Six Capitals -or Can Accountants Save the Planet?

Jane Gleeson-White is the author of Six Capitals and the key-note speaker at the conference Rethinking Accounting, March 12 in Oslo.

The growth machine of industrial capitalism sold us the stories of competition and survival of the fittest, and we perpetuate them. Across the world, governments hold strong and steady to their austere retreat from the provision of social safety, leaving more of our collective fate in the hands of a blinkered, profit-driven private sector. We are told to fit in with the ‘rules of the game’ rather than daring to ask if this is a game we want to be playing. Gleeson-White dares to ask, and dares us to join her in re-writing the rules; to instil new conceptions of value into the DNA of both businesses and governments and pave the way for a system of economic reporting that tells the true story of human action and impact.

We live in a world driven by prices: debits and credits, profits and growth. Accountants have been trained to decipher, capture and share the stories these variables tell. Their principled approach to providing a ‘true and fair view’ of individuals, businesses and governments rank our people according to their income and their debts, our private sector through its balance sheets, and our countries through their GDP.

In the book Six Capitals, Jane Gleeson-White poses the question “Can accountants save the planet?”. To do so, she proposes an evolution of ideas and a revolution in how we value our future on this one, shared planet. Unapologetic in her rebuke of narratives of success driven by profit alone, she lends weight to Keynes’ remark, that only “once we allow ourselves to be disobedient to the test of an accountant’s profit, we have begun to change our civilization.”

True to her profession in the accuracy of her arguments yet leading the charge against its limitations, Gleeson-White makes the case for her readers and professional counterparts to move away from purely monetised checks and balances on the economic, ecological and social wellbeing of our planet. The book does a remarkable job of unpacking the murky, misunderstood and jargon-infused waters of accounting, economics and finance, to make clear that these variables only tell one side of the century-long story of human activity.

Backed by hard evidence and far-reaching moral ambitions, Six Capitals makes a compelling case for why it is our responsibility – and furthermore, within our power – to demand the full story. To do so, we are urged to lend our voices to the quiet, until now disparate, global movement that is underway to measure and mitigate the impact that consumption, business ventures and corporation building has had on our earth. This movements’ seemingly modest call for an integrated approach to measuring and reporting on value and impact has potentially revolutionary consequences.

A ‘Six Capitals’ approach provides a practical way forward to measure human activity in a way that has an ecological and social conscience. In addition to the financial capital that we chase, capture and promote, there are five – until today, largely marginalized – forms of capital that she proposes we reconstruct our narratives around. Intellectual capital, human capital, social or relationship capital and – last but not least – natural capital, have been overshadowed by the lasting hegemony of financial capital and manufactured capital. We have ignored them at our own peril.

It is, as she says, difficult to deny that we need better measurements. Today’s private sector accounts can only convey twenty to thirty percent of value, and social and ecological impact is consistently underreported. Although we hear of continued growth and are provided with regular stock-market reminders that ‘business is booming’, our countries burn, human beings without homes go hungry and more than one million species face extinction.  As we continue to make decisions based on financial numbers alone, we confine ourselves to a narrative that promotes, above all, risky forays into the short-term world of profit maximisation.

Photo by NASA
The Gulf of Mexico seen from outer space

The ‘old guard’ within the professions of economics, accounting and finance still seek to persuade us with truisms from the 18th century – whether its Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” or our paramount propensity to consume and foster growth. We continue to be led by this narrative of endless economic growth, to believe that our individual motivations are static and single-minded. These ‘amoral’ views are out of sync with the human tensions and ecological realities of the present day.

However outdated, there is no denying that these beliefs have propelled us in to the current era of winners and losers in the 21st century. Fighting for our own survival, we have been able to overlook the ‘losers’ on other sides of the globe and in other echelons of our societies. Gleeson-White does not lay any blame, but traces the lineage of the structures that directed us onto the current race to the bottom. It may be confronting to admit that we continue to be driven by the same motivations that took British and Dutch colonisers into unchartered territory centuries ago – access to new markets, increased profits, exploitation of new resources and unlimited economic growth. But it is a truth she urges us to confront, and change.

While it may seem easier to continue to call these impacts “externalities” to economically justified human activity, Gleeson-White lays out centuries of proof of the definitive role that such oppressive and confined narratives have had on the destruction of social and natural capital in the name of financial gains. A Six Capitals approach gives us a framework to change this – one that makes nature and society count.

Evolution, or revolution, in the incentives and mindsets that drive human activity is Gleeson-White’s proposed way forward for us to address the two most ‘wicked’ problems of our time: turbulent stock markets and a volatile earth. Whichever path we choose, we are the only ones who can demand and create change – collectively. For a better future, governments and the private sector must re-write the narrative with us, to change the rules of the game.

Long ago, Plato told us that “those who tell stories rule society.” This book reminds us of this; of our power to take control of our planet’s narrative and our one human species. The knowledge we share has a unique ability to ‘inform or deceive’, ‘enlighten or entertain’ – reveal or obscure. Readers are reminded of the power that old narratives have to foreshadow present reality, and so are reminded of the definitive power our human minds. Through the stories we tell, we direct the course of history. Together, we can write a new story as one human species, in an age-old continuum with nature that has infinite, uncaptured, and perhaps immeasurable value beyond financial capital, profit and GDP.

Written by Syra Khan, independent researcher trained in political economy, and member of Rethinking Economics Norge.

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