Feb 1 2018

Water Governance and Collective Action: Multi-scale Challenges

Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How, if at all, can local residents challenge the commodification of nature and reshape water governance to achieve fairer and more just outcomes? Sometimes this can be accomplished through collective action and by building strategic coalitions involving a range of actors at multiple scales.


edited by Diana Suhardiman, Alan Nicol and Everisto Mapedza, Water Governance and Collective Action: Multi-scale Challenges, Earthscan, 2017, 187 pp.

In Water Governance and Collective Action, editors Suhardiman, Nicol and Mapedza argue that globalization and the “dominant neoliberal development agenda” have led to a commodification of natural resources that allows local communities very little agency over the governance of their own resources. How can these weakened communities shape national and transnational water policy in ways that will achieve more sustainable and just outcomes? Sometimes, they suggest, this can be accomplished through collective action.

The authors argue that conventional approaches to identifying factors that lead to collective action (e.g., Ostrom’s Institutional Analysis Development framework) are a good start, but that power also needs to be taken into consideration. Their central argument relies on the Foucauldian understanding of power (i.e., that power is diffuse and constantly in flux), rather than the international relations understanding of hegemony (i.e., that one state “holds” power). While power differences (e.g., between a company siting a dam and the community that will be displaced if the dam is built) will invariably present obstacles to achieving equitable outcomes, the book suggests that local-level communities can sometimes “balance” the playing field through strategic alliances, or by connecting to actors at different scales (e.g., transnational NGOs with overlapping mandates, empathetic politicians, etc.)––in the language of negotiation, through “coalition building.”

The editors pose three questions that reflect the inherent difficulty of governing a resource that crosses multiple scales: “How is collective action shaped by existing power structures and relationships at different scales? What are the kinds of tools and approaches that various actors can take and adopt to achieve more deliberative processes for collective action? What are the anticipated outcomes for the development processes, the environment and the global resource base of achieving collective action across multiple scales?”

They attempt to address these questions by drawing on 13 case studies of collective action from around the world but, as is the case with most books written by multiple authors, there is very little consistency in how well each chapter or case study explicitly addresses these questions. The Introduction briefly summarizes how each case ties to the central argument, and the Conclusion briefly responds to the core questions. The cases themselves, though, move in different directions.

Of the discussions concerning the three questions, the second (i.e., that of tools and approaches to more deliberative processes) is the least developed. This positions the book as an extension of an academic debate rather than as a guide for local communities. That said, the overall argument that “less powerful actors” such as “NGOs, local government agencies and civil society groups” (p. 179) have an opportunity to shape how natural resources are used and governed through collective action achieved by developing strategic alliances with actors at different scales is compelling.  The same is true of the editors’ call to pay attention to “how development decisions are made, based on what rationale and representing whose interests” (p. 178) to identify ways of influencing policy and institutional change.

Water Governance and Collective Action repeatedly emphasizes the importance of achieving more sustainable and just outcomes in water governance, and carefully balances optimism about the potential for change through collective action with a recognition that the political arena may not always be conducive to change in the status quo. Its call to focus on institutions in analyzing water governance is a promising extension of the state-dominated focus of the “hydro-hegemony” debate because it explicitly recognizes the potential power of local actors and collective action. Arguably, the editors may have chosen only cases that support their argument, but the diversity of cases will nonetheless be of interest to scholars of water governance.


Feb 1 2018

Governance for Urban Sustainability and Resilience

Reviewed by Jungwoo Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Could it be that governance is more important than reliance on either greener technology or reductions in the scale of resource utilization in achieving urban sustainability and enhanced resilience?


by Jeroen van der Heijden, Governance for Urban Sustainability and Resilience, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2014, 229 pp.

There is no doubt that cities could do less harm to the natural environment and use resources more efficiently. Employing “greener” technologies or simply using fewer resources are often cited as solutions––albeit partial––to the environmental challenges that cities face and, in some cases, cause. Van der Heijden suggests that getting governance right may be more important than introducing new technology or using fewer resources. Drawing from about 500 interviews and examining close to 70 real-life governance tools from around the world, this book offers a unique insight into how various governance tools can help cities achieve sustainability and resilience in the face of natural disasters.

