A few bullet points, as requested by @nadia. I am not at all sure they are a good fit for the upcoming event, but here they are.
- Let’s take a step back from what Climate Gains intends to do directly, and reflect on the context in which it operates. This is an exceptionally diverse and multiscale; it spans from UN bureaucracies in Geneva, through investment bankers in NYC, all the way to schoolteachers in Uganda. Each component has its own mode of operations, rules and expectations; and a lot of these are implicit, they are encoded in culture. Now, cultures are mysterious things, and we have a whole discipline, cultural anthropology, devoted to studying them. I would like to reflect on the role of cultural variables in Climate Gain’s mission, and how anthropologists could help navigate them, and ultimately achieve that mission.
- Anthropologists are scholars trained in perceiving cultures, and subjecting them to analysis. You might have heard the old joke about fish wondering “what is this ‘water’ everyone is talking about”? A fish anthropologist would point out that water is a key component of fish life; fish don’t need to talk about it, because their culture is such that it orients their expectations and behavior in such a way that water is always present. Fish culture might, for example, see the surface of the sea as taboo. Anthropologists have a superpower: they can look things that most people take for granted, and problematize them. Tim quoted the late David Graeber, who was himself an anthropologist. Graeber studied the history of money and debt, and this investigation started at a party. People were discussing the 2008 Greek debt crisis, and somone said “It’s a terrible situation, but debts must be paid!”. And Graeber made this classical antropological move of stepping back, and thinking “Debts must be paid? Why? Where does this belief come from?”. This thought, then, bloomed into a lot of incredibly important insights on money, debt and economic policy.
- There are two ways that anthropologists can help Climate Gains. The first is building an interface between distributed oversight in the field and compliance-as-bureaucracy in the glass-and-steel tower offices of the donors. Tim has already decried compliance as box-ticking. As a former civil servant, he knows it well, and is very dissatisfied with it. And in the field, of course, oversight is done through social ties, with reputational capital as collateral and a shared cultural code to enable transparency. Vanessa knows that she can trust the schoolteachers she works with, and has no trouble telling hardworking activists who will secure the success of the stoves initiatives from wannabes. She does not need a lot of form filling with that, Climate Gains’ videos contain enough information for her to know things are going well, or not. So, if everybody hates compliance as box-ticking, why do we do it? Are there alternatives? If there are, why have they not been put in place already? The anthropologists that have looked into development, like James Ferguson, have pointed out that development projects, while they often fail to achieve their stated goals, meet unstated ones; and that these goals tend to be multiple, because development requires multiple parties. Ferguson himself studied a project in Lesotho, which appeared to tackle a non-existent problem through a reform that failed. But in fact, the project did serve well (1) the Lesotho government, that asserted a firmer control over a remote highland province, and (2) the development professionals involved in it.
- This example also tells us about the second way that anthropologists can contribute to the success of climate finance to reduce carbon emissions: surfacing coalitions of agents that could achieve it. This is the equivalent of Stefan Dercon’s “élite bargain”, but extended to the non-élites. See, development has a long story of the local people resisting to the proposed reforms. This is because reforms in development tend to be technocratic: they are produced from within the culture of the global experts of development, and they make sense in that culture. If you are a Chicago-trained, IMF-employed development economist, privatizing water utilities makes sense. If you are an Ecuadorian farmer, you are likely to have a different story. And that story never gets heard, because even public participation channels (consultations, workshop etc.) tend to be designed from within the same technocratic culture that generated the reform’s project in the first place. So, “development” tends to incorporate cohercion and violence.
- Since 2021, the calls for taking a step back from usual ways of doing things (like reducing emissions) and, more importantly, of knowing things (like: how do we know a project is working well?), have become much louder. The most striking example of this, for me, is the IPCC AR6 report, which insists on “local and indigenous knowledge”, “multiple ways to know”, “participatory decisions” and “just transitions”. There is a new awareness that the consent of the élites is not enough to get enough.
- I would be interested in seeing an experiment, with an emission reduction programme designed, managed and monitored with the involvement of economic anthropologists, which would explicitly factor cultural differences in.