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The Numerology of Climate Change

An abstract for a paper I’m writing – [update - here's the link to the short article in Anthropology News]

One does not need to go far in the public discourse surrounding climate change to be inundated with the mystique of number. In the United States, where viewers of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth were treated to specific stunts of quantificatory pontification, just as in Singapore, where I teach climate change to nonspecialist undergraduates, the numberwork of graphs and charts has its own techie vitality. Check out the graphical puppetry in this University of Minnesota project in which a cellist tracks global temperature changes no matter how out of key the song is. The human is the dependent variable of an unknown function, whose independent variable is temperature driven by anthropogenic CO2. Anthropogenic goes two ways: anthropogenic CO2 has re-made the climate, and now the climate promises to dictate. Where is this tune going?

Drawing on my on-going research on the imaginative dimensions of carbon accounting, in this commentary I look toward key moments in the emergence of climate change science to identify why the numbers mystique holds such powerful sway over the possibilities for thinking climate change. Part of the story must include the promises of ‘big data’ and sheer computational prowess of the late-20th century. But what fascinates me are very early moments in climate science that seem to have secured the terms through which contemporary political thought takes place.

Joseph Fourier, working in the first decade of the 19th century, secured the mathematical speculation at the heart of climate modeling and associated debates about uncertainty. Svante Arrhenius, often credited with articulating the first complete theory of climate change, published in 1896, decisively established the quantification of carbon dioxide as the key independent variable, and articulated this in the same form through which carbon quantification is dealt with today. Lastly, Dave Keeling’s monumental efforts to rigorously measure global CO2 levels have established the unity of climate change as a scientific and political issue based on its theoretical human etiology.

When one imagines scary apocalyptic futures fraught with uncertainty but which hinge on that single variable, through these three elements—speculation, quantification and anthropogenesis—that imagination is possible.

Planning, Management, Design: Whence climate interventions? – Reading copy AAAs 2012

Climate change is a sui generis political challenge. The atmospheric and geochemical processes at stake continue to outpace our still-emerging understanding of Earth as planet and home. While actual weather events outstrip our capacity to understand them, the informational basis for experiencing climate change has led to a situation in which a single variable, atmospheric concentration of GHGs, measured in parts per million, gets prioritized as the focus of global attention. Paul Edwards (2010) describes the extensive global knowledge infrastructure of climate science as a prerequisite to ‘thinking globally,’ the coming-into-being of a planetary ecological experience slowly emergent over the twentieth century but rapidly intensifying. It means that the experience of climate change is always an experience of information within an elaborate infrastructural ecology. As Edwards describes, climate science has articulated an extremely powerful, integrated global knowledge infrastructure. But in political and economic domains, the analogous market infrastructure has increasingly fragmented regulatory space across what Jane Guyer calls platform economies, which aren’t markets per se but informational platforms through which practices of innovation, fraud, political influence, investment, gaming, entrepreneurship and other kind of climate-related market activity proliferate.

Several categories of practical reason can be delineated here, namely planning, design and management. I work with these in turn to lay emphasis on a fourth category, remediation. The anthropological significance of an international climate regime is that it represents an emergent attempt to manage the chemical composition of the atmosphere. To that extent, let me express a sense of amazement at the scope of ambition in the project to establish a singular global climate regime, which so far has remained elusive. Another way of looking at this is that carbon information—carbon accounting and carbon markets—seeks to remediate humans’ material involvement in the geological carbon cycle. Paul Rabinow (2007) uses the term remediation to describe processes subjected to new media strategies within programs of improvement. Quantification of atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions forms the centerpiece of all major regulatory strategies for minimizing climate change. Turning ‘carbon’ into detailed information about human activities, which can then be financialized in various ways, seeks to remediate humans’ role in the geological carbon cycle.

