Accounting, it’s considered a dry pragmatic craft, not a science, not an art, just adding and subtracting columns of numbers to arrive at a tabulated result. The act itself is not particularly taxing, tedious; but do-able by almost anyone given the time and some peace and quiet. So, accounting is a simple trade, but in the end it has its own nobility. We use the results to gauge where we stand, to find how our efforts have shaped-up. The results, an account, provide the bones of our story, where we’ve come from, where we’ve gone. For Economics accounting provides the referees, the umpires who hold its players to the consequences of their actions so we can sort out the winners from the losers, the laudable from the cheats. Law and custom look to accounting to point out aberrations that require adjustments be made of the status quo to keep everything in good standing. In every aspect of life we hold accounting as a model, from blind justice with her scale to tick marks on a calendar to keep track of our chores; from the most august to the most mundane and on to our conceptions of some final arbitration of our own worth or that of our souls. In all of these ways, subtle and glaring, we use accounting as our model.
Externalities. The term has been hidden within Economics since the beginning of its study of human endeavor and its look for potential ways to measure our activities. It’s been there since the first human error in judgment, the first break with the world of pure instinct, our first attempts to outsmart the balanced books that were our pre-human inheritance. The behavior was there, but until a profession created a meretricious term for it; giving these blunders a safe place to hide on our balance sheets, we were ashamed, or at least embarrassed by these holes in our understanding of how our accounts broke down.
Along with a long list of civilization’s other inventions; war, poverty, wealth, despair, optimism, pessimism; Externalities as a concept, the justification for leaving out anything hard to quantify, or simply inconvenient to our wishes, can be seen as a founding principle. The term itself makes it sound as though it refers to trifles. This is its genius. It has allowed us to take the most fundamental reckonings and leave them out of our assessments. Upon this rock – displacement – we have built our edifice. It is the central myth upon which civilization stands.
This is not the fault of accountants. They, like the rest of us, do what’s expected, what’s rewarded, what’s encouraged. They share culpability with all of us for the “wink and a nudge” on which this falsehood rests. The trouble lies at the point, now arriving over the horizon – in distance or time or even just of attention – but close at hand, arriving in repeated, multiple, multi-directional, multi-sourced, many types of shocks and catastrophes. We carry on the accustomed rituals to make our accounting, to parse out fault, to pay out punishment, lay blame and relish in our innocence; but once we begin to unravel Externalities there can only be one conclusion. The entire edifice is faulty, rotten and cannot – not should not, or wouldn’t it be nice if it were somehow different – but can not continue as all the discounted debts reach a level where they will no longer be denied.
Even this language can be misunderstood – misunderstanding being one of our most valuable defenses. This is not to say that within what we agree to be economic activity there are piles of contractual agreements labeled “debts” that are larger than other piles labeled “assets,” although this is true; but that this entire human abstraction is constructed on a willful abandonment of the principles under-which a true accounting is made. This isn’t to say some heavenly accounting will right all wrong in an emotionally satisfying fit of destruction, vengeance and settling of scores; although just as the true-believers in Economics will insist on a “cash” reckoning as long as they draw breath; so will the true believers in emotional projection continue to read all that is happening as justification for their own death-seeking behavior, as they try to fulfill their dreams of a living “Hell” on this Earth.
The “real world” belongs to neither of these assemblages of human behavior. It’s precisely at the point when externalities bite from all sides, incessantly, inexorably that we begin to make our acquaintance with what the real world is made of. It’s here that all the refuges for pragmatism collapse as this last surviving “ism” breaks leaving who-ever may be left to acknowledge that nothing real can ever be dismissed as an externality. The urge for expediency is the source of this category labeled externals. We have them because it is easier, we perceive it as easier, to ignore difficult and complex matters; and we seem to prefer to deal piecemeal with “unintended consequences:” Black Elephants. We want to supplant necessity with wishes, we want to categorize consequences based on intention, as though the Universe would leave us an “out” when we feel its rules to be just too hard to follow.
It could be said that civilization is based upon the aggregated agreement to place human desire as the ultimate reality. While this no doubt began as an aberration, it has steadily gained and created adherents to this tenant to the point where, now as it reaches almost complete unanimity of agreement – having killed-off or driven insane anyone who’s ever opposed it – civilization teeters on the brink of foreclosure. What began as a mental aberration, a form of insanity, a psychosis in which a crippled perception of reality gained acceptance, has now reached a state when anyone daring to disbelieve is considered to be the crazy one. It has left us with withered tools and a broken natural legacy to face the aftermath of its juggernaut course. What we call History has been a series of ever-more desperate flights of fantasy. Each civilization’s fall – any of which could have been seen as a repudiation of its premises and learned from – has, instead been a launching point for an even more zealous outbreak leading to ever grander collapses. The Siren’s Song throughout has been, “But this is Human Nature!” This too is a self-justifying lie. As civilization has dealt with all of its lies – by killing anyone who dared oppose it – it has used this lie as a cover as it kills off whatever remains of cultures that prove this premise untrue.
Let’s go back to the discomfort with difficulty and complexity at the root of civilization. There was a point at which the values upheld by cultures predating this break – values passing on a respect for reality and the need, no more, the love of fitting into the totality of existence – were first attacked and destroyed by those whose pathology gave them an abusive advantage. As at the start of any Pyramid-scheme, this advantage “paid-off.” Even as each subsequent pathologized culture eventually crashed, the seduction of this advantage, the ease with which its adherents could dominate a successive period doomed us to continue to play and re-play this tragedy.
This, in fact, might be what took a difficult, complex, yet loved human condition within a spirit of a deep abiding love of existence itself and generated what we call tragedy, the flawed, yet deeply compelling desire to fight reality instead of loving experience. Civilization has worked unceasingly to glamorize this struggle and overplay its own advantages. In the end, “Methinks (they) protest too much!” We do not ever feel compelled to justify, to dramatize, to fight over that which is manifestly true, only over what we wish were true.
Civilization has attempted to usurp culture and technology as pertaining exclusively to its own societies’ activities and creations. Today we are incredulous to think otherwise. Study Externalities, and look for culture and technology outside the perverting influence of civilization’s fantasy view-point. This is the only path towards pulling ourselves out of this pathological spiral. Civilization’s propaganda attempts from every side to seduce, frighten and paralyze us into surrender and capitulation with its twisted views. It strives to strip us of the tools, capacities, even the desire to discern, to decipher or acknowledge the truth. What it can’t do is refute its lies much longer.
If we can refuse to ignore Externalities and refuse to believe in civilization’s monopolies on culture and technology then we have a way forward. While following Externalities we become re-acquainted with difficulty and complexity. While we look for truths within cultures of life we get stronger and find joy and acceptance of the limits of existence, we become increasingly immune to civilization’s attempts to co-opt us. While we use these two lessons to adopt a posture towards human technology we can begin to turn our actions from the realm of the annihilation of life towards its amelioration.
Civilization’s grip on us rests on the colossal fact it has never been successfully resisted in its entire course. What makes it a juggernaut is this seeming inevitability. This grip relies on our holding its assessment of success as our standard. This holds us in fear of doubt. This fear of doubt is its own fear, the fear that drove it into being, the fear that holds us all in its thrall. Doubt is the natural reaction to difficulty and complexity – how else should we feel when we are whelmed? In this way, embracing doubt removes us from civilization’s grasp, and at the same time prepares us to face what civilization has tried for all this time to evade, and to reject and resist all that through its fear of doubt it has loosed upon us and the world which now threatens all life on this Earth.
Civilization has based its power over us on getting us to believe we can only live breathing its air. It hypes our fears that any doubt is hazardous, merely a temptation to take us to our deaths outside its “benevolent” protection. When in fact, the doubt it fears most is our salvation, if we turn our doubt back on civilization itself. What if we don’t need it? What if it is the poison, not the cure? We all know these doubts in detail to be self-evident. What will it take for that doubt to spread, to cover the entire premise of civilization? Remember, Black Elephants have their tipping points too.
Let us begin to keep our own books. Let’s create our own ways of accounting. We can reconnect the practice with its source in the desire to find and tally what is true. In these our books, we will refuse the out of Externalities and instead create a column for normative doubt; doubt that we can have all the answers, doubt that our will is always our best guide, doubt that we can ever know enough about reality to presume.