Mar 4 2014


Reviewed by Peter R. Mulvihill, University of York

This book explores the history and development of opposing ideologies and perspectives that shape political discourse about the environment.


The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future, by Paul Sabin, Yale University Press, 2013, 320 pp.

What are the prospects of informed and nuanced debate on global environmental issues and climate change? If Paul Sabin’s new book is any indication, we have a long way to go before we can reasonably expect edifying debate to take place. The Bet is an exploration of the ideological and political gulf that continues to separate ‘pessimists’ who believe in resource limits and ‘optimists’ who contend that environmental concerns are exaggerated and can be overcome by technology and ingenuity.

In this well written and expertly researched book, Sabin guides the reader through the history of polarized environmental debates in the United States, embodied in particular by two well known and prolific academics. In the green corner is Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb and other notable works. His chief opponent, Julian Simon, penned The Ultimate Resource and numerous other essays in response to what he dismissed as neo-Malthusian hysteria. Sabin offers an intimate history, probing the personalities and motivations of Ehrlich and Simon, and charts their respective career paths as they gathered influence and honed their debating strategies (and informed those of Carter, Reagan and many others in the political arena).

Ehrlich emerged first, and it might surprise today’s younger environmentalists to consider that he was famous enough to have been a guest on The Tonight Show in the 1970s more than twenty times. As Johnny Carson might have said, that is weird, wild stuff indeed. And, pardon the digression, but I would be willing to wager that this is the only book in existence with a bibliography that lists ‘Carson, Johnny’ followed by ‘Carson, Rachel’.

The Bet is part of a growing literature documenting and analyzing the history of the modern environmental movement. The Ehrlich/Simon conflict – as Sabin shows, they became bitter adversaries – is a useful vehicle to examine the underlying reasons for the ongoing lack of productive dialogue on sustainability and climate change. Popular images of the debates and the debaters remain largely stereotypical; any contest between perceived prophets of doom and dinosaurs is bound to be taken with a grain of salt. But it would be a mistake to assume that either side was posturing. It is striking to consider, as Sabin demonstrates, the mutual naivety of the foes. Simon could not grasp why the public seemed to be so interested what he viewed as unfounded and pessimistic prognostications of resource collapse, and Ehrlich, for his part, ‘…. could not fathom the possibility that fundamentally different values or ideologies might yield different conclusions.’ Needless to say, the reader will find little common ground or reconciliation in The Bet, but that is no doubt the point, and it raises important questions about the vagaries of scientific evidence, the mug’s game of prediction, the limits of debate and the dreariness of partisan environmental politics. If there is a silver lining to be found in this story, it may be the relative inexperience of the modern environmental movement and the possibility of future generation doing things differently.

Mar 4 2014


Reviewed by Michal Russo, Tufts University

White suggests that planners have a crucial role to play in avoiding or overcoming hydrological disasters in the city.


Water and the City: Risk, Resilience and Planning for a Sustainable Future, by Iain White, Routledge, 2010, 224 pp.

In his brief yet surprisingly comprehensive book White deconstructs risk and resilience from the perspective of spatial planning for water in cities. Central to his argument is a conviction, which he draws from Gilbert White, that hydrological disasters in cities are not ‘acts of god’ or natural events. Rather, they are the result of manufactured risks created by patterns of urbanization. In fact, he goes so far as to say that ‘the historical development of many cities may appear to have almost been designed to maximize the risk of flooding and water scarcity’ (p. 175). The silver lining – since the way we design and plan cities has accentuated flood impacts and water scarcity challenges – is that planning could just as well offer a way out of this situation.

White provides much needed clarity regarding ways of handling risk and enhancing resilience. He emphasizes mitigation and adaptation as the goals of intervention. Mitigation takes a longer view. Hazards might be minimized to support a return to equilibrium. Adaptation entails building capacity to respond to changing conditions in the short run by reducing exposure and vulnerability.