Chapter 1 gives a sense of what urban sustainability and resilience mean to practitioners and academics, and explains how governance relates to each concept. Chapter 2 examines the most common approach to governance—direct regulatory intervention––and the tools it relies on, such as statutory regulation, direct subsidies and the application of economic instruments. Chapter 3 explores collaborative efforts by government, businesses and civil society to work together using tools such as networks, negotiated agreements and covenants. Chapter 4 focuses on voluntary programs and market-driven governance tools such as green leasing, private regulation and innovative financing. Chapter 5 discusses five governance trends and their contribution to achieving urban sustainability and resilience. It analyzes real-life examples, especially the prominent role that governments play in promoting the most innovative forms of governance. Chapter 6 concludes with suggestions regarding the choice of governance strategies for sustainability and resilience, building on the ideas explored in Chapters 2–5.

While not suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach to enhancing sustainability and resilience, Governance for Urban Sustainability and Resilience clearly shows that there are windows of opportunities for every city government to shift to more innovative governance tools. This book is particularly useful for those seeking a broad understanding of existing governance tools associated with efforts to enhance urban sustainability and resilience.


Feb 1 2018

Rethinking Private Authority: Agents and Entrepreneurs in Global Environmental Governance

Reviewed by Elise Harrington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Sometimes private authorities have a role in international environmental governance. When and why do states delegate authority to non-state actors? How can private actors play a helpful role in drafting rules and regulations?   


by Jessica F. Green, Rethinking Private Authority: Agents and Entrepreneurs in Global Environmental Governance, Princeton University Press, 2014, 232 pp.

In Rethinking Private Authority: Agents and Entrepreneurs in Global Environmental Governance, Jessica Green makes a distinction between two forms of non-state involvement in environmental governance: delegated private authority and entrepreneurial private authority. Against a backdrop of increased involvement of non-state actors, Green shows that the growth in private authority involves primarily entrepreneurial authority; delegated private authority continues to play only a minor part in international environmental governance. Green provides a model for predicting when private authority will be included and what form that private authority is likely to take. She defines private authority “as situations in which non-state actors make rules or set standards that other relevant actors in world politics adopt” (p. 29). Non-state actors can include NGOs, corporations, advocacy networks and foundations among others. She excludes international organizations involving state representatives. Her forecasting model and its tests offer a valuable study of international delegation and the reasons why private authority is increasing in global environmental governance.

In Chapter 1, Green outlines the first stage of her model. It is based on what she considers to be the supply and demand for private authority, the convergence of state–non-state preferences and the presence of focal institutions. Supply and demand is contingent on costs and benefits, such that “private authority emerges because actors in world politics—states, private actors, and institutions comprising both types of actors—anticipate they will benefit from deferring to private authority” (p. 39). The primary cost to the state of granting more authority to private actors is a loss of autonomy; thus “the less autonomy the adopters have to sacrifice, the greater the net gain for them in deferring to private authority” (p. 47). In the second stage of the model, Green hypothesizes that homogeneous state preferences (among powerful states) will result in increased delegation of private authority, while with heterogeneous preferences entrepreneurial private authority is more likely. Further, the presence of a strong focal institution, such as the Montreal Protocol’s Technical and Economic Assessments Panel, increases the likelihood of delegated authority. Focal institutions‪ likely reduce opportunities for agency slack, both as shirking responsibility or slippage between agency and principal preferences. ‬‬‬

Chapters 2 through 5 provide Green’s empirical analyses of delegation and private authority. Her longitudinal data analysis seeks to account for historical patterns and recent changes in private authority. In Chapter 2, using a random sample of 152 multilateral environmental treaties adopted between 1857 and 2002, Green coded for policy functions and responsible actors. She determined that private authority has not substantially increased over time as a proportion of policy actions; rather, delegation “is a relatively rare occurrence” (p. 66). When delegation does occur, private expertise appears to play a key role. Chapter 2 identifies historical patterns of delegated private authority while Chapter 3 unpacks entrepreneurial private authority using a dataset of transnational civil regulations adopted between 1954 and 2009. Green finds that 90 percent of the regulations in this dataset were created between 1990 and 2009, and over 80 percent created in those two decades were “hard” standards requiring third-party verification. She argues that this indicates “that these rules are being used as real governance tools. They go beyond mere second-party certification where the firm itself judges whether it is in compliance” (p. 91).

