What’s at stake
is the trace of perfume
that has been released.
— “Base Faith”, Harney & Moten


or the occasion of the March 2020 Art Meets Radical Openness (AMRO) festival, Jamie Allen and Caroline Sinders prepared a workshop, “Trace Carbon”, that would discuss the histories and metaphors we use for measuring of carbon — as a gas, a metric, and as a projective means of counting and accounting for climate change responsibilities. What are the human impulses, stories, desires, values, systems and institutions that drive the re-composition of carbon and are being transformed into (new?) methods of traceability, cycling, currency, and calculation. The cultural and political ecologies of carbon are ambiguous, as we realise that its distribution, not its existence or essence, are of primary importance in the positioning of element number 6 and its oxidised forms (CO2) as ‘friend’ or ‘foe’. The ambiguous distributions of carbon testify to the element’s allotropic middle positioning on the periodic table: neither highly reactive, nor inert, carbon equivocates, like human attempts to liberate, contain, and count it do.

Carbon cybernetic management market paradigm

Carbon cybernetic management market paradigm

Likewise, Carbon management techniques trace ambiguous stories of human attention and passions, intentions and interests, benevolence and care. These include techniques that until quite recently seemed the regime of conceptual, speculative and media arts ‘becoming real’1, and further opening into suggestive possibilities of things like personal 12-step carbon self-help programs (that might wean us off of our addiction to fossil fuels) and programmes that might limit mobility and personal choice in ways that still offend liberal sensitivities (e.g.: ‘carbon surveillance’2 or, more subtly, the way in carbon metrics have become almost the sole metric for all climate and environmental regulation, becoming over-simplifying and reductive).

Although it is a changing stereotype (and communities like AMRO are agents in this change), artists and environmentalists alike are notorious enemies of quantification and measurement. The metrication and calculation ‘of nature’ revisit necessary critiques and the blindspots of a ‘technology vs. nature’ debate that is recurrent and transhistorical. Most everyone in the critical-studies and eco-critical pantheon — from Socrates to Marx to Arendt to Derrida; from Carolyn Merchant to Rachel Carson, Bakhtin to Bookchin — worried about this kind of calculative abstraction, taking us away from the material, real effects of what it is we are quantifying, counting, calculating about. Understood as an unstoppable trajectory, list making, writing, counting leading to monetising and marketising, such methods of grammatisation can become a crutch that results in the alienation and forgetfulness that comes via lacks of direct, grounded interaction and action. Such critiques resurface with each new means of calculating the world, arriving en masse in our particular moment of various “artificial” intelligences promising to take precedence over human sensibilities and decision making.3 In some cases, they have been given license to do so already.4 Important cautions should be heeded, of course, but can they also run the risk of obscuring those important, humble cultural techniques of counting and calculation, techniques that empower communities and individuals in their ‘accounting for’ something? Carbon, for example?

Reductions in CO2 over corona period, screenshot

Reductions in CO2 over corona period, screenshot

We were invited to write this short essay both reflecting on the Trace Carbon workshop held at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic5, and in response to the widely held and hopeful idea that lockdown and curtailments of activity, globally, may present a kind of opportunity for the emergence of new habits, directions, systems, and ways of living. Could these correspond to a more eco-political sensitivity, an ‘eco-subjectivity’ perhaps, that persists even after vaccinations render human populations more resilient to the virus that still wreaks havoc upon them? It is unclear if global industrialism’s current forced sabbatical will allow these activities to reemerge with a more sharpened and insidious toolset, or if the current hiatus will produce lasting changes in awareness, policy and action that acknowledges the untenability of the ways industries treat the atmosphere and biosphere. We have, at least, been given the opportunity to witness and analyse a step response in planetary systems operations that would make Oliver Heaviside6 proud, and it has registered in its carbon outputs.7 Although we were perhaps all intuitively aware that this was the case, there is now a recent, statistical and systemic link we can draw between reduced CO2 levels in the atmosphere and the actual and potential slowdowns, curtailments and cessations that have been exercised by industrial actors and terrean citizens. Industrial economies and atmospheric carbon are, indeed and undoubtedly, directly proportional.

Amongst the “slow hopes”8 that new pandemic socialities and politics have produced, there lies the potential for new forms of both solidarity and joy, new senses of common-purpose through self-restraint that say, one to our fellow humans, “I gotcha”. A direct connection and responsibility to others, even more ignored in daily life the way it was lived pre-Corona, is manifested in every mask worn, flight or trip not taken, every check-in message sent to a potentially lonely or just bored colleague, friend, family member. In a strange, perhaps contradictory slip, we have daily reminders and methods of expressing connection and solidarity with one another in our willingness and discipline in staying apart, at a distance. Even though it is true that being trapped in permanent lock down wouldn’t not in itself ‘solve’ climate change, there are moments in which our calculation of personal concerns and common purposes become more aligned, and now seems to be one of them.

Could a similar concern for the carbon commons give way to a curtailing of the parts we all play in sickening the planet, as Corona congeals a better sense of the material, bio-geological community in which we all take part? Self-management, personal governance, accounting and calculation, are cultural techniques that do not necessitate the development of exploitative, capitalistic, oligarchical evils. These could, as Mark Fisher has suggested, be means of ‘accelerating management’9 in directions that are empowering forms of personal boundary setting; means of collectively considering the notion of what is or should be “essential” (essential travel, essential services, essential business, etc.); means of finding joy and hope in more measured, conscientious activities of calculative care for human and nonhuman others, in a world of accelerating ecological change.

Ponder for a moment, the personal calculator. A humble, portable object, relatively ubiquitous across the world and thousands of years old. Calculators are everywhere and have been everywhere, from the abacus with it’s rods and sliders in 2500 BC to our mobile phones with simple arithmetic apps, to the expensive Texas Instruments graphing calculators used in American high schools since the 1980s. Ponder further on what a calculator does: along with calculation, it can be a form of empowerment, self-control, visualisation and the ability to make information tangible, handheld, graspable. The work and advocacy that the W.A.G.E (Working Artists and The Greater Economy) calculator provides is in calculating, is a form of personal documentation, archiving and historicising conditions. W.A.G.E is a rubric and a watchdog for pricing fees and remuneration in the arts.

Calculators, of other shapes and sizes are used to create sense and solution from comparative measure, through conceptual abstraction. A “calculator” these days is not a simple device for displaying and manipulating numbers, but is used for documenting and visualizing all kinds of different conceptual analogies that exist for measurement and comparison, such as wages, footprints, energy, and labour. The kinds of ‘calculators’ that pop up everywhere online can be potent and empowering to individuals and collectives alike, self-motivating alignments of behaviour through numbers that can also produce a most satisfying sense of connection, completion and satisfaction — not unlike that feeling you get when a square peg fits into a square hole, or when something finally clicks and the balance sheet decisively balances. These are the practices of aesthetics and of personal calculation that speak of new forms of individual-communal self-governance; technologies of the self that could be directed toward producing better relations to self and others, ecologies and environments.

During the Trace Carbon AMRO workshop in March 2020, we revisited carbon realities and metaphorics, revealing how very varied and storied the means and media are we use to trace, track, compare and calculate carbon. Nested metaphors of carbon cycles, footprints, accounting, budgets, markets, offsets, intensity, law and cryptocarbon were brought up and interrogated. The notion of carbon cycles, for example, has its roots in the both theological and chemical histories of the seventeenth and eighteenth century chemical revolution.10

Footprints, as Anita Girvan writes in her book “Carbon Footprints as Cultural-Ecological Metaphors”11, are a cultural practice and signifier of the imposition, or at least presence, of human beings in and on natural landscapes. It calls to mind “Lucy”, a famed representative of a 3.2 million year old fossilised hominid species that also left footprints in that sense long ago at Laetoli, in Tanzania. It is this fundamental, root commonality that couples footprints to the likewise immemorial need to count, or measure, our effects. In calculating ‘carbon footprints’, we use a measure that feels graspable, corporeal, and elementary, like a footprint in the earth.

Ecological footprints, and hence carbon footprints, were born of carrying capacity debates in the early 1990s — explicit attempt to provide “adequate feedback about ecological overshoot” and make planetary ecological limits accessible through calculations of human demands on, and regenerative capacities of, the biosphere. These demands and supplies were initially expressed in terms of the physical area of an ecology (i.e.: a ‘footprint’) that was necessary to support them. Carbon footprints can be composed as the bioproductive land required to sequester anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, but this has more recently transformed into a non-spatial measure that is more amenable to the measures of industrial processes. CO2 ‘footprints’ are now mostly communicated and compared in terms of weight, net kilograms or tonnes of CO2, released and/or sequestered. Somewhat circularly, the carbon tonnage that is liberated by any such industrial process, can also be re-converted into a number of trees required to absorb that carbon, or the land area required to offset it (e.g.: “On average, a Forest Garden offsets 144.64 metric tons of carbon dioxide per acre over 20 years.”12).

Many of these translations of measures originating in industrial nomenclature and techniques have been made in service of encouraging individual persons to calculate footprints for daily or household activities. There is much evidence to suggest that petrochemical companies that created the petro-culture13 in which we live, engaged in the popularisation of the carbon footprint metric in order to shift attention toward individuals, and away from fossil fuel extraction industries. An Ogilvy & Mather designed marketing campaign, starting in the 1990s and paid for by British Petroleum (BP) bears a good deal of responsibility for the popular awareness of the idea that the ordinary citizen has to be, or should be, responsible for their carbon footprint: “It’s time to go on a low carbon diet,” scolded the campaign.14

It is no surprise perhaps, then, that carbon calculations remain difficult for most to grasp or understand, or ‘believe in’. This, as Michel Callon writes of carbon markets, is what makes the “the design of these arrangements therefore… a strategic activity in its own right which is worth organising after careful consideration.”15 The way that such metaphorics become nested makes their explicit design somewhat more difficult, however. The sense we have of this obfuscating and lossy nesting can be cynicism inducing, as each layer of analogy necessarily decreases technical exactitude, which always seems to help support and excuse those self-destructive tendencies toward denial, or even shame, that most people in the North and in the West feel (whether we admit it or not) for the lifestyles and consumptive habits we engage in, and at times feel trapped in.

Calculators are themselves iconic, models of user friendliness and usability: a detective to decipher confusing calculations and a readable billboard to display the answer. Consider Dieter Rams’ and Dietrich Lub’s ET55 calculator created in 1980 for Braun. Lubs has said that the Braun designers “were trying to eliminate the need for user manuals” and this simplicity in design can be extended to all products, especially everyday objects. The future Rams imagined was user friendly, tangible, and understandable, which lends itself perfectly to ubiquitous products, structures and concepts, like the calculator and calculation. Design critic, Alexandra Lange describes Rams calculator in an essay for the New Yorker, “... in a world where the On button is endangered, there’s something wonderfully clear about Rams and Lubs’s calculator’s green On and red Off buttons, rounded to meet the fingertip.” In a world where a home appliance can seem as complex as global carbon budgeting, there is indeed “something wonderfully soothing about the Braun kitchen appliances, most of which have a single toggle switch.”16 Personal calculators are devices, containers for calculations that are minimal, usable, friendly, even if what is being calculated is not. Rams’ pocket calculator, and others like it, were ubiquitously stowed in the shirtfront pocket of day-to-day geeks and hobbyist engineers throughout the pre-smart phone era. They are at the ready for a quick back of the napkin calculation or proof at bar, or a back of the envelope estimation during friendly debate about technical equivalencies.

A critique of calculators and calculations is that they often give little sense to abstractions. Do they give people a ‘better’ understanding of what numerical values in the calculation mean? What happens when calculators are processing and calculating sums and concepts that are difficult to understand? All counting and calculation works purely with abstraction, and does this necessarily reduce its immediacy? With the proliferation of carbon calculators, the ubiquity of counting and measuring has gotten more complex, not less, as myriad concepts attempt to to bring important material-cultural-political entanglements to the fore: carbon democracy, climate debt, virtuous carbon17. We tend to think that individual calculations and recommendations only “work” if we understand precisely what the means and metrics of calculation are, their units and conversions, what these precisely mean. In this era of accelerated climate change, calculating and documenting carbon footprints for everyday activities and citizens should be must be transparent — but how exactly should these understood? Isn’t inexactitude the whole point of a metaphor?

Carbon footprint scale of transportation means icon

Carbon footprint scale of transportation means icon

The measurement and management of carbon is wrought with technocratic metaphor, myths and imaginings, that make the accuracy of carbon calculations both of questionable origins and epistemological value, let alone the evaluation of their change-making potentials for veering us off our current path of accelerated climate change. Although imperfect and simple, these calculators are, however, like the humble pocket calculator, readymade for the kinds of broad, general understandings we need to cultivate as eco-subjects. They are just-enough and good-enough supports for the beginnings of what might be a profoundly new literacy. These kinds of calculators — non-totalising, fudgeable and fungible, even inexact — show us how hard it is to recon quantification with lived experience, but they help nonetheless to compose ‘back of the envelope’ calculations for a next car trip to the grocery store. And, importantly, they evoke how these activities measure up to other activities, and the activities of electricity, heating, agriculture, manufacturing, and other types of industrial production. So, get out your calculators!

