Jul 4 2014


Reviewed by Kelly Heber, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Probably the best environmental economics textbook

An Introduction

Environmental Economics: An Introduction, by Barry C. Field and Martha K. Field, McGraw Hill, 2012

Nearly everyone who has taken a course in environmental economics has some experience with the textbooks of Barry and Martha Field. In Environmental Economics (6th edition), they continue with their uniquely clear and logical overview of the field and its analytical tools. Light on pure math, but strong on useful description, concrete definitions and clear explanation of otherwise complex topics (such as discounting), the text is a must for any undergraduate or graduate interested in the discipline and looking for a standalone primer. Of the many environmental economics texts available, the Fields’ work stands out because they write in a style that is technically sophisticated but easy to read. This is atypical of most economics texts.

Substantial sections of the book are dedicated to reviewing key concepts in environmental economics and how they can be applied; showing how theory meets practice. These are the stronger chapters. They include overviews of cost–benefit analysis, trading of permits or “incentive-based strategies,” top-down command-and-control regulation, and so on. The weakness of the book, as with many economics texts, is that it overlooks the political dimension of environmental analysis. When they discuss cost–benefit assessment, for example, it appears as though costs and benefits occur uniformly across all members of society (when that is not the case). They do not address issues of power or access in environmental decision making, or mention environmental justice at all. They do include contemporary case studies, or “exhibits,” which showcase what happens when environmental economics is applied in the real world. Here is where some of the missing elements in their theoretical exposition appear. Some of the better exhibits touch on the “intelligible principle” of the Clean Air Act, and incentives for deterring offshore oil spills.

Given the large difference in price between old and new versions of this textbook, the cases are not sufficiently innovative or contemporary to justify the massive price increase.

Jul 4 2014


Reviewed by Frans Evers, Dutch OECD National Contact Point, Netherlands

Combining land use and water management objectives is the key to sustainable development

Water – its Control and Combination: Multifunctionality and Flood Defences, by Monica Altamirano, Rik Jonker, and Jurgen van der Heijden, Osborne/Deltares, June 2013 (Google the title for free download of the recent English version)

A road on a dyke with sheep on the slope beside it. Can this age-old combination inspire the development of modern flood defenses? Think of dykes producing renewable energy, or serving as nurseries for new plantlife. A good reason to make combinations like these is their sustainability. Three Dutch experts present and analyse a collection of almost thirty examples, mostly from the Netherlands. Although meant as a factual report, this book puts forward a message deserving extra thought.

An area is set aside for water storage to prevent flooding of a nearby city. This area is also a place for nature conservation, water treatment, open city and recreation. Developing and using the same land for multiple purposes saves space, time and money. Yet, however interesting, this isn’t what makes these combination special.

Authorities are used to optimizing each function separately; for instance, creating a basin for water storage as wide and deep as possible at the lowest possible cost. Combining functions sharing can bring the cost down, but what is special is how multiple functionalities can optimize one another. Water storage helps nature, and nature helps water treatment. Such combinations enhance spatial quality, resulting in a better place for recreation. Revenues from recreation can be devoted to nature conservation.

Using one function to optimize others provides a unique economic force that has always been there, but has yet to be fully explored. The authors prove with almost thirty examples that such an approach contributes to sustainable development. This is an inspiring book for water managers who want to go beyond traditional solutions.

Jul 4 2014


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

Replacing costly minerals with cheaper ones is the key to sustainable mining


Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet, by Ugo Bardi, Chelsea Green Publishers, 2014

The Club of Rome shot to fame with publication of The Limits to Growth in 1972. This report on the future of mankind not only triggered a hot debate, but degenerated in all-out smear campaign. By the time its critics had had their say, the public perception of the report was that it offered nothing more than a series of wrongheaded predictions made by a group of deluded scientists. So much so, subsequent reports by this global think tank have not merited much attention.

Extracted is the latest report from this elite club. Had The Limits to Growth attained popularity, the title of this report could easily have been The Limits to Extraction. Digging out the history of mining, from prehistoric times to the modern age, the report suggests that mankind has extracted most of the cheap mineral resources available while plundering of the earth’s ecosystems and displacing millions of people. Mining is one of the largest global industries, but the gradual depletion of low-cost minerals, including fossil fuels, is fast becoming a major limitation to economic growth. Since high-grade ores are extracted first, it will become much more expensive to produce mineral commodities in future. Given the growing demand for precious metals and rare earths, however, a resource war is likely to emerge among countries that hold quasi-monopolies over certain mineral deposits.

