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Since I haven’t updated the blog in a while, I’ll post a photo I took recently


As part of a special issue of PoLAR I’m editing, here’s my contribution, Carbon as a Metric of the Human (pre-publication draft). Not sure when it will be out yet, hopefully soon.

Abstract: In this paper, I frame the imaginative space of carbon management as a domain in which active reflection on the uncertain significance of climate change is able to take material form in the construction of new infrastructures of carbon accounting and carbon markets. ‘Carbon’ refers not to a chemical per se, but to a complex space of global atmospheric relations rendered material. I describe the historical ontology of carbon and atmosphere, which together form a distinct global medium. The atmosphere as medium is manifest in the informational spaces of digital platforms meant to work on the human subjects of climate change. I describe the carbon accounting practices of two Beijing-based enterprises that are involved in building out the infrastructure of carbon accounting for the purpose of decarbonizing Chinese industry. Carbon is at the center of a contemporary formation that is imaginative, materialist, heavily quantified, and oriented toward the technical modification of human affairs. It supposes that humans as planetary agents have become significant in terms of collective activity that is historically recent, highly unequal, and global in scope. The human is configured not as a biological species, such as in debates about life itself or distinctions between humans and other species, or in terms of an essential humanity that can provide the transcendent bonds of a moral community. Rather, carbon formulates the human ecologically and geologically, and with an eye toward imagining the future forms these relations might take. Hence, climate change has posed the human as a contemporary problem with particular urgency.

Jerome Whitington, National University of Singapore

This paper discusses three figures of climate anticipation in order to show that climate change poses the problem of anthropology per se, that is, the planet with respect to anthropos. The full paper can be accessed via the link above (about 8000 words).

A remarkable turn of events for climate scientists in the past several years has been momentous ecological changes that have accompanied current rises in average earth temperatures. What was before experienced as predictions about polar and glacial ice loss, ecological shifts and intensified weather is now increasingly confirmed. Moreover, the real-time changes in many cases are outpacing the predictions. This paper is an effort to think through the connection between ecological harm and recorded increases in average earth temperatures, the latter being a statistical touchstone for validating climate models which generally try to anticipate general climatological changes. It has been increasingly understood ‘Earth system’ (Crutzen 2006; also 2002a) is already undergoing profound changes, but the extent of these changes has barely been hinted at, and even less clear are the implications for specific ecosystems or indeed for human settlements. Reciprocally, this may be viewed as a problem of ‘man’ in a specifically neo-modern sense; Crutzen’s theory of the Anthropocene (Crutzen 2002a, 2002b; Zalasiewicz et al 2008) as a geological epoch succeeding the Holocene places distinct biophysical and chemical markers on Homo sapiens’ collective ability to transform biospheric conditions.

The language here is that of Earth in a ‘non-analogue’ condition, with implications for Earth as home. One is left with the original theoretical reflection on the possibility of climate change, long before it was understood as more than a problem of thermodynamics: Joseph Fourier in 1824 raised as a theoretical curiosity the basic question posed by a planet floating in space some 33deg. C warmer than an ideal blackbody of the same size and distance from the Sun (Weart 2003; Fourier 1827 [2004]). One can pose the problem from a different direction as well, to ask what the significance might be of a society and a mode of reason which is predicated on the geological extraction of billions of tons of fossil energy, stored hundreds of millions of years ago, then converted again via thermodynamic processes into a historically novel form of society (Mirowski 1989; Smil 2005). If the former figure relates to the arbitrariness of a planet floating in space then the latter provides a materialist engagement with practical activity within the human oikos (Arendt 1998). Either case, we might say now, hinges on the apprehension of open futures. With respect to climate knowledges I discuss in this paper, the question is, are there measurable events that might allow us to understand the changes in store for a climate transformation? Unlike modeling exercises, measurable changes underfoot create a new need to link the virtual to the actual and back again.