In this talk I want to focus on the priority given to atmospheric greenhouse gases as the sin qua non of economic planning for minimizing global warming. I describe how the anticipatory or speculative inheritance of climate knowledge overshadows and, in practice, has reproduced practices of speculation within highly mediated market contexts. Carbon as information emerges in carbon accounting and trading practices, both of which form the primary basis for economic planning for minimizing global warming.  

Managing atmospheric chemistry

One result of the emphasis on a single variable is that carbon has become an intriguing and wide-spread metric of the human capable, in different ways, of bearing on human–atmosphere relations. This has invited widespread creative activity that critically reflects on the potentiality and mutability of carbon in diverse forms. In part the question is simply, what experimental projects can be done with carbon? What forms does carbon take and what informational platforms can it circulate on globally?

In Thailand, since 2007 or so many industrial agricultural firms have invested in emissions reduction projects in the hope of selling their reductions to European buyers through a United Nations process called the Clean Development Mechanism. I’ve been interviewing these agro-businesses and the companies that help them set up the carbon projects. These projects produce methane from wastewater from their processing plants, then carefully measure the methane and burn it for energy. The unprocessed wastewater is jet black, with a sharp, highly organic smell. Water pollution is measured in terms of chemical oxygen demand (COD), which indicates the load of organic compounds. It is processed in large, tarp-covered digester ponds through an anaerobic process. The main gases that come out of the digester are CH4, HS4, H2O and CO2. HS4 is highly corrosive and presents a major business challenge because it destroys instrumentation.

The measuring requirements, mandated by the UN, are highly complex and most companies fail to ever earn any credits to sell, although they often continue to capture methane and burn it in the factories. The crucial component is this informational process of converting chemistry to information, and those companies which are successful have had to come up with innovative business models. There is a monetary component here, driven by an entrepreneurial relation to risk, but the crucial management dimension is conversion of chemistry to information.

I mean management here as a category of practical activity that bears on complex relational materialities. The Thai agricultural carbon producers have to figure out how to manage a chemical-informational exchange between corrosive waste gases, international carbon finance and United Nations regulatory proceduralism. As part of a much longer argument I have developed elsewhere, management comes to bear on problems that can’t be solved in any straightforward way. What gets managed? Large companies and employees, to be sure, but also floods and forests, ‘environments,’ pain, mental illness, traffic, sewage, risk, information, intractable illnesses like diabetes, public relations, disasters, crises, activists and shareholders alike. These are objects of management. Each points toward on-going material-semiotic negotiations with not-natural, not-cultural entities like, in this case, our new atmosphere. Problems for management are delegated to managers, investors and entrepreneurs. Management is a labor relation internal to capitalist enterprise but always heterogeneous to it, for it deals with knotty materialities that may never be abstracted enough to cleanly enter relations of exchange. Viewed differently, management represents a zone where government, commercial and technical practices are maximally indistinct. Here, carbon quantification constitutes the atmosphere as an object of management via chemical-informational interfaces. 

Market Design

Market-oriented policy relies on speculative competition to drive a carbon price. Since 2010, carbon prices have collapsed, and continue to be very uncertain.Europe’s market was set up in 2005. Donald MacKenzie (2008) has described how the design of Europe’s emissions cap had a fundamental flaw, namely that it allowed governments to promise lobbyists free permits, even if those promises added up to more than should be allowed in the total system. A related problem is that most of the permits through 2012 have been distributed free (beginning in 2013 they will increasingly be auctioned). So while industries enjoyed windfall profits—essentially a multi-billion dollar subsidy for agreeing to accept climate legislation—the overall cap on emissions has turned out to be far too weak. Estimates now suggest as many as 1.5 billion excess permits are in the system, exacerbated by UN offset credits like those produced in Thailand.

