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Reflections on the call for papers “Accounting for the circular economy” in Accounting Forum
Submission deadline: October 31, 2020
By Diane-Laure Arjaliès, Michelle Rodrigue, and Andrea Romi
Let’s be clear. Guest editing a special issue is an unspeakable source of pleasure: collaborating with colleagues, helping authors find their voice, consolidating a research project, contemplating the product of our dreams taking shape as days and nights and review letters unfold… and writing an editorial with no worry about whether the latter will be accepted or not feels nice, fun and – let’s admit it – ego flattering. Although we do love the research community and contributing to the latter, one must also admit that we might well spend our time doing something else, like hiking, renovating houses or taking care of our kids. Academics are also human beings, after all.
So, let’s be clear again. If we proposed this call for papers on “Accounting for the Circular Economy” to Accounting Forum, it is because we felt that we desperately needed it. Yes, the research on the circular economy is not new, albeit it might have been approached under a different label (see Milne and Gray, 2013). Yes, Schumacher (1973) is right in his assessment that knowledge and understanding are gradual processes of great subtlety. And yes, there have been other calls in the past on sustainability and accounting that look similar. But still, we have not solved humxnkinds’ most significant problems – such as the imminent collapse of ecosystems all over the world, the drama of the microplastic polluting our oceans or the rise of global inequalities, among many others.
How can a call for papers on the circular economy for accounting help? First, because even if in a matter of six decades we have achieved little, it does not mean we should stop trying to influence and stimulate change. Hope is life, and one should fight till the end, if not for us, at least for the next generations. After all, many of us do our best to be compassionate individuals. Second, because there is actually relatively little research on the circular economy in the field of accounting specifically – yet this is maybe a place where accountants could play a key role and where (for once) research could trigger real change. Last, because a special issue can provide a space for scholars to engage in an open dialogue, and hopefully act toward the betterment of all.
In the rest of this blog, we will elaborate on each of these points. We will also bring some evidence on the state of the planet – in case there are still some readers who believe that we are participating in a giant conspiracy attempt – and explain why we should keep fighting and hoping. But as we are also aware that some might need to rush to the classroom, let us summarize what we are looking for in this special issue:
We will host a workshop at the CSEAR NA Conference in July 2020, during which we will provide developmental reviews, but you are not obliged to attend in order to submit. Deadline is October 31st. Now that you know the practicalities, let’s dig into the research itself.
The United Nation Convention on Biological Diversity just released a report indicating the Earth’s animal population is facing unprecedented mass extinction rates during the next ten years due to the ongoing biodiversity crisis (Yeung, 2020). Biodiversity is fundamental to the survival of humxnity and while there have been environmental effort and attention to this issue over time, the problem is “projected to continue or worsen under business-as-usual scenarios.” The outlook for Earth and its inhabitants looks even more dire when we turn to scientists. A recent article in Science, titled “Pervasive human-driven decline of life on Earth points to the need for transformative change,” addresses the idea that scientists have been raising a red flag and calling for societal change, reducing our impact on nature, for decades, yet the natural environment continues to decline due mainly to the abundance of humxn consumption (Díaz et al., 2020). They too address that only an immediate transformation of the “global business-as-usual economies and operations will sustain nature as we know it, and us, into the future” (Díaz et al., 2020, p. eaax310).
So, here we are, writing about the same issues of those in the 1960s, warning humxns of their actions and the broken production processes, driven by capitalist economics and the marketization of mass production and consumption. And, in spite of all this research-based activity and evidence, a recent internal United States’ Department of Homeland Security document described five non-violent climate activist who cut through fencing and turned off valves on several pipelines carrying crude oil from Canada's tar sands to refineries as "extremists" (Federman, 2020). Sharing space in a category to date reserved for the likes of white supremacists and mass killers. So, what then is the answer? Business as usual? Continue to fight a significantly worsening issue with the same tactics and the same research? Haven’t we been taught since childhood that we can overcome such overwhelming tasks? Is this a David and Goliath moment? Can we be the tortoise and still beat the rapidly detrimental environmental hare? Are these stories just that, a method to keep the common humxn reliant on hope even in the direst situations, refocusing them from the key issues at hand, the real culprit – the system? Or is it sufficient to merely gather in pubs and critically dismantle all attempts toward such positive change? We would argue this is not working given that the amount of degradational change to Earth over the last half-century is almost incommensurable.
