Expenditure

If the Holocene is marked by stability in the earth’s climate, then the Anthropocene (if our present era comes to be by this name) is marked by dissipation. It calls for a mode of accounting other than that of a cost-benefit analysis, such as one of expenditure.

Nur Hashem once returned from a hard day of laboring at a weaving factory on the mainland to his home on a silt island to find his village collapsing into the river. He searched frantically for his family only to learn that they had fled earlier with neighbors. As he tried to recover what he could of his fast-eroding household, he suddenly experienced a feeling of sheer elation. He leaped up and started to kick the houses to aid their passage into the water. “Here you go, take them,” he shouted. “Go.” Off he went in search of his family.

This act struck me as an incongruous one in a place of such abject poverty, in the middle of the Jamuna River in Bangladesh. Perhaps because of the precariousness of existence, people were preoccupied with accounting for everything, weighing and measuring the seasonal yields, describing in detail the debts owed and the interest to be paid, the constant inquiry after the prices of things, the concern with what strangers had to give them.  But to me, such minute accounting felt to be the standing language of sociality, a putting of oneself with objects and others and being woven into strings of values. Given one’s constant vulnerability to the words of others, this language could carry occult undertones. Words were measured or withheld with the objective to harm. Even God appeared as bookkeeper. Khizr, the immortal prophet long associated with Muslim riverine communities, was here given an abode in the water and the task of measuring land during the dry season to be collected as divine tax during the monsoons. So what was Nur Hashem doing kicking houses into the river, when everyone knew that Khizr was merely doing his duty in eroding them?

The Jamuna River, from a passing train.
The Jamuna River, from a passing train. Photo by Rakib Hasan Sumon.

In one rendering we could say that Nur Hashem was spent. Exhausted by the labor of weaving, which is known to take its toll on the body, he was doubly exhausted by the labor of living beside an active river. He was throwing down the towel. But according to another understanding inspired by Georges Bataille, Nur Hashem was partaking of expenditure. This was not the expenditure necessary to ensure life. It was a nonessential dissipation with little to show for it but an irrational enervation.

Bataille helps situate Nur Hashem’s expenditure within the vast, multistranded accounting undergirding global climate politics. The carbon concentration already in the atmosphere, known as historic emission, is calculated down to parts per metric ton. Also calculated is the remaining carbon that the earth’s atmosphere can take before the climate turns monstrous. Developing countries try to parse out a formula by which historic emission is to be held against developed countries, allowing developing countries to play catch-up. This controversial formula was shelved in the twenty-first Conference of Parties (COP21) held in Paris in 2015, in favor of allowing each country to come forward with its own form of accounting how it would contribute to curbing carbon emissions. These Intended Nationally Determined Contributions neither get us to a significant reduction of carbon already in the air nor keep temperature rise within the 1.5° C mark to protect low-lying areas from sea level rise.

What is one to do in the face of an intensified accounting that doesn't amount to much? The island nations, a majority of the developing countries, and African nations constitute a bloc within the COP in maintaining that mitigation efforts to curb emissions are not enough. They have advocated adaptation in acknowledgment of the fact that ecosystems are changing of necessity (although whether human societies change of the same necessity is a questionable part of their assumptions). They now advocate accounting for loss and damage. In climate conversations, the terms loss and damage crop up most often with respect to the profit margins of industrialized economies. In climate science, loss means an irreversible setback within regular biophysical processes, while damage refers to a reversible one. But when island nations, developing countries, and African nations take up the issue of loss and damage, it is not only profit margins or climate temporalities that are at stake. They are talking about lost shorelines, salinity in the land and water, dead fish, crumbling coral reefs, and other elements that accentuate the sepulchral in nature. Through some wizardry of accounting, all of these forms of rot and decay are to be linked to climate change and a monetary value placed on them.

If there is something unsavory about Brazil, India, and China demanding the right to pollute based on historic emission, there is something downright confounding in vulnerable countries jettisoning the language of historical debt, putting aside any accounting for colonialism, genocide, resource extraction, and slavery, to advocate for money for climate devastation alone. Yet even with its officious bureaucratic language and its privileging of accounting over any other kind of economic transactions, such as barter or gift, the demand for loss and damage has a quality of madness to it, a resort to the strong language of numbers but with an element of the fantastic, because can accountants get to disappearing places and destroyed lives fast enough? How is it that Nur Hashem’s kicks or Bataille’s laugh insinuate themselves within socialities saturated with economic utility to suggest the place of a nonessential dissipation? As Bataille further suggests, loss has to be as great as possible to make a more general economic tendency toward all-out dissipation reveal itself as such. In so doing loss almost nears sacrifice, so as to produce excitation and to serve as the wellspring for a new set of values, perhaps that of a momentary glory rather than continued abjectness.