Our Calculable Earth: The Abstraction of Nature and the Death of Environmental Politics

  • Thomas S. J. SmithEmail author


This chapter examines the calculative rationality displacing other ways of knowing and interacting with ‘nature’. Several increasingly dominant approaches to representing our environment are discussed, including the planetary boundaries approach, ecological footprint measures, ecosystem services (ES) and payments for ecosystem services (PES), and carbon trading. It is argued that contemporary environmental research and the environmental movement more broadly appear to be increasingly dominated by a type of ‘environmental accounting’. This abstraction and the rise of ‘numerical environmentalism’ have resulted in important, broader questions being foreclosed. For instance, climate change is increasingly seen simply as a technical issue involving too much carbon in the atmosphere and the transgression of planetary boundaries seen simply as a technical matter of retreating within a ‘safe space’.


Planetary boundaries Environmental footprints Ecosystem services Payments for ecosystem services Abstraction Post-political 


  1. Barry, J. (2006). Straw Dogs, Blind Horses and Post-humanism: The Greening of Gray? In J. Horton & G. Newey (Eds.), The Political Theory of John Gray (pp. 131–150). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  2. Bell, S., & Morse, S. (2014). Groups and Indicators in Post-industrial Society. Sustainable Development, 22(3), 145–157. Scholar
  3. Beuret, N. (2017). Counting Carbon: Calculative Activism and Slippery Infrastructure. Antipode, 49(5), 1164–1185. Scholar
  4. Biermann, F. (2012). Planetary Boundaries and Earth System Governance: Exploring the Links. Ecological Economics, 81(Supplement C), 4–9. Scholar
  5. Braun, B. (2015). THE 2013 ANTIPODE RGS-IBG LECTURE New Materialisms and Neoliberal Natures. Antipode, 47(1), 1–14. Scholar
  6. Brown, C. S., & Toadvine, T. (Eds.). (2012). Eco-phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself. New York: SUNY Press.Google Scholar
  7. Clark, N. (2014). Geo-politics and the Disaster of the Anthropocene. The Sociological Review, 62, 19–37. Scholar
  8. Coeckelbergh, M. (2015). Environmental Skill: Motivation, Knowledge, and the Possibility of a Non-romantic Environmental Ethics. New York and London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  9. Cooper, N., Brady, E., Steen, H., & Bryce, R. (2016). Aesthetic and Spiritual Values of Ecosystems: Recognising the Ontological and Axiological Plurality of Cultural Ecosystem “Services”. Ecosystem Services, 21, 218–229. Scholar
  10. Costanza, R., d’Arge, R., de Groot, R., Farber, S., Grasso, M., Hannon, B., … van den Belt, M. (1997). The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital. Nature, 387(6630), 253–260. Scholar
  11. Evernden, L. L. N. (1993). The Natural Alien: Humankind and Environment. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.Google Scholar
  12. Häyhä, T., Lucas, P. L., van Vuuren, D. P., Cornell, S. E., & Hoff, H. (2016). From Planetary Boundaries to National Fair Shares of the Global Safe Operating Space—How Can the Scales Be Bridged? Global Environmental Change, 40(Supplement C), 60–72. Scholar
  13. Heidegger, M. (1977). The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays (1st ed.). New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  14. Hornborg, A. (2016). Post-Capitalist Ecologies: Energy, “Value” and Fetishism in the Anthropocene. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 27(4), 61–76. Scholar
  15. Hornborg, A. (2017). Artifacts Have Consequences, Not Agency: Toward a Critical Theory of Global Environmental History. European Journal of Social Theory, 20(1), 95–110. Scholar
  16. Kosoy, N., & Corbera, E. (2010). Payments for Ecosystem Services as Commodity Fetishism. Ecological Economics, 69(6), 1228–1236. Scholar
  17. Kull, C. A., Arnauld de Sartre, X., & Castro-Larrañaga, M. (2015). The Political Ecology of Ecosystem Services. Geoforum, 61, 122–134. Scholar
  18. Luck, G. W., Chan, K. M. A., Eser, U., Gómez-Baggethun, E., Matzdorf, B., Norton, B., et al. (2012). Ethical Considerations in On-Ground Applications of the Ecosystem Services Concept. BioScience, 62(12), 1020–1029. Scholar
  19. Marquardt, N. (2016). Counting the Countless: Statistics on Homelessness and the Spatial Ontology of Political Numbers. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 34(2), 301–318. Scholar
  20. McAfee, K., & Shapiro, E. N. (2010). Payments for Ecosystem Services in Mexico: Nature, Neoliberalism, Social Movements, and the State. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 100(3), 579–599. Scholar
  21. Miller, P. (2001). Governing by Numbers: Why Calculative Practices Matter. Social Research, 68(2), 379–396.Google Scholar
  22. Moolna, A. (2012). Making Sense of CO2: Putting Carbon in Context. Global Environmental Politics, 12(1), 1–7. Scholar
