Accounting for apocalypse: Re-thinking social accounting theory and practice for our time of social crises and ecological collapse
Indicators show that we live in a time of unprecedented global crises. Violence and abuse are epidemic, social inequalities are increasing, the global socioeconomic system is locked on a path of ecocidal growth, and a climate catastrophe looms. These patterns indicate that our social systems are failing and require radical change. However, most social accounting research (“SAR”) and practice, in line with most of the wider fields of accounting research and practice, have ignored or underplayed these grave realities and have failed to analyse critically the systems of power from which these crises have arisen. And critical scholars have shown that this unreflective lack of critique is due in part to social accounting research and practice being inadvertently “captured” by hegemonic discourses and theories that serve as ideological props for existing systems of power. This thesis explores how SAR and practice could be re-oriented so as to be more effective in addressing the social and ecological crises we face today, first, by making use of a range of critical social theories to examine how social accounting research and practice might be “captured” and become complicit in perpetuating these crises, and secondly, by using ideas from Paulo Freire’s radical pedagogy to explore how they could more honestly confront these realities. The empirical centrepiece of the analysis is the Building Capacity for Sustainable Development (“BCSD”) project’s National Sustainability Scenarios initiative – a social accounting case study which forms part of this PhD – and it is extended to an interrogation of dialogic SAR and SAR more broadly. The contributions of this thesis are four-fold: methodologically, it offers analytical heuristics for making sense of social accounting research and practice as hegemonically structured and ideologically-laden fields that are directly implicated in perpetuating social-ecological crises, and for evaluating engagement practices from a critical pedagogical standpoint; empirically, this thesis evaluates a case study using a social accounting technology – scenario planning – that to date is under-researched; in terms of analysis, it builds on earlier critiques of social accounting “capture” by extending it to “critical” forms of SAR and interrogates this “capture” in relation to systems of power such as capitalism, industrial civilization, white supremacy and patriarchy that tend mostly to be overlooked in the literature, both singularly and as intersecting systems; and in terms of reconstructive exploration, this thesis offers insights on how social accounting research and practice might look if driven by the critical pedagogical imperatives of truth-telling – that is, facing rather than evading the realities of systemic violence and structural power that we are confronted with today. Although SAR is broadly concerned about social justice and ecological sustainability, this thesis shows that much of it legitimates the intersecting systems of predatory capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy and downplays the realities of imperialism, colonization, class warfare, patriarchal violence, and ecocide that these systems of power produce. Moreover, and perhaps more problematically, although the BCSD case study, and the dialogic SAR literature which was considered, appeared to be underpinned by many of the ethical principles of critical pedagogy, deeper analysis revealed that they too align more closely with an uncritical liberalism, rather than critical pedagogy, in their unwillingness to challenge the social hierarchies and ongoing realities of imperialism, colonization, and catastrophic violence to which they give rise. A reconstruction of the initiative, drawn from more radical interpretations of Freire’s approach, suggests that more critical approaches to social accounting and engagement praxis are possible, although not without challenges because they would require that social accounting scholars privilege the intellectual and moral values of truth and justice over those of privilege and power.