Sep 12 2014


Reviewed by Mike Gunter, Jr., Rollins College

 A thought-provoking analysis of the rather pessimistic prospects for dealing effectively with climate change and energy security

Jorg Freidrichs2

The Future Is Not What It Used To Be, by Jörg Friedrichs, MIT Press, 2013

International development scholar Jörg Friedrichs offers a thought-provoking analysis of the rather pessimistic prospects for dealing effectively with climate change and energy security. Arguing our industrial society is inherently transitory, Friedrichs goes beyond other recent analyses on climate change politics, spelling out in his sixth chapter the “moral economy of inaction.” Such inaction prevails thanks to the four obstinate obstacles of free-riding with collective action problems, psychological coping with seemingly intractable threats, and the discount factors of both time and space. This follows the logic of David Hume (1739) that the more distant a threat is, the less one cares.

After introducing his topic and discussing the links between climate change and energy scarcity in his first two chapters, chapters three and four delve into an intriguing set of case studies. With its focus upon climate change, the second case study in chapter three contrasts the medieval Norse settlements of Iceland and Greenland during the Little Ice Age (pp. 67–71) and makes a convincing argument that settlers in Iceland were more flexible then their Greenland brethren, adjusting agriculturally and becoming more accomplished fishermen.

Similarly, chapter four offers two case studies focusing upon energy scarcity. The latter study, which compares the Hermit Kingdom in North Korea to the Castro regime in Cuba, is more interesting. Both communist regimes were hurt by the loss of Soviet oil subsides at the end of the Cold War. However, while hundreds of thousands died from hunger in mid-1990s in North Korea, those in Cuba exploited the social capital offered by family, friends, and neighbors and survived.

Friedrichs next prescribes four solutions for our twin threats including lower energy consumption, better energy efficiency, the switch from fossil fuels, and carbon capture and storage. At the same time, he takes into account realistic limitations. The rebound effect, or Jevons paradox, for example, limits efficiency as there is considerable risk it will not lead to lower consumption, but will rather, because of reduced costs, actually encourage higher consumption.

Finally, despite its numerous strengths, the book falls short in the fifth chapter, a critique of the struggle over knowledge about climate change and peak oil. While Friedrichs is certainly correct that our knowledge base is flawed, one might take issue with his analysis as to why. Regarding climate in particular, Friedrichs gives the so-called skeptics too much credit. Mainstream climate scientists are labeled as alarmists while skeptics are assigned their preferred choice of terminology (instead of the deniers label) simply for the reason that they “openly talk about climate change” (p. 129).

Friedrichs justifies this reasoning by saying that the deniers label should only be reserved for those who avoid the issue altogether, but in doing so cedes significant rhetorical power to skeptics in terms of agenda setting. Additional references to skeptics as typically less published and less cited than peers (p. 133) is a gross understatement and there is a lack of attention to their financial connections to the fossil fuel industry.

Jul 30 2013


Reviewed by David Wirth, Boston College

Weston and Bollier propose a new structure for environmental policy and law based on a broader interpretation of green governance as it relates to human rights, economics and international relations.

Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights, and the Law of the Commons by Burns H. Weston and David Bollier, Cambridge University Press, 2013, 384 pp.

An individual human right to environment has been problematic, in part because the content of that right would be very difficult to define and its application to particular cases would be a formidable task. The authors, recognizing both the utility of the concept and the challenges it presents, recast the question in structural, decentralized, collective terms rather than in an individual, hierarchical, and legal framework.

Finding a useful analogy in the Internet, the authors advocate confidence in self-organized governance and collaboration in complex adaptive systems. Certainly such developments as private certification schemes developed by NGOs to identify sustainably harvested timber tend to suggest optimism about such a model. Whether such an approach will be sufficient to provide a path to address a problem of the staggering proportions of climate heating is another question altogether.

The authors, recognizing this challenge, then take on the question of global governance. The existing multilateral system is an ineffective patchwork of institutions, organizations, and practices, which generally boil down to a least-common-denominator compromise to which most states can acquiesce.

Instead, the authors of this work propose an approach based on commons management. Arguing for an orientation that is “more practical and improvisational than theoretical and directive” (180), the authors then set out ten catalytic strategies for achieving green governance. These include expanding and strengthening the public trust doctrine and an eclectic analysis that touches on Locke, Social Darwinism, the Magna Carta, and ancient Rome, to name a few.

It is beyond dispute that the world lacks anything approaching a coherent, effective approach to managing the stratospheric ozone layer and the global climate, whose existence as common-pool resources (the authors’ preferred term) has become apparent only in recent decades. As with the debate over the right to environment, this volume offers a variety of much-needed provocative alternative approaches to global commons management.

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