In his essay collection, The Periodic Table, Primo Levi narrates 100 plus years in the story of a single carbon atom. Starting its journey in limestone rock, this atom moves into organic human and non-human forms of life, and then into atmospheric gas traversing the globe, ending up as part of the structure that shapes the fingers of the author’s body, enabling him to write the very piece in front of the reader. Levi’s narrative illustrates well how an entity such as carbon, an atom which enters into numerous sets of relationships to form particles and – eventually – life itself, is shrouded in imaginaries both scientific and romantic, becoming both a perspective and an agent.
Since Levi’s piece was written, carbon, in the form of greenhouse gas emissions, has become the object, if not the subject, of an austere management regime arising from our contemporary focus on the climate crisis. Carbon is what must be controlled in order to sustain life on earth as we know it. This new status means that carbon management has become a societal, governmental, corporate, and individual concern that occupies states, industry and consumers alike. We all leave ‘carbon footprints’, and everything we do has a (albeit highly differentiated) cost in terms of climate impact. The imaginaries stemming from this new state of affairs are both grand and diminutive. Individuals are encouraged to change their lifestyles to ensure lower emissions. Businesses are tasked with finding ways of micromanaging their infrastructures and even their supply chains. Nation-states develop ‘carbon inventories’. Aided by various international organisations such as the World Bank and the UN, regulatory bodies, from the EU to municipal authorities, have developed governance mechanisms that either invest in the transition to cleaner energy forms or construct frameworks for market trading of emission quotas.
However, such mechanisms depend upon accountable and reliable means of measuring or estimating emissions, something whose transparency is configured through sophisticated sociotechnical means of comparing and commensurating various forms of actions and activities. Consider again the movements of the atom in Levi’s story, and how it can be accounted for. On top of that comes the awkward politico-legal questions: what is ‘fair’? What is ‘just’? Who will need to reduce emissions if the climate crisis is to be averted? Today, carbon is this focal point for macro- as well as micromanagement of human economic activities, from production to consumption.
The proposed solutions are manifold. Many of these are (techno-)optimistic, many more are not. The conclusion, though, is that no social, political, natural, technological, economic or legal professional insight alone is enough to solve anything. Carbon refuses to be taken as a simple object, which can be managed through simple means or solutions. Only interdisciplinary or even hybrid forms of knowing can address the complexity of its making and existence.
Author: Steffen Dalsgaard