Jun 29 2015


Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

Will everyone get a Ferrari one day?


Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, edited by Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria & Giorgos Kallis, Routledge, 2014

It is tough to imagine ‘de-growth’ as an idea of our times. Resisting growth is to risk economic and social collapse. But to pursue it relentlessly is not without risk either – it endangers the ecosystems on which we depend. Despite the classical idea of development being declared dead several times in the past, it continues to persist because a ‘Ferrari for all’ is the dream everyone has been urged to strive for. Will the world be able to produce enough Ferraris for everyone, including those who are yet to be born? The truth is, we just don’t know.

Even if everyone were to get a Ferrari, in the future it would only be the Fiat of its generation. In the future, market managers will seek to get people to yearn for something more, without any let down in the growth of unending materialistic desires. The reach of markets into aspects of everyday life traditionally governed by non-market values and norms, will only rob us of the individual meaning of life. Isn’t unending desire the reason for growing anxiety?

De-growth, an idea that has been around for a long time, has been rechristened by a group of academicians at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. They are trying to pull society out of its current abyss. Since the movement was launched at an international conference in Paris in 2008, de-growth has engaged researchers in elaborating the idea from many perspectives. De-growth advocates shrinking production and consumption with the aim of achieving social justice and ecological continuity.

Spread over four sections, the book is a compilation of easy-to-read essays which argue that the ‘shift’ is indeed possible. It in no way advocates a return to the past, but it does suggest learning from indigenous cultures and techniques for paving an autonomous, close-to-nature, and ecological way of life.

To help de-growth ideas like frugality, sobriety, dematerialization and digital commons sink in, the editors have assembled keywords and concepts to construct a language that will move the discourse on de-growth forward. The book is not prescriptive but rather suggestive: inviting readers to devise their own sense of what de-growth means. It is a valuable book for all those who firmly believe that the modern economy has reached a dead-end.

Jun 29 2015


Reviewed by Tarique Niazi, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

Natural disasters have claimed more fatalities than armed conflicts.


Human Security and Natural Disasters, edited by Christopher Hobson, Paul Bacon and Robin Cameron, Routledge, 2014

The United Nations is credited with seeding the intellectual world with the concept of human security in the mid-1990s. The concept has since bloomed into a potential rival to such conventional doctrines as state security. Human security envisions freedom from want and fear. More importantly, it implies security embedded in everyday life. In contrast, state security prioritizes state interests over those of citizens. Hobson et al., in their edited volume, Human Security and Natural Disasters, expand this concept to include environmental security, more specifically “natural disasters.” They contend that natural disasters have been underexplored as an integral part of environmental security.

In arguing that natural disasters have claimed more fatalities than armed conflicts, the editors challenge the long-standing exclusive focus on state security. Additionally, they discuss how natural disasters are not equal in whom they strike and with what impact. Women, children and the elderly, who are already more likely to be destitute, are natural disasters’ choice victims. Natural calamities are not gender-neutral because they impact men and women differently. “Fukushima Fifty,” a reference to the daring band of Japanese men who made a last stand of sorts in the face of nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, was the production of socially constructed machismo or “man being the savior” syndrome. Similarly, Lankan women were disproportionate victims of the raging fury of the Indian Ocean during the 2004 tsunami, due to their gendered attire which hampered their flight to safety.

Contributors to this volume do a stupendous job of demonstrating how natural disasters threaten human security by worsening the pre-existing vulnerabilities of their victims. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Vietnamese-American community in New Orleans made a much faster recovery than the African-American community. The concept of human security engages such vulnerabilities and capabilities. One of the key contributions of this volume is accentuating of the “humanness” of natural disasters, i.e., the human and human institutional behaviors that drive them. Social scientists, including Dr. Freudenburg, reveal the role of the “human hand” in the making “natural disasters,” and thus, question their “naturalness.”

Contributors to this volume are sensitive to these distinctions when they argue that natural disasters are “natural hazards” that humans convert into disasters. Yet their insistence on describing such events as “natural” is puzzling. Climate change is conspicuous by its absence in their theoretical discussion. However, the editors compensate for these omissions (and their troubling conceptualization of disasters) with the originality of the debate, analytical sophistication, the persuasiveness of their arguments, intellectual rigor, and highly readable prose.