Chapters 4 and 5 examine in-depth cases of delegated and entrepreneurial private authority for climate change and regulating carbon emissions. In Chapter 4, Green examines private authority in the operation of the Clean Development Mechanism. She identifies reductions in transaction costs (benefits of private authority) and convergence of negotiating blocs which resulted in delegated monitoring authority to the private sector. Chapter 5 discusses the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which was started by the World Resources Institute and World Business Council on Sustainable Development––two NGOs––rather than by state delegation. Green argues that the Greenhouse Gas Protocol was initiated with entrepreneurial authority because “the inability of public authorities (governments or international organizations) to address the issue of firm-level emissions, combined with the lack of a strong focal institution to screen and monitor agents […] created an opening for entrepreneurial private authority” (p. 133).

Green’s work stands as a strong contribution to the growing focus in political science on the role of non-state actors and state–non-state interactions. Both her model and her empirical findings offer a number of intriguing areas for further study. For example, it should be possible to further specify both the first and second steps in the operation of her model. Questions remain about how and when benefits accrue and whether they are associated with one form of private authority more than another. While Green identifies state autonomy as the primary cost to the state, how within-state politics influence adoption, delegation and enforcement remains unclear. Finally, state–non-state relationships are generally discussed with reference to strong states, but the influence of private authority in developing and weak state contexts is equally interesting and in need of further examination.

Feb 1 2018

Clouds: Nature and Culture

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

To be on cloud nine!


by Richard Hamblyn, Clouds: Nature and Culture, Reaktion Books, 2017, 240 pp.

From the realm of literature and arts to the domain of astronomy and science, clouds have emerged from a muddle of uncertainty into the world of scientific certainty in the context of climate change. Capturing their picturesque journey from “an ultimate art gallery above” in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson to the “center of digital life below” as propounded by Steve Jobs, Richard Hamblyn provides a multifaceted narrative about nature’s most versatile creation. Packed with colorful pictures, Clouds could easily be the most comprehensive and authoritative text on the subject to date.

Hamblyn, an English lecturer at the University of London, has attained undisputed mastery of the subject, having already published two other books on clouds–– The Cloud Book and Invention of Clouds. While the first captures everything to do with the origin and development of clouds, the second is a cultural excavation of our understanding of the science of clouds. In this third book, Hamblyn has brought clouds down to earth and unveiled some of their mystery. Throughout human history, attempts to understand clouds and their behavior has been a subject of delight and fascination, offering limitless opportunities for creative contemplation.

Clouds is a magnificent collection of these stories – from their wooly journey through art, literature, music and photography to their sinister manipulation for military use and anthropogenic modification. (Failed) American attempts at precipitating flash floods during the Vietnam War are part of the legend. Such secret military efforts have invoked widespread prompting by the international community to declare clouds as “a resource that belongs to no one.” Legal remedies for appropriating clouds through artificial seeding may be needed as competition over access to rainwater escalates.

Science is only beginning to understand the role that clouds play in shaping future conditions on earth––a warm atmosphere may reorganize the day-to-day behavior of clouds in ways that could either amplify or mitigate climate change. The trouble, warns Hamblyn, is that clouds have a habit of behaving in complex and surprising ways. The fact that our warming climate is producing ever more lightning strikes is one of many such surprises. Each 1 degree rise in temperature increases lightning activity by around 12 per cent. Will clouds turn out to be agents of global warming or will they end up saving the day by reflecting ever more sunlight back into space?

Clouds challenge human intelligence. Philosophers like Aristophanes have long professed that “from clouds come our intelligence, our dialectic and our reason; also, our speculative genius and all our argumentative talents.” Wondering if clouds were objects or phenomena or processes, Leonardo da Vinci described them as formless triggers of visual invention, their fleeting magnificence and endless variability providing food for thought for scientists and daydreamers alike. Our current predicament with clouds is taking us back in time to reimagine and reunderstand them. There may be clues in art and literature to help us make a fresh beginning!

