Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy
February 25, 2004. Accounting.
The book is almost done. Iím quite amazed. For a year Iíve been putting off even thinking about the edits on the book, they seemed so daunting, a mountain that I had to scale looming up at me on the horizon. When I started on them a year ago, I was so afraid that what Iíd written would turn out to be wrong. All that red underlining on the edited draft from one of my reviewers, her sarcastic comments, her occasional ďNO!Ē
But it was easy! I dragged it out to Rappahannock, the computer, the printed comments, the SNA manual, the SEEA manual. I bought my big strong coffee, settled into my seat in the back, booted up my laptop and opened the old files with trepidation. And then I realized that I just had to read the comments and decide. That suggestion, yes, it reads better than what I said, change it. The next one, no, I donít think so. That just isnít what I wanted to say, itís what the reviewer wanted me to say. And occasionally yes, I did get things wrong. Use of terms. Details that have always confused me. But just occasionally, not every page or even every chapter. And hey, thatís why it went to reviewers, so they could catch my mistakes and I could stand corrected. I decided I had to do a chapter a day, and I did, sometimes two or even three. Then some revised diagrams, some references. There are still a few bits to take care of, but basically itís DONE!
I donít suppose Iíve ever mentioned much about the content of this book, have I? Oh, itís nerdy, geeky, technical stuff. Nothing chatty or gossipy or wryly observant about life. No middle-aged angst about who I am or how I should be living my life or whether I can reduce my impact on the world. Whew, what a way to put it! Most people want to increase their impact on the world, be known, be known, make changes, create things, and here I am talking about how to reduce my impact. Hmm.
The book is about accounting. Boring, meticulous, dreary accounting. Accounting for the environment, though, so that makes it just a bit sexier than it could be. Actually, I think accounting is fascinating, even ordinary ďconventionalĒ (my pickiest reviewer hated when I used that word in the book) national income accounting. National income accounts are the data systems that governments build to track their economies. They are organized a bit like corporate accounts, following a set of rules that have been defined over the past sixty or so years through the efforts of economists and statisticians in governments and international organizations - the United Nations, the World Bank, the European Community, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and no doubt
some others that Iíve forgotten. The official accounting rules Ė the System of National Accounts, itís called Ė is a 700-page technical manual that explains picky details about what a product is, what makes an activity be part of our economy and not our neighborís, what we add together to calculate Gross National Product or growth rates or productivity or other economic measures that we hear about on the news every day.
Accounting is fascinating if you enjoy the repeated realization that the devil really is in the details. Sure, itís incredibly dull to think about the difference between rock that gets pulled out of a mineshaft and dumped in a heap and rock that gets pulled out of a mineshaft and dumped on a driveway. But hey, that matters! Rock that gets dumped in a heap is waste, it causes environmental problems later on and contributes nothing to the economy. Rock that gets dumped on a driveway is
being recycled. It has an economic value, it saves the mining company money that it can spend on more useful things than piling up excess rock, it provides input goods to a landscaper without having to take other materials out of the environment, it means someone has a pervious gravel driveway instead of an impervious cement one. If our accounts let us see the different between rock in a heap and rock in a driveway, we know how well weíre doing at recycling instead of consuming more than we need to. And knowing how well weíre doing is important, because we want to put our effort into the most productive activities Ė but to find them, we have to know how weíre doing.
Details, sure. Picky stuff. But picky stuff that could make us into a more efficient, more sustainable society, a society that put its efforts into reusing things instead of making new ones and keeps its environment clean instead of suffering from contamination later on.
Environmental accounting is about figuring out how to use the SNA to track the links between our economy and our environment, and how to modify the SNA if it doesnít do a good enough job as itís written. My book is an attempt to explain how people really do environmental accounting, and why, and how the structure of the conventional accounts dictates what we can and cannot do in the environmental accounts. And from there, how well the environmental accounts will really let us understand and perhaps resolve our environmental problems. Right now only the accountants know how the environmental accounts really work, because it is picky and technical, because to understand the environmental accounts, all 700 pages of them, you have to understand many of the 700 pages of the SNA, as well. But I want more people to know how the environmental accounts work Ė environmentalists, and policy people, and economists, and people who donít even know what the national income accounts are but do want our society to make more informed decisions about how we use resources and how we keep our air and water clean for our grandchildren and their grandchildren. So Iíve been trying to explain it all in plain English, to people who donít have any of the background, who have never heard of the production boundary or supply and use tables, who donít know what we mean by a balancing item.
Even people like you, perhaps.