For those who follow carbon markets in detail, the degree of committed complexity to consider is remarkable, especially considering the level of fraud the markets have experienced. For example, across Europe, a major hacking theft occurred where stolen permits—which exist only as electronic numbers on government registries—were sold back into the carbon markets, such that buyers did not know if they held stolen permits or not. In 2011 the spot markets shut down for more than three weeks. The fix put in place by the EU was efficient but not reassuring. They simply created a rule stating that it didn’t matter if an account held stolen property.*

The proliferation of separate carbon markets in China, Thailand, Australia, California, South Korea and elsewhere helps demonstrate the technical complexities of these platform economies, each of which defines a virtual space complexly articulated with others. The market fiction here is that a ton of carbon is always equivalent to a ton of carbon, no matter where on earth it is emitted—but this view says nothing about the entrepreneurial practices at stake. If planning is going to rely on the enterprise of commercial actors to create new technologies driven by a price on carbon, they will have to take into consideration these other kinds of enterprising activities such as lobbying, fraud and theft, which actively reconceive the material dimensions of information across diverse platforms.

Guyer has suggested that diverse platforms of creating and exchanging value offer a kind of segmented landscape as an alternative to so called market economics. The knowledge here is knowledge of these socio-technical devices. I view platforms literally as the informational and normative-legal bases for establishing exchange, and make the point that diverse platforms proliferate radically, while movement between platforms is the high-risk, high-reward activity par excellence. Donald MacKenzie argues—and I agree to a point—that there is tremendous capacity for technical criticism by critical scholars, but I don’t think design criticism alone can account for the ways governmental prerogative is continually held hostage to the demands of lobbyists and industry.

Planning for Climate Change

The lesson is that it’s politically relatively easy to set up the informational platforms for carbon regulation, but setting the cap on emissions—the limit to pollution—is extremely difficult. Planning for climate change means distributing obligations to reduce emissions while minimizing the economic costs and uncertainties of doing so. The assumption is that policy clarity and fairness gives industry the opportunity to make good investments in the long run, and that energy infrastructures take a long time to re-tool. But the term ‘planning’ may be something of a misnomer in such explicitly market-oriented contexts. I take planning as the application of norms to detailed decisions about how people live, within a commitment to systematic knowledge about the social. Yet by regulating quantified emissions in the abstract, quantification defers all the major detailed decisions about how companies and people respond to carbon constraint. Carbon information promises to let people or companies make their own decisions about how—and how much—to reduce emissions based on a price signal. It promises normalization via measurement and trade, without any commitment to specific norms or detailed social knowledge.

Carbon markets have been seriously chaotic for the past three years due to the design failures just mentioned, but part of the problem is that Europe has achieved its goals too easily due to the economic recession. The cap on emissions was set in 2004 or 2005 based on modeling of the economy that simply proved wrong with the financial collapse. For industries regulated by the carbon market, a low price is great—it means lower costs and less obligation to do anything. What interests me from a planning perspective, however, is that debates about the price of carbon in Europe have hinged on what the purpose of the market is supposed to be.

Well, the point of the market is to lower carbon emissions, right? Yes, but what does that mean? Many people in the EC felt that the objective of the carbon market was to transform Europe’s technological base for power generation, and that the carbon cap was an imperfect tool for doing so. Many companies agreed, too, since the carbon price was an effective subsidy for all sorts of new technologies. Others said the EC has confused its policy directives, and had undermined the carbon price by subsidizing wind and solar power through a different renewable energy policy.

In other words, is the issue just a linear numerical reduction in CO2 emissions? These actors suggest a more thorough critique in the form of a project to transform the energy basis of society. It suggests the contemporary atmosphere is an artifact of a historical form of industrial economy in which the practice of burning fossil fuels makes people geological actors.

In the meantime, the coherence of carbon markets as a planning strategy, once held in place by the legally binding orientation of United Nations negotiations, has been thoroughly undermined. Since its inception, the UN approach to climate change was eventually to set a legally binding numerical cap on total emissions among those countries which have obligations. As one Sierra Club campaigner told me, global climate policy “depends on a concrete definition of the universe within which emissions occur, and carbon trades cannot involve reductions outside of that universe.” That principle was the organizing logic of a planned UN climate administration. What’s happened since 2009, however, is that multiple universes have proliferated. At the UN conference in Copenhagen in 2009, all of this was called into question, and it can no longer be assumed that negotiations will result in a single, legally binding agreement with an overarching numerical commitment to lower emissions. Instead, we face a far less unified, heterogeneous international policy space and we won’t know if a reasonable plan will emerge, in my view, until 2017 at the earliest. To answer the question posed by this panel, in fact nobody has a plan.