Hamblyn contends that the law of unintended consequences needs to be kept in mind when embarking on geo-engineering projects aimed at tampering with the atmosphere and with clouds. Clouds are too sensitive not to be taken into account in such anthropogenic adventures, he cautions. In short, there is no way of knowing what will happen to our rapidly changing atmosphere.  Just as in centuries past, when clouds were employed as ready metaphors of doubt and uncertainty, it looks as if they will continue to be so for centuries to come.

The crucial issue is that life without clouds would not be physically possible. Far from just being a source of water, they have a larger role to play in keeping the earth hospitable for living beings. Clouds provides insights into the history and science of clouds, and offers guidance regarding the sensitive handling of the woolly product/process hovering between the sky and earth. Colorfully illustrated, this is the ultimate guide to the past, present and future of clouds.

Jul 31 2017

Environmental Policy and Governance in China

Reviewed by Jessica Gordon, Massachusetts Institute for Technology 

China faces severe environmental challenges and its environmental policies and governance arrangements are in the process of changing.


edited by Hideki Kitagawa Environmental Policy and Governance in China, Springer, 2017, 198 pp.

China is facing severe environmental challenges including pervasive water, air and soil pollution. To address these issues, its environmental governance regime has undergone significant transformations. These include the emergence of new laws and regulations, new enforcement strategies, and increasing participation of the public and non-state actors. This edited volume provides a predominately historical and legal analysis of China’s unique environmental governance system.

The first chapter by Kitagawa reviews recent environmental policy reforms that have been implemented during the current Xi government. In Chapter 2, Wang examines the detailed changes in the drafts and final texts of the environmental protection law. This includes an overview of the latest, 2014 revisions, providing a useful historical perspective. In Chapter 3, Zhao examines the limited laws and regulations dealing with contaminated land, pointing out, for example, that there are no guidelines regarding soil pollution monitoring. In Chapter 4, Jin offers a legal analysis of the Target Responsibility System, which was created to ensure local compliance and enforcement of national policy in an effort to address widespread implementation gaps. In Chapter 5, He offers an economic analysis of coal resource taxation as a means of reducing fossil fuel use.

In Chapter 6, Sakurai presents a case study of a class action lawsuit brought by pollution victims, making it clear that the absence of an independent judiciary is significant given the ways in which various political bodies influence outcomes. In Chapter 7, Zhang examines environmental petitions, a means for citizens to report issues to the Chinese Communist Party. This is a long-standing alternative to litigation. Given the system’s current shortcomings, and drawing on cases from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, the author suggests China ought to establish a new environmental dispute resolution system. In Chapter 8, Wang demonstrates how legislation related to Environmental Impact Assessment has provided increased opportunities for public participation. In Chapter 9, Chiashi looks beyond the state, at the role of environmental NGOs in industrial and air pollution control. In Chapter 10, Aikawa takes a historical look at the evolution of environmental NGOs in China.

Interestingly, several chapters focus on the increasing role of public participation, and its limitations, in environmental governance in China. Jin and Wang focus on environmental information disclosure requirements in conjunction with Environmental Impact Assessment requirements. Sakurai describes how the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuits formed an environmental advocacy organization, although it was later shut down. Chiashi and Aikawa focus on the increasing role that NGOs play in environmental policy-making and implementation.

Environmental Policy and Governance in China demonstrates the extensive environmental challenges that China still faces. The book chapters can easily be read individually, depending on the interests of the reader, and understood even by those unfamiliar with China’s legal system. The book includes extensive background information. However, the volume is most likely to engage those with a long-standing interest in China.

Jul 31 2017

Democratizing Global Climate Governance

Reviewed by Elise Harrington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Can global climate governance be more democratic? Assessing deliberative democracy and networked governance in pursuit of global climate goals. 


by Hayley Stevenson and John S. Dryzek Democratizing Global Climate Governance, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 256 pp.

In Democratizing Global Climate Governance Hayley Stevenson and John Dryzek argue that global climate governance can be improved by engaging civil society in multilateral climate negotiations and in the growing networks of actors involved in climate change policymaking. Using critical discourse analysis, the authors examine the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); discussions surrounding the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit; and the work of networks of corporations, nongovernmental organizations, community groups, foundations, government and international organizations. Stevenson and Dryzek focus on discourse (and language) as a key mechanism linking a range of actors. While discourse analysis is a unique contribution to the literature on global climate governance, their discussion of the tension and potential synergy between the formal UNFCCC activity and less-formal networks encourages readers to rethink the role of democratic deliberation in climate governance.

The first two chapters introduce the authors’ argument along with a theory of deliberative democracy as it applies to global climate governance. Chapter 2 unpacks the seven components of their deliberative framework as well as four basic discourses: mainstream sustainability, expansive sustainability, limits and boundaries, and green radicalism. Chapter 3 focuses on discourse analysis in public spaces, assessing four discussions related to the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit: the World Business Summit on Climate Change, the Business for the Environment Summit, Klimaforum09, and the World People’s Summit on Climate Change and Mother Earth. The authors argue that “the democratization of global climate governance can be advanced in the absence of centralized, comprehensive and effective global agreement. […] this requires recognizing and harnessing the coordinating function that discourses play in political life” (p. 59). The subsequent chapters build on this notion by illustrating how a systems approach to deliberation empowers discourse in public spaces.

Chapters 4 and 5 each discuss a different empowered space, or a space where institutions make collective decisions and ensure some form of public accountability. Chapter 4 analyzes the UNFCCC as a formal empowered space and primarily finds support for mainstream sustainability discourse, in particular for “ecological modernization and climate marketization.” Chapter 5 analyzes the informal empowered space created by public partnerships, public-private partnerships and private initiatives. The networks of actors in this space differ from the UNFCCC networks. They obtain authority by filling gaps in regulation, identifying common interests and using peer pressure to support voluntary rules and standards. Three networked governance examples are analyzed in some detail: the Clean Technology Fund, the Climate Technology Initiative’s Private Financing Advisory Network and the Verified Carbon Standard. Based on a “deliberative democratic deficit” in these networked spaces, the authors argue for stronger linkages between the UNFCCC and networked governance.

Chapters 6 and 7 examine the deliberative components of transmission and accountability. These two features of deliberative democracy are vital to the way ideas from public spaces are transmitted to empowered spaces and link accountability back to the public spaces. Yet, transmission and accountability tend to be weak in both formal and networked governance for climate change. Chapter 8 proposes a number of ways to strengthen transmission and accountability. Finally, chapter 9 concludes with a discussion of reflexivity in climate governance, highlighting opportunities to disrupt the status quo. Missing is a discussion of the part political power and financial resources play in forming and propagating the discourses present in the UNFCCC and networked governance. Democratizing Global Climate Governance provides researchers and practitioners with a whole new set of questions to ask.

Jul 31 2017

Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity

Reviewed by Andrea Beck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

Global water governance is based on the hidden philosophy of “normal water”––a finding with important ethical and ecological implications for water management in the Anthropocene. 

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by Jeremy J. Schmidt Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity, New York University Press, 2017, 308 pp.

Is water governance guided by a comprehensive philosophy? Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, geographer Jeremy J. Schmidt answers this question in the affirmative: water governance is based on a hidden philosophy which conceptualizes water as a “resource” to be managed in support of liberal ways of life. Rooted in a particular confluence of early American geology and anthropology, this view of water has attained global dominance through strategies of international development. It has become accepted to the extent that its ethnocentric and utilitarian foundations now seem all but forgotten within the global water governance mainstream. Thinking about water as a resource is commonplace today. Schmidt seeks to challenge this complacency by opening our eyes to the fact that what appears to be “normal” is in fact a normative choice.

The bulk of the book traces the origins and subsequent globalization of the philosophy of “normal water.” Schmidt provides insights into the roots and evolution of the “narrative of abundance, scarcity, and security,” while also discussing the implications of this narrative for water management in the Anthropocene. While the accounts of the thinking of protagonists such as John Wesley Powell, William John McGee, David Lilienthal and Gilbert White are illustrative and engaging, frequent philosophical excursions render the book somewhat impenetrable for readers unfamiliar with the philosophical works of Hannah Arendt, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Søren Kierkegaard and several others.

