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Accepted Paper:

The pragmatism of continuous failure: carbon encounters with economy and sustainability in China  
Charlotte Bruckermann (University of Cologne)

Paper short abstract:

Faced with the responsibility of reducing airborne pollution, Chinese carbon experts encounter contradictions between economic growth and ecological priorities, resulting in failures that they enfold into ambitions for continuous experimentation with sustainable solutions.

Paper long abstract:

Faced with unprecedented health risks from airborne particulate, Chinese citizens place responsibility for this failure at the feet of the state, and demand pragmatic solutions. To address concerns of atmospheric pollution and climate change, President Xi Jinping has made the construction of a future “ecological civilisation” central to his state agenda, with aims of reducing “carbon” emissions at their core. Those in charge of conceptualising and implementing these decarbonisation policy goals, namely carbon bureaucrats, consultants, and developers, face contradictions in terms of economic growth and environmental sustainability. Many perceive the so-called sustainable solutions to market failures, especially emissions exchanges and green bonds, as themselves failures in delivering on sustainable promises, even when they are deemed a policy success. These carbon experts navigate a performative, even constructivist, field of “the economy” by upholding pragmatist self-images of responsibility towards their fellow citizens. While these feelings of personal responsibility for fulfilling institutional goals make them vulnerable to continuous failure, this solution-oriented pragmatism allows carbon experts to soldier on, withstand denial, switch priorities, or imagine a future planet saved by techno-utopian fixes. Although the environmental responsibility that drives them is pressing and disturbing, it simultaneously enfolds failure into ambitions for continuous experimentation with sustainable solutions.

Panel Irre01
Accounting for failure
  Session 1 Tuesday 30 March, 2021, -