Concerning planning, what’s most interesting to me as an anthropologist is its problematization (Rabinow 2003, following Foucault 1988). A problematization, [writes Foucault] … does not mean the representation of a pre-existing object nor the creation through discourse of an object that did not exist. It is the ensemble of discursive and nondiscursive practices that make something enter into the play of true/false and constitute it as an object of thought.

Two problematizations emerge here I want to affirm. First, is climate change simply a problem of the numerical concentration of greenhouse gases, or is it a problem of a historical form of industrial economy in which social organization is predicated on planetary-scale geological practices? Second, given this planetary scale of human intervention and its intimate connection to how people live in the contemporary, what is the form of international governance suitable to climate intervention? These problematizations, I believe, define the actuality of climate planning today.


Governmental processes are highly reliant on market actors, due to several decades through which governments have deferred many if not most major decisions to commercial interests. Frankly, governments don’t know what to do about most of their problems, and they have less and less capacity to act even when they can figure out what to do. At the same time, the attitude through which commercial and nongovernmental actors approach climate change can often be very surprising, and I find it best to view climate change as an anticipatory, highly imaginative space of practical elaboration of different potential futures. These imaginative processes bear on polluting behavior and on innovative human-atmosphere relationships to create new platforms of exchange that may or may not articulate with each other. Carbon information makes this possible, especially through the emergence of atmosphere as an abstract space of quantified global and future relation.

By tracing management, design and planning as categories of practical reason appropriate to climate interventions, I’ve traced a story about the actuality of climate planning with respect to two problematizations: will carbon markets and other platform economies serve to transform the fossil energy basis of late industrial economies? And, given the planetary, atmospheric and geological dimensions of climate change, what is the form of international governance suitable for climate intervention?

To this end, let me conclude with thoughts about a fourth category of practical reason, remediation. Carbon accounting practices objectify the atmosphere and, in so doing, posit the atmosphere as a new medium for global relations. Atmosphere is a literal medium, in the sense that it envelops the earth and increasingly forms the possibility for new anthropological futures. Atmosphere is also a medium in the sense that its physical characteristics form the basis for work, that is, a way to slow the transition rather than simply arriving at climate change ‘immediately,’ as it were. Work implies a pragmatics of imagining different futures, combining practices of logical extrapolation, speculation, and materialization. Carbon accounting remediates human involvement in geological carbon cycles.

Lawrence Cohen writing at has up a new post on the personal identity database system through which promises of a revised or reformed Indian modernity are being made. His main assertion: “India is now a database.

The link between database and identity, and database and carbon (the express valuation of carbon as identity) in the case of carbon registries deserves reflection. I re-post here comments I made there.

The Uidai database(s) parallels many aspects of carbon registries which are proliferating all over the place – these semi-autonomous data/reporting platforms through which companies report emissions and track their efforts to reduce quantified emissions. They’re also the basis of regulatory carbon markets. In interviews in Beijing I was struck that, in addition to several governmental efforts, several companies and NGOs were setting up carbon registries of various sorts and attempting to enrol polluters into voluntary submission of carbon emissions information.

One observation is that the information platform dominates, in terms of how the project is conceived and how people or companies might relate to it. This happens whether carbon is assigned monetary value or not (information itself seems to have value–or people setting up registries work hard to give it value, often while dreaming of perhaps being able to turn their registry into a carbon market in the future).

De-duplication is not the problem of these platform economies (Jane Guyer’s term), so perhaps the iteration I pose here repeats the Hegalian tension Lawrence marks between India and China at the outset. (Having no real area expertise in either, it’s difficult for me to say.) But if not de-duplication, then what?