My challenge to White concerns the role he assigns to planners in deciding how to lay out cities to reduce risks. He recognizes the surprisingly stationary nature of the problem (citing philosophers and planners from centuries ago who depict challenges reminiscent of those we face at present). This suggests that we run the risk of returning to old blueprints for new solutions. ‘Risk’, he writes, ‘may not be removed but instead transferred spatially and deferred temporally’ (p. 182). Thus, the challenge of choosing the right intervention strategy requires making decisions in the face of substantial uncertainty and picking winners and losers. Are planners up to these tasks? It might make more sense for planners to take the lead in organizing collaborative efforts to manage collective risks.

Mar 4 2014

A JOURNEY IN THE FUTURE OF WATER, by Terje Tvedt (translation by Richard Daly)

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma, Development Analyst and Columnist, New Delhi, India

Water binds together the past and the future and helps explain our evolution as a species.


A Journey in the Future of Water, by Terje Tvedt (translation by Richard Daly), I. B. Tauris, 2013, 262 pp.

Marked by huge amounts of waste and competing demands, the supply of water is presumed to be the precursor to a probable third world war.  Situations with respect to water sharing come perilously close to what Mark Twain once said: ‘Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.’ It seems the universal fluid that will shape humanity’s future could be soaked with blood.

Not deterred by threatening changes in the global climate that may accelerate glacial melting and transform water flows in major river basins, Terje Tvedt portrays an optimistic picture of humanity’s water future after traveling through some of the most amazing locations across five continents. With a professional background in geography, history and political science, the author offers multiple perspectives for the reader to choose from. While Tvedt is forthright in saying that ‘howsoever grandiose attempts to manage water may be, water does not allow itself to be completely controlled’, he is equally candid in concluding that ‘qualified technological optimism is the only optimism that endures.’

He organizes his immensely readable narrative on water into three distinct sections: the impact of ‘water blindness’ across countries; the implications of ‘water control’ in contested river basins; and the power of science and technology to usher in a bright ‘water future’. Tvedt avoids taking an ideological position as to whether the glass is half full or half empty, instead leaving it to the reader to make an objective assessment of impending water crises. However the world responds to these imminent crises, water fundamentally binds together the past and the future and points to the continuity of our evolution as a species.

A Journey in the Future of Water suggests that the new age of uncertainty will have a dramatic impact on water landscapes. Not only are water conflicts likely to escalate, but control over water will be in the hands of those possessing technological and economic power. The temptation to use this power in despotic ways is unlikely to disappear. So, we need binding international laws and regulations backed by resource-endowed international institutions to ensure that human and ecological rights to water are met.

Although this book was originally published in Norwegian in 2007, the English translation by Richard Daly is refreshingly original. More than a travelogue, it is an authoritative treatise on water that makes for compelling reading. It is one book that I intend to keep close at hand. I will use it as a ready reckoner of exotic places should an opportunity arise for me to undertake such interesting travels. If I sound envious of Terje Tvedt, so be it. He has helped me to learn a great deal about water issues.


Mar 4 2014


Reviewed by Michael M. Gunter, Jr, Rollins College

Antarctica holds the key to understanding not only how life evolved on earth and the climate change underway today, but also what lies well beyond our planet.


Secrets of the Ice: Antarctica’s Clues to Climate, the Universe, and the Limits of Life, by Veronika Meduna, Yale University Press, 2012, 232 pp.

Combining lyrical prose with over 150 colour photographs that capture both the breathtaking beauty and intense challenges of the Antarctic landscape, Secrets of the Ice provides an engaging overview of collaborative international scientific research in Antarctica across a range of disciplines, from astronomy to zoology.

Trained as a microbiologist and now one of New Zealand’s leading science journalists, author Veronika Meduna utilizes both of these backgrounds to produce an attractive and eminently readable work as well as a valuable scientific resource. Based in part on formal interviews with a range of scientists and informal conversations dating back to her first visit to New Zealand’s Scott Base over a decade ago in 2001, Meduna deftly transports readers to the last frontier on our planet and a new heroic age of discovery in Antarctica.

