On climate change ontologies and the spirit(s) of oil

The push and pull of climate ‘agreements’

For the 21st time, preparations are underway for a United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) on Climate Change (or ‘summit’), intended to produce A Universal Climate Agreement (or ‘deal’) for the management and prevention of global anthropogenic climate change. As with similar meetings since at least the mid-1990s1, COP21 is precipitating intense debate, planning and drafting of texts by many people and organisations, from high-level government negotiators to climate justice activists. Since the beginning of 2015, government negotiators have been engaged in multiple redrafts of the climate deal text that (hopefully) will be agreed by the 11th December deadline2. Their every edit is scrutinised by those with varying interests in the exact wording of the deal.

A 20 October press release from business groups3, via the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), calls ‘on governments to ensure that the Paris climate change agreement supports international cooperation through market-based measures’. The insistence here is on international carbon trading, so as to (seemingly) allow mitigation, rather than reduction/cessation, of emissions from industrial production.

Market mechanisms at all levels are also supported by the International Carbon Action Partnership (ICAP), ‘a partnership made up of public authorities and governments that have established or are actively pursuing carbon markets’4. On 19th October ICAP submitted to the Conference Working Group a call for the Paris agreement to support the use of market mechanisms to help countries achieve the targets laid down in their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs).

These submissions rely on repeated assertions that ‘[c]arbon pricing is one of the most powerful mechanisms we can put in place to reduce emissions and speed the transition to a low-carbon economy’, as Peter Bakker, President and CEO of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, puts it in the IETA press release mentioned above. Such assertions of the positive impacts of carbon markets are countered by equally repetitive and forceful claims that ‘carbon markets have failed’.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) for instance assert that carbon markets have failed to do what they say they do, i.e. reduce carbon emissions in one place through the purchase and trading of credits tied to carbon reductions and/or storage somewhere else5. NEF refer to a recent in-depth review of carbon credits awarded and traded under the Kyoto Protocol’s Joint Implementation (JI) mechanisms. This review indicates that high carbon credit prices in fact generate ‘perverse incentives to increase production or generation of waste gases as a means to increase credit revenues from waste gas abatement’. A market in carbon credits has thus substantially undermined any potential environmental integrity of such mechanisms.

Reviewing this research, NEF suggest that ‘about three-quarters of credits [under JI] may not represent actual emission reductions, and their use to meet mitigation targets may have increased emissions by about 600 million tonnes’. Of course, given the emphasis on competitive profit-seeking in neoliberal markets it is unsurprising that such perversities should arise. Markets in themselves cannot generate ethical choices and behaviour, and outcomes not predicted in the design of their incentive structures are arguably inevitable.

Other research suggests that in many cases emissions reductions would have happened without the associated international carbon credit purchases. What this means is that such trades do not meet their stated purpose of generating carbon emissions reductions that are additional to those that would have occurred anyway, i.e. in the absence of such trades.

This apparent failure of carbon pricing, trading and markets to do what they are repetitively promised to do is one reason why social movements and environmental NGOs campaign so vigorously against the (false) solution of carbon markets. They see market mechanisms as legitimising the capitalist structures perceived to be at the root of high fossil fuel production and consumption, as well as of growing global inequities in wealth concentration, and emphasise the demonstrably poor outcomes of existing carbon markets in terms of reducing climate forcing carbon emissions. Climate justice activists are campaigning for much more ambitious international collaboration and cooperation at COP21, framed around the setting and meeting of targets as ‘red lines which are the minimal necessities for a livable planet’ and ‘that must never be crossed’.

These contrary positions – ‘pricing and trading carbon on markets is essential for reducing climate-forcing carbon emissions’ versus ‘carbon markets make money for trading parties but have failed to reduce carbon emissions’ – drive the push and pull of international climate negotiations. Each position is supported by datasets that once publicly shared appear uncontroversial and ‘objective’.

But the polarised disagreement between these positions and the numbers supporting them demonstrates that climate management and carbon markets are not technical problems that can be fixed by measurement, modelling and technocratic solutions. They are political problems revealing highly divergent values and worldviews.