As when Lawrence mentions Stephen Collier and James Ferguson’s respective reflection on potential forms of the neoliberal social, I recall a chapter from Marilyn Strathern’s After Nature, ‘The Greenhouse Effect.’ There she theorizes the plasticity of class formations through a strong participatory dimension on the one hand (her example is the proliferation of families who sell access to domestic space through the bed and breakfast) and the conversion of ‘relation’ conceived generically as ‘resource’ – so, for example, the idea that one’s family connections can be treated as a resource in the quest for upward mobility. The plasti-class is that which actively and intentionally participates in the game of maximizing resourcefulness; it is not bourgeois necessarily, just ambitious.

I note here that the key problem of these autonomous quasi-regulatory carbon platforms is enrolling companies into their voluntary reporting frameworks which, when achieved, seems amount to an active commitment in maximizing carbon resourcefulness. Attention thus turns to those who would be enrolled and, when enrolled, what they seem to be getting involved in. Needless to say, not that many companies are excited about these registries. But what Lawrence writes suggests a series of questions about commitment, his term, to these platforms of value which are thoroughly capitalist but not necessarily monetary. Are there echoes here for the Uidai de-duplication project? (Thinking of an earlier conversation – operability was a term of commitment; and I noticed that Lawrence flagged intractability at the outset as well. How does that fit in?)

Does ‘not necessarily monetary’ define a specific object? It would be wrong to say these are nonmonetary. Rather, the relation is different. It matters if the registries are monetary due to local design considerations, but there are many contexts in which it’s not necessary.

Actually I hesitated before writing ‘thoroughly capitalist’ just now, because the obvious point is that Chinese capitalism is precisely what is being problematized through these informational platforms. Recuperating that problematization would, I think, transform what I’ve just written. Carbon regulation is conceived here not as a necessary curative for climate change, but as an instrument for restructuring the economy through capital investment in less energy-intensive industries. Reciprocally, the discourse around China’s ‘low carbon life’ points to active reflection on work & consumption, in effect constantly raising the question of how to maintain happiness with respect to one’s work, how to consume in a reflective manner. To that extent, economic restructuring and the low carbon life both pose a degree of distance from growth per se and ask, in effect, how to grow appropriately. So then once again carbon reflects on not-necessarily-monetary value, or at least the possibility of holding that open as an option.

One point to push further is the association of carbon and identity. A significant complaint raised by companies is that carbon information is very sensitive – competitors might use it to understand a polluter’s production process, for example. Part of the way information is presumed to work especially in the context of data mining is that pattern itself reveals identity; for example I’ve written elsewhere about climate change fingerprints in the context of assessing whether ecological transformations bear causal relation to global warming. Likewise, the fetishization of information I describe in Accounting for Atmosphere toward the end of the paper suggests how ownership of information about carbon can be established as a highly aggressive act (the hackers’ term is ‘owning’). One last reference point: a major problem – even the major problem of the complex carbon accounting methodologies applied through these registries is the problem of carbon’s identity, that is, whose liability/opportunity inheres in the quantified relation.

All of this deserves more thought, but one initial observation is that the problem in the attribution of carbon is carbon’s identity, not that of the polluting entity, for a novel resource asset (‘carbon’) whose primary attribute is its planetary fungibility through which a ton of carbon everywhere is always presumed equal to a ton of carbon. In Accounting for Atmosphere I argue that carbon is a metric of the human, but here the relation is reversed – ‘is this carbon anthropogenic?’ And likewise the problem of duplication emerges again and again, to wit, does carbon information constitute a ‘second life‘ (Boellstorff) for carbon, the virtual repetition of a geological relation?

A short piece I wrote for Work Style Magazine‘s Jan 2012 issue.

