“Are you Reg?” The strange and mythical reality of ‘carbon’

Last night’s “Nature As Commodity” debate in Brighton discussed what happens when we treat ecosystems as commodities and ‘carbon’ as something to be traded and offset, among other things. I won’t try to summarise the debate (of which an audio recording will shortly be released), but here are some partial and subjective thoughts that emerged – apologies for any inaccuracies.

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The idea that ecosystems can be financially valued, swapped, exchanged, traded on, rented and promised, isn’t just an idea, it is here in practice and being worked out (and resisted) at many levels. ‘Where we are now’ is a work in progress, as new regulations and legal mechanisms are being forged and reforged within the EU and other powerful institutions, as Hannah Mowat (FERN) pointed out. Sometimes these regulations can serve to reinforce the practice of treating nature as a commodity, biodiversity offsetting etc. Simply calling for ‘more regulation’ doesn’t work – nor does calling for a greater or lesser role for ‘the state’. In fact, states are often very powerful actors in these processes, but different bits of the state have different priorities and power, so there is a need to choose carefully when making alliances. Hope in alliance-making came up more than once.

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The idea of ‘fictitious commodities’, or other elements around the financialisation of nature being ‘fictitious’, came up a lot too (from Bram Büscher and Melissa Leach, but with slightly different definitions of what ‘fictitious’ meant). Broadly speaking though: rents, commodities, debt, markets, I think all rely on a certain suspension of disbelief by everyone involved to make them work. Promises are a currency, or is it the other way round? Is ‘carbon’ in any sense ‘real’ when it is traded on international markets, and why does this question matter?

One problem might be the mismatch between ways of seeing: for example, on the one hand, how carbon traders and governments understand what they’re doing in, say, a forest in Sierra Leone… and on the other, what local residents who use the forests make of the process. One woman asked a group of researchers who came to her village, “Are you Reg who has come to buy my carbon?” By Reg she meant REDD, and by carbon she meant – well, whatever process by which land or trees could be worth money to foreigners, the real workings of which are often so shrouded in mystery that a whole consultancy industry has grown up around measuring it.

But ‘carbon’ isn’t like other commodities, it isn’t a thing that can be easily measured, boxed or shipped, which brings with it complex governance and technical challenges. We might think of carbon as a stand-in or proxy – for quite solid things like tree planting, to more conceptual stuff, like access to land, free movement, national commitments on climate change and so on. But the crucial thing about ‘carbon’, is that it allows these things to be translated into a set of numbers, to be bought, sold, promised, traded on, invested – in a way that the idea of home, rights, even the ‘intrinsic’ value to humans of an ecosystem, whatever that may mean, cannot. And so on balance, carbon wins because this commodifying force and the structures and ideas with it feed off each other in such powerful ways, and we can choose whether or not we want to accept this, and if we don’t choose, it will just happen. So ‘repoliticising’ nature means exposing this understanding of reality for what it is, a means to an end, and saying that there are other understandings with other possible outcomes.

There are many people who talk as if the only thing that is truly ‘real’ is the market, and that’s why they talk about the capitalist market system as ‘the real world’: in other words, the real world isn’t the world, it is the global market through which the world of humans and rocks and trees and bugs and oil flows, is understood, constructed, reconstructed, and priced. And this is why we desperately need to keep a handle on and discuss what reality is, and what reality means to different people, not just as a philosophical exercise, but because it is a matter of life and death. But when did you last talk about ontology to a banker?

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I liked the idea of ‘cognitive justice’ that came from Melissa at the end, summing up in two words a deep argument about the value of recognising different ways of seeing the world. Not just because it’s nice to try to look at things through someone else’s eyes. But the ‘justice’ bit, in part, points to the fact that certain views always seem to come out on top, and not because they’re better or right. So a forest might have – to different people around it – a varying mix of values of home, histories, in-depth knowledge of what to do with it or which bits to leave alone, cultural or religious meaning, be a source of food or shelter or whatever – or equally be a nuisance and a potential bit of farmland, not to get too romantic about it.

What are all these values worth, in money terms? This is the only question capitalism wants to ask and if you don’t want to answer it, it doesn’t matter, because money flows like water, and how do we know if we’re being sold down the river or not?