Yet, in spite of growing criticisms about inevitable failures on the part of ever-consuming humxns, we refuse to give up. We instead choose to grasp at hope, even if small. There have been true success stories of humxnkind’s impact on the combination of extinction and preservation. In 1918, a supply ship ran aground on Lord Howe Island. While being fixed, rats on board the ship escaped onto the island (Gibbens, 2017). These rats proceeded to feed on a very large insect known as the Dryococelus australis, or more commonly as the Stick Insect or Tree Lobster, driving the insect into extinction (humxn interventive extinction we should add). In the 1960s, rock climbers thought they saw the insect, yet no one was willing to scale the dangerous area at night, when the nocturnal insect could be examined. In 2001, intellectual curiosity and the desire for knowledge changed, and scientists decided to step up to the challenge and took four of those insects from the island to Australia for preservation. In a successful effort, this insect emerged from extinction, but it took intervention and a new perspective for the scientists and a new way of life for the insect, a similar combination we would argue needed to save humxnkind at the moment.
This brings us back to Schumacher and his claim that one of the most fateful errors of his time, and now our time again, is the belief that 'the problem of production' has been solved. Maybe our research needs to focus on “construct[ing] a political system so perfect that human wickedness disappears and everybody behaves well, no matter how much wickedness there may be in [them]” (Schumacher, 1973, p. 4). Maybe we need to shift our focus from influencing corporations to influencing the economic and political systems which support consumption and the dissolution of our natural world. This will not be an accounting solution alone, but an integrated solution, aligned with our research call. Research on the circular economy is not narrowly subject to discussions of production in a corporate and capitalist system, but might also provide empirical suggestions for some of the immediate and extreme change needed in our political and economic systems.
Successful attempts at transitioning to a circular economy model requires a systemic shift in business approaches - one in which value is redefined in order to find worth in elements that were once neglected or discarded; one in which traditional ways of doing business are cast aside and in which networks and partnerships are pivotal (Paquin & Howard-Grenville, 2013). While this shift has been discussed for some time now, in different disciplines and under different labels, the success of the transition remains ever evasive. This state of stagnation – Failure? - Utmost concern? - led us to develop this call for papers. Whether accounting for the circular economy it is old news to some or a new topic for others is beyond the point. What matters is to try yet again to stimulate change in our destructive economic system. Our call for papers aims to encourage scholars to (re)engage with the circular economy movement and reflect on the role of accounting in this process.
You can read more about our special issue here.
Díaz, S., Settele, J., Brondízio, E. S., Ngo, H. T., Agard, J., Arneth, A., Balvanera, P., Brauman, K. A., Butchart, S. H. M., Chan, K. M. A., Garibaldi, L. A., Ichii, K., Liu, J., Subramanian, S. M., Midgley, G. F., Miloslavich, P., Molnár, Z., Obura, D., Pfaff, A., Polasky, S., Purvis, A., Razzaque, J., Reyers, B., Chowdhury, R. R., Shin, Y-J, Visseren-Hamakers, I., Willis, K. J., and Zayas, C. N. 2020. Pervasive human-driven decline of life on Earth points to the need for transformative change. Science, (6471), eaax 3100.366. DOI: 10.1126/science.aax3100.
Federman, A. 2020. Revealed: US listed climate activist group as ‘extremists’ alongside mass killers. The Guardian, January 13, 2020. Accessible at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/13/us-listed-climate-activist-group-extremists
Gibbens, S. 2017. Huge 'Tree Lobster' not extinct after all. National Geographic, October 9, 2017 Accessible at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/10/lord-howe-island-stick-insect-dna-spd/#close
Milne, M. J., & Gray, R. (2013). W(h)ither Ecology? The Triple Bottom Line, the Global Reporting Initiative, and Corporate Sustainability Reporting. Journal of Business Ethics, 118(1), 13-29.
Paquin, R. L., & Howard-Grenville, J. (2013). Blind Dates and Arranged Marriages: Longitudinal Processes of Network Orchestration. Organization Studies, 34(11), 1623–1653.
Schumacher, E. F. 1973. Small is beautiful: Economics as if people mattered. New York: Harper & Row.
Yeung, J. 2020. “We have 10 years to save Earth's biodiversity as mass extinction caused by humans takes hold, UN warns”. CNN.com, January 20, 2020. Accessible at: https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/14/world/un-biodiversity-draft-plan-intl-hnk-scli-scn/index.html
 We rely on the alternative spelling of human (i.e., humxn) as a gender-inclusive expression repudiating the traditions that define all individuals by a reference to a male norm.