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Enacting Environments: An Ethnography of the Digitalisation and Naturalisation of Emissions

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Abstract

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.
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Thesis
This article-based thesis examines the role of auditing and auditors in the FSC certification scheme as a form of informational governance in action. The thesis draws on practice theory, critical transparency- and critical auditing studies, and dramaturgy in its theoretical underpinnings. The main body of the thesis is two empirical articles bookended by two literature-based articles. The introduction and conclusion chapters result in six total chapters. The main body begins with a published article examining the ways in which auditing of the environment is characterised in literature, highlighting the importance of transparency, effectiveness, and objectivity. The article argues that these values actually characterise a spectrum of modes of auditing with “professionalism” on one end and “protest” on the other. It also argues that a more grounded examination of auditing in practice in the context of this spectrum would benefit understanding how audits are performed and why they are performed as they are, resulting in a more critical examination of the values expressed in literature. The second article examines the content of an FSC lead auditor training course that the candidate attended twice. The focus of the article is on the value of objectivity as imparted to and practiced by the auditors-in-training. This value is at odds, however, with the equally important value of interpretation that is also stressed in the training. As a result, auditors are expected to manage this tension in order to demonstrate mastery of the subject of auditing. The third article is a dramaturgical analysis of ethnographic observations of a FSC forest management audits in Spain and Africa, wherein auditors demonstrated their mastery not in the classroom, but in the field. The focus of the article is on how auditors, separately and together with auditees, enact their role to perform a good audit in order to make the chaotic reality able to be accounted for (account-able) in order to ensure that the end result is clear in what happened and who is responsible (accountable). This article explicitly situates auditing practices closer to the “professionalism” end of the spectrum described previously, and highlights the consequence of valuing this mode of auditing (ensuring high account-ability) being a risk to the overall goal of FSC certification (ensuring accountability for forest degradation). The final content chapter examines the tension that occurs when universal normative requirements (such as FSC’s standards and procedures) are enacted in a context, and the alignment that happens in order for the scheme to continue functioning. Furthermore, the article argues that this cycle of friction and alignment is in fact necessary for the continued operation of such schemes. This is done by examining examples of friction and alignment at different spatial and organizational levels in FSC’s scheme. The concluding chapter of the thesis critiques informational governance as an example of “epochal thinking” and highlights how considering themes of governance by disclosure and the tyranny of transparency ground the discussion in how and why informational governance happens as it does. It goes on to point out that the mode of auditing employed by auditors inherently contains certain values, and those values impact which information is made available to which audience, and that those values are in no way natural or inevitable. They are chosen and perpetuated in practice. Having a mode of auditing with values that do not match the values of the certification scheme may very well lead to perverse outcomes. Finally, it argues for the value of using dramaturgy to examine ethnographic studies of the environment due to its versatility, practice-based nature, and its expressly neutral conception of actors at the outset of the analysis.
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Chapter
Vor längerer Zeit habe ich vorgeschlagen, Diskursanalysen in bestimmten Fällen bzw. im Hinblick auf bestimmte Fragestellungen um Dispositivanalysen zu erweitern, und dazu Strategien einer fokussierten Diskursethnografie zu entwickeln bzw. zu nutzen. Mittlerweile sind einige Konzepte insbesondere zur Wissenssoziologischen Diskursethnografie vorgelegt worden, die zum einen an diese Ideen anschließen, sie zum anderen auch um ganz unterschiedliche Akzentsetzungen und -erweiterungen ergänzen. Exemplarisch dafür stehen die aus einem Workshop in St. Gallen hervorgegangenen instruktiven Beiträge im Schwerpunktheft „Wissenssoziologische Diskursethnografie“ der Zeitschrift für Diskursforschung, das 2017 erschienen ist. Andere diskurstheoretische Perspektiven haben ebenfalls Diskurs- bzw. Dispositivethnografien angeregt. Auch der Dispositivbegriff ist immer wieder Gegenstand kontroverser Diskussionen. Der vorliegende Text greift die ursprüngliche Idee einer fokussierten Diskurs- und Dispositivethnografie wieder auf, um sie näher zu erläutern und auf die Analyse von Dispositiven auszurichten.
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Article
Numbers have long been associated with statecraft. In bureaucratic processes of accounting, regulation was effected by forming centres of calculation. This paper suggests that contemporary post-bureaucratic regimes are evolving new forms of accounting, in which the centre inserts itself into individual sites to exercise authority. This ‘intimate accounting’ involves technologies of transparency through which individual sites such as schools are required to declare intimate information publicly. In turn, the public, armed with information, is exhorted to become informed and to exercise influence on institutions to excel and to hold them to account. Using the case of Australia’s ‘Education Revolution’, this paper describes the processes of intimate accounting. It then explores the efforts to resist, subvert and undo such calculations. Finally, it speculates on why these calculations have continued to appear robust in the face of opposition and what would need to be done to escape or resist such calculations. Keywords: Sociology of Numbers; Education Policy and Numbers; Accountability
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