The Accounting Treatment of Penthouse Fish on a Hot Tin Roof
by Joanna Diane Caytas
Aquaculture, those rooftop (or basement) subsistence fisheries, may well present salvation for the urban lifestyle. Proponents credibly claim that many if not most existing building structures are capable of accommodating in-house breeding of carp, tilapia, catfish and other prime protein sources. Vegan agriculture with organic pretenses is unlikely to come close to similar nutritional results per input. Downsides consist in water consumption and potential veterinary issues. Half the world’s fish consumption stems from aquaculture: it is the fastest-growing food-producing sector. The trick is to scale it, standardize it and bring it in-house. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, China, and the European Commission have all formulated relatively visionary and long-term national or supranational policies. But all are based on hosting the endeavor (largely) in the seven seas. That is no doubt responsive to special interest lobbying that focuses on industrial-sized solutions for outsized economies and commensurate profit potential – which provides a contrarian incentive to look for sustainable solutions in altogether different places. Covering a large part of every family’s nutritional needs in-house in urban environments would not only greatly reduce the product’s CO2 footprint but also destroy markets as we know them. This solution would not maximize but rather minimize the operation’s contribution to GDP because, certain investments aside, it is a nature-driven perpetuum mobile that minimizes per capita nutritional expenditures and renders urban dwellers self-reliant. It would not take them off the grid, but certainly reduce food shopping by a whopping amount.
It is also easy to see why politicians are not eager to support the concept: cheap, healthy food kills several constituent birds with a single stone. Farmers and fishermen would be less than happy with dramatically reduced transaction volume. The ever-contributing pharmaceutical industry, even its veterinary department, would sell markedly less. Logistics has a lot less product to ship if distance to the plate is measured in yards instead of hundreds or thousands of miles. This is a problem only because our accounting system absolutely ignores value created by reducing consumption and expenditures, but rather reflects (and thereby implicitly rewards) maximization of “billables,” “bookables,” and “countables.” Wrong logic: rich is not a society that produces much, but one that runs superbly on very little.
Much of the same unreasonable approach applies in other professions as well: already the Romans distinguished between damnum emergens (accruing damage) and lucrum cessans (forgone profit). Arithmetically, they represent identical differentials on the same curve or scale – under a “but for” analysis, there would be more value in the same amount if either had not occurred. Your P&L statement will look exactly the same whether you suffer a loss of ten bucks from a lousy stock market bet or fail to make ten bucks because you did not listen to advice. Ah – but reality has little to do with arithmetic, and, sadly, the same must be said about the methods we use to account for the events in our life. How much are you (not to mention your insurer) willing to pay a lawyer, consultant, or doctor for keeping you out of serious trouble? More than the time it takes to persuade you not to do it? How about the same amount you would spend to undo the damage once it had occurred? Ah, see, I knew you would balk at that! In so doing, you instinctively reject a simple logic the Chinese figured out eons ago when they concluded that it was smarter to pay doctors for preventing you from falling ill than it was for curing illness. Modern China (and Western civilization as a whole) is, of course, way out of touch with this philosophy. We have a general problem with hypotheticals: judges hate them and refuse to decide questions that are not actually part of a live “case or controversy” before them. No politician will get votes because he prevented a calamity from happening. What’s the accounting treatment of a war avoided? Anthony Eden might have looked darn good to history books if “Peace in our time” had lasted a while longer. It may also be the principal difference in legacy between our 43rd and 44th presidents. Only the tax man will give you an advance ruling on hypotheticals – because it makes for good incentives for investors to know the damage he won’t do.
To put it simply and bluntly: unless and until our accounting methods change, we will not grow sustainable food in our cities.