The scope of this essay must be tightly constrained for two main reasons. The first pertains to climate sciences themselves, which have long been unfairly accused of exaggerated claims about impending ecological collapse (e.g. Swyngedouw 2010, Romm 2012b). As a response to this, as many have noted, many public climate pronouncements including the aggregative scientific review work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have adopted conservative scientific assumptions for making politically relevant statements about scientific results. The result has been an extremely articulate awareness of uncertainties of climate science combined with a certain amount of obsessiveness or care in the public communication of science (and reflection on that public communication, e.g. Romm 2012a). The second constraint stems from the broad public interpretability of scientific results, which range from dismissiveness due to (incorrectly) presumed scientific uncertainty, to unnecessarily extreme assessments of impending doom by publics not used to thinking carefully about how climatic processes may or may not play out. There is a lot we don’t know, which allows for a broad range of imaginative potential. For some, uncertainty means inaction is a legitimate response; for others, it allows imagination to run unchecked. I focus here on three figures of anticipation that specifically constrain reasoned (imaginative) expectations about ecological futures with measured ecological changes discernible in the present.

As I describe below, the climate bellwether, the fingerprint and the model event each imply a specific sort of ethical or political relation forged between data and event. The first relates to understanding that measured changes are in fact climate change, that is, where specific changes bear a ‘fingerprint’ that indicates we are observing climate change and not something else. It is a figure that allows for calibration of the models. The second pertains to advance warning afforded by ecological processes, what some are calling climate bellwethers, that may be taken as signals of how climate events may play out, for example, geopolitically. The last I describe are ‘model events’ for the economic implications of climate change such as storm events that reveal the inadequacy of existing infrastructure for managing extreme weather.

Fig 1. Ancient permafrost dated to 740,000 years bp, discovered during a gold mining operation in Canada. © (c) CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc.

Frederic Keck’s (2011) convincing utilization of the nonhuman sentinel relation as a figure for costly inter-species communication in times of uncertainty bears mention here. Increasingly the terminology of the climate bellwether or climate sentinel has gained relevance for a widespread outbreak of avian influenza, H5N1. For Keck the question of signaling refers to the species’ own communication of threat, but it also bears on the epistemological status of the threat, since what remains unknown is the given point and time, and precise nature, at which an anticipated virus may appear. The signal to act is made within a historical context defined by the intensity of industrial animal farms and the velocity of global circulation. The potentiality of the moment is generative.

Keck’s argument implies specific theorization of ornithological signaling within an evolutionary context. Because of the nature of the climate threat, usually ‘forward indicators’ do not pertain to individual species, since climate necessarily refers to a shift in pattern, rather than the emergence of some specific ontological threat (see Canguilhem 1989 on ontological theories of disease). I use the term bellwether rather than sentinel to preserve the distinctiveness of the climate threat and to hold in abeyance Keck’s assertion of the primacy of communication for his own theoretical resolution of the multiple contradictions raised by H5N1. For Keck the ethical ability to listen to sentinels involves awareness of the signaling being and hence interspecies communication (following Haraway 2008). I wonder if this interspecies ethics can be extended to ecosystems without being lost in a labyrinth of inadequate analogy. What happens when the activity of signaling is extended to ecosystems or to nonliving formations like glaciers? In particular, what ethics does it propose, that is, what are the beings here capable of being recognized? Meanwhile, the reciprocal configuration of now planetary contradictions force recognition of fossil energy commitments made long before any reasoned choice about outcomes could be determined. Keck’s figure of costly communication hinges on the communicative arbitrariness of prestige, one of Malinowski’s (1987) three primitive economies. But another figure of costly communication emerges from the necessity and impossibility of decision in which a concrete historical situation makes the assumption of risk compulsory.

Continue Reading here: Fingerprint, Bellwether, Model Event: Climate change as anthropology per se

The Institutional Condition of Contested Hydropower: The Theun Hinboun–International Rivers Collaboration
Jerome Whitington, Forum on Development Studies, 2012, 39:2, 231-256

This article describes an attempt to collaborate by a major hydropower firm in Laos with an activist NGO that had forced the company to deal with the environmental problems it had caused. The collaboration demonstrates activists’ destructuring effects on hydropower development institutions over the past three decades through a case study that can be examined in detail. Against the threat of greenwashing or other forms of sustainability communication, the  attempt to forge a way to neutrally evaluate environmental claims both was doomed to fail and simply replicated, rather than resolved, the institutional conditions of contested hydropower. I argue that activists have denaturalized expert knowledge through systematic denial of authoritative expertise, while in turn creating the condition for sustainability enclaves that can take root wherever contestation makes its mark. This view comes from attention paid to risk management and its close relation to media, including durable environmental relations that function as ‘new media’ crucial for transnational activist networks.

