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Enacting Environments: An Ethnography of the Digitalisation and Naturalisation of Emissions
Capitalism manages to enact environments in the midst of its centres by means of keeping other environments out. The fundamental practice which allows for this contradictory and generative move is that capitalist agents enact environments. Capitalism does not require a clear, neat, distinct, singular environment. Multiple, fluid, dynamic environments allow far better the tactical and strategical project of staging capitalism as having its destructive environmental impacts in control. That control is a decisive fiction sustaining the unsustainable. These theses are the result of an ethnography, reported in this book, that scrutinised corporate carbon accounting practices as a site at which we are able to simultaneously explore two significant issues for the management of environments: on the one hand studying practices of corporate environmental accounting allows us to engage with agents' practical work reality by which capitalism seeks to render itself 'green' and 'sustainable'; on the other hand the focus on precisely how accountants achieve taking carbon into account is able to sharpen our understanding of how quantifying practices perform in a non-substantial area of business, such as engaging with climate change. In the received view, corporate carbon accounting is about providing the facts and figures about the emissions which a company produces. Accounting for these emissions is supposedly a condition to take carbon into account – economists would call this process internalisation. The discourse which assumes that 'if only capitalist society is able to internalise its environmental problems' (like carbon emissions which are identified as the culprit of global warming and, in consequence, climate change) 'then capitalist society will be able to solve environmental crises' – this discourse is called ecological modernisation. Within environmental sociology arguments over whether that discourse is actually materially reflected abound. Ecological modernisation theory proposes that capitalist organisations do get green(er). In the midst of debate, little attention, if at all, has been paid to those agents who are, supposedly, implementing the programmes of ecological modernisation, such as environmental management systems (EMS) and carbon accounting. This study contributes to understanding how capitalism organises its relation to environments by means of scrutinising the work practices of these agents. To conduct that study, I have carefully avoided to make assumptions about whether a particular organisation would be conducting greenwash. Much rather, the intentionally open question was: what do agents of ecological modernisation do and how do they achieve it? With this orientation, this study turned to sociological theory and methodology which does not presume any overarching structure as determining agents. Instead, by means of methodological triangulation between ethnomethodology, actor-network theory (ANT) and Pierre Bourdieu's concepts of field and habitus, this study reconstructs by which specific practices and discursive action agents manage to make greening more central to capitalism. The decisive finding is that while agents do manage to bring environmental data into the heart of the corporation – the centre of capitalism – what that data is about (the things this data is related and presumably representing, the material hinterland of that data) is simultaneously distanced from the corporate core. This study, thus, shows how capitalism manages to enact a epicentral movement of 'environment' and, in parallel, to ensure that environmental issues and concerns do not challenge orinterfere in that centre. It manages by means of keeping the largest degrees of environments out. The overarching thesis of this study is, thus, that environments, such as carbon, are not existing – for all practical purposes of corporate agents – out-there but, rather, they are carefully crafted and enacted into corporate, social and, eventually, economic reality. Environments are enacted. The plural matters. Within the organisational practices of capitalism, agents may imagine to refer to 'the' environment. Their everyday practices of taking environments into account, however, relate to specific materials, such as spreadsheets, pieces of papers, flip-charts. Environments exist through these multiple materials, in multiple versions; ontologically, thus they do not exist in the singular but they are staged as such. If the carbon emission fact of a company is established, that fact may well be out-dated a few micro-seconds or years later; it may differ several kilometres off or in a neighbouring storage unit in a computer. Any global fact is enacted in particular located situations. Emissions facts are not stable but fluid, flowing in and between myriads of situations. They are hold together by means of humans' material-discursive performances. And they shift with agents' practices just like with the dynamics in-built into materials, like a database. These processes produce artefacts, versions of environments. And these versions matter. What a society is dealing with when encountering a corporate emission fact is not Nature but a version of an environment. Next year, the same fact (as in, signifying the same imagined out-there) may have changed. Vis-à-vis Science and Technology Studies (STS), my analysis of the effects of enacting environments is indicative of a potentially general characteristic in digital quantification practices – whether in offices or in laboratories: data flows are not that clean and under control. While workers may achieve staging being in control, in practice parallel versions of realities may proliferate – for the better or worse. What we find is that the reality of corporate carbon emissions is enacted as mutable, mobile and multiple. In the practical work of corporate fact finders, it is not necessary, albeit it is deemed required, that facts are singularised and immutablised. In consequence, social and economic reality is confronted with diverse carbon emission accounts, all implying universal truths. Societies and politics which resist engaging with parallel realities and insist on singular ones may not be well equipped to manage those crises that may be co-constituted by these parallel realities. Ethnographic work underlying this argument involved participant observation over a period of twenty months as well as document analysis. The study took place at a Fortune 50 financial services provider positioned in a legitimising network involving one of the largest international environmental NGO's and one of the four largest auditing firms. The findings of this study are, thus, considered to point to practices indicative of widely organisationally accepted and shared realities within hegemonic modern capitalist culture.