After a short introduction, Meduna’s first chapter explores Antarctica’s climate history, from its warm Gondwana origins teeming with life to the frozen landscape that is the world’s largest desert today. Chapter two then focuses on marine life, highlighting the migration and breeding of the continent’s iconic emperor penguin species as well as lesser known endemic species such as white-blooded fish with an unique chemistry of antifreeze proteins that facilitate their survival in such harsh conditions.

Chapter three targets terrestrial survivors of freeze–thaw cycles and the six-month-long polar night, while chapter four concentrates on microscopic life in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, spotlighting scientists in their search for life on the coldest continent. In closing, a concise coda suggests Antarctica holds the key to understanding not only how life evolved on earth and the climate change underway today, but also what lies well beyond our planet. This section suggests the frozen landscape provides a fresh perspective for astronomers and physicists studying elusive particles known as neutrinos and insights into the Big Bang theory.

An additional section on resources and recommended reading further enhances Meduna’s contribution, including annotations on everything from academic works on fish, penguins and invertebrates to biographies of golden age explorers such as Scott and Shackleton.

In summary, Meduna deftly details a continent of extremes. Antarctica is the coldest, driest, highest and windiest continent. This 10 per cent of the earth’s landmass is also our best archive of past climate conditions and a valuable resource for understanding the climate change underway today. With nearly three-quarters of the world’s fresh water frozen in a precarious balance, moreover, Meduna convincingly points out that Antarctica is not just a ‘passive bystander’ when it comes to climate change but also a major driver.

Jan 30 2014


Reviewed by Peter R. Mulvihill, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, Toronto, Canada

Worldwatch Institute’s latest edition of State of the World uncovers the rampant misuse of the term “sustainability” in marketing today and attempts to restore meaning to the cause.


State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, by The Worldwatch Institute, Island Press, 2013, 200 pp.

This latest report in an ongoing series manages to be fresh and provocative, even as it reiterates messages that are depressingly familiar to many. More than a compilation of sobering news, trends and indicators, State of the World 2013 offers fresh perspectives and alternatives. At a monumental 34 chapters, it leaves few sustainability issues unaddressed, and it offers, as usual, a wealth of data and analysis.

While acknowledging the pitfalls of “sustainability” as an overarching term, the report seeks to add nuance in exploring the many dimensions of “true sustainability,” an even deeper and more complicated challenge than was probably imagined not so long ago. The implications are far reaching: novel interactions unfolding amidst increasing connectivity, speed and scale; footprint and planetary boundaries increasingly exceeded; and wicked problems and social inequities confounding solutions. Compared to earlier State of the World installments, the tone has shifted. In past decades a core message involved the possibility of a grand global turnaround. However, now it is clear that irreversible losses have been incurred, and we must turn our attention to more strategic management of diminishing options.

Notwithstanding the relentless gloom, some will be inspired by the many possibilities. For example, not all of the freshwater sustainability thresholds have yet been reached; increased consumption of anchovies offers an alternative to tuna collapse; opportunities for advances in renewable energy abound; and waste management solutions continue to be identified. In the education sector, greater emphasis on “Big History” may lay the groundwork for changing values and attitudes and re-engineering cultures.

Among the more provocative chapters, we are offered a highly critical examination of environmental studies programs and their “big tent” ethos, an exploration of missionary movements and their lessons for environmentalism and a discussion of the “Cuba Paradigm” as a possible sustainability model. On the strength of its comprehensive reach and insights, State of the World 2013 should be of considerable interest to both newer and older audiences.

Jan 30 2014

WATER SECURITY: PRINCIPLES, PERSPECTIVES AND PRACTICES, Edited by Bruce Lankford, Karen Bakker, Mark Zeitoun and Declan Conway

Reviewed by Lawrence Susskind, MIT

Experts present an overview of the latest research, policies, and various perspectives on water security.


