hedgehogs ecosophy extinction accounting

Hedgehogs, ecosophy & extinction accounting: Mira Lieberman interview

New ideas – like ecosophy and extinction accounting – could help protect hedgehogs. Find out how in this interview with Grantham Scholar Mira Lieberman.

Interview with Mira Lieberman

Part 1: Extinction accounting & ecolinguistics

Mira’s supervisors are from The University of Sheffield’s Management School and School of English, which may seem like an odd pairing for a sustainability researcher. However, Mira’s research shows us both the huge role language has in shaping our relationship with the natural world and how accounting has a massive impact on sustainability.

Not many people have heard of extinction accounting, ecosophy or ecolinguistics. So our first questions to Mira were to learn more about them and why they’re important ideas in regards to hedgehogs.

Mira Lieberman in front of the Arts Tower on TUoS campus
Mira in front of the Arts Tower on University of Sheffield campus where she is studying for her PhD.

Why does linguistics have a role in sustainable development at all?

Of course with linguistics it’s not self-evident it’s related to sustainability, perhaps similarly with accounting and accountability. But this project was borne out of the evolution of these fields and the recognition that the loss of the environment affects every aspect of human life.

It’s part of an increasing understanding that the human and the environment are linked and you can’t do any work – social or political or otherwise – without acknowledging that.

Ecolinguistics, Wikipedia tells us, ‘takes into account not only the social context in which language is embedded, but also the wider ecological context, including other species and the physical environment’. Can you explain a bit more?

Ecolinguistics is really new, with preliminary works in the 90s. My specific methodology is from 2015.

Ecolinguistics evolved from discourse analysis (discourse analysis examines how people talk about specific things). Previously, discourse had only been looked at through the lens of society – and not from an ecological point of view. But there is a growing understanding that the way we talk about the environment shapes that relationship.

For example, ecolinguistic research shows that the human subject, through language and linguistic structures, is always positioned as acting upon the natural environment, which forms the view that people can, and should, control the environment. And this is where ecolinguistics comes in: to look at discourse that influences our relationship with the environment.

Your supervisor, Jill Atkins, is a pioneer in extinction accounting. She’s called for reforms in how businesses report on themselves, for example that they must include their impact on species. Was it her work which got you into this idea?

Yes, Jill Atkin’s book The Business of Bees inspired me to learn more about extinction accounting – and eventually to start this project.

Jill’s book describes how when it was first shown that agrochemical products were killing bees, the agrochemical companies just laughed it off. But now some of their products are banned and they face an increasingly high litigation pressure. So they’re not laughing anymore.

Part 2: Agrochemical companies are at war with hedgehogs

Mira’s project extends extinction accounting from bees to other species, specifically hedgehogs. In order to do this, she has collected data from agrochemical companies, environmental and hedgehog NGOs, and hedgehog rescuers in the UK. She conducted interviews as well as collecting annual reports and other documentation. All this data is then analysed using ecolinguistics. Here Mira explains what that means.

What did your analysis of the data show?

So I used an ecolinguistic framework to examine the metaphors, frames, presuppositions and other linguistic markers in this data.

One interesting finding is the use of the discourse of war. Agrochemical companies use language to say the risk to growers is nature itself, as it is unpredictable, and so we should wage a war against nature with pesticides in order to control it.

So agrochemical companies don’t even pretend to like hedgehogs?

You would think they would because hedgehogs are a popular and a priority species in the UK and have positive attitudes attached to them.

Interestingly, one of the discourses I found in my interviews was a split between the interviewees’ personal and corporate mantra. There is what we call a ‘frame switch’ between the two.

Several interviewees showed this frame switch between their private identities and identity as company employees. Generally, interviewees start with ‘hedgehogs are so cute I love them and would never hurt them’ but then they switch to what they should say as a person from an agrochemical company.

Henry the hedgehog - ecosophy and extinction accounting may stop his kind going extinct
Mira on hedgehogs and extinction accounting: ‘…hedgehogs are the canaries in the coal mine, because… they eat everything. So if hedgehogs are not in our fields anymore, it means there’s nothing to eat there, the ecological balance is disrupted and headed to annihilation.’ Photo shows Henry the hedgehog, who overwintered with Mira.

Can you give an example of this frame switch between the corporate and private identities?

A good example of this, actually one of my favourite moments from my interviews, was with a person who was head of an important biodiversity initiative at an agrochemical company.

