Markets inside the ecological revolution: an insider’s report

July 17, 2011

Like the social season in 19 C. London –with its formal balls, high teas and fox hunting parties– the European conference season relies on key (dis)organizing rituals for identity and coherence. And this year was no exception. Whether it is projectors that don’t work in Madrid, potato salad gala dinner in Goteborg, or imperceptible air conditioning in Naples, there is no mistaking that one is in the European academic circuit. The redeeming quality is of course intellectual: the discussions were truly fascinating. And today I want to report on a mini-conference that managed to be rigorous, relevant and genuinely original.

The event, titled “Markets in the Ecological Revolution,” was part of EGOS. Its premise was clearly Callonian: the idea that before markets for a new product or service can emerge –before actors can buy or sell—a new calculative technology needs to be designed around it. The organizers – Fabian Muniesa, Peter Karnoe, Petter Holm—explored this idea in the context of the ecology. Hence the 60s-flavored conference title. I was intrigued. The workshop paralleled my own intellectual shift, from the nuts and bolts of derivatives… to the political implications of those nuts and bolts.

So what is the role of markets inside the eco-revolution? Perhaps the most useful organizing scheme was offered by Lilliana Doganova and Peter Karnoe. There are, according to them, three ways in which the ecological revolution is affecting markets. First, environmental concerns as a threat to markets. Second, reconciling the market and environmental logics. E.g., does it pay to be green? How to design a carbon market? The key in this case is that ecological considerations are external to the market — the calculative frames are not changed. And finally, redesign of the market in a way that advances the ecological agenda. I’ll discuss them below:

1. Threatening: none of the presentations really discussed the threat of the ecology to an existing market.

2. Reconciling. The presentation by Celine Cholez and Pascale Trompette explored the challenge of providing electricity in Madagascar: the initial plan, developed by a European power company in Grenoble, was to build off-grid power stations and lay cable to the locals. But to the surprise of the firm, the users much preferred to rely on car batteries. Batteries are superior in that they do not try to “civilize” the users with fixed monthly payments and other commitments. Of course, they are also awful from an environmental perspective. The upshot is that a perfectly good product can fail if the market infrastructure –and the cultural that goes with it—is not there already.

3. Redesigning: Most presentations operated alongside the politics of market redesign. And they seemed to follow a similar tack. Place yourself in a market without devices – preferably in a tropical country. Look for big political schemes to create a market. Discuss findings. Thus, Véra Ehrenstein presented “Turning Costa Rica into a laboratory of environmental economics.” Valérie Boisvert and Hélène Tordjman explored the upcoming rise of a “market for biodiversity.” Peter Karnoe examined the problem of making wind power work in a market whose pricing scheme is designed for fossil fuels. Of particular interest, I thought, was the out-of-program presentation by Melodie Cartel on how Electricite de France designed the experiments that led to the current (and flawed) European carbon market.

A related problem raised by the organizers was a theoretical one. What intellectual tools should be used to track the ecological revolution in markets? Here, the most memorable presentation was that of Marie-France Garcia-Parpet and the story of the utopian winegrowers known as “biodynamic.” When the appellations d’origin were created in France in 1935, they emphasized the terroir. But they did not ban the use of chemicals. While most mainstream wine growers used chemicals, “biodynamic” growers refused to. They adopted the calendar from stars. Took the identity of peasants (even though they were not). And were marginalized. But that did not stop them. In selling the wine, they became militant and networked with anti-nuclear activists. Now, of course, organic is the growing market. The hegemony of conventional French wine is threatened. The biodynamics have integrated in the classicism of wine making. And as the dimensions of worth of wine are being redefined, this movement is doing well. It is even challenging the regulators to exclude traditional wines.

The advantage of Marie-France’s work lies in its ability to reconcile the opposing goals of doing empirical study while maintaining normative interest in societal change. One may not like the present. But the future that a researcher might favor is naturally not amenable to empirical study – it has not happened yet. In that context, following utopian movements like the biodynamics can illuminate the mechanism for activist success.

As I said to the organizers over pints and falukorv, this was an exceptionally coherent workshop. My post has barely scratched the surface of the themes that were raised in the discussion. Perhaps one should start thinking about the need to edit a book around it. Or perhaps another event for next summer’s European conference season…

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