity of our region, and have we been able to maximize the value in how we account for our regional assets so that we could leverage our collective equity to be on par with the other regions of the world.

It really is not too much to ask considering how low the per capita ratio of the region is relative to the vastness of its size as John Connell reminds us, but I would add that climate change impacts is a direct result of the way National Accounting systems overweigh the value of production and consumption.

The moment we begin to account for ecological biodiversity– and shift how our region is valued– the equity it possesses, becomes absolutely tremendous.

In part, we do not see this because we do not have a cohesive oceans governance framework, certainly not one that we are building on our terms with our own priorities. I believe this is what Iosepha  addressed when he asked how we quantify damage and loss.

Given what ESCAP is working with at this time, I’m not sure if the Pacific will benefit as a region when the market begins to treat ecological biodiversity as an asset, that is something that Pacific Leaders have to make a decision upon, and soon, while the window of opportunity remains open.

5. And the question that I really want to ask is why is there no Pacific representation in the Statistical Commission? I do see observers from Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu and PNG sometimes, but I see no interventions or plans for studying in the area.

What the Pacific can do is– and this is not only for the sake of our region, but for the sake of our planet– but what we can do is reset our regional ecological baseline, so that we can—as one example– revalue our Marine Protected Areas. But in order to do that we have to understand how the adoption of environmental accounts are going to impact economies.

We need to recognize the accounting of out MPAs will have tremendous potential equity in the global market, with a value that is far greater than something industrialized economies can offset their carbon deficits to–

Either the Pacific will account for them, or some private trust or partnership with ties to big industry will account for them. This has to be addressed in the context of ocean governance because MPAs cannot be accounted for twice.  Even public-private partnerships should be reconsidered because the value of a government’s share will still be pegged to carbon pricing.

Monetary– market price of products from MPAs, value of carbon storage… avoiding costs of maintenance and management, etc

Quantitative: amount of people enjoying products from MPA, volume of stored carbon, volume of commodifiable resources, etc

Qualitative: range of various benefits provided by MPA, dependency of people on these benefits…

6. I would argue that these MPAs are worth so much more. If you take the previous slide and move it to the top of the pyramid, and redraw our baseline to how we could value the equity, the value of these MPAs outgrow their carbon expenditures and again, it would be a shame to peg the value or our biodiversity on carbon expenditures.

Our ecological biodiversity is intrinsically tied to who we are as the Pacific, and I think everyone in the room could at least acknowledge that the Pacific has the capacity to leverage this equity to provide for security, habitability, sustainability, and growth that is commensurate with the Pacific Way.

Both the SDGs and the Climate accords are embracing sustainable ecological accounting and trying to define the blue economy, but we need a far greater understanding or our equity for us to reassess how we value what should be defined as our blue awesomeness.

7. I know that many of you understand National Accounting Systems, but I want to quickly address it,

National Accounts are a mirror of the economy and it reflects the overall value of the economy in a set of figures that requires many decisions that are informed by both regional and international policy. At the moment GDP or Gross Domestic Product is the national accounting system that most states use that standardize the measurement of our national economies.

There are many different possibilities. How you account for data, where that data is stored, how you aggregate that data, and account for it in a statistical framework is all managed by standards, policies and markets.

National Accounts affects the strength of our economy– and that influences what we can leverage for investment to banks and lending institutions, the value of our bonds.  This also includes how we value loss and damage which is important for insurance and catastrophe bonds. It is an economic fundamental on how we choose to regulate and participate in all kinds of market schemes.

8. In the current GDP system, consumption is weighted very heavily, and Capital formation is a term used to describe the net capital accumulation for a particular country, and refers to  capital stock, such as equipment, tools, transportation assets and electricity, research and development, military systems, but by and large it ignores the priorities of the Pacific.

When it comes to environmental degradation, you’re talking about a value that is far more abstract because you’re accounting for loss.  The impacts of degradation on ecological biodiversity is essentially a value of life. Additionally, in terms of valuation, when we think about consumption costs, we do not often take into consideration the cost of primitive accumulation another Marxian economic term that generally means theft of resources.

Simply pegging the value of degradation on the value of carbon expenditures seems very much like a giveaway and it’s important for the region to reassess that value appropriately.

9. The SEEA or the System of Environmental Economic Accounting is the crux of this presentation.  The SEEA is an internationally agreed upon statistical framework that measures the environment with its interactions with the economy.

It was adopted as a statistical standard framework by the UN Statistical Commission in 2012 and included the cooperation of the large international institutions. 

The details of the framework are still up in the air, and I would ask our leaders to task ESCAP for more Pacific representation. In terms of its application to SDG 14, only a couple of the targets and processes have been met, and we need to be more present in this discussion.