May 8 2015


Reviewed by Frank Ackerman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Seemingly intended for a specialized niche as a supplementary text in certain courses

An Introduction to Ecological Economics, Second Edition, by Robert Costanza, John H. Cumberland, Herman Daly, Robert Goodland, Richard B. Norgaard, Ida Kubiszewski, and Carol Franco, CRC Press, 2014

Ecological economics is an important field that typically receives little, if any, attention in standard economics textbooks. The title and authorship of this book suggest that it could fill that void, as a text coauthored by some of the best-known names in the field. Unfortunately, it may instead be an example of the problems of writing a book by committee; several of the authors have done more interesting and compelling writing in sole or dual-authored works.

This book opens with the statement that it “is not intended to be a stand-alone economics textbook, nor is it a comprehensive treatment” of ecological economics. Rather, it seems intended for a specialized niche as a supplementary text in certain courses. Issues are explained in the authoritative and somewhat simplified voice of a textbook, yet familiarity with the underlying material is often assumed. The bulk of the book consists of two long chapters, one on principles of ecological economics and the other on institutions and policies. These are generally better than the earlier material, though they suffer from some of the same defects. A two-page discussion of the 1997 paper by Constanza et al. on the total value of the world’s ecosystems mentions that it has been cited 5,000 times, that it has since been updated by the authors, and that it has been controversial among economists (the latter is an understatement). Nothing at all is said, however, about the content of those controversies.

The discussion of institutions and policies helpfully includes Herman Daly’s list of ten key principles. I would be delighted to endorse eight of them as cornerstones of a new economy. One of the exceptions is “stabilize population,” which seems to include enforcement of immigration laws – a topic fraught with troubling implications for racial and economic inequality in rich countries today, where a more nuanced and detailed discussion is needed. Finally, there is “move away from fractional reserve banking toward a system of 100% reserve requirements.” How did this make it into the top ten policy ideas of ecological economics? It proposes a very complex restructuring of the banking system, which is on no one else’s agenda, and does not address the important current questions of financial regulation.

Better alternatives are available. For a textbook on ecological economics, try Ecological Economics, Second Edition: Principles and Applications, by Herman Daly and Joshua Farley, or Ecological Economics, An Introduction, by Michael Common and Sigrid Stagl. And if colleagues ask you to join an enormous committee to write a book, just say no.

May 8 2015


Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Providing a helpful review of the Nile Basin in relation to the political economy of transboundary water resource management


Governing the Nile River Basin: The Search for a New Legal Regime, by Mwangi Kimenyi and John Mukin Mbaku, Brookings Institution, 2015

Governing the Nile River Basin: The Search for a New Legal Regime is a clear and timely primer for anyone interested in hydropolitics in the Nile Basin and, more specifically, in understanding the significance of the recently signed Declaration of Principles on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam or Tanzania’s recent ratification of the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA). The book’s eleven chapters provide a helpful desk review of the Nile Basin in relation to the political economy of transboundary water resource management including chapters on hydrology (Ch. 2), 1929 and 1959 Nile Agreements (Ch. 4), and recommendations for a future legal framework (Ch. 11).

Although the book clearly introduces the obstacles to cooperation in transboundary water management in the Nile Basin; at times, it adopts a less than objective tone when describing Egypt’s role in the Basin. While Egypt’s power in the Basin is indisputable, and most of the book’s more critical references to Egypt’s control in the Basin are references to other authors’ works, the ‘Egyptian perspective’ is not as well developed as the upstream perspective. That said, the authors do recognize Egypt’s near-complete dependence on the Nile and emphasize that any future basin-wide legal framework must recognize this as well.

The authors aptly point out that the ‘question in the Nile River basin today is not whether to change the status quo but how to do so.’ In the final chapter, they highlight several components of a process they believe will lead to the development of an effective basin-wide legal instrument. These include (i) recognition of Egypt’s dependence on the Nile; (ii) an inclusive and participatory process; (iii) ownership of the process by the Nile Basin states; (iv) basin-wide consultation to ensure the buy-in of all stakeholders (not just government representatives and technocrats); (v) adequate support (e.g. lodging, translators, etc.) for participants engaged in the process; and (vi) flexibility in the design of the legal instrument to account for uncertainty related to climate change.

It is not entirely clear, however, how their recommendations are different from the CFA drafting and negotiation process. In other words, by the end of the book, although the authors clearly illustrate the limited efficacy of the CFA as a basin-wide legal framework in the absence of Egypt and Sudan’s support, they do not present a very clear or strong case for why their recommendations would lead to a different outcome. Given the very recent developments in the Nile Basin (which occurred after the book was published), it would be interesting to hear the authors’ perspectives on how, if at all, the momentum for cooperation catalyzed by recent events could be used to renew the Basin states’ commitment to the CFA process. After ten years of negotiation, it would be a shame to abandon the CFA altogether.


May 8 2015


Reviewed by Danya Rumore, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

A helpful primer for those interested in what research has to say about why climate change remains so socially contentious


How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate, by Andrew Hoffman, Stanford University Press, 2015

Andrew Hoffman’s new book How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate skillfully weaves together research from numerous social sciences – ranging from psychology to sociology – to show that public confusion about and lack of action on climate change is not the result of a knowledge deficit or a misunderstanding of the relevant science. Instead, Hoffman shows the startling disconnect between the high level of scientific consensus on one hand and the lack of social consensus on the other is the result of people’s intentional and unintentional avoidance of information.

Research suggests that avoidance of information is the result of a variety of cultural and cognitive dynamics. Hoffman effectively summarizes four such forces: (1) humans use cognitive filters, such as motivated reasoning; (2) our cognitive filters reflect our cultural identity; (3) cultural identity can overpower scientific reasoning; and (4) our political economy creates inertia for change.  He concludes “The debate over climate change in the United States (and elsewhere) is not about carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas models; it is about opposing cultural values and worldviews through which that science is seen.” Building on what research has to say about these forces, he suggests that no amount of science, in and of itself, can reconcile conflicting cultures and values. Instead, he advises that worldviews will have to be altered. This, in turn will necessitates careful public education and engagement campaigns that take account of the strong cultural and cognitive forces causing the current cultural schism.

Hoffman’s conclusions are by no means new – indeed, similar points have been made, albeit in bits and pieces, by the many scholars he cites. He does add great value, however, and advances our understanding by summarizing and insightfully stitching together existing scholarship. His goal in writing this book was to “build an edifice from the large and growing body of research in sociology, psychology, and other social sciences about why people accept or reject the science of climate change.”

In successfully doing this, Hoffman’s small book – with its less than 100 pages of text – packs a big punch. It is a helpful primer for those interested in what research has to say about why climate change remains so socially contentious despite the considerable scientific consensus that exists. Written in readily accessible language, How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate will be user-friendly for anyone trying to grasp what social science research has to say about the lack of action on climate change.

Hoffman’s book provides an excellent example of the kind of writing — succinct, clear, interesting, that we need.

Mar 27 2015


Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

In a free market economy, the incentive to externalize costs is so huge that the seller and the buyer reach an unapologetic understanding to get away with it.

cheaponomics copyCheaponomics: The High Cost of Low Prices, by Michael Carolan, Earthscan/Routledge, 2014

Cheaper products are a marketing gimmick but an enticing one nonetheless. Deep discounts on popular brands release pent-up demand, and less expensive products encourage over-consumption. ‘Cheapness’ has become an enigma. While one may avoid buying anything considered ‘cheap’, striving for bargains remains alluring, and the lowest possible price paid for a quality product can be a measure of shopping prowess.

In Cheaponomics: The High Cost of Low Prices, sociology professor Michael Carolan states that ‘Cheapness is an illusion.’ Low prices arrive an at alarmingly high cost because this low price neither reflects the real cost of production nor accounts for the environmental factors. A 2008 UN study estimated that the cumulative cost of environmental damages caused by 3,000 of the largest publicly-traded corporations in the world could run future generations up to 2.2 trillion USD.

In a free market economy, the incentive to externalize cost offers a comparative advantage to both buyers and sellers, albeit at a tremendous cost to these later generations. Carolan questions the economic status quo, arguing that a system that socializes costs for the benefit of few can do little to enhance well-being for the majority. Drawing on a wide range of examples, he unfolds the compulsive economy of cheaper goods which create a false sense of consumer celebration by making large social and income inequalities tolerable. Over-consumption, which is linked to cheaper products, lies at the root of present-day crises from growing urban trash to mounting atmospheric emissions.