Nearly two decades of UN talk about climate change have not produced much in the way of concrete results. For businesses, the status quo of endless conventions presents a real problem. Many companies with significant carbon emissions are increasingly desperate for clear guidance on coherent, transnational climate policy, whether it comes through the United Nations or not. The EU’s carbon market is a case in point. While it has been in place since 2005, price volatility and outright low prices for carbon have not made investment decisions any easier.

2011 has been a record-breaking year in terms of losses, providing a sense of how chaotic climate change itself may unfold. Many companies are exposed to environmental risks especially via their global supply chains. Unfortunately, public resistance in the United States is a major problem for moving forward, even with the extreme drought in Texas and the steady march of convincing science. Businesses are in a position to take a much stronger leadership role, but they must think broadly about what they should advocate for.

Business needs clear climate policy because in a competitive system no one can act first without exposing themselves. Consulting, finance and insurance industries have all made significant strides in creating the right knowledge infrastructure for assessing regulatory and environmental risk. Institutional investors like mutual fund managers increasingly demand emissions data from the companies they invest in, but there is little comparable for smaller firms in spite of the potential cost savings.

Of course, the dirtiest industries, especially fossil energy extraction firms, are more than willing to forestall climate policy while still ramping up new investment in discovery, infrastructure and technology. Carbon Tracker estimates that a serious global climate policy will require 80% of proven fossil fuel reserves to remain locked underground. Risk for non-fossil energy commerce is amplified without a clear exit from the carbon trap.

Climate change means we must unwind from this dangerous situation. Everyone around the world can look toward a future of diminished expectations. People who are already economically and politically marginalized have little choice but to face increasingly restricted options. For Americans, addressing climate change represents a loss of important and pleasurable cultural symbols. Dirty industries must also recognize the diminished futures they can expect. We need an open acknowledgement of change, acceptance of diminished futures and a process of public mourning.

The IEA estimates climate investment postponed beyond 2020 will cost 4.3 times investment now, while the fossil fuel industry received six times more subsidies than renewables in 2010. In this context, stiff national carbon taxes look increasingly attractive for providing market and climate stability.

There is no reason businesses can’t advocate for strong climate commitments with governments and even the public. Leadership on climate requires a much more subtle, committed relationship with governments, the countries they operate in, and the people they depend on and serve. Companies like Nike or Alcoa are already very clear that climate is an important issue for them. To take one  example, how might Americans step to the challenge if high profile companies were publicly to champion clear, durable and robust climate rules?

I have been surprised at the persistence of doubt about climate change science among anthropologists. There are lots of strains to this doubt but, partly, it is surprising because it re-frames many debates from the old ‘science wars.’ This time, the politically conservative position points again and again to the constructed nature of science, whereas those on the left tend to accept the science as a matter of course. For environmental anthropologists a rift has opened up. Climate concerns have the tendency to trump or swamp other environmental concerns. Those other concerns, often much older, are motivated by a tendency toward libertarianism and organic intellectualism (no pun intended). No matter how you spin it, climate change is not.

As I’m involved in studying climate change as an anthropological topic – what I sometimes refer to as the ‘cultural significance of climate change’ – I am often called upon to take judgement on the veracity of climate change science. This is an extremely tricky topic, but one I think anthropologists need to confront directly. Personally, I feel that statements such as by the National Academy of Sciences are judiciously true, by which I mean it must remain open to revision, while the IPCC is true enough for government work. But that is not the point. To claim the science is true and then ask why people don’t believe it is intellectually & ethically stingy.

Debates on the Environmental Anthropology email list, however, often seem to conflate our responsibilities as scholars, as citizens, and – the point that unites those two – as lovers of truth and freedom.

To be sure, I don’t consider myself an expert on the climate science, and my interest is far more in global attempts to deal with climate change by managing the atmosphere. But I think it is crucial for anthropologists of climate change to find an analytical mode in which doubts about the science can be expressed by groups with diverse commitments. Doubts about climate science are integral to the cultural significance of climate change. All of climate science is organized around a problem of anticipating an uncertain future. Hence it plays into the quasi-apocalyptic fears of American religions, whether of ecological end-times or of political domination by financial Illuminati. But it plays into other things as well – financial strategies, for instance.