10. The 2012 SEEA framework was based on the 2003 SEEA Handbook which set out to explore how sets of statistical accounts can be compiled which would provide investigation and analysis of the interaction between the economy and environment. By integrating the environmental and economic, different patterns of production and consumption were studied, particularly when it accounts for environmental degradation as a deficit.

New ecological aggregates based on degradation and depletion could be used to measure not only the consequences for the economy, but the consequences for the ecological well-being of our planet as well. One of the things that makes the 2003 SEEA an invaluable resource guide is the analysis of what has been rejected. The adoption of the 2012 SEEA framework, however, should not be seen as a big win for small island states, but it should be seen as a necessary opportunity for Small Island States to review their regional equity in light of loss and damage in the context of climate change.

11. In 2009, French president Nicolas Sarkozy  commissioned a report Measuring Economic Performance and Social Progress which was headed by Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen– two of the world’s leading economists.

I don’t know if this text is translated from the French, but it says that our current GDP measurements will be flawed until environmental degradation is appropriately included in our measurements.

12. For advanced economies, consumption is literally overweighted. 

This cartogram makes it  easy to see how the GDP matrix privileges its own industries and economic priorities, and after several accounting revision processes, National Accounting systems have not yet created a more equitable accounting system that would redistribute wealth across income levels and regions.

A perfect example might be that a 20 year old kid in LA or NY who has a top charting pop song, may have a net worth greater than some small island economies.

13. The Ecological Footprint measures how much of the regenerative capacity of the biosphere is used up by human activities. It does so by calculating the amount of biologically productive land and water area required to support a given population at its current level of consumption.

Since the mid-1980s, humanity’s footprint has been larger than the planet’s carrying capacity, and humanity’s total Footprint has long ago exceeded the Earth’s biocapacity. When you consider this statement, how then would you value Ecological Biodiversity? I would start off by valuing it against the weight of the ecological footprint.

14. Here is another cartogram measuring Carbon Emissions.

So far, the carbon trading schemes of the Green Economy has privatized many environments and removed much of the human/customary activity, while industries have continued expanding their carbon footprint. The Blue Economy is likely to follow suit– but at this moment the Blue Economy has not really been defined. 

For the Pacific, can we just say that the Blue Economy needs to account for something much greater: and I’m going to call this “our Blue Awesomeness.”

15. What I want to draw your attention to in the proposed SEEA chart is valuation techniques.

If I were to apply this to Marine Protected Areas, I would say that the current wave of enclosures targeting the world’s fisheries and ocean is taking place within the same context as global land grabbing.

You can measure this in the upsurge and the changing use of land and its associated resources from small-scale, labour-intensive uses like subsistence agriculture, toward large-scale, capital-intensive, resource-depleting uses such as industrial monocultures, orraw material extraction, or… Services are being integrated and harmonized into a growing infrastructure of global industries and markets. 

This is all taking place in the broader context of changing global economic, financial, climate and environmental dynamics.

I believe that the SEEA identifies the problems when it asks how to “incorporate the effects of degradation in the national accounts. The first is how to place a value on degradation; the second how to locate this valuation in the accounts.”

16. In terms of Oceans Governance.  We have to remember that governance is about setting regulatory protections– coherence, compliance and enforcement– not establishing an institution to streamline and mainframe investment.

17. When one looks at the EEZs of the region, it’s so vast. Even if you only account that value so that the per capita baseline will be on par with other regions globally, that in itself would likely undervalue how the global market would value shares in natural capital models.

In terms of economic growth and opportunities, we should consider ecological regional integration of our Biological Diversity as a kind of Pacific OPEC. That may be a good launching pad to reimagine and recontextualize our future.

18. For context, here’s Dubai– this is from 1991, 2005 and 2012.  I think this picture conveys how quickly they have grown.

19. Here’s a couple of random slides of habitable islands imagined by designers– I just wanted to show that loss and damage should not have to account for migration. Again, the Pacific has tremendous equity and its customary stewardship of the region should not have to mean that Pacific Islanders need to leave their customary lands, atolls and reef systems to deal with all the conditions of displacement, poverty, unemployment and violence that is associated with migration.

It will be important for customary stewards to imagine what designs and systems work for them.

20. There are many opportunities for growth if islanders should choose: tourism, resource management or stewardship, there will be technology, monitoring, aquaculture, I think the future is absolutely wide open. 

For so long, financial institutions have asserted that distances between islands were deficits.

But I would completely turn that around and argue quite the opposite– that distances between islands should be treated as assets. the distances between islands are assets and that distance should be treated as an economic benefit to the region, and not a disparity.

Just as we are really good at defining who we are as a culture, we should also be really good at valuing where we are.