They had studied Environmental Science at university, and their university was having a reunion. However, they were scared to go and tell their classmates where they now worked. They assumed the classmates would say that they were a sell out. In the end, however, the friends were nice to them, saying ‘at least you’re doing something good’, because within their role they were working on issues related to biodiversity.

From this sort of example a linguist can see the discrepancy in the Self: the way the interviewee felt about themselves was in conflict with their job. For them, their work and the values embedded within were not congruent with who they would like to be.

Is this cognitive dissonance?

Because I’m not doing psycholinguistics, I don’t use the phrase cognitive dissonance. I am there to see the pattern, not what is behind it. But what I can say is that in this frame a person is environmentally conscious and worries about what people will think of them. And then in this other frame, they work for this company.

Another clear example of a frame shift in my interviews was an entomologist who worked for an agrochemical company. During the interview he kept saying that in his private time he’s a conservationist but that in his job he does this. The fact that he uses the word ‘but’ is interesting, because he could have used ‘and’ but he used ‘but’. So he sees his conservation work as something that doesn’t fit, it is contrasted with his job.

So once you identify this frameshift, what next?

The discourses and trends that become apparent through analysis are then subjected to further scrutiny in terms of their congruence with my ecosophy. I also look at whether they are emancipatory. For example, do they demonstrate that they can create a radical change in the way a company operates in terms of species protection?

And this is where ecosophy comes in? Can you explain a bit more about that?

Basically, ecosophy stands for ecological philosophy, and it is something every researcher has, their own moral philosophy. Ecosophy comes from Næss, an ecologist. It’s the idea of having a personal ecological philosophy. Each ecolinguist will design their own ecosophy.

For example, you might say that the language this company uses isn’t promoting a better relationship between the environment and humans. In my work, I can say it doesn’t promote a way to stop hedgehog extinction.

So ecosophy puts your own ideas front and centre. Is this different to what other sustainability researchers do?

Well, no. Every piece of research on the planet has its own epistemology and ontology because everybody has beliefs and a stance on what they’re doing. Or to simplify it, on what is good and bad. It’s just that in many disciplines these philosophies don’t get articulated because they are taken for granted. However, there are no value-free methodologies.

Most scientists we interview talk as though they are being objective.

Natural sciences often align with positivism and objectivity. And this increasingly seeps into social sciences. In some disciplines, like sociolinguistics for example, very rarely do researcher values get articulated, because values such as equality and human rights are taken for granted as stances, or points of departure for researcher’s values.

However, being open about the values and beliefs that drive your research and underpin your research motivation is important in terms of achieving transparency and a justified subjectivity. In my research I use a political theory of animal rights as my ecosophy, grounded in social constructivism. This anti-anthropocentric view needs to be spelled out because it faces more barriers to being accepted. It is not as mainstream as values of feminism, for example.

Part of the stance in my PhD is articulated by my social-environmental stance, but also to push back against the idea that science is some sort of objective truth that’s out there. Because it affects policy, and companies ride on that. Companies do the health and safety testing on their products, but no one else is testing them. They make these dossiers and hand them to the government and that’s it.

That’s another aspect of your work isn’t it, a focus on science and risk?

Yes, the way science approaches risk, how it is conceptualised and dealt with.

For example, when a company comes up with a new product that they want farmers to use to increase yield. But how can we make sure the product is something that doesn’t kill everyone? Currently, the companies use guidelines laid down in policy from science. But the government doesn’t have the money to test the tests themselves – and they want those products. So there is a big trade off between the risk and the product. In the end, the government might say this product is safe, but what does that mean?

Part 3: More on extinction accounting

The Business of Bees book cover: a classic in extinction accounting
The Business of Bees by Jill Atkins. ‘Jill’s book describes how when it was first shown that agrochemical products were killing bees, the agrochemical companies just laughed it off. ‘

As we saw above, extinction accounting calls for companies to spell out their impact on the environment. Here Mira explains more about what extinction accounting does, and why it’s so important to reframe how companies think about the world.

What would extinction accounting make companies to do?

The idea of extinction accounting is to get companies to report on their impact on species in a more robust way than they do now.

For example, in the UK most reporting is voluntary. In the agrochemical sector, there is nothing about hedgehogs, even though there is ample evidence that pesticides have a role in eliminating hedgehogs’ food sources. Plus hedgehogs are harmed directly through consumption of rodenticide contaminated prey.

How does extinction accounting compare with normal accounting?