Water Security: Principles, Perspectives and Practices, Edited by Bruce Lankford, Karen Bakker, Mark Zeitoun and Declan Conway, Routledge, 2013, 376 pp.

Water security requires much more than just an adequate supply of clean fresh water. Relationships with neighboring countries who use shared water resources also matter. So, too, do national policies regarding water conservation, agriculture and food production, flood protection, energy, climate adaptation, patterns of urbanization and investments in infrastructure and water quality improvement technology. To ensure water security, each country must find a way to monitor all these interactions and develop strategies to reconcile the many conflicts involved.

Lankford, Bakker, Zeitoun and Conway have put together the best collection on the subject of water security I’ve ever read. They explain why economic instruments (especially pricing) and international law (particularly “rights frameworks”) are relevant but not decisive, with regard to a country’s water security. Water sharing arrangements, or “water co-security” as the editors call it, are even more important. Thus, “winning” the water wars with adjacent users of transboundary waters (by wresting control) will not guarantee water security. Only helping to ensure mutual sufficiency and equity can accomplish that.

The transition from water co-insecurity to water co-security requires political intervention (or what the editors call “water security governance”), along with investments in new technology and internal harmonization of sectoral policies in each country. These transitions will obviously play out differently in each region (in the face of varying supplies of blue, green and virtual water), but once you read this book the underlying dynamics will be clear.

Jan 30 2014


Reviewed by Gunnar Rundgren, GrolinkAB

Tony Juniper shares impactful stories on the “ecosystem services” nature provides us and our economies which we often take for granted.


What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? How Money Really Does Grow on Trees, by Tony Juniper, Profile Books, 2013, 336 pp.

Vultures can clean up a cow carcass in minutes, leaving only bones behind. In India, considering the resistance to eating cattle, most cows have historically been eaten by vultures. At a certain point, however, the Indian vulture population collapsed from some 40 million to merely a fraction of that. The use of a new anti-inflammatory drug on the cattle proved to be lethal for vultures. As a result, “There was an explosion in the population of wild dogs,” says environmentalist Tony Juniper, “More dogs led to more dog bites and that caused more rabies infections among people.” The disease killed thousands and cost the Indian government an estimated $30 billion.

The story of the Indian vultures is one of the most striking from What Has Nature Ever Done for us?:  How Money Really Does Grow on Trees by Tony Juniper. Through numerous stories Juniper reveals how nature is not only the provider of all our food and oxygen but also the world’s largest water utility, and it provides us with many more ecosystem services such as pest and disease control and soil reproduction.

I expected that Juniper, with his combined experience with Friends of the Earth, business and politics, would have some fresh insights into the question, “how do we go forward?” Unfortunately, I am disappointed by his common suggestions that have been around for decades: developing better indicators, selling ecosystem services and valuing nature. There is nothing wrong with these suggestions, but they fall short of expectations and are in no way innovative.


Jan 30 2014


­­Reviewed by Michael M. Gunter, Jr., Rollins College

Kerry Emanuel offers a concise overview of the science of climate change and deftly explains the difficulties of communicating its complexities to the general public.


What We Know about Climate Change (2nd ed.), by Kerry Emanuel, The MIT Press, 2012, 128 pp.

What We Know about Climate Change (2012) offers a concise and non-intimidating overview of the science of climate change while deftly explaining the political difficulties involved in communicating its complexities. In less than 100 pages Emanuel offers a tightly scripted summary of the basic science of climate change, noting that broad scientific consensus on human activity as the significant causal agent is still met by obstinate global warming skeptics and ill-informed elected officials within the United States. A professor of atmospheric science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science at MIT, Emanuel was named by Time magazine in May 2006 as one of the “100 People Who Shape Our World.” This second edition covers eight chapters with a new section about the prospects of confronting climate change using adaptation, mitigation and geo-engineering.