The political economy of mining makes it an important growth engine for most countries. China has 97 per cent of all active rare earths, including exclusive deposits of molybdenum. South Africa holds 82 per cent of global platinum. China leads countries like Chile, Australia and Argentina in global copper output. Tibet has become the new mining focus for China. Under a new regime, India intends to go full throttle into mineral extraction.

Extracted is written by a team of experts, headed by Italian scientist Ugo Bardi. The report says that deposits of many high-grade ores are running low: copper, zinc, nickel, gold, silver and others are expected to reach their productive peak within less than two decades. Not only will this affect our lifestyles, but it may cause agriculture production to decline as well. By the time the world wakes up to the full impact of mining (including oil and gas), the lasting impacts may be impossible to reverse.

The solution, says Bardi, is to replace costly minerals with cheaper ones; recycle as much as possible, and generate energy through renewable energy sources such as sun, wind and water. He and his colleagues believe that mining machines and drilling rigs will disappear without a corresponding decline in the demand for minerals.

May 30 2014


Reviewed by Kelly Heber, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Virtual field trips to see ecological restoration make this a special book.7044

Ecological Restoration: Principles, Values and Structure of an Emerging Profession, by Andrew F. Clewell and James Aronson, Island Press, 2nd edition, 2013

The premise behind this exhaustive account of the practice of ecological restoration is to illustrate the Pandey (2002) concept of “holistic ecological restoration” in great detail. Restoration in this context focuses as much on socioeconomic considerations as it does ecological concerns. As is true in most interdisciplinary efforts of this sort, sustainability and biodiversity conservation are bundled with restoration in a complex fashion, creating somewhat uneven results. Though careful, detailed, and thorough, this volume seems at times to be trying to do too many things. A number of the key concepts mentioned probably warrant primers of their own. Hints of this problem surface in the early sections which offer a seemingly unending list of potential members of a target audience for the book that could, in effect, include anybody. Efforts to appeal to such a wide audience blur the focus. Any hope of an integrated examination of the socioeconomic and biophysical steps crucial to restoration is lost.

The authors note that their intent is not to provide a comprehensive review of scholarship in the field, but they ignore decades of careful scholarship that might have helped to ground what they call “an emerging profession.” All that being said, the book has a number of redeeming qualities, especially the “Virtual Field Trips” or illustrated case examinations of specific restorations. These are different from other practice-oriented restoration presentations in other texts in terms of the range of ecosystems covered and the variety of case locations, which span the globe. I would use this text in an introductory course on ecosystem-based management or sustainable development.

May 30 2014

ECOLOGICAL ECONOMICS FROM THE GROUND UP edited by Hali Healey, Joan Martinez, Leah Temper, Mariana Walter and Julien-Francois Gerber NATURE’S WEALTH: THE ECONOMICS OF ECOSYSTEM SERVICES AND POVERTY edited by Pieter van Beukering, Elissaios Papyrakis, Jetske Bouma and Roy Brouwer

Reviewed by Mattijs van Maasakkers, Harvard University

Managing ecosystems services can reduce poverty.book9781849713993


Ecological Economics from the Ground Up, edited by Hali Healey, Joan Martinez, Leah Temper, Mariana Walter and Julien-Francois Gerber, Routledge, 2012


Nature’s Wealth: The Economics of Ecosystem Services and Poverty, edited by Pieter van Beukering, Elissaios Papyrakis, Jetske Bouma and Roy Brouwer, Cambridge University Press, 2013

The popularity of the “ecosystem services” concept continues to grow. Recently, two new edited volumes were added to the seemingly ever-expanding library of books describing the benefits that nature provides to people. Both publications follow the same general structure: offering a broad introduction to the idea of ecosystem services, followed by a series of in-depth case studies from all over the world. Perhaps surprisingly, this is where the similarities end.

The examples in Nature’s Wealth: The Economics of Ecosystem Services and Poverty are organized around concerns like biodiversity, marine and coastal ecosystems, and forests. The central hypothesis of the book is that the protection or restoration of ecosystem services is likely to alleviate poverty. Most of the case studies in Nature’s Wealth indicate that environmental protection, like the creation of Marine Protected Areas, can reduce poverty in a variety of ways. This kind of analysis, it turns out, doesn’t really need to dig into the ecosystem services concept at all. In fact, in the chapter on marine protected areas in the Asia-Pacific, ecosystem services are hardly mentioned. This is troublesome. An increasingly pressing question is whether using the concept of ecosystem services is helping to inform better resource management practices or not.