There is a long-standing tradition of anthropologists studying rumor and gossip, which aptly recognizes that determining the truth of a rumor is irrelevant from the perspective of the anthropologist. Rumors don’t circulate because they are true, but because the possibility that they might be true is dangerous.

The challenge for citizens is different than that of scholars. As citizens we are called upon to respond to public problems and ecological dangers; we must assess the science (as citizens, not as scientists), come to conclusions and pursue action. Even if the science is 100% certain, the action will always be characterized by uncertainty. Why? Because political action is irreversible, unpredictable and prone to failure. Political practice happens ‘in time’ in a way that is very different from drawing scientific conclusions. There are lots of different ways to put a price on carbon, for instance. All of them have important risks, and if I’m an investor, your risk is my opportunity.

And yet these problems of action must also fit within the anthropological, scholarly framework. We have seen this problem before; it was called reflexivity.

Philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers makes an important observation about Creationism which strikes me as relevant here. She argues that normal biological science – Darwinism – is often treated as unproblematic, transparently factual, unconstructed, ‘neutral’ – all of the things STS has called into question. Calling attention to parents’ committees, pressure groups, and other forms of organizing, she writes, “It is as if collectives were needed, capable of providing organized resistance, tenacious and fanatic, to certain types of knowledge, so that the transmission of that knowledge in schools might acknowledge its risky, selective, interesting mode of existence – the very thing that demonstrates its scientific nature” (Cosmopolitics I, 268, n.3).

I am not trying to associate Creationism with any of the comments that have been made by anthropologists. My point is different.

But before I make this point, let me draw one more connection, now between climate skeptic positions and those of political radicals in the far-left ‘climate justice’ camp. There are important parallels. Both tend to take a dire view of the future, neither are particularly subtle about how scientific conclusions are used in debate, both worry a lot about the role of money in science and policy, both are afraid of social-engineering solutions (such as carbon markets) and both tend to exaggerate the political importance of authoritative bodies, especially the UN, whether from an anti-authoritarian or a regulatory view point. Both worry obsessively about American consumer entitlement while referencing US global military dominance – both for good reason.

So it strikes me that the debates we’ve been having on E-Anth are unsurprising from a broader social perspective – they deal with many of the same issues that characterize American debates more generally and they resonate with problems surrounding not individual scientific conclusions per se but the conditions in which that knowledge was produced, the work it is expected to do, and especially the implications of that science for existing human practice.

The solution – it seems to me – to the analytical puzzle is to point out that the experience of climate change is one of threat/opportunity before an uncertain future. This even applies to how climate change became a scientific problem. But as the science has become accepted, an implication is that lots of people take climate change as an opportunity, and this opportunism is threatening. To use Stengers’ words, climate science is risky, selective, interesting – it is real science – because it is risky, selective & interesting sociopolitically. The possibility that climate science might be true is dangerous – not only because of biophysical atmospheric changes – and this danger is what we anthropologists might be discussing, as lovers of truth & freedom.

Caroline McLoughlin has pushed me a little on my invocation of the term ‘margin’ – see her comment here – by suggesting I try to think through Derrida’s use of the term. In anticipation of that more extended engagement (which will require me, too, to dig into my 1990s brain), here are some thoughts from my dissertation in which the margin figures prominently.