Keywords: Laos; hydropower; networks; new media; institutions

Hello all – I’m happy to report that a draft of my Accounting for Atmosphere article has now been submitted for review –  I’ve also posted it on my academic website. You should be able to access it here, and the abstract is below. This will one day become the book… now I’ve only to write it. No doubt it will go through further permutations before seeing the light of print, so do contact me before citing it. Comments are always deeply appreciated.

Accounting for Atmosphere: Climate Futures, Climates Past (under peer review)

Jerome Whitington, National University of Singapore

Among other things, the anthropological significance of climate change is that it represents an emergent attempt to manage the chemical composition of the atmosphere. Such a project is built around carbon accounting techniques as the core infrastructures for regulating the human practices that emit greenhouse gases. While the project may well fail, this perspective is held by the actors themselves—calling attention to environmentalism as the politics of possibility, distinct from an older politics of prudence, limits and necessity. Carbon accounting, far from normalizing numbers into a predictable knowledge regime, instead builds new techniques of mediation into durable infrastructures, what Rabinow calls remediation. Following Chris Kelty’s work with free software ‘geeks,’ I ‘model’ this activity along two axes, working with numbers, in which quantification infrastructure creates the capacity for work in a politically vexed situation, and thinking through things, in which the infrastructure enables people to think through the futures of climate policy even while they use things to think with. Building conceptual relations into durable forms is a sort of experimental practice in which understanding the implications of one’s assumptions—even those poorly understood or unacknowledged—is a public, embodied and physically extensive practice. But this makes new techniques of living prone to error. Such could describe climate change itself.

Accounting for atmosphere is a contender for one of the top ten anthro blogs. The poll is being held by Anthropology Report and can be accessed here –


Climate Justice Research Project

Carbon markets do not reduce emissions.

The EU ETS has systematically failed to induce investment in low-carbon technologies. This is true in both phases, and it has been true both during and before the euro crisis.

The EU ETS has been repeatedly subject to fraudulent practices, not simply by fringe or criminal elements but also by financial actors at the center of carbon trading. The European Commission recently accepted there would be inevitably some stolen allowances circulating in the markets, and made provisions to legally protect traders. The EC and national law enforcement have been unable to recover the vast majority of stolen credits or lost tax revenue.

Before the euro crisis, the glut of allowances in the ETS was projected to be over 1.1 billion tons of emissions at the beginning of phase 3 in 2013. The price of carbon is far below the cost of implementing new technologies for reduction. Financial actors are quickly abandoning carbon markets due to their dysfunction.

The ETS is highly susceptible to widespread lobbying, with the effect of completely unrealistic market pricing, windfall profits for industrials, political imbalances in who receives free allowances, and inability to include new sectors, such as airlines, into the market.

Carbon markets have especially failed to reduce CO2. Markets treat all GHGs as equivalent even when they are not, and subsequently avoid the real problem of reducing reliance on fossil energy. The ETS is simply an industrial subsidy for polluters, a fact which helps explain why the economic recovery has increased CO2 emissions to record levels.

Among other perverse incentives, the ETS has provided a major incentive distortion in favor of new dirty power plants, while the CDM has provided a major incentive to generate HFCs.

Environmental integrity is systematically undermined in the rule making surrounding carbon markets. The only partial exception is when NGO actors, using their own funds, research and initiative, are able to forcefully criticize specific market failings. There is no internal process to maintain or even verify the environmental integrity of carbon markets.

Carbon offsets are rights to pollute. The CDM is a market formally organized to transfer a new ‘natural’ resource asset from the developing world to Europe.

Carbon offsets create more problems for poor people, and make marginalized groups and developing countries bear the climate burden.

The CDM does not reduce emissions and is not designed to reduce emissions. At best, it produces a net zero balance of emissions, but with any error it actually increases emissions.