Cheaponomics is a revelation, and Carolan concludes an engaging story with a set of practical recommendations. Governments ought to incentivize accurate pricing and enable affordability as the key to price rationalization in the market. Real cost may make goods expensive in the short term but not over the long term as these would be designed to last longer and avoid wastage. Affordability is about enabling, about capabilities and about holistic well-being rather than the shallow advantages of cheap goods.

Mar 27 2015


Reviewed by Michal Russo, Tufts University

Legitimization of knowledge production occupies the central story of landscape planning in Berlin.

9780262018593_0 copyGreening Berlin: The Co-Production of Science, Politics and Urban Nature, by Jens Lachmund, MIT Press, 2013

Lachmund’s Greening Berlin offers a rich and historically-exceptional case study to aid scholars in understanding the meaning of “co-producing knowledge,” “boundary objects” and “alternative framing.” Lachmund’s writing can be a bit dense with academic jargon, but the narrative has importance far beyond the field of urban ecology. In the concluding chapter, Lachmund says that “to resolve environmental conflicts what is needed is not just a proliferation of more knowledge,” but “public reflection on how we know what we know.” Such knowledge, he adds, is “not self-evident, but is shaped and negotiated in situated regimes of nature” (236). This legitimization of knowledge production occupies the central story of nearly a century of landscape planning in Berlin. Dates, names, and events comprise the behind-the-scenes story of why certain policies and actions were chosen over others.

Lachmund describes the many tensions that arose in protecting Berlin’s natural areas, echoing Hajer’s sentiment that “public environmental discourses should be seen as assemblages of heterogeneous voices and motives whose intrinsic ambivalence persists under the umbrella of seemingly coherent story lines” (224). These differences result in “compensatory conflicts,” or differences in priorities and tradeoffs across impacts and their interpretations (when assessing ecological knowledge). Lachmund’s protagonists struggle to determine what should count as nature, its value and its function.

Lachmund explains that the conditions surrounding knowledge production in Berlin differed considerably from academic fieldwork. The very practices of observation were reshaped to accommodate issues of evaluation, operationalization, and standardization of institutional and political structures. Far from neutral technical input, ecological knowledge used to resolve compensatory conflicts was up for re-interpretation by interested parties. Lachmund asserts that the city’s ecological surveys took the form of boundary objects, reshaping both the scientific method for assessing ecology in the city as well as how environmental issues were framed and engaged with by citizens. Ultimately, he attributes the success of the program to the “co-production of an urban nature regime which exceeded the formal boundaries of science” through a “mutually constitutive interaction of knowledge generation and politics of species preservation.”

Mar 27 2015


Reviewed by Tarique Niazi, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

All disasters and the responses to them are socially constructed.


Disaster, Conflict and Society in Crises: Everyday Politics of Crisis Response, edited by Dorothea Hilhorst, Routledge, 2013

Disasters have long been assumed to be “natural,” and as such, “inevitable.” The founding fathers of Disaster Studies, many of whom were engineers, focused on designing responsive strategies to mitigate the after-effects of disasters. Disaster Studies has since come a long way to recognize the “social construction” of disasters. Environmental sociologists such as Dr. William R. Freudenburg and his colleagues have made major contributions to this way of thinking, arguing for and illustrating how disasters are socially-constituted. From a sociological perspective, “all disasters are man-made,” and hence avoidable.

In this context, not only have Dorothea Hilhorst and her fellow contributors in their edited volume on Disaster, Conflict and Society in Crises furthered this way of thinking, but they have also mapped the ways in which disasters are socially constructed. In particular, they have concentrated on the way that “responses” to disasters or crises are conceived. They deploy discourse analysis to help the reader understand the process of social construction of disaster events and thus uncover the battles that often go on among vested interests. They apply discursive analyses to such disparate events as “terrorist violence” in Sri Lanka and the impact of climate change on Mozambique.

