Society for the Anthropology of North America
Oral Presentation Session
How is carbon made, measured, and managed? Is carbon a commodity, a currency, or a debt? How does carbon circulate? Who profits from, and who resists, its dominance in environmental governance? A misleading carbon ‘theory of value’ rests on the assumption of nature as simultaneously outside of, yet analogous to, capitalism. On the one hand, carbon aims to bring the ‘externality’ of environmental degradation into capitalist calculations. This frames nature’s position outside of capitalism as the reason for ecological destruction. On the other, carbon is championed as an alternative measure of value beyond the metrics of capital. This positions nature as analogous to capitalism, yet generative of non-capitalist value. In both variants, carbon logics subsume environmental processes to capitalist ends and place faith in capitalism to save nature. Rather than protecting the environment, these forms of carbon governance facilitate capital accumulation, resource extraction, and livelihood destruction. Turning to the frontlines of carbon governance in China, struggles emerge that range from home-grown labor theories of value to full-blown fights over basic livelihood necessities. These forms of carbon governance neither symbiotically align capitalism with nature, nor generate alternate sources of value to capitalist logics. Instead, they mask contradictions between economic growth and environmental sustainability, capital accumulation and political legitimation, financial debt and green credit, in highly uneven and extractive ways. I argue that these contradictions, inherent to a nascent carbon ‘theory of value’, circulate in global environmental governance to privatize profits and socialize risks of ecological crises.