The first two chapters introduce the dynamic nature of our 4.5 billion year-old planet, from Wegener’s continental drift to the advance and retreat of huge ice sheets over millennia, all while emphasizing that our civilization developed during a period of exceptional climate stability over the last 7,000 years. The second chapter explains greenhouse physics and the central role of water vapor in trapping more and more heat. In essence, the warmer the atmosphere, the more water vapor evaporates, with the extreme end result akin to the planet Venus where the oceans are depleted and an average surface temperature of 900 degrees Fahrenheit cooks everything.

The real strength of this book is in later chapters that effectively flesh out the link between science and the politics of climate change, emphasizing the difficulty of communicating climate science to the general public. For example, in chapters three and four, Emanuel explains that while evidence clearly exists that our climate is changing, exactly how much it will change remains uncertain. Climate modeling distinguishes “climate noise” which occurs in short spurts of less than 30 years from the frightening shifts underway since industrialization. It forecasts more intense storms, droughts and floods as well as rising sea levels and acidification. These changes are already underway, but positive feedback loops, with their very negative impacts, continue to challenge climate models. For instance, despite millions of lines of computer instructions, climate models cannot yet simulate critical heat-transferring dynamics involving cumulus clouds. These clouds, typically only a few miles wide, are simply too small to fit into current models that are segmented into 50 mile horizontal blocks.

Like many before him, from Ross Gelbspan to Michael Mann, Emanuel notes that fossil fuel interests have capitalized on these uncertainties, taking a page out of the tobacco lobby playbook to confuse the electorate and stall transition away from a carbon intensive economy. To his credit, though, Emanuel does not restrict his finger pointing to conservatives and the Republican Party. He also notes that liberals need to rethink nuclear power and that journalists, with their “attraction to controversy,” have done a woeful job reporting on climate change to date, actively abetting climate change skeptics in the process.

Nov 5 2013


Reviewed by Gregg Macey, Brooklyn Law School

David Hess delves into the politics and economics of the transition towards green energy and the development of a green workforce in the U.S.

Good Green Jobs in a Global Economy: Making and Keeping New Industries in the United States, by David Hess, The MIT Press, 2012, 304 pp.

In Good Green Jobs in a Global Economy (MIT Press, 2012), David Hess moves beyond the stale dichotomies of climate change response, such as mitigation vs. adaptation and market- vs. standards-based policies. The 111th Congress was our most dramatic attempt to enact a market-based solution to climate change. In the wake of H.R. 2454, S. 1733, and other dead bills, the Obama administration marshaled its existing executive authority, such as section 111 of the Clean Air Act, to adopt performance standards for stationary sources of carbon emissions. Hess offers a more nuanced approach to the congressional term and its crisis of leadership. He views it as a moment along a broader transition from a carbon-based economy. Good Green Jobs examines the unevenness of this “green transition,” how it leads to weaknesses in our industrial policy, and the prospects for bending the direction that the transition will take.

As a sociologist, Hess explores the transition with tools that are familiar to students of social movement theory: cultural frames, resource mobilization, and political opportunities. His past works share a concern for political opportunity structures used by locally owned organizations (Localist Movements in a Global Economy) and civil society groups aligned against harmful or risky technologies (Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry).  Good Green Jobs continues this focus, and at a particular level of analysis: social fields, and the definitional and object conflicts that happen within them. With qualitative data (interviews, observation of conference meetings, and surveys of industry reports) and statistical modeling (to explain variation in green transition policies), Hess locates the battle against climate change in cultural shifts at different levels of governance. These changes underlie the birth of a “developmentalist” ideology, which defends domestic industry through a mix of industrial policy and the remedy of unfair trade practices. This is the landscape in which our response to climate change takes shape.