Businesses, banks and their allies tend to be ideologically situated towards the right. Their technical and seemingly pragmatic solutions aimed at sustaining a global market economy are as ideological as the actions and rhetoric of the ‘anti-capitalist’ climate justice activists halting business as usual at sites ranging from from open cast coal mines to heavily policed international climate summit meetings. The mirroring relationship between these entrenched ideological positions explains why global negotiations such as the forthcoming climate talks are met with strong political resistance, and also why this resistance is itself vehemently resisted.


High stakes

It has become normal in such a pre-Summit moment to assert that the stakes are high. Let’s consider just how high they may be, by considering a series of graphs widely cited in expressions of concern regarding anthropogenic climate change.

The first set of graphs illustrates the broadly common shape of time-series measures for multiple socio-economic and biophysical indicators6.

great accel

The similarity of these curves, which all show a radically recursive or exponentially increasing magnitude of measures over the last half century, depicts the ‘great acceleration’ of post-1950s changes in interlinked socio-economic and biophysical spheres. The systemic nature of these changes in the post-war era has led to proposals for this time-period to be named as the beginning of the new geological epoch of the Anthropocene, thereby promoting human activity to the status of  a geological force shaping planetary dimensions and dynamics.

The second figure shows temperature changes over the past 100,000 years.


This graph indicates three important things:

  1. temperature has been both widely and unpredictably variable through this time period;
  2. the last almost 12,000 years (the post-glacial geological epoch of the Holocene), whilst also variable, has been markedly warmer than the previous 80,000 years, and hence characterised by significant glacial melt and widespread sea level rise;
  3. and temperature in this Holocene warm period has been relatively stable.

The third graph illustrates close correspondences between atmospheric methane and carbon dioxide levels and reconstructed climate temperatures over the last 800,000 years.


What is important here is that both methane and carbon dioxide measurements in 2010 were significantly higher than at any time in the previous 800,000 years – indeed, they are off the scale  of this graph. In this time-series of data the 2010 levels constitute a data outlier whose prediction would have been improbable if extrapolating from the previous 800,000 years.

Given that the previous 800,000 years of data indicate that climate temperature is tightly coupled with levels of both atmospheric methane and carbon dioxide, it seems reasonable to assume that climate temperature levels are also moving off the scale. And since temperature is a factor in the geographical presence or absence of species, it also seems reasonable to assume that such significantly rising temperatures will have significant implications for species, not to mention for human cultural and economic activity.

This is why there is a UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and why people are so concerned about the possible effects of climate change projections.



The features highlighted in these graphs are both connected and recursive, illustrating positive feedback loops in which the momentum of recorded values is becoming greater in magnitude over time. They indicate precisely the sorts of ratcheted up interactions that chaos and complex systems theories predict will generate significant system shifts.

As such, it seems likely that the future changes with which these ramped up and interlinked measures will be associated will be immensely significant, as well as currently unpredictable. As framed by Naomi Klein, ‘this changes everything’.

We are on the cusp of changes that past experience would perceive as unprecedented and unpredictable, and which contemporary calculative and forecasting practices are unable to foretell with any degree of accuracy. This is like knowing an apocalypse is around the corner, but not knowing what form it will take. Or, as philosopher Slavoj Žižek has put it, we are Living in the Endtimes.

Meanwhile, in proposing ‘solutions’ to the environmental impacts of these system changes, economists and accountants fiddle with methodologies for embedding calculated and priced units of nature further into economic spreadsheets and capital asset reports. Climate change management and ecological health thus become further enmeshed with an economic machine that is itself an engine of increasingly volatile volatility.

The stakes are indeed high.


What’s ontology got to do with it?

I think we need to ask some questions of how anthropogenic climate change is understood, and of what are promoted as appropriate responses to this systemic problem. What seems to be coalescing is something like the following.

A system shift in the complex organic system we call Earth is being generated, at least in part, by an expansionary economic culture based on particular practices of extraction, measurement, calculation, accounting and accumulation of ‘value’.

This ‘culture’ is itself built on elements of recursivity (i.e. positive feedback). Monetisable assets accumulate more of themselves, and so wealth concentrates exponentially.