Widespread error in additionality requirements virtually guarantees that a very high proportion of CDM projects actually increase emissions, while concentrating wealth among a financial elite.

CDM investment is not ‘development,’ but cash payments to existing elite. Its idea of development is highly reductive, focused only on indices of FDI and GDP, with little awareness of the factors that encourage broad social development on an equitable basis. In some cases, CDM projects actively harm the lives of already marginalized groups.

Renewable energy standards have been far more important than carbon markets for investment in China and in Europe.

Forestry offsets are essentially law enforcement programs designed to kick marginalized groups and indigenous people off their land, often by enriching some local elite, promoting plantations and consolidating land grabs. They are incapable of curtailing commercial logging.

Private sector investment in ‘low-hanging fruit’ uses up the most valuable opportunities for developing countries to participate in carbon reduction activities. If and when developing countries have reduction commitments, they will be obligated to pay for far more expensive reductions.

The CDM Executive Board is unable to make necessary changes when environmental integrity of carbon offsets is against the interests of individual member states. Its inability to curtail HFC-based offsets is an excellent example.

The political organization of the CDM perpetuates the marginalization of smaller developing countries.

Instead of acknowledging the problems with carbon markets, the World Bank and related financial bodies have worked to create more carbon markets with lower standards and less transparency. The use of tools like Programme of Activities (PoA) and creditable NAMAs, and the proliferation of Pacific Rim domestic markets stand to make markets ungovernable.

Land use and forestry credits are systemically faulty and highly dangerous. Biospheric carbon cycles are not equivalent to geological carbon cycles, and the substitution of agricultural and forestry projects for fossil fuel extraction is a failure to confront the climate problem.

It is clear that the UN climate negotiations are now in tatters. The most ominous move, this time by the European Community, is to create a formal mechanism to separate the UN’s carbon market from the Kyoto Protocol, which is currently its legal basis.

It was already on the table last December, but this swift death to Kyoto, which contains the only currently operational principle of historical responsibility, is quickly being realized.

On the other hand, for climate justice activists the miserable condition of the UN negotiations can lead for a much stronger statement of the necessity of directly confronting the causes of climate change.

Working with the Climate Justice Research project, I have created a proposal  to directly cap fossil fuel extraction. ‘Keeping the coal in hole’ is a long-standing demand of climate activists. This proposal suggests we can use a ban on fossil energy extraction as a price driver with a direct effect on the climate and on the economy.

Climate Justice Policy Brief – Fossil Fuel Phase Out

We know that climate policy will be effective only if the vast majority of fossil fuels stay untouched, safely and geologically intact. The science is very clear. Here is a proposal to make it happen.

Levi Bryant at LarvalSubjects has pushed forward an aspect of my last blog post concerning ways in which anthropologists might take up scientific claims and climate skepticism. In my post I hedged an approach that would foreground future-oriented uncertainty as a way to mitigate, from the perspective of the anthropologist, the differences between those who take science as a basis for action and those who reject the science. In the title of the post I referred to the term “belief,” which was meant as a provocation and which did not appear in the body of my argument. But belief is indeed at the center of what I propose about climate change.

Bryant writes:

Whitington’s remark is too brief to be sure, but he seems to be suggesting that worries about climate change are yet another variation of apocalyptic fantasies. This would be a way of reducing climate change to a phantasmatic entity.

In fact I was trying to give due analytical space for apocalyptic fears within a materialist-mathematical-technological assemblage that is essentially different. I think this confusion also drove Tim Morton‘s comments. My research is about accountants and carbon market makers. They don’t have apocalyptic fears, but they also don’t necessarily understand climate science. Not believing is not the same as not knowing all the science. Still, belief is a social fact. Especially in the United States, but also in other Anglophone countries, one must contend with beliefs about climate change that are beliefs per se. (One DC energy broker told me – I never talk about climate change. It doesn’t matter who I’m talking to, I only ever refer to emissions reductions or greenhouse gas management. I’m not going to make any comments about the legitimacy of the science or whether climate change is real.)

