Towards a multi-scalar political ecology of cow dung

Scholars critical of neoliberal environmental governance question the very basis of carbon trading as inimical to the multiple suggestions for reform just discussed (Barnhart 2013; Bond 2012; Ervine 2018). Placing biogas in the context of the broader issue of climate change and the climate justice discourse, we recognize that it is a modernist and neoliberal solution to the climate crisis, meaning that it is predicated on the commodification of the atmospheric commons, through the buying and selling of entitlements to the atmosphere as a sink, measured in CEKs that can be bought and sold in the global market. This approach to climate mitigation and sustainable development can be understood as an extension of the centuries-long project of neoliberalization of nature and environmental governance (Bakker 2005). It follows the logic of a spatial fix, where newer domains are continually sought in order to sustain the system of capitalism (Harvey 2018). As a commodity, the price of carbon credit does not reflect its true ecological value, but rather by the vagaries of the marketplace such that it is greatly underpriced; thus, the goal of internalizing externalities remains unmet (Joshi Forthcoming). Core-periphery dynamics render the buyers of carbon credit - consumers in the Global North, represented by the WB - more powerful in determining this price. They have a vested interest in keeping the price as low as possible, which happens at the cost of ecological degradation and the devaluation of labor (Sheppard et al. 2009). In a buyers market, the seller of carbon credit - the biogas user/owner - has little to no way in determining this price. Moreover, as we saw, they might not have had a say in whether they wanted to sell their carbon credits. Such unequal terms of trade have led to concerns that the CDM might serve as a neocolonial instrument (Bumpus and Liverman 2010). Rather than facilitate a payment of climate debt, the CDM thus perpetuates North/South inequities, thus adding a fourth dimension to what Roberts and Parks (2007) describe as the triple injustices of climate change - in addition to responsibility, vulnerability, and capacity to address the problem, even solutions devised to address the climate crisis can be inequitable and unjust.

Questioning the legitimacy of CDM biogas projects is not about being antidevelopment. It is about asking if the claimed benefits are truly accrued, if they are sufficient, and asking who is profiting off of claimed beneficiaries. The distributive and participatory inequities exist not only in a North/South context but at other scales as well, including within Global South and within nations. A politics of scale is at play in the way that the carbon trade is orchestrated: hundreds of thousands of individual households enable profits and decisionmaking at the site of transaction between the AEPC and the WB. The sellers and presumably the buyers of said carbon credit, who are the ones investing their labor and resources, are left out of the equation, such that the ones who are being exploited and the ones who are made complicit may not be aware of these machinations. Pre-existing social power dynamics, particularly at the site of the household and at the state-society nexus, which also serves as an urban-rural interface, enables the exploitative dimensions of the transaction. Most egregious is the ‘accumulation by dispossession’ (Harvey 2018) of both the agency of the (often) male head of household, who signs the contract and gives up his ownership, possibly unwittingly — and any future claims - over carbon credit sold for a pittance, and that of his spouse, whose labor enables this entire enterprise without having any say over how it should function, even as her own activities in the kitchen are subject to monitoring and regulation, lest there should be emission leakages. Husband and wife are implicated in a global carbon trade without their fully informed consent or participation in the negotiation of the price of the product they are selling. At successive sites/ scales from household to nation to North/South, one party benefits at the cost of the other, and the hierarchical relationships at each site enable the others, illustrating Cox’s (1993) notion that there is an inherent relationship between power dynamics in international relations and within nation-states. As Barnhart (2013, 3) articulates:

The Global North keeps emitting, with minimal lifestyle change, and the burden of behaviour changes to save the planet is displaced to the Global South. . . . What was intended to be common but differentially shared responsibility for reducing emissions has instead become another form of domination by the economically and politically powerful.

Sustainable development in this context occurs within a paradigm of ecological modernization and neoliberal governance that creates governable gendered subjects stripped of their agency to shape policies that affect their lives. While some material benefits exist for household members, in the form of cleaner indoor air quality and money saved from subsidies, they are limited and limiting, as they are encouraged to be ecological consumers rather than ecological citizens, because of the narrowly articulated conceptualizations of sustainable development (Joshi Forthcoming). Neoliberalization alters state-society relations, diminishing the role of the state, local institutions, and weakening social networks in favor of market forces to prevail over livelihood prospects (Bakker 2005). In the ensuing transitions, community self-determination over local resources is often weakened while low-wage jobs in a market-based economy proliferate. These transformations have indeed occurred in Nepal over the time period when biogas as a development project proliferated from the start until its recent reincarnation as a neoliberal climate solution (Barnhart 2013). In this transition, rural people who subsisted on forest resources would increasingly find their access to the forest commons and all the social dynamics associated with it curtailed. Meanwhile, the burning of firewood as a non-renewable resource would be problematized as a contributor to GHG emissions, and modern renewable energy technology would be offered at subsidized cost to facilitate reproductive labor, while enabling the country to capture a greater share of financial resources in a structure that has benefited India and China, its neighbors, more. This approach to climate mitigation and sustainable development appears reductionist, focused on one or two measurable or quantifiable indicators that can be box-checked, as opposed to a more holistic approach that emphasizes the generation of sustainable livelihoods encompassing a more harmonious nature-society relationship that existed prior to the introduction of modernist development and economic globalization. Agencies looking to integrate meaningful sustainable development with climate mitigation goals would do well to heed this insight from Sheppard et al. (2009, 150):

For people in the third world who derive their livelihoods from the forests, fields, and waters around them, sustainability is intimately related to rights of communal ownership, collectively shared ways of knowing, cultural autonomy, religious rituals, and freedom from externally imposed programs that seek to promote someone else’s vision of how to conserve or develop the environments they depend upon.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >