Balancing the Books

According to legend, the city of Venice was founded at 12 noon on this day in 421. The foundation story is told in several variations, all of them regarded by historians as dubious, though perhaps no more unlikely than the ‘Floating City’ itself.

While most books feature the city’s famous art and romantic allure, Jane Gleeson-White’s Double Entry (2012) describes “one of history’s best-kept secrets and most important untold tales” — how thirteenth-century Venice invented double-entry bookkeeping, and thereby “created modern finance”:

Why? First, because it arguably made possible the wealth and cultural efflorescence that was the Renaissance. Second, because it enabled capitalism to flourish, so changing the economies of the world forever. Third, because over several centuries it grew into a sophisticated system of numbers which in the twenty-first century governs the global economy.… Finally, and most significantly, bookkeeping now has the potential to make or break the planet. Because accounting reduces everything to its monetary value, it has allowed us to value least that apparently free source of life itself: the planet. Through its logic we have let the planet go to ruin — and through its logic we now have a chance to avert that ruin.

Gleeson-White goes on to quote and endorse a 2010 comment by journalist Jonathan Watts: “The global biodiversity crisis is so severe that brilliant scientists, political leaders, eco-warriors, and religious gurus can no longer save us from ourselves. The military are powerless. But there may be one last hope for life on earth: accountants.”


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.