As Antunes et al. write in their introduction to Ecological Economics from the Ground Up, “The value commitment to work for a sustainable society has always been a distinctive feature of ecological economics as a scientific discipline” (p. 2). Or, to put it differently, the goals of the proponents of the ecosystem services concept have never been purely academic. So, while an ever-increasing number of publications using the ecosystem services concept indicates popularity among scholars and researchers, some of the original proponents have expressed concern that the practical goals associated with the concept have yet to be achieved. It has been more than five years since a group of prominent scholars argued that it was “time to deliver” (Daily et al. 2008). Since then, one of the early proponents of the concept has lamented that ecosystem services has gone from being “an eye-opening metaphor to a complexity blinder” (Norgaard 2010).

The book Ecological Economics from the Ground Up represents an original, useful and accessible examination of how the explicit use of the ecosystem services concept can inform environmental decision making in practice. For example, the introduction includes an extensive table of environmental advocacy organizations showing how they use ecosystem services concepts and methods. The remainder of the volume places the goal of working towards sustainability at it center. The writers of many of the cases are environmental activists directly involved in the conflicts they describe. This approach does not always yield the most even-handed accounts, but it does provide a detailed sense of how specific ecosystem service-based concepts and methods have been used to influence decisions. More disinterested (but certainly not uninteresting) explanations of key concepts and methods appear in text boxes throughout what are often deeply controversial cases. In the most successful chapters, this provides a rich account of how concepts and approaches drawing on the ecosystem services idea can influence environmental decision making in practice.

In summary, both of these books contribute to the environmental literature. Nature’s Wealth seeks to empirically test the hypothesis that environmental protection alleviates poverty under a variety of conditions and in different ecosystems. Since this assumption has come to be almost taken for granted in some quarters, this is a meaningful scholarly endeavor. However, this project is in some ways only tangentially related to the concept of ecosystem services. Ecological Economics from the Ground Up, on the other hand, is less scholarly and limited in its ambition to test specific hypotheses. It is a truly exciting and innovative contribution to the literature on ecosystem services.

May 30 2014


Reviewed by Peder Hjorth, Lund University, Sweden

An important and well-documented book. A very helpful guide to sustainable development and sustainability science.



Sustainability Science, by Bert J. M. de Vries, Cambridge University Press, 2013

This book provides one of the best explanations yet of the origins and meaning of sustainable development. Quoting Seneca (3 BC – 63 AD), de Vries writes: “The society of man is like a wall of stones, which would fall if the stones did not rest on another; in this way it is sustained.” The book puts the problems of sustainable development in context, providing case examples, discussing the trajectory the concept has taken to reach the current moment, and highlighting the thinking behind it.

The book clearly states that a scientific worldview by itself cannot give meaning to our lives; nor can it resolve the ethical questions surrounding sustainability. Sustainability science has a more limited scope than sustainable development. Essentially, it is the study of what science can and cannot know. Even if thermodynamics, system dynamics and complexity theory are designated essential components of sustainability science, and it is based on the premise that studies of real-world problems must not respect the confines of artificial nineteenth-century boundaries among scientific disciplines, sustainability science can only illuminate part of what we need to know. Current complexity and uncertainty require a realistic appreciation of the predictive and explanatory powers of science and models.

Questions regarding what we ought to do are outside the scope of sustainability science, although the book opens up a panorama of possible directions we might take, offering multiple options for reflection and discussion. The discussion of sustainable development should be required reading for all university students. The section on sustainability science is much more demanding and is only suitable for students at an advanced level with strong science background. An experienced teacher prepared to jump between traditional disciplines would do well to incorporate this book into his or her classes.

The author focuses on renewable and non-renewable resources as well as the essentials of earth, land, nature and agro-industrial systems. At the end of each chapter, there are relevant book references and websites. The best news is that book has been “field-tested” for seven years. I highly recommend it.

Apr 24 2014


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


Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries, by Anders Wijkman and Johan Rockstrom, Routledge, 2012

There is by now a vast literature on the theme of sustainability, or, more precisely, unsustainability. New books and reports on the environmental crisis facing the planet appear regularly. It is increasingly difficult to add anything original to such a well-established genre. It may, of course, be possible to reach new audiences, and it is in that sense that a new entry such as Bankrupting Nature should probably be assessed. Seasoned readers looking for fresh news about the global crisis of unsustainable development will probably be mildly disappointed, but newer audiences will find Bankrupting Nature thought-provoking.

This report to the Club of Rome begins by summarizing familiar environmental themes and arguments (humans are not separate from their environment; we rely on nature for everything; biodiversity is declining; mainstream approaches to accounting are incomplete; and excessive consumption levels threaten resource limits). The root causes of the crisis are discussed: lack of education; the power of business interests; anthropocentrism; scientific reductionism; the myth of endless growth; and other factors – all standard fare for volumes of this kind.

Bankrupting Nature redeems itself eventually, starting with a chapter analyzing the phenomenon of climate change denial, “The Weapon of Doubt.” The discussion includes the demands placed on science, the role of media (sometimes distorting the issues), the spuriousness of conspiracy theories, and the effects of misinformation, ideology and well-funded campaigns. Here, the argumentation is strong, the grasp of the complexities is firm, and the conclusions are convincing.

The report has other strong chapters as well. The financial section – “Ignoring the Risks”– examines popular misconceptions about financial systems, offers expert analysis of key gaps and shortcomings, and makes intriguing recommendations for reform. “The Forgotten Issue” revisits the issue of population growth and provides a fresh perspective.

More generally, what does a report such as Bankrupting Nature contribute to the aforementioned genre of unsustainability literature? We have reached a stage where it is impossible to be as provocative as yesterday’s reports – the impact, for example, of “Our Common Future,” “The Population Bomb,” or “The Limits to Growth” had much to do with their timing in an earlier era when environmental messages were still novel. As the ecological crisis worsens, the core messages are no less important, but the delivery will need to be more diversified, making new connections and exploring issues differently. Bankrupting Nature is at its best when it strays from the standard material and takes up new questions.

Apr 24 2014


Reviewed by Michal Russo, Tufts University


Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery, by Daniel P. Aldrich, University of Chicago Press, 2012

Over the last decade the topic of resilience in response to natural disasters has moved from the academy to mainstream practice. Dozens of hazard mitigation plans now offer strategies for enhancing municipal resilience in the face of escalating climate impacts. Aldrich’s new book makes a compelling case for social connections as a critical dimension of a community’s ability to recover from disasters. Further, Aldrich also illustrates the methodological hurdles necessary to establish claims of resilience.

Long before Putnam’s Bowling Alone, scholars and practitioners advocated the importance of social capital – the power of human connections in providing resources and services. According to Horwich, while physical capital is the most visible, human capital is the most important economic resource (2000). Aldrich highlights the various mechanisms by which social capital helps to facilitate recovery including deep levels of social capital provide informal insurance and mutual assistance, dense and numerous social ties help solve collective action problems through spontaneous coordination and cooperation, and strong ties create louder collective voices (than individuals can) which can fight for additional resources. On the other hand, perhaps because social capital is difficult to measure and create, it has been ignored in many recovery plans.

Aldrich combines qualitative and quantitative analysis in assessing four disasters that span both time and culture. His findings on the relationship between population growth rates post-disaster (dv) and dominant drivers of recovery (iv) such as magnitude of impact, population density, income levels, foreign aid, and institutional strength, show mixed results. When controlling for these factors, however, social capital, measured in terms of voting rates, tenure, and participation in civic activities, consistently correlates positively with growth.

The main actionable message of Building Resilience is that disaster aid must move beyond restoring physical infrastructure to emphasize investments in the development of social capital. Aldrich reminds us that social capital generates both benefits and negative externalities (for out-group nonmembers). An iconic example of the hindrance that social capital can create is the opposition FEMA faced when it attempted to site temporary trailers post-Katrina. Neighborhoods with high levels of social capital resisted their imposition. In response, Aldrich suggests that decision makers should aim to build, recognize, and support neighborhood ties before, during, and post-disasters. For example, prior to disasters, cities can invest in trust-building interaction among neighborhood groups as well as expand efforts to include previously excluded groups. During recovery, managers can formulate emergency response plans that don’t unintentionally break communities apart. Finally, following a disaster, decision-makers can use the event as a catalyst for building new social capital.

Apr 24 2014

SPOILING TIBET by Gabriel Lafitte

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


Spoiling Tibet, by Gabriel Lafitte, Zed Books, 2014

If current geological estimations are any indication, there are 80 million tonnes of copper, 2,000 tonnes of gold and 30 million tonnes of lead and zinc extractable from the Tibetan plateau. The cumulative value of these recoverable metals is US$ 420 billion. To imagine that the Chinese would have ripped apart the rooftop to the world in search of an embedded fortune is far from true because, as things stand, the region is cold, its air is perilously thin, its people are unwelcoming and it is poor in infrastructure.

But all this is to going to change as China’s 12th Five-Year Plan, ending in 2015, calls for massive investment in copper, gold, silver, chromium and molybdenum mining in the region. With an aim to achieve 30 per cent self-sufficiency in copper production by the end of the plan period, a state-driven agglomeration of the entire Chinese copper industry will be sufficiently capitalized to finance major expansions in Tibet, which is fast becoming China’s new copper production base. The Tibetan plateau – almost one-sixtieth of the entire global landscape – will be the object of intensive and potentially devastating mining and extraction projects in the years ahead. The signs are ominous!

Without a doubt, Gabriel Lafitte has profound knowledge about this landscape, its people and their cultural resistance. They want to protect the inner strengths of Tibet, cultivated in solitude in the mountains. Given the ecological fragility of the region, mining activities in the watersheds of major rivers, most of which are transboundary, will have a serious impact on hundreds of millions of people downstream in South and South East Asia. China’s track record on environmental concerns evokes little confidence.

Spoiling Tibet is a timely warning to the world about China’s hunger for mineral wealth, and the unscrupulous manner in which this wealth may well be extracted. In the Chinese growth agenda, mining plays a major role, one that will silence the feeble voices of resistance by increasing the non-Tibetan population in the region through mass tourism. But given its global implications, the world should not permit unilateral desecration of its roof top!

Apr 24 2014

RESTORING LANDS: COORDINATING SCIENCE; POLITICS, AND ACTION, edited by Herman Karl, Lynn Scarlett, Juan Carlos Vargas-Moreno, and Michael Flaxman

Reviewed by Danya Rumore, MIT


Restoring Lands: Coordinating Science, Politics, and Action, edited by Herman Karl, Lynn Scarlett, Juan Carlos Vargas-Moreno, and Michael Flaxman, Springer, 2012

Many of the challenges we face in restoring lands and achieving sustainability are “wicked problems”: they defy clear definition, do not lend themselves to singular optimal solutions, and change and evolve over time. As ongoing climate change, habitat loss, and numerous other sustainability challenges show, our traditional institutions – with their rigidity and generally top-down approach – are not sufficient to handle and resolve these complex, amorphous issues. In light of this, how can we achieve solutions for restoring lands and protecting natural resources?

Restoring Lands – a large edited volume encompassing 22 chapters and 536 pages – takes on this challenge. The book is neither a theoretical summary, nor a handbook for practitioners. Rather, “It is a narrative of diverse voices that collectively talk about coordinating science, politics, and communities to manage ecosystems in harmony with social and economic systems.” It is diverse in its scope, bringing together case studies ranging from efforts to adapt to climate change in East Boston to the restoration of the Everglades, and covering topics stretching from tools and methods to governance challenges. The common thread running through each of the chapters, according to the authors, “is the belief in the effectiveness of people acting together to achieve durable solutions for restoring lands.”

While the book is not intended to appeal solely to academics, it is largely academic in tone. Yet, many of the chapters are not heavily theoretically informed, nor do they draw on rigorous research findings. In many ways, this is the weakness of Restoring Lands – it is not clear what audience the book is trying to reach; it is academic in tenor, yet not thoroughly academic in nature. As a related concern, the book includes chapters from many of the top movers and shakers in the field of collaborative governance and participatory environmental decision-making. Yet these chapters stand alone, making the book feel somewhat disjointed. The book also relies overly heavily on a couple case studies, like the Everglades, and focuses disproportionately on climate change adaptation. This is not problematic in and of itself, but it does not fully illuminate the wide range of collaborative efforts aimed at restoring and preserving lands throughout the world.

Despite these limitations, the chapters of Restoring Lands document valuable real-world case studies of efforts to support collaborative adaptive management and to facilitate the integration of science, politics, and action. These case studies reveal that coordinating across these separate domains will require focusing as much on relationships as information; fostering facilitative leadership and more dynamic institutions; promoting adaptive systems that can evolve over time; and integrating multiple forms of knowledge into place-based planning and decision-making. The lessons and wisdom of Restoring Lands are important for all of us working in the field of collaborative adaptive management.

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