Approaching climate change as a social movement challenge rather than a generic collective action problem yields substantial insights. Hess’s distinct form of field analysis isolates the “political ideologies associated with different types of policy interventions.” Change occurs at different scales (“organizational and urban scale to national or international”) in a social field, and by focusing on institutional change, Hess pivots from sociology’s preoccupation with how fields are reproduced. Hess uses these innovations to offer a roadmap for reform. He explains the green energy transition as an uneven selection of “demand” (e.g., cap-and-trade, renewable electricity standards) and “supply” (e.g., research and development, tax credits and subsidies, regional cluster development) policies. He surveys the role of coalitions in framing green development in each policy field, robust descriptive work that reveals constituencies that promote supply and regional demand policies, such as those found in California’s AB 32. He finds important variation across policy fields and scales of governance. The result is an account of the green transition’s political opportunity structures, and our slow, yet surprisingly robust transition from a carbon-based economy. Hess also suggests that we have entered a new generation of environmental policy, where sustainability and developmentalist design tools will predominate instead of market, command, or informational approaches. His multilevel study of policy fields, their shaping by localist and regional efforts, and the impact of systemic shocks such as funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, explodes the usual boundaries of environmental federalism. Stale fights over the benefits of state versus federal regulation, at times waged with little analytic backing, would benefit from Hess’s urgent and more complete analysis.

Nov 5 2013


Reviewed by Sharmila L. Murthy, Suffolk University Law School

Christina Leb stresses the need for international cooperation when it comes to transboundary water systems, particularly in respect to international water law and resource management.

Cooperation in the Law of Transboundary Water Resources, by Christina Leb, Cambridge University Press, 2012, 363 pp.

In her book on the Cooperation in the Law of Transboundary Water Resources, Christina Leb makes a strong case for the heightened importance of the duty to cooperate within international water law.  She methodically and carefully illustrates how the duties and obligations associated with cooperation on transboundary water resources have become more robust over time, which reflects broader trends within the fields of public international law and international relations.  The duty to cooperate was not explicitly recognized by early texts that sought to codify international water law, but, for example, by the time the UN Watercourses Convention was drafted, it was described as a “general principle.”  Leb further builds her case by explaining how it is misleading to conceive of the general duty to cooperate as merely a “procedural” obligation, rather than also considering the interrelated “substantive” aspects. (p.114)  Drawing on real-world examples, she links the substantive and procedural content together to consider specific cooperation obligations, such as the regular exchange of data and information.

In an understated way characteristic of her style, Leb argues that the duty of cooperation is now on par with the two seminal principles of international water law, namely “equitable utilization” and “the obligation not to cause significant harm,” which Leb describes as “the principle of good neighborliness.”  She illustrates how these principles, along with the duty to cooperate, “interact, overlap and mutually support on another as general principles of international water law” and thus, should be understood as a “triangle of cornerstone principles.” (p.105)  Drawing on a textual analysis of over 200 bilateral and multi-lateral treaties concerning transboundary water resources as well as key judicial decisions, she supports this argument through examples of state cooperation, such as via negotiations, consultations, planning and joint management (see Chapters 4 and 5).

The book also delves into another fascinating area of the law, namely the intersection of transboundary water law and human rights law.  In Chapter 6, Leb considers the relationship between the obligation of “vital human needs” as set forth in the UN Watercourses Convention with recent recognition of a human right to water by the United Nations, which derives from existing treaty obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  Leb tackles one of the more controversial aspects of this newly recognized human right by considering the degree to which there are associated extraterritorial obligations.  Under the existing human rights framework, states have obligations to individuals within their boundaries, but not to individuals living in other states.  Leb suggests that a provision in the UN Watercourses Convention relating to non-discrimination with regard to access to justice could be complementary to human rights law and provide a way of expanding transboundary water obligations with respect to vital human needs.

Leb’s book offers a thorough analysis of the increasingly important role the duty to cooperate plays in international water law.  While the topics she addresses will be relevant to anyone interested in questions of transboundary water governance, the style of writing and approach will make it most interesting and accessible to legal scholars.

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