One matter I’ve been exploring extensively is the future temporality of climate policy instruments, including the corporate anticipation of policy instruments (i.e. how climate policy will make or cost them money). The market types – in business or neoliberal policy makers – reject the closure of an apocalyptic futurity and, in many cases, openly anticipate a future that is uncertain precisely because it is subordinated to material technologies. They constantly index that no one knows what is going to happen.

Bryant pursues an analysis of apocalyptic closure through Freud’s work on repression, offering the implication that real fears are displaced onto and hence, by-and-by, also expressed through the apocalyptic. The vision in turn is properly understood as a symptom. Instead I turn to science fiction because many of the carbon market makers and carbon accountants I talk to for my research offer fanciful visions of hypothetical futures in which ‘carbon’ operates as a global currency, carbon markets will function as global information networks capable of regulating the earth’s temperature, etc etc. The point, however, is that these hypothetical futures circulate as dynamic possibilities, which indeed do drive decisions, investments or practices but not as matters of belief. They are speculative in a different way, as matters of logical extrapolation, and especially of the logical extrapolation of material technologies.

For example, during most of 2010, because the climate negotiations faltered in Copenhagen, many market makers were extremely anxious about the lack of a forward curve in the market after 2013. ‘Right now the word is uncertainty,’ the head of environmental markets at one of the world’s largest banks told me. ‘What little forward curve there is after 2012 has no liquidity because of regulatory uncertainty.’ The human subject in this configuration is essentially subordinate to the material calculative technologies of the market.

In November I gave a paper at the US anthropology conference in which I contrasted this materialist ethos with what Frederick Jameson writes about science fiction, namely that for him it involves the narration of allegories about contemporary social fears and desires projected onto imaginary events in the future. For me, for most of the activity involved in climate change & climate policy, this is precisely not the case. Instead one must have a theory of play in which one is willing to try things to see what happens. (I’ve been influenced a lot in this by the work of Philip K Dick, who simply doesn’t fit Jameson’s argument.) Ultimately this is an argument about thinking, specifically about one way in which it is possible to think through material-technological relationships, i.e. what they enable us to think.

Consider this comment by Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin, who fancies himself a leader on climate change:

So we put up a $25m prize to get engineers, technicians, scientists to start thinking, Is there a clever way of extracting carbon out of the earth’s atmosphere? And hopefully someone will win the prize because obviously if somebody wins that prize we could literally in the future regulate the earth’s temperature. You know when the earth’s getting a little too hot we could take some carbon out, and the reverse, so we could actually keep the temperature round about what it is today which is obviously generally acknowledged as a pretty good temperature. (Laughter) Depending on where you live. If you live in Canada you might want to put a bit more carbon… (Comments at World Climate Summit in Cancun, 5 Dec 2010)

The logical possibilities here stem from the manipulation of material possibilities. It is both – What can we get away with? and – What can we make these relationships do?

Speculative uncertainty is integral to that formation. Its functional operation is seduction, and seduction involves a play, a gambit or wager of uncertainty. (Is Branson serious?) What can we get the atmosphere to do? How can we materially manipulate engineers & technicians into playing our game? These are the same question, for Branson. Is it a joke? Can we tell the difference? Climate change is seductive at the level of technological potential. If the technology was developed (there are patents!), would it matter if Branson, the person, was only joking? Wouldn’t someone, somewhere, be itching to use it? Do we really think – after all this – that we’re in control of these things we make?

See my forthcoming paper, The Prey of Uncertainty, in Ephemera.

The point I was trying to make in my blog post, which seems to have been largely lost on all but a couple people, is that the skeptics and the naysayers are doing something basically different that involves quasi-apocalyptic envisioning of dire futures. BUT because climate change involves an inherent aspect of anticipating an uncertain future, these similar but different temporalities get easily caught up in each other. They too are seduced, but they don’t think of themselves as seduced (which is not the same as being duped, ‘believing’ instead of knowing the facts [Branson knows very little about climate change, I’m sure]).

Hence, far from a relativism, I am proposing an inside-view of a commercial, materialist, speculative ethos that apprehends the future as uncertain. The skeptics and the naysayers have a very different relation to technology; they interpret the future as terrifying, dangerous, etc., in a way that essentially marks their powerlessness. If belief then points toward a displacement or a symptom at the core of climate change, it is a symptom of powerlessness.

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.


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