The movements of commodity prices also demonstrate trending and volatility rather than unrisky ‘market efficiency’. They are characterised by an abundance of seemingly improbable or erratic price swings, rather than by a normal distribution around a mean – as mathematician and father of fractal geometry Benoit Mandelbrot describes.

Yet this hegemonic economic ‘culture’ perceives itself to be efficient, rational, equitable and predictable. Simultaneously, it appears to misperceive the complex biophysical system within which it is embedded as a complicated but predictable machine, whose management may be perfected simply through better economic/numerical measurement of the ‘units’ by which it is considered to be made.

Measurement of what exists is seen as key to rational and efficient management, seemingly without considering either the recursive and unpredictable nature of the interacting biophysical phenomena and changes that are being measured, or the awkward fact that such measurement itself determines what becomes visible to markets.

The ways that calculative accounting practices act to consolidate wealth, and thus to enhance the destabilising recursions of the system they are rhetorically intended to adjust, are also masked. This masking is effected through claims to pragmatism and superior expertise, framed as beyond ideology, and thus as more legitimate than alternative understandings which are dismissed as ideologically-driven.

Through these multiple collisions of phenomena that are complex, organic and unpredictably emergent (‘1+1=apples’) with thinking that is  complicated, calculative and predictably additive (‘1+1=2’), conditions for improbable catastrophic events are likely to be enhanced rather than reduced.

These are in part ontological issues arising from different ways of seeing and knowing the world. From different ways of understanding both the nature of nature, and the nature of appropriate forms of use, value and appreciation that humans bring to bear on the beyond-human natures with which we co-exist and retain evolutionary relationships.

Ontology is the study and naming of the fundamental, assumed, and known nature of reality. It defines what entities exist, into what categories they can be sorted, and by what practices and modes of verification they can be known. Cultural and historical differences and agreements shape the ontology that can be known, creating the existence of plural ontologies. This plurality has implications for who and what is being talked about when ‘we’ use the designator ‘we’. It also creates controversy and disagreement when policies generated from particular assumptions about the nature of reality appear inherently inappropriate and even damaging to those of a different ontological persuasion.


On the spirit(s) of oil

Ontological differences may bear on understandings of and responses to climate change phenomena. This is one thing I learned through a recent meeting with Manari Ushigua of the Sápara people (‘Zapara’) of Pastaza Province in the upper Amazon forest of Ecuador7. Formerly vice-president of the Confederation of all the Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), at the time of writing Manari was serving as Sápara president of the Bi-National Sápara Federation of Ecuador and Peru.

Some 560 Sápara people now live on what is left of their ancestral lands. Only seven individuals, Manari included, continue to speak the Sápara language, which was recognised by UNESCO in 2001 as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Mankind’.

These remaining Sápara are struggling to retain their land, as well as the integrity of the forest that is their home, in the face of enormous pressure for the extraction of oil from the ground underneath Sápara territory. Sápara legally own their land, and Ecuador has appeared to be a leading light on environmental issues due to its constitutional recognition of the ‘Rights of Nature’. Nonetheless, the Ecuadorean government claims rights to below-ground fuels and minerals, and has franchised blocks of these rights under Sápara and other indigenous territories to international oil corporations.

maps-002(left) Sapara territory, Pastaza Province, Ecuador; (right) oil block concessions in east Ecuador, including Sápara territory (in dark red).


As described by the Pachamama Alliance, an organisation that works with Ecuadorean and Peruvian indigenous peoples to protect Amazonian land and livelihoods against extractive industry,

two years ago the Ecuadorian government announced plans for oil development in this region. This past year [2014], a development concession to two blocks of land, approximately 500,000 acres, was assigned to a Chinese oil company. These blocks, in Sápara territory, represent a gateway into the entire South-Central region.

Here we see a realpolitik of undiminished fossil fuel extraction even in the midst of more than two decades of climate change negotiations intent on managing carbon emissions.

This is a tragic situation for multiple reasons.

