Every Monday morning, I join my neighbours, plopping a 45-litre bag of rubbish on the curbside. By 10am it is gone, leaving nothing but a rainshadow.

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Except it’s not gone… its second life has just begun. Tomorrow our biscuit packets and Tetra Paks will begin to break down, a process that for some materials may take decades. It will rot slowly in landfills, or wait for eons until heat and pressure do their geological duty. Some of it may emit toxins or greenhouse gases, but all of it will be invisible, secured from view in industrial backwaters so I may maintain my blissful ignorance.

Today we are left with some 716 potentially contaminated landfills around New Zealand, and despite the loftiest ambitions, the volume of refuse has increased by 73 per cent in the past 25 years.

I compost. I recycle. I keep chickens that devour the family’s food waste. But that bag of rubbish is there at the curb at the end of every week, the mathematical remainder in the arithmetic of modern life.

These small deficits add up, and are logged against my environmental account, as well as that of the nation and the planet. We know that families like mine send more than a tonne of refuse to landfills every year, and that the emissions from the car I drive and the goods I consume incrementally increase the total carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases liberated into the atmosphere. Each is the tiniest of transgressions—invisible, ephemeral and chemical—but added to global totals they represent a tyranny of change, a wave large enough to threaten the patterns of life on Earth.

In a world increasingly moderated by markets and trade, these tiny deficits need to be accounted for in financial terms before the problem can be adequately recognised and addressed. However, national performance is typically referenced in terms of gross domestic product, a measurement of aggregated production that doesn’t account for social well-being or the environment.

An internationally recognised proponent of policy reform, New Zealander Marilyn Waring, makes the example of the Exxon Valdez supertanker, which ran aground in Alaska in 1989 spilling some 100,000 cubic metres of oil into Prince William Sound. Based on the economic return from insurance claims, legal proceedings, clean up and compensation payments, it was “the most productive oil tanker voyage in history,” she says. The enormous losses of social and natural capital along the 2000 kilometres of coastline covered in oil, however, make the spill seem a less attractive investment.

In his 1994 book Cannibals with Forks: the Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business, John Elkington promoted the idea of full-cost accounting, not as a punitive measure, but to understand the cost and benefit of human activities and perhaps incentivise better outcomes. The idea has since been extended to include a fourth bottom line—future generations and intergenerational equity—which considers long-term sustainability separate from current economic, social and environmental bottom lines.

While there are a number of organisations that have adopted this reporting mechanism in New Zealand, it’s not a widespread ideology in part because the true costs of trading become a little too real for many to stomach.

If we had to account for emissions in the same way as we tally third-party costs such as freight, for instance, activities would be structured differently and real progress made towards reducing harmful greenhouse gases. The government’s emission trading scheme of 2008 attempted to achieve this, but in 2012 was put into a ‘transitional phase’ that halved the agreed value of carbon, offered free carbon credits to energy-intensive companies and excused agriculture (responsible for almost half of New Zealand’s emissions) from the scheme indefinitely because of concerns that accounting for the true cost would be too expensive for the industry to bear.

How do we begin to account for intergenerational equity when we exempt this generation from responsibility? Is a quadruple bottom line too expensive to consider? Or too costly to ignore?

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