Jul 17 2018

Virtuous Waters: Mineral Springs, Bathing, and Infrastructure in Mexico

Reviewed by Andrea Beck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Renewed engagement with the virtues of waters can promote more sustainable hydro-social relationships.


by Casey Walsh, Virtuous Waters: Mineral Springs, Bathing, and Infrastructure in Mexico, University of California Press, 2018, 226 pp.

In Virtuous Waters, anthropologist Casey Walsh explores the social and cultural history of bathing and hot springs in Mexico. The book traces everyday water cultures surrounding these springs from AD 1500 to the twenty-first century. Originally used for steam baths by the indigenous peoples of Mexico, spring waters came to support a variety of therapeutic, religious, leisurely and sexual activities over the centuries, with uses and practices shifting according to scientific and moral understandings of medicine, public health and social order. Adopting a political ecology perspective, Walsh’s ethnographic narrative is attentive to questions of power and access in day-to-day interactions with spring waters. Stories about exclusion and dispossession due to race, class and gender figure prominently throughout the book, including in a chapter that chronicles attempts at water commodification for commercial bottling and spa tourism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book’s political ecology lens further allows the author to raise fundamental questions about the ontology of water. Adding to the work of scholars like Jamie Linton and Jeremy Schmidt, Walsh offers a detailed account of the homogeneity vs. heterogeneity of water and water cultures in Mexico. Water is commonly conceptualized today as a “single, uniform, inert element that can be managed by a unified infrastructure” (p. 6). Walsh argues that this modern view of water has never fully eradicated traditional understandings of multiple waters, each with its own mineral composition and virtuous effects on the human body. As Walsh’s archival work reveals, the characteristics and benefits of specific waters have long drawn the attention of scientific researchers along with practitioners of “hydropathy,” and continue to be revered by the visitors of bath houses and religious sites.

For Walsh, a renewed engagement with the heterogeneity of waters can facilitate more sustainable uses of the element moving forward. Immersion in hot springs offers the opportunity to engage with waters and with fellow bathers, thereby strengthening environmental awareness and community ties. As the book’s concluding chapter makes clear, the danger remains that the virtues of waters will be exploited for exclusionary profit-seeking activities. At the same time, these virtues hold out the prospect for more sustainable relationships between humans and waters in the future.

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.

Sep 11 2014


Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma, Independent Reviewer

An authoritative exposé of the political economy of river management in the United States

River Republic: The Fall and Rise of America’s Rivers, Colombia University Press, 2012

Dictatorships are loathed the world over for the fatalities they cause. But rarely have democracies been reprimanded for the living rivers they destroy. Isn’t it a fact that the United States of America has led the world in inflicting grievous damage on its rivers?

It indeed is! In its two centuries of experience in manhandling rivers, the US Army Corps of Engineer has dammed, diverted and dried up nearly all the country’s rivers. It apparently never occurred to this elite force that moving water could also be a resource. Pouring concrete to impound or divert flows has prevailed as a water development strategy known as ‘water hubris’ guiding river management. As a result, some 3.3 million small and big dams have converted free-flowing rivers into a series of interconnected reservoirs in the US. Yet none of these projects have lived up to the promise of being self-sustaining. Annual maintenance expenditures alone have caused the initial cost–benefit calculus to go haywire.

Dam building and river engineering generate sufficient political capital to sustain themselves while water projects have become instruments of power, prestige and political gamesmanship. To get a sense of how water hubris has been nurtured, Daniel McCool, Professor of Political Science at the University of Utah, provides bio-sketches of two leading agencies: the US Army Corps of Engineers and the US Bureau of Reclamation. Through their relentless pursuit to “curb the sinful rivers,” these two agencies have turned water hubris into a moral right, almost in religious terms, to conquer rivers. No wonder, then, that calls for new water projects are almost always accompanied by dire projections of impending “water crises.” The actual crisis is that the real requirements of water management are lost in the din.

The collapse of the Teton Dam on World Environment Day in 1976 may have been the tipping point. From a 27 km long reservoir, 80 billion gallons of water swept through the 305-feet-high earth-filled dam killing about a dozen people in Rexburg, Idaho. Ironically, the disintegration of the Machhu Dam in Gujarat in 1979, which killed as many as 25,000, hasn’t had any impact on the prevailing water hubris in India.

It has been officially acknowledged that there are 15,237 dams in the US with high hazard potential. As many as 890 of these dams have been dismantled due to public outrage. Water hubris appears to be giving way to a new water ethic in the US. Inspiring accounts of citizen triumphs against the institutionalized annihilation of rivers are worth emulating.

McCool confirms that not only has the status quo been challenged, but that some rivers are returning to their free-flowing condition. River instigators are working their way through a maze of institutional obstacles. River restoration is now something of a cottage industry. Indeed, there are as many as 2,500 non-profit groups in the US partnering with the agencies that originally built the dams now working to restore rivers to their pristine status.

River Republic is an authoritative exposé of the political economy of river management in the United States. McCool stresses that the great challenge for this generation is to figure out a way to reverse the downward corkscrew of our rivers before we reach a point where there is nothing left to save.

Personal anecdotes and insightful analysis make it an important book. River Republic offers essential lessons for entrenched water bureaucracy.


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.

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.

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 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.


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