Monday, December 3, 2012

Frontiers, Conservationism, and Business as Usual

I came into contact with a lot of the issues raised by Tsing this past summer, when I interned at a think tank in DC and spent the majority of my time there working on tropical rainforest and international carbon market policy. Specifically, I was assigned to produce research and writing on an emerging policy idea called REDD – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation in developing countries. Our focus was on Mexico and Brazil, but one of the most enticing countries for REDD proponents is – you guessed it – Indonesia.
            The idea behind REDD is simple. In a cap and trade system a regulated company has three options for meeting their allotted cap on C02 emissions; 1) reduce their carbon output through restructuring or adopting cleaner technologies; 2) pay another company to reduce their carbon output; or 3) buy carbon credits by investing in carbon offset projects. REDD represents the third type of compliance strategy. By paying developing countries to preserve their forests from logging or degradation, companies can get credits that hypothetically allow them to exceed their cap by the amount of carbon their investment in tropical forest preservation saved. Because land is so cheap in developing countries, REDD is by far the most economically efficient way to reduce CO2 emissions globally. Thus, many people see REDD as a win-win, in that it provides a way to cheaply reduce CO2 emissions while also protecting tropical rainforests at the same time. This has united a strange group of bedfellows, in many ways resembling a classic "bootleggers and baptists" coalition. Forest conservation groups have supported the idea because they want to save forests, while the World Bank, the EU, and the OECD have pushed for REDD because it will provide a very cheap source of carbon credits. In an ironic twist, polluters and conservationists suddenly find themselves on the same side of an issue.
            But although I obediently toed the line of my organization’s pro-REDD position this summer, I never really felt comfortable with the idea. Mostly it just seemed like a way for companies to avoid the market pressure towards adopting clean technologies that a cap and trade system applies. Instead, with REDD, companies in industrially advanced countries can continue “business as usual” as long as they buy (cheap) credits from a REDD program hypothetically offsets that pollution.
            Our readings this semester, however, have helped me clarify my trepidation about REDD. First, the Beck reading helped me understand how REDD, and carbon markets more generally, need to be understood as part of a neoliberal risk society, where risks are “no longer the dark side of opportunity, they are also market opportunities” (46). In other words, global warming is not so much a threat to global capitalism as it is an opportunity for new markets and commodities. Across the globe, billions of dollars of carbon credits are now traded every year, making many individuals and corporations fantastically rich. As Tsing shows with her entertaining discussion of Bre-X, fortunes can be made and capital can flow towards all sorts of imaginary and performative sources. If people can make a fortune from an imaginary gold mine, then it seems totally sensible that people can also make a fortune capturing one of the earth’s most common gases – CO2. Why not pay people not to cut forests? Now it makes sense to me why the World Bank and the OECD are such big proponents of REDD – it both allows developed countries a cheap way of meeting cap and trade obligations while also creating new market opportunities in developing countries. Notably, these are often the same countries where the World Bank promoted privatization and pollution intensive industries in the first place. In this sense these organizations are in a similar role to that of Beck’s chemist: “they make people sick and then feed them pills to cure their secondary sickness” (46).
            Tsing really drives this point home. As Tsing shows, many Western attitudes towards forests are predicated upon a bunch of assumptions about what, exactly, constitutes a forest. Specifically, both loggers and conservationists often assume that a forest is both uninhabited and always capable of clear ownership. But as Tsing shows in her brilliant chapter on "A History of Weediness," neither of these assumptions actually reflect realities on the ground, where the forest is an entirely social landscape, where shifting communities have overlapping jurisdiction. But the frontier gaze of the satellite image of the developer or the conservationist ignores these possibilities. In a great passage, Tsing writes:
“To fight for nature reserves and parks, [conservationists] wrench forests away from national development to make way for an equally valued national conservation. Conservation forests, like development’s production forests, would contribute to the power of the nation and its elites, at least symbolically. Like developers, these conventional conservationists have seen the forests’ residents as interlopers, bandits, destroyers of the nation’s value” (195).
            Of course, REDD relies on all these same logics. REDD assumes that all forests have owners – either public or private – and that those owners can be paid to keep their forests free from destruction or degradation. REDD also assumes that areas of intensive development can coexist right alongside preserved forests for carbon storage. But in doing so, REDD assumes that carbon forests can be kept pristine and free from human influence or harvest. As Tsing shows, this is neither realistic nor culturally responsible.
            As you can see, I’m still trying to work out my participation in this pro-REDD community last summer. Even after this reflection, however, I’m left with a bunch of questions. I'm both interested and confused by Tsing's discussion of the political potentials of friction. In some ways, REDD resembles many of the possibilities of friction. It unites a diverse group of interests with often divergent priorities: NGOs, private corporations, national governments, conservationists, etc. And certainly, it is better to save forests than to cut them down. But even so, I find myself skeptical of the frictional possibilities of a project that is so heavily rooted in the assumptions of the market, and the fantasy of an empty and pure wilderness. Is there a way that these frictions can be channeled and tweaked productively, or is this model of carbon market driven conservation too faulty to begin with?
            Second, and more specifically, I’m fascinated by Tsing’s discussion of the idea of the frontier. Generally, I’m inclined to say, drawing loosely from Ahmed, that the frontier must be understood as a powerful imaginary that operates primarily on the level of affect. As Tsing writes, the frontier “is a space of desire: it calls, it appears to create its own demands; once glimpsed, one cannot but explore it” (32). Earlier, again sounding very much like Ahmed, Tsing argues that the frontier emerges “in the intertwined attraction and disgust” of dreams and nightmares (30). Again, many of my questions are historical. Why is it that the frontier is such a pesky and enduring idea in Western culture? And what alternative political possibilities that we have discussed this semester might be capable of destabilizing and subverting the myth of the frontier?

No comments: