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Calculative Practices in International Environmental Governance: In (Partial) Defence of Indicators

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 May 2020

Jaye Ellis
Faculty of Law, McGill University, Montreal, QC (Canada). Email:
E-mail address:


The role of calculative practices such as goals and indicators in international environmental governance causes concern among many observers, who view them as promoting a reductivist approach to the non-human world and privileging economic understandings of environmental governance above all others. Yet they possess enormous potential to provide insights into the non-human world that could be of great benefit to governance. This article takes seriously critical perspectives of calculative practices, while exploring a weakness in much of the critical literature, namely a failure to examine assumptions about the nature of scientific knowledge and the manner in which it is, and ought to be, taken up by policy makers. I contend that both the design of environmental regimes and critical analyses of these regimes bear the marks of the influence, albeit indirect, of early 20th century views on the superiority of scientific knowledge and its unique capacity to ground decision making. I argue that a richer, more nuanced account of the co-production of ecological metrics such as goals and indicators and their potential contributions to ecosystem governance and sustainability is necessary. With such accounts, scholars and political authorities would be in a better position to address the very real pitfalls and dangers of calculative practices while not feeling compelled to forego these potentially powerful approaches.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press.

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Earlier versions of this article were presented at the European Society of International Law annual meeting in Riga (Latvia) in 2016, and at the Centre for the Politics of Transnational Law (Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam (The Netherlands)) in 2018. The rich feedback from participants at both events was immensely helpful for the development of the article. I thank Hans Lindahl and the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions. Dylan Edmonds and Patrick Kanopoulos provided excellent research assistance and comments on the evolving draft. Financial assistance from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council is gratefully acknowledged.


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11 UN Economic and Social Council, ‘Report of the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators’ (19 Feb. 2016), UN Doc. E/CN.3/2016/2/Rev.1, Annex IV. There are 230 indicators listed, but a small number are associated with more than one target.

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18 IUCN, A Global Standard for the Identification of Key Biodiversity Areas, ibid.


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21 Hák, Janouskova & Moldan, n. 13 above.


23 The indicators are divided into three tiers to reflect this. An indicator is designated Tier 1 if it ‘is conceptually clear, has an internationally established methodology and standards are available, and data are regularly produced by countries for at least 50[%] of countries and of the population in every region where the indicator is relevant’. A Tier 2 indicator ‘is conceptually clear, has an internationally established methodology and standards are available, but data are not regularly produced by countries’; while for Tier 3, ‘[n]o internationally established methodology or standards are yet available for the indicator, but methodology/standards are being (or will be) developed or tested’. The indicator discussed above, 15.1.2, is a Tier 1 indicator. Goal 12, sustainable consumption and production patterns, features a large number of indicators in Tier 2 (such as 12.2.1: Material footprint, material footprint per capita, and material footprint per GDP) and Tier 3 (such as 12.8.1: Extent to which (i) global citizenship education and (ii) education for sustainable development (including climate change education) are mainstreamed in (a) national education policies; (b) curricula; (c) teacher education; and (d) student assessment).

24 There is empirical evidence of a correlation between MDG indicators for which data is poor and a lack of progress towards targets: Jacob, A., ‘Mind the Gap: Analyzing the Impact of Data Gap in Millennium Development Goals’ (MDGs) Indicators on the Progress toward MDGs’ (2017) 93(C) World Development, pp. 260–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Afful-Dadzie, E., Afful-Dadzie, A. & Oplatkova, Z. Kominkova, ‘Measuring Progress of the Millennium Development Goals: A Fuzzy Comprehensive Evaluation Approach’ (2014) 28(1) Applied Artificial Intelligence, pp. 115CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 ‘Transforming Our World’, n. 9 above.

26 Ibid., p. 51.


27 Ibid., p. 53.


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50 Methmann, n. 34 above, p. 81.

51 Engle Merry, n. 12 above, pp. 19ff.

52 Methmann, n. 34 above, p. 71 (arguing that ‘[the Clean Development Mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol] brings about a way of governing the earth's carbon cycle which purports to save the climate but in fact protects business as usual from climate protection. The failure of the CDM is the success of a depoliticization of climate change politics’); Turnhout, Neves & Lijster, n. 41 above, p. 583.

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55 Rose, n. 42 above, pp. 87–88; Ilcan & Phillips, ibid.

56 Rose, n. 42 above, p. 49; Lövbrand & Stripple, n. 54 above; Ilcan & Phillips, n. 54 above.

57 Ilcan & Phillips, n. 54 above, p. 847; Castree, N., ‘Neoliberalising Nature: The Logics of Deregulation and Reregulation’ (2008) 40(1) Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, pp. 131–52, at 143CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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59 This is the Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services (CICES) developed by Potschin and Haines-Young for the European Environmental Agency, available at: Without a doubt, the last category is the most technically and philosophically challenging, and by far the most controversial, including among scholars generally supportive of ecosystem services valuation: see Gómez-Baggethun & Ruiz-Pérez, n. 37 above.

60 Polanyi, n. 58 above, p. 36.


62 ibid., Ch. 4.


63 ibid., p. 74.


64 ibid., pp. 152ff.


65 ibid., pp. 151ff.


66 ibid., pp. 73–4.


67 ibid., p. 76.


71 ibid., p. 136. See also O'Connor, J., Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism (Guilford Press, 1998), pp. 144ffGoogle Scholar (for a discussion of the role of the state in attempting to secure and protect the three conditions of production identified by Marx: (i) personal conditions (in particular, labour); (ii) communal, general conditions of social production (namely infrastructure and education); and (iii) natural conditions).


72 Methmann, n. 34 above.

73 Mansfield, B., ‘Rules of Privatization: Contradictions in Neoliberal Regulation of North Pacific Fisheries’ (2004) 94(3) Annals of the Association of American Geographers, pp. 565–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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75 Ibid., pp. 182ff.


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78 Görg, n. 76 above, p. 57.

79 Ibid., p. 60. In a similar vein, Gómez-Baggethun and Ruiz-Pérez argue that ‘within the ideological, institutional and economic context in which ecosystem services science operates it is not realistic to assume that monetary valuation can be used without acting as a driver of commodification’: Gómez-Baggethun & Ruiz-Pérez, n. 37 above, p. 624.


80 Görg, n. 76 above, p. 61.

81 Both O'Connor and Görg draw on ecology to yield insights into the non-human world, and O'Connor, in particular, refers often to ecological literature. As a result, both perceive the scientific acknowledgement of complexity, uncertainty, contingency and chaos: Görg, n. 76 above; O'Connor, n. 71 above.

82 Görg, n. 76 above.

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84 Ibid., p. 4.


85 Ibid., p. 19.


86 Ibid., pp. 6–7.


87 Ibid., p. 8.


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89 Gattei, ibid., pp. 17ff.

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92 Reichenbach, ibid., p. 30. Reichenbach does not insist on absolute verifiability, which he acknowledges would be impossible as direct, empirical observations cannot be combined to produce indirect observations that are themselves absolutely verifiable, but only observations to which a certain weight may be assigned according to their probability: ibid., pp. 46–53, 71.


93 Reichenbach, ibid., p. 31.


94 Ibid., pp. 58–9.


95 Ibid., p. 64.


96 Ibid., p. 68.


97 Ibid., pp. 71–2.


98 Star & Griesemer, n. 7 above, p. 393.

99 Ibid., pp. 393–4.


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113 Ibid., p. 18.


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119 Hulme, n. 116 above.

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