Climate — A New Story
Chapter 2: Beyond Climate Fundamentalism
The Perverse Consequences of Carbon Reductionism
Climate fundamentalism, translated into policy, bears consequences that are in direct opposition to what those policies seek to achieve. The main problem lies precisely in the aforementioned reductionism—to simplify a complicated matrix of causes into a single, identifiable cause. In today’s environmental discourse, that cause is greenhouse gases, in particular carbon dioxide.
Like war thinking and money thinking, the problem with carbon reductionism is that it reduces “everything matters” to “one thing matters.” In the words of Moreno and colleagues, “Once species and ecosystems have been entered into accounts, there is no need to look further into complexities, uncertainties and interlinkages … trying to make reality and its contradictions fungible into carbon units entails cultural, symbolic and epistemic violence.”
Carbon reductionism sits comfortably within a broader, scientific reductionism. The indictment of science as reductionistic is often misunderstood to refer to its quest to explain the behavior of wholes by the properties of their parts. This quest, though, rests on a more insidious and more fundamental reductionism: that of the world into number. Its conceit is that someday, when everything has been ordered, classified, and measured, we will have penetrated every mystery and the world will finally be ours. This reduction of reality to quantity is a reduction of the infinite to the finite, the sacred to the mundane, and the qualitative to the quantitative. It is the abnegation of mystery, aspiring to encompass all of reality in its bounds.
The totalizing quest to capture the world in number never succeeds. Something always escapes the metrics and the models: the unmeasurable, the qualitative, and what seems irrelevant. Usually, the judgment as to what is relevant encodes the intellectual biases of those doing the measuring, and often the economic and political biases too. You might say that what is left out is our shadow. Like many things we ignore or suppress, it roars back in the form of perverse, unforeseeable consequences. Thus, although it is the epitome of rationality to make decisions by the numbers, the results often appear to be insane.
To see the problem, consider the Tehri Dam project on India’s Bhagirathi River, completed in 2006. Constructed after decades of opposition by environmentalists and local residents, the dam submerged pristine ecosystems and ancient farms, displacing a hundred thousand villagers. Like countless other dams still being built in India, China, and Africa, it was touted for its contribution to greenhouse gas reduction and has been one of many dams to generate carbon trading credits. On a superficial level, it attained its measurable objective. But what about the displaced villagers? It could be that in the particulars that are measured, their lives improved: perhaps each was rehabilitated in concrete apartments superior to their ancestral homes in terms of square meters, plumbing, and electrification. However, in terms of the lost traditions, severed social ties, lost memories, lost knowledge, and the uniqueness of each submerged place—in short, in terms of all that could not be measured, and all that was considered not worth measuring—human beings and nature suffered a grievous loss.
Adding injury to injury, in the long run it is doubtful whether the dam even reduced CO2 levels. Before they were displaced, the villagers had nearly a zero carbon footprint, or perhaps a negative footprint given that traditional agricultural practices can sequester carbon in the ground. Following their displacement, the newly urbanized villagers had to adopt more carbon-intensive consumer lifestyles, eating food shipped in from distant places, getting jobs in the industrial economy. Further, each new hydroelectric dam contributes to a trend of industrialization, adding to an infrastructure that is always hungry for more. It didn’t come in place of coal-fired plants; it came in addition to them.
Hydroelectric dams generate electricity without burning fossil fuels, it is true, and it is easy to compute the tons of CO2 that would be emitted by equivalent coal- or gas-fired plants. It is much harder to compute the carbon storage capacity of the ecosystems submerged in the dam reservoir, or the methane released by inundated vegetation (although recent estimates put methane emissions from artificial reservoirs at 104 megatons annually—as much as all fossil fuel methane emissions combined). Harder still to calculate would be the effects of trophic cascades initiated by the deprivation of organic sediments to fish and riparian ecosystems downstream. The sediment is essential to build deltas and prevent ocean encroachment. Given wetlands’ huge carbon sequestration potential, it is possible that (even within the carbon reductionism frame, not to mention the water frame I’ll present later) dam removal contributes more to climate stability than dam building does. Our “science-based” opinion depends on what we include in our measurements.