Imagine a house that has a fence around it. The house is the company, and the accountant decides how far out the fence goes – what is part of the house and what isn’t. Until the 90s, the environment was seen as this free resource – outside the fence, an externality. This idea means a company can take what it wants, pollute as it likes, but does not account for the damage done beyond its ‘borders’. In order to expose this exploitation, and its impacts, extinction accounting extends those borders, it moves the fence back.

Since the publication of The Business of Bees extinction accounting is alerting business and financial communities to the risk posed by the 6th mass extinction. Now companies are encouraged to acknowledge that there is a huge risk to their operations and their survival.

For example, if the bees go, the financial impact is huge. My PhD extends that idea to other species like hedgehogs. It aims to help companies, investors, even NGOs, to talk about specific species and have a program in place to monitor them. To see what happens before you start implementing the extinction accounting framework and what happens afterwards. Further, companies would have to be accountable for what they do and the products they produce. It calls for accountability and more awareness for species protection.

Do you think the agrochemical companies you worked with will adopt an extinction accounting framework?

I took this framework to the agrochemical companies I was interviewing to see if they would adopt it. You can probably imagine how they reacted!

Unfortunately, at the moment, when it comes to hedgehogs the financial risk, what we call ‘materiality’, that is, what is material or essential to their operations, is small according to the companies.

But I argue that hedgehogs are the canaries in the coal mine, because they are omnivores, they eat everything. So if hedgehogs are not in our fields anymore, it means there’s nothing to eat there, the ecological balance is disrupted and headed to annihilation. From an ecological perspective hedgehogs are very valuable for this reason – they show what’s happening in an ecosystem. But the companies don’t acknowledge it yet.

Do you have hope that extinction accounting will become more widely used?

There is a huge interest and appetite for the extinction accounting framework in the financial community, and the practice and academic practice of extinction accounting is soaring. Publications on accounting for different species include a recent book Around the World in 80 Species.

And there’s a book coming soon called Extinction Governance: Implementing a Species Protection Action Plan for the Financial Markets, for which I am proud to say I contributed two chapters.

Part 4: Animal rights & activism

Mira and dog.

Mira is an animal rights activist and has written one the most popular blogs on our site about her activism. Plus she’s part of SHEFF-Yield (the Grantham Centre’s gold award-winning Green Impact team) and has attended marches and protests. But for Mira, activism goes right to the heart of her research, as she explains here.

Which came first for you, animal rights or linguistics?

The first thing I studied was veterinary science. Back then I was eating burgers like no one’s business. It just goes to show that the culture we grow up in is not always congruent to who we are. Because I was an avid meat eater for many years, with little concern about it. Now (as a vegan) that helps me not to judge others.

Back at veterinary school I also taught English on the side to support myself. But I found that I didn’t want to be a vet, because it’s like being a mechanic. You’re just fixing what’s in front of you, which matters to that animal of course, but you’re not addressing the fundamental, radical sociopolitical problems.

Whereas, I found that through my English teaching I could talk about animal ethics. So I quit vet school. Because what I really wanted was to change – in a systematic and fundamental way – how we treat animals. I thought language was the way to do it, because the way you think about things, talk about them, frame them, changes them.

How do you see activism and academia working together?

It matters what methodologies you use – or don’t use.

Some methodologies are more critical than others, because they actively and openly integrate assumptions. On the other hand, if everyone chooses methodologies that have no critical element in them, then academia and knowledge making will stagnate. Engagement and the production of papers influences politics, policy and knowledge because it constructs knowledge in a particular way. In other words, science is never value-free, and that should be reflected in research methodologies.

Why is it so important that academics use critical methodologies?

Because what is academia really? It’s one of the watchdogs of democratic society. Academia takes a problem and argues it from different perspectives – and the emphasis is on ‘different’. If you don’t feel you can do that, and people are starting to feel they can’t, you have a dummy institute in the hands of politics or business.

All researchers and academics should have some element of reflexivity or self-reflection in their work. It’s important they ask: What does it mean? Who does it serve? Who is funding me? What do I hope to get? It’s not without consequences.

So your choice of methodology is activism?

My choice of methodology is my way to resist – in the context of academia – forces that would otherwise shape the direction of my research. When I had my confirmation review they said if you use this particular theory you won’t get published.

You have to understand the forces at play and resist them. Your research is a small part of a democratic watchdog, and how you go about your research shapes knowledge and your institution’s freedom of speech and thought.

Images of hedgehog by Mira Lieberman – this fellow is called Henry and he overwintered with Mira. Portraits of Mira by Dora Damian. Interview by Claire Moran