Of immediate concern is the imminent destruction of the biocultural diversity embodied by the interconnected cultural and natural diversity of the forest in this geographical space. The south-central Amazonian area of Ecuador is considered by ecologists to be amongst the most biodiverse localities on the planet. The loss of language and indigenous knowledge regarding this diversity is as ethically problematic as the loss of species with which these cultural elements are entangled.

To step for a moment into Sápara cosmology, however, is to see a broader tragedy caused by industrial hunger for the potent minerals fuelling contemporary economic and technological growth and forcing anthropogenic climate change.

Sápara ontology, as spoken about by Manari, affirms the presence of spirit beings deep in the earth associated with the oil found there. These spirits, which confer vitality to oil, are considered to nourish different spirit beings around five metres below the surface of the soil, which in turn animate the roots of plants that burst through the surface of the soil to provide food and habitat to animals and humans dwelling above the earth’s surface.

In this spirited understanding of the connected nature of being – in which mineral, plant and animal-human entities are all alive and mutually nourishing – extraction of the earth’s potent below-ground materials engenders imbalances in the lifeforce of the connected entities above ground.

This perspective affirms that the zone of life on earth referred to as the ‘biosphere’ by environmental scientists, is intractably entwined with minerals found deep in the earth. In other words, that above-ground socio-ecological health and diversity is connected with the spirited liveliness of intact below-ground fluids and minerals.

don't drill


There are echoes of this perception in many other cultural contexts. U’wa people of Columbia understand oil as the blood of a feminine mothering earth. In the late 1990s they threatened collective suicide in protest against the affront of oil exploitation by the US-based corporation, Occidental Petroleum.

American Indian Movement activist the late John Trudell describes another potent mineral – uranium – as having being and spirit; as nothing less than the DNA of the earth, for which an industrial mining-refinement process creates a mutated form of power that ultimately is toxic to life8

These perspectives cast our current environmental predicament in a particular light. They suggest that the effects of pulling fuel and minerals out of the earth may be more unpredictable, mysterious and far-reaching than the echoes of a post-Enlightenment mechanistic worldview are able to register. They give weight to a view that the holes in the earth created through mining processes, coupled with changes in atmospheric composition caused by pumping these elements into the layer of gases permitting life to thrive on earth, are causing sickness in the living, breathing body of the earth itself.


Compassion in an apocalyptic moment?

Given what seems to be an apocalyptic moment, it is relevant – perhaps even imperative – to be curious about how different cultures globally have understood their relations with nature-beyond-the-human, particularly where an ability to live with multiple kinds of selves is apparent in the diversity of species with which such cultures are associated9. In other words, it is important to learn about the knowledges and practices that have acted as checks on the instrumental, industrial and ownership practices that tend instead to be destructive of such diversity.

Of course, there is complexity here. Manari flew to the UK using the substance whose exploitation threatens his people with extinction, and the use of which climate change action seeks to minimise. We are all caught within the web of industrial-techno-capitalism in ways that make it impossible to fully shrug off our culpability in systemic planetary changes that many consider are drawing us towards broad spectrum catastrophe. And seeking to learn from those living in the recent echo of colonialism’s extractive impetus might be construed as one more colonising engagement, this time to capture and extract ‘indigenous knowledge’.

This is a critical challenge for our times. To sit with compassion for our own accountability for the losses now occurring; whilst acting for the possibility of systemic change that prevents these losses. To face what can seem to be the impossibility of reorienting the global compass bearing away from financial profit and economic growth; whilst keeping hope alive for a systemic re-orientation towards equitable socio-ecological relationships that give space for the flourishing of the spirit that animates all beings.

Indigenous concerns have tended to be sidelined at international climate summits. Paris could instead place at the heart of its negotiations recognition of, and dialogue with, perspectives and ontologies that view the nature of climate change differently.

To do so would widen the circle of perspectives regarding this critical juncture for humankind, and thus strengthen the legitimacy of these talks that affect us all.  As Yukon leader Stanley James asserted in contesting the slow pace of negotiations at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009: ‘We need to have the aboriginal people at the table with those government people … then things will change, I think’.

It seems appropriate to leave the last word here to the late John Trudell. His poem ‘Of many realities’ entangles the possibility of choice for different sorts of socio-ecological futures with the need to acknowledge and remember the existence of different kinds of pasts.