One unfortunate result of the fossil fuel divestment movement has been a giant land grab in Africa and South America, as investment capital turns toward biofuels plantations. Biofuels represent the most extreme possible form of reductionism: the reduction of living beings to heat. Along the way, existing peasant agriculture and ecosystems are also reduced—to jatropha or palm oil plantations, sugar cane plantations, woodchipping operations, and so on—even as diverse farm livelihoods are reduced to wage labor. By way of illustration, in the last decade controversy has erupted over the acquisition of vast tracts of land in Ghana by European corporations for the purpose of planting jatropha, whose oil-rich seeds, while toxic to humans and animals, are an excellent biofuel feedstock. Jatropha requires large plantations (1,000+ hectares) to be economically viable, which must be cleared of existing vegetation. Usually, they must be cleared as well of existing smallholder farmers. Since most land in Ghana is communally owned, this requires making deals with traditional chiefs, often illiterate, who may not understand the legal ramifications of the documents they are thumbprinting, especially when they are accustomed to regarding land as a sacred being rather than a fungible commodity.
The result is massive disruption of traditional lifestyles, human rights abuses, hunger, and ecological degradation. In a story replayed around the world, one reads of farmers showing up one day at their fields only to be told they are trespassing, and must abandon years or decades of investment in the land. The biofuel companies say that only previously uncultivated land is used and (somewhat contradictorily) that farmers who are evicted are compensated, but these claims don’t always coincide with facts on the ground. Traditional chiefs or other persons of influence may get hired by the biofuel companies, setting their interests against those of the community. The plantation jobs dangled in front of the community don’t always materialize, nor are they sufficient to compensate for the lost food crops. In South America, peasants and environmentalists who resist land grabs and hydroelectric projects are sometimes targets of paramilitary death squads. None of these effects are visible in the spreadsheets that inform climate policymakers. What we don’t count, we don’t know.
But at least the biofuels result in less atmospheric CO2, right? Well, not necessarily. It depends on how you do the math. Do you include the lost carbon sequestration potential of the ruined ecosystem? The carbon released by increased levels of soil erosion? The unpredictable effects of disruptions in the hydrological cycle? The effects of local farmers leaving the land for the cities, where they become consumers in the global food system? Ignore these and you will be able to maintain the belief that biofuels are a fine thing for the planet. No doubt, that is what the biofuels companies believe. These people are not evil; they, like most of us, live in a story that valorizes their choices. That is why we need to propagate a new story that values people and place, soil and water, biodiversity and life; the qualitative and the relational.
Climate arguments have also been invoked in favor of giant woodchipping operations that are destroying forests in the southeastern United States and Eastern Europe. Close examination reveals these arguments as bogus, but when the policy establishment is in the habit of trusting the numbers, it is vulnerable to biased numbers, especially when financial interests of politically powerful lobbies are involved. And so, enormous woodchipping machines lower their hoods over one treetop after another, roaring down upon each and, in a matter of seconds, converting a living being into “climate-friendly biofuel.”
The problem here is not with biofuels per se. The problem, as with many other technologies, comes mostly with industrial scale and blindness to local ecological effects of production. Similarly, we adopt photovoltaic and wind energy in the name of environmental health, counting the tons of carbon they replace while ignoring the toxic waste produced in PV panel and lithium-ion battery manufacture, and the birds and bats wind turbines kill. Those who bring up such issues are marginalized as nitpicking naysayers. All the more invisible are issues like adverse health effects from wind turbine noise (and who knows the effects of noise on wildlife?) or the climate consequences of what one indigenous person called “stealing the wind.” What we don’t know, we don’t count.
To those wedded to the quantitative approach to problem-solving, any failure of quantification is to be remedied with even more quantification. Metrics-based thinking says that to remedy abuses of metrics, we need to extend them further, so that our measurements accurately encompass the uncounted emissions and lost sequestration. If only we could extend our measurements to totality, we would be able to make optimum decisions. But will our measurements ever be complete? No. Something will always be left out—the image of what we devalue.