Discursive strategies, they argue, help government and non-government actors construct “disasters” and “response to disasters” in a way that tangibly shapes state aid policies, aid governance, and aid politics. In discursive battles, words grow into fighting deeds that shape the outcomes of responsive strategies. Also, the authors argue that conflicts and disasters are emblematic of a breakdown of social order (i.e., chaos and disruption). They also contend that disruption and chaos create opportunities to reorder and reconstitute the institutions that deal with disaster events (referred to as continuity and discontinuity).

Hilhorst, the volume’s editor, employs the idiom of “everyday politics” as a frame to uncover the political and social dynamics of aid politics. The first part of the book focuses on the social construction of disasters, responses, and the manner in which local government and non-governmental actors securitize (or depoliticize) their strategies. In the second part, local institutions transform a crisis and become transformed by it, while the third speaks to a variety of interventions that are possible in crisis events. The book offers a wealth of theoretical and empirical ideas in accessible language, providing an invaluable contribution to the discipline of Disaster Studies.

Dec 5 2014


Reviewed by Jessica Gordon, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Framing resilience properly could lead to radical institutional reforms

Managing Adaptation to Climate Risk: Beyond Fragmented Responses, by Geoff O’Brien and Phil O’Keefe, Routledge, 2014

Managing Adaptation to Climate Risk provides a critical analysis of development, adaptation and disaster management, arguing for the importance of resilience as a means of connecting these siloed fields and developing a people-centred response to extreme events, which the authors see as the primary climate risk of concern. The book, to its credit, criticizes the various uses of resilience, recognizing that the term can lead to the abdication of political responsibility and the continuation of the status quo. The authors instead call for a framing of resilience that could lead to radical institutional change in the relationship between people and the environment, refocusing the discussion where sustainability has failed.  The authors make clear that their argument is grounded in a critique of capitalism and the neoliberal project, which has produced poverty, inequality and increased vulnerability. At the heart of the book is the assumption that humans can adapt and learn in times of stress, which we are currently facing given the urgency of climate change.

Written in clear and accessible language and filled with examples, the book is a useful text for newcomers to the topics discussed. The sections include detailed historical analyses and a literature review with helpful diagrams and tables.  The chapters feel a bit fragmented and certainly could be read separately. The final chapter links resilience to social capital and social learning, a refreshing addition to the argument, demonstrating how new ways of thinking and learning can support transformational change. In the end, the book calls for reform of governance and institutions, driven by proactive bottom-up processes and a concern about equity. This is a welcome thought, but it seems like a big mouthful for resilience to chew.

Dec 5 2014


Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

We should be looking for transformative approaches to water negotiations

Water as a Catalyst For Peace: Transboundary Water Management and Conflict Resolution, by Ahmed Abukhater, Earthscan, 2013

The central argument of Water as a Catalyst For Peace is that water negotiations can be used to promote cooperation if equity is ensured. Abukhater uses nine cases of bilateral water treaties from around the world to make the point that three types of equity (process, outcome, and perceived) require attention. He explores the commonalities and differences in each case, emphasizing the dispute histories and the treaty outcomes (in terms of types of equity achieved).

Of his nine cases, two are developed in greater depth. The 1994 Israel-Jordan Water Treaty (Chapter 4) is offered as an example of a “low” (or modest) outcome where low outcome and perceived equity were achieved. The 1986 Lesotho-South Africa Highlands Water Project Treaty (Chapter 5) is an example of a “high” outcome in which high outcome and perceived equity were achieved. The author is paradoxically critical of both treaties, arguing that both processes should have been more inclusive and transparent while, at the same time, recognizing the inherent complexities of hydro-diplomacy when substantial power differentials are at work.

He uses his cross-case analysis (Chapter 6) to develop what he calls a ‘transformative approach to conflict resolution’, highlighting the importance of the rules of engagement (international law), the mechanisms of engagement (equitable water sharing criteria), and third-party mediation. His comparative analysis also provides a useful, albeit hidden, summary of process equity parameters. These include, among others, involvement of all stakeholders, trust-building, an incrementalist approach; facilitation, mediation and other uses of third parties; socio-economic considerations; language of equity; joint fact finding; prioritization of uses and users; and monitoring arrangements.

This is a well-written and useful book for anyone interested in transboundary water management, conflict resolution or bilateral management of natural resources. It skillfully demonstrates the potential to use ‘low’ politics (i.e. hydro-diplomacy) as an entry point into ‘high’ politics (e.g., international relations).


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