If the book is meant to showcase the results of an interdisciplinary intellectual exercise, its purpose has been achieved. However, Schmidt seeks to go further, spelling out the applied implications of his work. What, specifically, are the problems with viewing water as a resource (a very fundamental question)? What are the mechanisms by which alternate place-based approaches to water are being oppressed or marginalized by “normal water?” Beyond recommendations addressed to social scientists (e.g., disrupt the colonial project of water management within academia, relativize existing “stopping rules”), what are possible action avenues for practitioners committed to promoting water justice and equity in the field? Addressing these questions more explicitly and extensively could enhance the transformative impact of the book and make its important message accessible to a wider audience.


Jul 31 2017

The Privatisation of Biodiversity? New Approaches to Conservation Law

Reviewed by J. W. Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Creating new ways of thinking about the value of biodiversity and hence new opportunities for biodiversity law and regulation

The Privatisation of Biodiversity

by Colin T. Reid and Walters Nsoh The Privatisation of Biodiversity? New Approaches to Conservation Law, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2016, 275 pp.

Despite many laws and policies aimed at protecting biodiversity, biodiversity losses continue to mount. Colin T. Reid and Walters Nsoh explore biodiversity regulation from a new perspective: as a value-creating opportunity rather than a set of restrictions. Their aim “is to identify not a single favoured solution, but the questions which have to be answered in designing a scheme that will meet the needs of the specific policy goals and the legal and physical context in which the mechanism is to be deployed.”

Reid and Nsoh divide their book into two sections. The first offers an overview of existing laws and regulations. The authors review some of the most “pervasive” issues surrounding various mechanisms used to conserve biodiversity. Although not exhaustive, their list includes uncertainty, exchangeability and units of trade, which must be considered in the design and implementation of new, market-oriented mechanisms. These pervasive issues have to be taken into account no matter what options are considered for better managing natural capital.

The second section of the book introduces a wide range of biodiversity protection mechanisms and discusses their practicalities. For each, the relevant legal construct and the actors typically involved are discussed. The authors emphasize that various mechanisms could almost always be applied. However, they argue that a more open, accountable, and holistic approach would be preferable.

The authors admit that there are limitations to their approach; for instance, it is rooted in “Western” concepts of law (i.e., they have a UK perspective). This may undermine its viability in certain contexts, limiting its application in locations where new mechanisms are needed the most. The Privatisation of Biodiversity is carefully organized, drawing attention to the importance of looking at biodiversity from a number of angles, particularly through a lens of market-driven mechanisms. The book provides a starting point for those who want to think about local biodiversity in new ways.

Jul 31 2017

Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

This review was first published in Current Science, July 10, 2017.

While the United States may have leveled off its water use to 1970 levels, in spite of both population and economic growth, the health of its rivers continues to remain a concern.



by Sean W. Fleming, Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways,  Princeton University Press, 2017, 216 pp.

Its global prevalence notwithstanding, the state of water in nature reflects our inadequate understanding of its intricate flow dynamics. Despite its abundance, access to water eludes millions of people, and the stress on the ecosystems involved continues to grow. More than one billion people lack access to clean water, and in the near future, the global demand for water will be twice what it is now. With no substitute for this life-nurturing fluid, it is more important than ever that we ask the right questions so we can get past the current muddle.

All rivers are alike in the broadest sense, but they have different meandering curves, diverse aquatic fauna and distinct morphological features. Unraveling this distinctiveness and the (unknown) variables that contribute to it are the challenges that confront hydrologists. Existing watershed models are insufficient. Indeed, many of the best modelers don’t rate their results too highly. Part of the problem, in the words of Belgian Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine, rests on our innate desire to simplify complexity. Unfortunately, reducing elaborate systems into simpler subsystems doesn’t necessarily help: we end up learning more about less. Such an approach is particularly unhelpful when we are trying to understand river hydrology. The uncertainty involved is a function of a great many environmental and social factors that shape stream flow and underlying aquifers.