What is typically measured is that which serves the economic and political interests, and unconscious biases, of those who commission the measurements. Then there are those things that we don’t bother to measure because they are fundamentally unmeasurable, such as the sacredness of land, or of the water feeding the Ganges. Other cultures might say this river, that mountain, this forest is sacred. Is this just superstitious thinking that gets in the way of rational decision-making? Considering that our culture is ruining the planet whereas others, that had a sense of the sacred, lived sustainably on it for thousands of years, perhaps we should be cautious about imposing the value system encoded in our measuring onto the world.
By focusing on a measurable quantity, we devalue that which we cannot measure or choose not to measure. Such issues such as biodiversity, toxic pollution, radioactive waste, etc., not to mention social injustice and economic inequality, recede in urgency under the regime of carbon accountancy. Certainly one can make carbon-based arguments on all these issues, but to do so is to step onto dangerous ground. By saying “Stop the cement plant because of CO2,” you are also implying “If CO2 weren’t a problem, it would be fine.” Right off the bat, you eliminate as allies anyone who doesn’t believe in climate change. If global warming falls out of scientific favor, then all the environmental arguments pinned to it would collapse as well.
Imagine that you are trying to stop a strip mine by citing the fuel use of the equipment and the lost carbon sink of the forest that needs to be cleared, and the mining company says, “Okay, we’re going to do this in the most green way possible; we are going to fuel our bulldozers with biofuels, run our computers on solar power, and plant two trees for every tree we chop down.” You get into a tangle of arithmetic, none of which touches the real reason you wanted to stop the mine—because you love that mountaintop, that forest, those waters that would be poisoned.
The failures of carbon-motivated policies have something in common—they emphasize the global over the local, the distant over the immediate, and the measurable over the qualitative. This oversight is part of a more general mentality that sacrifices what is precious, sacred, and immediate for a distant end. It is the mentality of instrumentalism that values other beings and the earth itself in terms of their utility for us; it is the hubris of believing we can predict and control the consequences of our actions; it is the trust in mathematical modeling that allows us to make decisions according to the numbers; it is the belief that we can identify a “cause”—a cause that is something and not everything—and that we can best understand reality by dissecting it and isolating variables.
Usually, making decisions “by the numbers” means making them according to financial considerations. Is it really a very deep change to take the same methods and mentality and apply them instead to some other number?
We are in familiar territory in addressing problems by attacking their isolable, direct causes. That again is the mentality of war—end crime by deterring the perpetrators, end evil by dominating the evildoers, end drug abuse by banning drugs, stop terrorism by killing the terrorists. But the world is more complicated than that. As the War on Crime, the War on Drugs, the War on Weeds, the War on Terrorism, and the War on Germs show us, causation is usually not linear. Crime, drugs, weeds, terrorism, and germs might be symptoms of a deeper, systemic disharmony. Poor soil invites weeds. A run-down body offers a salubrious environment for germs. Poverty breeds crime. Imperialism begets violent resistance. Alienation, hopelessness, loss of meaning, and disintegration of community foster drug addiction. To address the complex of deep causes is a lot more difficult than to find something to blame and attack it using the familiar reductionistic methods.
Climate change is the same. It is a symptomatic fever of a deeper disharmony, a disharmony that pervades all aspects of our civilization. The fundamentalist wants to reduce every thing to one thing. That is convenient, if you would rather not look at everything.
As with terrorism, drugs, or germs, if we crack down on the proximate cause without addressing the underlying condition, the symptoms will return in a new and more virulent form. Similarly, when we make decisions by the numbers, then that which is not measured, the excluded other, will come back to haunt us.
Earth is a complex living system whose homeostatic maintenance depends on the robust interaction of every living and nonliving subsystem. As I will argue later, the biggest threat to life on earth is not fossil fuel emissions, but the loss of forests, soil, wetlands, and marine ecosystems. Life maintains life. When these relationships break down, the results are unpredictable: global warming, perhaps, or global cooling, or the increasingly unstable gyrations of a system spinning out of control. This is the threat we face, and because it is multifactorial and nonlinear, it cannot be overcome by simply reducing CO2 emissions.
 Moreno et al. (2015).
 Magill (2014).
 Robbins (2017).
 For an impressive video of these machines in action, see Blocker (2014).