Of Many Realities –John Trudell10

In the reality of many realities
How we see what we see, affects the quality of our reality.

We are children of earth and sky
DNA – Descendant Now Ancestor
Human Being, physical spirit
Bone, flesh, blood as spirit
Metal, mineral, water as spirit

We are in time and space, but we are beyond time and space.
The past is part of the present. The future is part of the present.
Life and being are interwoven.

We are the DNA of earth, moon, planets, stars.
We are related to the universal.
Creator, created, creation.
Spirit and intelligence with clarity.
Being and human as power.

We are part of the generations of evolution.
We are part of the memories.
These memories carry knowledge. These memories carry our identity.
Beneath race, gender, class, age.
Beneath citizen, business, state, religion.
We are human being.

And these memories are trying to remind us, human beings, human beings –
It is time to rise up.
Remember who we are.


This essay is an extended and reworked version of a blog post invited for the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute’s (SPERI) spotlight on the UN climate summit II.


Connected peer reviewed publications

Sullivan, S. 2017 What’s ontology got to do with it? On nature and knowledge in a political ecology of ‘the green economy’. Journal of Political Ecology 24: 217-242, Special section entitled ‘Political Ecology, the Green Economy, and Alternative Sustainabilities’, edited by Cavanagh, C.J. and Benjaminsen, T.A.

Sullivan, S. 2016 What’s ontology got to do with it? On the knowledge of nature and the nature of knowledge in environmental anthropology, pp. 155-169 in Kopnina, H. and Shoreman-Ouimet, E. (eds.) Routledge International Handbook of Environmental Anthropology. London: Routledge.

Mueller, T. and Sullivan, S. 2015 Making other worlds possible? Riots, movement and counterglobalisation, pp. 239-255 in Davies, M. (ed.) Disturbing the Peace: Collective Action in Britain & France, 1381 to the Present. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


  1. See discussion in Mueller, T. and Sullivan, S. 2015 Making other worlds possible? Riots, movement and counterglobalisation, pp. 239-255 in Davies, M. (ed.) Disturbing the Peace: Collective Action in Britain & France, 1381 to the Present. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  2. See, for example, texts produced by the UN Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform For Enhanced Action (ADP). These include an 86-page ‘Negotiating Text’ released on 12 February 2015, followed by a 76-page ‘Draft Agreement’ released on 24 July, greatly reduced to a 20-page ‘Draft Agreement’ by the Conference co-chairs, Dan Reifsnyder from the US and Ahmed Djoghlaf from Algeria, released on 5 October 2015. For discussion see Yeo, S. 2015 New UN climate deal text: what’s in, what’s out. Carbon Brief 7 October 2015.
  3. Formerly at https://ieta.memberclicks.net/assets/PressReleases/2015/ieta%20press%20release%20business%20groups%20on%20markets.pdf, 23 October 2015
  4. As described at the time of writing.
  5. Formerly at http://www.neweconomics.org/blog/entry/energy-round-up-carbon-markets-have-failed, 15 October 2015
  6. After Steffen, W., Broadgate, W., Deutsch, L., Gaffney, O. and Ludwig, C. 2015 The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The great acceleration. The Anthropocene Review 2(1): 81-98.
  7. Manari travelled to the UK through the support of the Pachamama Alliance and the School of Movement Medicine with whom I was studying at the time. Sápara people are working towards alternative and sustainable development possibilities on their land through the Naku project, a community ecotourism initiative that seeks to support Sápara culture and the biodiversity of their territory, through sharing their perspectives on the natural and spirit worlds. The Pachamama Alliance seeks to stand with indigenous peoples of the Amazon to protect the forest from extractive industry whilst also working through education and the Pachamama Symposium to shift the worldview fuelling environmental and cultural destruction.
  8. ‘They’re mining us’, John Trudell, Descendants Now Ancestors, 2001, ASITIS Productions.
  9. After Kohn, E. 2013 How Forests Think: Towards an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  10. John Trudell 2001 ‘Of many realities’, Descendants Now Ancestors, ASITIS Productions.

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