Sean Fleming’s Where the River Flows calls for a paradigm shift. He favors a radical departure from the usual disciplinary thinking; indeed, since rivers are a reflection of the profound interrelationships between landscapes, ecosystems and societies, no disciplinary perspective can adequately address their complex dynamics. He believes that fractal mathematics along with chaos and information theory can be used to generate new insights into the overall patterns of river systems. As anthropogenic impacts on the natural environment (like climate change) accelerate, there is a need for both finer detailed forecasts (e.g., will my farm get rain next week?) and big picture understanding (e.g., will the river topple its banks this coming season?). New insights in both dimensions are critical to understanding the common but differentiated patterns that each river generates in its unique geomorphological setting.

Unfortunately, a counter narrative persists, making it harder to get a better sense of river hydrology. Damming, diversion and contamination pose formidable challenges, beyond the normal ecological complexity, to figuring out how to sustain healthy stream flows for human welfare and ecosystem survival. Be it the Mississippi, Ganges or Yangtze, river degradation has thrown off balance the delicate equilibrium between ever-increasing human populations and their relentless aspiration to stay adequately watered. The United States may have leveled off its water use to 1970 levels in spite of both population and economic growth, but the health of its rivers continues to remain alarming. While every drop of water pumped from the Colorado river is used at least 17 times, which may sound like good news, the net impact of all that pumping on the Gulf of California has grossly disrupted the hydrological cycle. River water hasn’t reached the delta since 1960.

Fleming calls for an entirely new way of viewing the natural environment, suggesting that we need to process vast and complex information to reconceptualize and understand the dynamics of the natural environment. But can reams of hard data and new quantitative modeling techniques give us a better sense of river systems that are not only dynamic but also living entities? As the need for more accurate, precise and consistent forecasts move center stage in our dealings with the rivers, somehow cultural perspectives must also be included. It is not clear how we can convert human observations into actionable information.


Apr 10 2017

Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States

Reviewed by Andrea Beck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The conflation of race and waste has a long history in the United States, with serious material consequences for the lives and well-being of ‘non-white’ immigrants and African Americans.


by Carl A. Zimring Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States, New York University Press, 2015, 273 pp

In Clean and White, historian Carl A. Zimring explores how environmental factors have shaped social constructions of race in the United States, from the age of Jefferson to the Memphis Public Works Strike of 1968. Rather than treating race and ethnicity as static constructs, as is often the case in studies of environmental racism, Zimring carefully unpacks the ways in which concerns about urban health, hygiene and sanitation were increasingly conflated with concerns about race over more than one hundred years of American history. Whereas whiteness became equated with cleanliness and purity to justify white supremacy, other skin colors came to be associated with waste, dirt, dust and disease. The infamous Ku Klux Klan, as well as some academics, helped develop and spread these linkages. Advertisers of soap and cleansers likewise promoted notions of race and cleanliness in popular culture.

Beyond their discursive importance, the author shows how these constructions of environmental racism had far-reaching material consequences for the affected groups. With white Americans considering waste-handling beneath their dignity, “dirty” jobs such as laundry, waste collection and scrap recycling were disproportionately relegated to African Americans, Asian Americans, and new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, exposing them to serious environmental health risks. In addition to occupational structures, environmental racism also shaped the spatial organization of cities. Between 1870 and 1960, racial residential segregation increased markedly, as whites “fled” the urban core for the suburbs, and noxious industries and waste-handling businesses clustered in non-white residential areas. Spatial environmental inequalities were facilitated by racially restricted lending practices, municipal zoning ordinances and lax enforcement of regulations in non-white neighborhoods.

After World War II, many Jews and Italian Americans (long perceived as non-white) merged into white society. At the same time, the environmental burdens on African Americans and Hispanics remained and intensified, culminating in the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968. Although workers and organizers in Memphis did not explicitly use the term “environmental justice,” this strike would become foundational for the emergence of the environmental justice movement in the 1980s. Several examples at the end of the book remind us that environmental racism has endured well into the twenty-first century.

By drawing attention to the social constructions of waste and race, and their material implications, Zimring’s research makes a significant contribution to existing scholarship on environmental racism and environmental justice. What is wanting in the book are specific reflections on where we can go from here. How can American society overcome the long-standing and deep-seated biases uncovered in Clean and White? And how can the book’s message best be translated into public policy? Answering these and other questions will be critical to applying Zimring’s important historical research to life in contemporary America.

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