Frictitious commodities: Virtuality, virtue and value in the carbon economy of repair

Journal Article

What ‘nature’ is being commodified in carbon markets, and why does it matter? How are carbon commodities and ecologies of repair co-produced through carbon forestry? Are the Polanyian notions of ‘fictitious commodification’ and ‘embeddedness’ appropriate for thinking about carbon forestry and voluntary carbon market (VCM) offsets?

This article addresses these questions and extends the critical understanding of conservation in the ‘repair mode’ through an analysis that delves deeply into the black box of value production in the VCM. Focusing on the interplay of ‘virtuality’ and ‘virtue’ in the production of one variety of so-called ‘boutique’ blue forest carbon offset, this analysis demonstrates the technical abstractions needed isolate ‘carbon’ and force it into the commodity form create slippages between concrete socio-natures and geographies of offsetting and the imagined natures and geographies of a market environmentalist model of the world. This politics facilitates a dual pathway of accumulation via the material extraction of nature to feed the expansion of industrial growth (the subject of Polanyi’s critique) and, in parallel, through feeding new growth markets for nature-based commodities such as the VCM. These markets promise to repair the damage caused by industrial growth, but can only ‘work’ in the abstract, virtual realm despite entanglement with underlying concrete ecologies of repair.

Based on this analysis, this article argues that the widespread view of carbon offsets as ‘embedded’ Polanyian fictitious commodities is incomplete, based on an ontological fallacy that conflates the ways in which concrete and abstracted, virtual ‘natures’ are used to produce value in the contemporary restoration economy. This fallacy implicitly reifies the central fictions and contradictions of carbon markets and the market environmentalist model more broadly. Considering VCM carbon forestry in terms of ‘scale-making’ and ‘world-making’ projects, the article presents an alternative conceptualisation of VCM carbon offsets as intangible ‘frictitious’ commodities that inhabit a complicated and only provisionally stabilised commodity form.

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