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How accounting can reformulate the debate on the Natural Capital and help to implement its ecological conceptualisation?

Abstract : In this presentation, we firstly give a critical analysis of Natural Capital (NC), in order to clarify the differences between its economic and ecological approaches. Secondly, we connect this debate with the concept of capital in accounting. We argue that accounting theory provides a relevant framework to structure the debate on NC and to implement its ecological conceptualisation. Thus, in the first part, we question the notion of “capital” itself and assert that “capital” is not prima facie money or a mean of production but is a type of power (Nitzan & Bichler, 2009). Indeed, this concept is consubstantial of Modernity, characterized by the Subject/Object dichotomy (Latour, 2004), and of capitalism – a particular modality of the Modern cosmology –, defined as a societal institution based on the unlimited expansion of the rational mastery of Subjects over Objects (Castoriadis, 1998): Capital is the operationalization of this rational mastery. Therefore, by definition, NC is not another type of capital: NC is the natural part of Capital, i.e. the recognition that the Capital partially stems from environmental Objects and so that, these Objects, in the same time, are means under the control of Subjects and contribute to the growth of the power and welfare of these last ones. Now, in economics, Capital has two fundamental forms that we will detail: the fundist one and the materialist one (Hicks, 1974). Their application to NC can clarify the concepts of weak and strong sustainability: in particular, strong sustainability is a specific materialist conceptualisation of NC and so remains based on a capitalist approach. In these conditions, the utilization of the notion of NC by ecologists gives raise to confusion, because it does not rely on capitalism. Ecological NC (ENC) is not “welfare-based” but “stuff-based” (Norton, 2005), i.e. ENC is really another type of capital, whose role is to focus on the preservation of environmental entities. So we will explain what a capital is in this context. In the second part, we firstly claim that double-entry bookkeeping accounting is relevant to reformulate the different viewpoints about NC. Indeed, for capitalism, firms are automated tools which manage some assets in order to develop the Capital of shareholders, the “real” Subjects. Thus, at the corporate level, the economic notion of Capital is not a liability, whose specific conservation implies accountability issues, but is an asset. Therefore the capitalist NC is also an asset, a mere mean. Now, for traditional accounting, capital is a liability. The standard accounting capital is money: its maintenance is the cornerstone of accounting and led to the creation of powerful instruments, like the planned depreciation. So we argue that ENC must also be seen as a liability: therefore, at the corporate level, the difference between a capitalist and an ecological NC relies on the difference between assets and liabilities. In these conditions, we finally suggest that the development of an ecological conceptualisation of NC naturally rests on the extension of the traditional accounting maintenance instruments to this new capital (cf. (Rambaud & Richard, 2013). References Castoriadis, C. (1998). The Imaginary Institution of Society. (K. Blamey, Trans.) (p. 426). MIT Press. Hicks, J. R. (1974). Capital Controversies: Ancient and Modern. American Economic Review, 64(2), 307–316. Latour, B. (2004). Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy (p. 307). Harvard University Press. Nitzan, J., & Bichler, S. (2009). Capital as Power. A Study of Order and Creorder (p. 463). Routledge. Norton, B. G. (2005). Sustainability (p. 607). The University of Chicago Press. Rambaud, A., & Richard, J. (2013). The Triple Depreciation Line ( TDL ) against the Triple Bottom Line ( TBL ): Towards a genuine integrated reporting (p. 40).
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Alexandre Rambaud. How accounting can reformulate the debate on the Natural Capital and help to implement its ecological conceptualisation?. 9th International Conference in Critical Management Studies , Jul 2015, Leicester, United Kingdom. ⟨halshs-01260060⟩

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