  23. Nelson, A. (2001). The Poverty of Money: Marxian Insights for Ecological Economists. Ecological Economics, 36(3), 499–511. Scholar
  24. North, P., Nurse, A., & Barker, T. (2017). The Neoliberalisation of Climate? Progressing Climate Policy Under Austerity Urbanism. Environment and Planning A, 49(8), 1797–1815. Scholar
  25. Nourry, M. (2008). Measuring Sustainable Development: Some Empirical Evidence for France from Eight Alternative Indicators. Ecological Economics, 67(3), 441–456. Scholar
  26. Padgett, J. P., Steinemann, A. C., Clarke, J. H., & Vandenbergh, M. P. (2008). A Comparison of Carbon Calculators. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 28(2), 106–115. Scholar
  27. Rametsteiner, E., Pülzl, H., Alkan-Olsson, J., & Frederiksen, P. (2011). Sustainability Indicator Development—Science or Political Negotiation? Ecological Indicators, 11(1), 61–70. Scholar
  28. Rau, H. (2018). Minding the Mundane: Everyday Practices as a Central Pillar of Sustainability Thinking and Research. In M. Boström & D. Davidson (Eds.), Environment and Society: Concepts and Challenges. London: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  29. Raworth, K. (2012). A Safe and Just Space for Humanity: Can We Live Within the Doughnut. Oxfam Policy and Practice: Climate Change and Resilience, 8(1), 1–26.Google Scholar
  30. Raymond, C. M., Singh, G. G., Benessaiah, K., Bernhardt, J. R., Levine, J., Nelson, H., … Chan, K. M. A. (2013). Ecosystem Services and Beyond: Using Multiple Metaphors to Understand Human–Environment Relationships. BioScience, 63(7), 536–546. Scholar
  31. Rip, A. (2006). A Co-Evolutionary Approach to Reflexive Governance–and Its Ironies. In J.-P. Voss, D. Bauknecht, & R. Kemp (Eds.), Reflexive Governance for Sustainable Development (pp. 82–100). Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.Google Scholar
  32. Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., Chapin, F. S. I., Lambin, E., … Foley, J. (2009). Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity. Ecology and Society, 14(2).
  33. Ruddiman, W. F. (2010). Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate. Princeton, NJ and London: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Shove, E., & Walker, G. (2007). CAUTION! Transitions Ahead: Politics, Practice, and Sustainable Transition Management. Environment and Planning A, 39(4), 763–770.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Steffen, W., Persson, Å., Deutsch, L., Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Richardson, K., … Svedin, U. (2011). The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment, 40(7), 739–761. Scholar
  36. Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., Cornell, S. E., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E. M., … Sörlin, S. (2015). Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet. Science, 347(6223), 1259855. Scholar
  37. Sutter, C., & Parreño, J. C. (2007). Does the Current Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) Deliver Its Sustainable Development Claim? An Analysis of Officially Registered CDM Projects. Climatic Change, 84(1), 75–90. Scholar
  38. Swyngedouw, E. (2010a). Apocalypse Forever? Theory, Culture & Society, 27(2–3), 213–232. Scholar
  39. Swyngedouw, E. (2010b). Impossible Sustainability and the Post-political Condition. In M. Cerreta, G. Concilio, & V. Monno (Eds.), Making Strategies in Spatial Planning (pp. 185–205). Dordrecht: Springer. Scholar
  40. Swyngedouw, E. (2011). Depoliticized Environments: The End of Nature, Climate Change and the Post-political Condition. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements, 69, 253–274. Scholar
  41. Swyngedouw, E., & Ernstson, H. (2018). Interrupting the Anthropo-ObScene: Immuno-biopolitics and Depoliticizing Ontologies in the Anthropocene. Theory, Culture & Society, 0263276418757314.
  42. Taylor Aiken, G. (2015). Community Number Capture. Soundings, 58(Winter). Retrieved from Scholar
  43. van den Bergh, J. C. J. M., & Kallis, G. (2012). Growth, A-Growth or Degrowth to Stay Within Planetary Boundaries? Journal of Economic Issues, 46(4), 909–920. Scholar
  44. Vatn, A. (2000). The Environment as a Commodity. Environmental Values, 9(4), 493–509.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Vatn, A. (2010). An Institutional Analysis of Payments for Environmental Services. Ecological Economics, 69(6), 1245–1252.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Watts, D., Albornoz, C., & Watson, A. (2015). Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) After the First Commitment Period: Assessment of the World’s Portfolio and the Role of Latin America. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 41, 1176–1189. Scholar
  47. Wijkman, A., & Rockström, J. (Eds.). (2012). Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries. Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Environmental StudiesMasaryk UniversityBrnoCzech Republic

Personalised recommendations