The first is from a chapter, The Ethics of Document Engineering, in which a fisheries specialist, working for a hydropower firm on a consulting team, was progressively marginalized from the final report. I obtained a copy of the managers’ edit of the final report in which his prose was seriously edited. I was thinking about Riles’ use of documents as artifacts of knowledge, and arguing with her take on ‘politics’ as somehow the objective in anthropological inquiry (see her contribution to the edited volume Documents; and note that her position is to take documents in themselves in a gesture parallel to Derrida’s refusal of the ‘outside text’). My objective was not to show that politics was already in the text, but talk about artifacts of knowledge through which we could say, riffing a bit on Stanley Cavell’s take on philosophical skepticism, that politics is the pathos of expertise. Cavell’s argument, importantly, is an argument with Derrida on his reading of JL Austin. So the margin of the edited document can be read for the pathos of the text, the pathos of normalized expertise. See here the image-figure and the following paragraphs of prose (unfortunately I can’t get the resolution good enough to make visible the tense prose excised by the managers):

rra-2 screenshot cropped 2

“I saw John had scribbled comments here and there in the margin of Steve’s interim report. ‘Bouali came in while I was reading this yesterday,’ John said. ‘And he looked at me and said, ‘jai yen, jai yen John’—it means ‘cool heart, cool heart—calm yourself’—because I was so upset my blood pressure was through the roof and my ears were turning red.’

“‘He writes all this stuff,’ John continued, ‘Da-tada-tada. Then he writes in bold capital letters, several font sizes larger: BUT—BUT this is what you should do about it.’

“One can sense the anger in Steve’s prose, delimited here in those blue boxes off in the margin (figure 3.1). That pathos points toward the political economy of Lao developmentalism, identifying its ecologically destructive mode and the limits of fixing the problems that proliferate in hydropower’s wake. In the gap between anger and form, do finally we get to substance? Is the real precisely what Steve, the fisheries specialist, can’t get beyond or behind? The report is eminently difficult for the firm to constrain, to maintain within limits. Controlling things—the ecological status of the fisheries, for instance, or the extent of erosion—implies controlling people, and vice-versa. The extent of the firm’s capacities is clearly limited, and things get out of hand in the wake of large-scale industrial developments like hydropower dams. No doubt this ‘out-of-handness’ also constitutes the potency and danger of the joint evaluation—the risk of trying to conduct a joint evaluation cooperatively with the activists. Isn’t that what technology does—work? Doesn’t this imply an ontology which, nonetheless, is saturated with uncertainty? This is why we can say, answering to Ulrich Beck, that management is how nature is handled after its end.”

One other instance in which margins figured prominently – perhaps more in the spirit of Guyer’s work: the work of activists. Here’s another passage:

“The logic of anti-hydropower environmental activism rather operated from the premise that enforcement of existing standards, regardless of their less-than-ideal regard for environmental conservation and protection of local groups, could be enough to make (future) dam projects unattractive to investors, even while potentially benefiting project affected people. Insisting on mitigating and compensating for social and environmental damages implied raising the marginal cost of hydropower development and potentially making it that much more difficult for future projects to be funded and approved. In effect, this implies an operational attempt to make capitalism pay its own way, even as the tactics of the intervention remain separate from the historical problematization of dams. Environmental NGOs therefore figure themselves as a kind of transnational regulatory agency, albeit with weak instruments for enforcement.

“Finally, the concept of a marginal gain to political practice is important to the form of the audit activists used, at least in terms of environmental monitoring. If a radical critique of energy investment is de-linked from the operability of the critique, it is because the audit form marginally influences the risks bearing on hydropower investment. Whereas the activists were able to maintain a critical anti-hydropower position, the effectiveness of their practice did not involve convincing others that hydropower per se was unnecessary or unwanted. It instead introduced specific consequences to hydropower development, namely the presence of a protracted, politicized approval process, at least for some projects. This marginal difference introduced specifically managerial logics to dealing with activists, since the problem was re-framed from one of environmental planning to public relations and image management.”

All for now. I’ll have to go back to the Derrida.

“One of the greatest challenges relating to global warming is that greenhouse gases result—directly or indirectly—from almost every major human industry and activity.” – Tim Herzog, WRI.

In fact, understanding how mitigating emissions will affect human practices will require a theory of the margin. In other words, if this is the challenge, it can be phrased as ‘how do we produce a marginal decrease in carbon emissions for each of these discrete technical practices that constitute human life in the contemporary?”


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