Caroline Sinders

Caroline Sinders is a machine-learning-design researcher and artist. For the past few years, she has been examining the intersections of technology's impact in society, interface design, artificial intelligence, abuse, and politics in digital, conversational spaces. Sinders is the founder of Convocation Design + Research, an agency focusing on the intersections of machine learning, user research, designing for public good, and solving difficult communication problems. As a designer and researcher, she has worked with Amnesty International, Intel, IBM Watson, the Wikimedia Foundation, and others.. Sinders has held fellowships with the Mozilla Foundation, the Harvard Kennedy School, Eyebeam, STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, and the International Center of Photography. Her work has been featured in the Tate Exchange in Tate Modern, Victoria and Albert Museum, MoMA PS1, the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, Slate, Quartz, and the Channels Festival as well as others. Sinders holds a Masters from New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program.


Jamie Allen

Jamie Allen is occupied with the ways that technologies teach us about who we are as individuals, cultures and societies. His work has been exhibited internationally, from the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin to the American Museum of Natural History in New York to the Nam June Paik Art Center in Korea. He teaches, lectures and leads workshops widely, engaging with and working to create collaborative contexts that acknowledge how care, attachment and love are central to knowledge practices like art and research. He likes to make things with his head and hands — investigations into infrastructural and material systems of media, energy, and information as public-making projects. He is Senior Researcher with the Critical Media Lab in Basel, Switzerland.


Carbon Footprint Calculator: https://www.carbonfootprint.com/

Estimating Appliance and Home Electronic Energy Use: https://www.energy.gov/

What is a carbon footprint? | Carbon Footprint Calculator:  https://www.nature.org/

Carbon Footprint Calculator | Climate Change: https://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/

  1. The Negative carbon bracelet: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/go-negative/ 

  2. Economist. (2020). What if technology tracked all carbon emissions? The Economist. https://www.economist.com/the-world-if/2020/07/04/what-if-technology-tracked-all-carbon-emissions 

  3. Brain, T. (2018). The environment is not a system. A Peer-Reviewed Journal About, 7(1), 152-165. 

  4. Kwok, R. (2019). AI empowers conservation biology. Nature, 567(7746), 133-135. 

  5. Gratitudes to those in attendance: Adnan Hadziselimovic, Marloes de Valk, Audrey Samson + Francisco Gallardo, Amelie Buchinger, Rena Queenberg, Marie Lechner, Laura Sophie Meyer, Jutta Kill, and others. 

  6. Oliver Heaviside (1850–1925) was an autodidact electrical engineer and physicist, who’s name is given to a way of analysing complex systems through the introduction of a step-change in its inputs. 

  7. Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement | Nature Climate Change:  https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-020-0797-x 

  8. We Need Slow Hope in a World of Accelerating Ecological Change: https://aeon.co/essays/we-need-slow-hope-in-a-world-of-accelerating-ecological-change 

  9. Fisher, M. (2017). Accelerate Management. Parse Journal. Issue 5, Spring 2017, "Management". Retrieved 1 May 2020, from http://parsejournal.com/article/accelerate-management/. Republished in English and German translation by Brand New Life magazine, retrieved 1 May 2020, from https://brand-new-life.org/b-n-l/accelerate-management/ 

  10. Tuan, Y. F. (1968). The hydrologic cycle and the wisdom of God: A theme in geoteleology (Vol. 1). University of Toronto Press. 

  11. Girvan, A. (2017). Carbon footprints as cultural-ecological metaphors. Routledge. 

  12. Forest Garden Carbon Brief: https://trees.org/app/uploads/2020/04/TREES-Carbon-Brief-.pdf 

  13. Szeman, I. (2017). Conjectures on world energy literature: Or, what is petroculture?. Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 53(3), 277-288. 

  14. BP's Carbon Campaign - Great Moments In Science - ABC Radio National: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/greatmomentsinscience/bps-carbon-campaign/ 

  15. Callon, M. (2009). Civilizing markets: Carbon trading between in vitro and in vivo experiments. Accounting, organizations and society, 34(3-4), 535-548. 

  16. What We’ve Learned from Dieter Rams and What We’ve Ignored: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/what-weve-learned-from-dieter-rams-and-what-weve-ignored 

  17. Paterson, M., & Stripple, J. (2012). Virtuous carbon. Environmental Politics, 21(4), 563-582.