SPERI spotlight on the UN climate summit II

On climate change ontologies and the spirit(s) of oil

sian-sullivan-100As we know, preparations are underway for the 21st time for a United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) on Climate Change, intended to produce a ‘deal’ for the management and prevention of anthropogenic climate change. Every edit of the text by government negotiators is being scrutinised by those with varying interests in the exact wording of the deal.  Business groups repeatedly celebrate the effectiveness of ‘market-based measures’ and call on governments to support them. Such assertions are countered by equally repetitive and forceful claims that carbon markets have failed. Each position is supported by datasets that, once publicly shared, appear uncontroversial and ‘objective’.

The polarised disagreement between these positions and the numbers supporting them demonstrates that climate management and carbon markets are not technical matters that can be fixed by measurement and modelling. They are political concerns that reveal highly divergent values and world-views – different ‘ontologies’.  Ontology is the study and naming of the nature of reality, defining what entities exist and how they can be categorised and known.  Importantly, cultural and historical differences yield plural ontologies.  The disagreements characterising international climate politics can be thought of as ontological issues arising from different ways of understanding the ‘nature of nature’, and the nature of appropriate forms of use, value and appreciation that humans bring to bear on the beyond-human natures with which we are bound.  Technical and seemingly pragmatic solutions aimed at sustaining a global market economy are thus as ideological and ontologically embedded as the actions and rhetoric of ‘anti-capitalist’ climate justice activists.

The stakes in these negotiations are high. Consider the following graphs.  The first shows temperature changes over the past 100,000 years. Although temperature has varied widely and unpredictably, the last almost 12,000 years have been both relatively stable and markedly warmer than the previous 80,000.  Moreover, they have been characterised by significant glacial melt and widespread sea-level rise.  The second shows the close correspondences between atmospheric methane and carbon dioxide levels and climate temperatures over the last 800,000 years. Importantly, in 2010, these measurements were significantly higher than at any previous time – an outlier whose prediction would have been improbable if extrapolating from the previous 800,000 years.  It seems reasonable to assume that climate temperature levels will follow suit, given their tight coupling with atmospheric methane and carbon dioxide over the previous 800,000 years.  Although the future changes which these ramped-up and interlinked measures will bring are unpredictable, the implications for species, and for human cultural and economic activity, will in all likelihood be enormous.

Graph 1

Graph 1 Graph 2

Graph 2

The final set shows the exponential or radically recursive increases in a range of indicators of post-war socio-economic and biophysical change. It reveals that a system shift in the complex organic system we call Earth is being generated, at least in part, by an expansionary economic culture based on specific practices of extraction, measurement, calculation, accounting and accumulation of monetised measures of ‘value’.  This ‘culture’ itself contains recursive elements.  Monetisable assets accumulate more of themselves, and so wealth concentrates exponentially.  The movements of commodity prices demonstrate trending and volatility, rather than unrisky ‘market efficiency’.

Graph 3

In proposing ‘solutions’, economists and accountants fiddle with methodologies for embedding calculated and priced ‘units of nature’ further into economic spreadsheets and natural capital asset reports. Climate change management and ecological health thus become further enmeshed with an economic machine that is itself an engine of increasingly volatile volatility. The hegemonic economic ‘culture’ perceives itself to be efficient, rational, equitable and predictable. Simultaneously, however, it appears to misperceive the complex biophysical system within which it is embedded as akin to a complicated but predictable machine, whose management may be perfected simply through better economic/numerical measurement. The recursive and unpredictable nature of the interacting biophysical phenomena and changes that are being measured is seemingly not considered; nor is the awkward fact that such measurement itself determines what becomes visible to markets.  The ways that calculative accounting practices act to consolidate wealth, and thus to enhance the destabilising recursions of the system, are simultaneously masked by claims to pragmatism, superior expertise, and greater legitimacy than alternative understandings.

In this context it is useful – perhaps imperative – to ask how different cultures understand their relations with extra-human nature, and how their knowledges and practices have acted as checks on instrumental, industrial and ownership practices.   Recently, I met Manari Ushigua of the Sápara people of Pastaza Province in the upper Amazon forest of Ecuador. Some 575 Sápara people now live on what is left of their ancestral lands.  They are struggling to retain their land and the integrity of their forest home in the face of enormous pressure for the extraction of oil from the ground underneath. Although Sápara legally own their land, the Ecuadorian government claims rights to below-ground fuels and minerals and has franchised blocks of these rights to international oil corporations.

The south-central Amazonian area of Ecuador is considered by ecologists to be amongst the most biodiverse localities on the planet. By most standards, the imminent destruction of the interconnected cultural and natural diversity of the forest in this geographical space is a tragedy.  Yet, if we step into Sápara cosmology, we can see that it is an even broader tragedy caused by industrial hunger for potent minerals fuelling contemporary economic and technological growth and forcing anthropogenic climate change.  Sápara ontology, as spoken about by Manari, affirms the presence of spirits associated with the oil found underground.  They confer vitality to oil and nourish spirits around five metres below the surface of the soil, which in turn animate the roots of plants that burst through the surface of the soil to provide food and habitat to animals and humans dwelling above.

In this spirited understanding of the connected and mutually flourishing nature of mineral, plant and animal-human entities, extraction of the earth’s materials is seen to engender imbalances in the life-force of the connected entities, above ground. Such a perspective affirms that the zone of life on earth, referred to as the ‘biosphere’ by environmental scientists, is intractably entwined with minerals found deep in the earth. In other words, it asserts that above-ground socio-ecological health and diversity is connected with the spirited liveliness of intact fluids and minerals below-ground.

There are echoes of this perception in many other cultural contexts. These spirited perspectives cast our current environmental predicament in a particular light, suggesting that the effects of pulling fuel and minerals out of the earth may be more unpredictable, mysterious and far-reaching than the conventional post-Enlightenment mechanistic worldview registers.  They give weight to a view that the holes in the earth created through mining processes, coupled with changes in atmospheric composition caused by pumping these elements into the layer of gases that permit life to thrive on earth, are causing sickness in the living, breathing body of the earth itself.

Charges of romanticism and naivety are frequently deployed to negate the value of connecting with and learning from the different perceptual realities of people who retain ancestral cultural links with landscapes. Yet listening to and sharing such different perspectives is key to learning that the quality of assumed reality, and the eco-ethical actions that flow from this, is not fixed.

Indigenous concerns have tended to be sidelined at international climate summits. Paris could instead place at the heart of its negotiations recognition of, and dialogue with, perspectives and ontologies that view the nature of climate change differently.  To do so would widen the circle of perspectives regarding this critical juncture for humankind, and thus strengthen the legitimacy of these talks that affect us all.  As Yukon leader Stanley James asserted in contesting the slow pace of negotiations at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009: ‘We need to have the aboriginal people at the table with those government people … then things will change, I think’.