Apr 10 2017

Negotiating for Water Resources: Bridging Transboundary River Basins

Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 A three-level analysis across three transboundary river basins concludes that, contrary to the realist perspective, powerful riparians are no less likely to cooperate when they are the upstream country.

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by Andrea Haefner Negotiating for Water Resources: Bridging Transboundary River Basins, Earthscan, 2016, 212 pp

Negotiating for Water Resources contributes to a long and ongoing debate about the drivers of transboundary water cooperation and conflict. Andrea Haefner asks, “To what extent do power symmetries prevent or inhibit cooperation between riparian states over water resources?” More specifically, she challenges the assumption that an upstream country is less likely to cooperate when it is the basin hegemon, arguing that issue linkage and institutions matter as much as, if not more than, differences in riparians’ material power.

The book begins with a concise review of hydropolitical (i.e., study of interstate transboundary water cooperation and conflict) and international relations literature to define hegemony in a river basin (chapter 2). The next three chapters are detailed analyses of three levels of interactions––regional networks, river basin organizations and project-specific decisions––across three river basins (Mekong, Danube and La Plata).

While impressive, the three-level, three-basin case-study approach is, perhaps, overly ambitious. In an effort to prove the point that regional networks, river basin organizations, and issue linkage affect transboundary water outcomes, the three case study chapters go into great detail about the specifics of each river basin to the detriment of argument development.

For example, the book’s overall argument that cooperation is possible even in basins in which there are asymmetric power relations is irrefutable. However, as Zeitoun and his colleagues at the London School of Economics argue, not all “cooperation’ is created equal and, in some cases, cooperation may exist because of (not despite) asymmetric power relations. At times, the book seems to hint at this, but never explicitly addresses it. For example, in the case of the Danube, Haefner writes that it is possible that the river basin organization “will face challenges when the previously less dominant states become more advanced and will demand to influence the agenda” (110) but later concludes that cooperation is working well in the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River. This, along with descriptions of China (the basin hegemon) remaining unaccountable to the Mekong River Commission and of Brazil and Argentina (the more powerful riparians) preventing the transformation of the La Plata River basin organization into an international organization with legal authority (a proposal favored by the ‘weaker’ riparians) (132), could easily be developed into a deeper discussion of how cooperation among riparians should be evaluated.

Throughout the case studies, the book hints at really interesting findings (e.g., these three river basin organizations were not effective in addressing conflicts that would arise, suggesting that they were not designed with effective conflict resolution mechanisms in mind), but does not give them sufficient attention. This is, at times, frustrating because the author provides rich comparative analyses of three relatively under-studied river basins, but buries the insights in descriptions of the context.

The final chapter provides a summary of the findings––many of which are valuable contributions to the existing literature on transboundary water management. The most salient findings are related to the characteristics of river basin organizations (e.g., level of riparian inclusion, institutional design, funding and opportunity for public participation) that make them more (or less) effective. Overall, this book is a concise primer on three major river basins in the world, an effective demonstration of a case study approach and an excellent resource for anyone interested in hydropolitics.

Apr 10 2017

American Environmental Policy: The Failures of Compliance, Abatement and Mitigation

Reviewed by Elise Harrington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Maybe the focus of US environmental policy on compliance, abatement and mitigation has been a mistake. 

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by Daniel Press American Environmental Policy: The Failures of Compliance, Abatement and MitigationEdward Elgar Publishing, 2015, 224 pp

In American Environmental Policy Daniel Press, professor of environmental studies at University of California, Santa Cruz, contests the “widespread acclaim” for US environmental regulation, challenging policymakers and policy analysts to “re-think our objectives for environmental regulation.” Focusing on policy tools and outcomes, Press asks a set of basic, but fundamental, questions: has American environmental policy performed as well as policy in comparable countries? Were the most appropriate policy instruments used and were they implemented correctly? Has environmental regulation transformed patterns of production and consumption?

Press substantiates his argument with previous literature, personal experience as a member of California’s Central Coast Regional Water Quality Board (chapter 4) and descriptive data on US Toxic Release Inventory (chapter 2), emissions factors (chapter 2), SOx emissions (chapter 3), critical load exceedances (chapter 3), paper recovery rates, and related paper shipping and transport statistics (chapter 5). Each chapter illustrates the complexity of implementing environmental policies and opportunities for policy reform. Key areas of improvement include policies that focus more on environmental and public health outcomes, collecting high-quality information and providing incentives for continual improvement.

Press’s critique identifies the failures of the “compliance-abatement-mitigation” approach to environmental policy that dominates US regulatory design. Press claims that this approach does not radically challenge accepted modes of land-use, energy production, manufacturing, construction or transportation, but rather emphasizes pollutant containment and reductions primarily from serious offenders. Thus, US environmental policy tends to “focus on compliance and technology rather than performance” and does not account for growth in the number of polluting sources for end-of-pipe regulations, fails to link policy outputs to outcomes, and provides insufficient incentives to transform manufacturing and industrial processes. Examining successes and failures across the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, Press abstracts lessons learned from successful examples such as the Acid Rain Program’s real-time emissions monitoring, local experimentation with low impact development and effective marketing for recovered paper manufacturing.

Press recognizes that politics play an important role in environmental policymaking (chapter 6), but aside from citing successful examples of local and state “extended producer responsibility” rules he does not discuss how to overcome resistance to change the status quo, what he terms “political or ideological obstruction.” References to political polarization suggest that future work on regulatory design and policy tools must be linked to studies of environmental politics in order to propose “effective, parsimonious, precautionary and participatory environmental regulations.” Following Press’s discussion of regulatory failure and reform in US environmental policy, readers are positioned to further study the role of technology and information in environmental regulatory design.

Jan 11 2017

Children of Katrina

Reviewed by Tarique Niazi, PhD, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

 Children who are the victims of natural disasters may be more resilient than many people assume.

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by Alice Fothergill and Lori Peek Children of Katrina, University of Texas Press, 2015, 321 pp.

When disasters strike, children, the elderly and women endure the worst. Children suffer the most, but in silence. Their lived experience goes unaccounted for. It is often explained by adults, parents and caregivers, while children are rarely given a chance to speak for themselves. This scholarly and sociological inattention led Alice Fothergill and Lori Peek, seen by some as leaders of the new generation of disaster studies scholars, to pursue a new path in their quest to help child victims of Hurricane Katrina find their own voice. They wanted to give the children a chance to recount their own experiences.

Their methodically plotted, meticulously detailed and aptly named study Children of Katrina was seven years in the making. It captures the magnitude of the catastrophe that displaced 372,000 children. It features the life-histories of 7 children selected from the 650 that Fothergill and Peek studied. These children’s memories of the traumatic event shine a burst of light on their varying paths to recovery. The authors name several pathways: Declining Trajectory, Equilibrium Trajectory and Fluctuating Trajectory. Decliners did not fare well. Those in equilibrium found a balance in life. Those who fluctuated swung between recovery and relapse. In all of the identified trajectories, the accessibility of social and material resources was central to those children who failed to recover, recovered or modulated between recovery and relapse.

Drawing on their findings, Fothergill and Peek challenge three myths that still abound in disaster studies: (i) children are helpless victims, (ii) children are resilient and bounce back from disasters and (iii) disasters are equal opportunity events. On the contrary, the reality of recovery is too tangled to be captured in these oversimplified truths. They paint in bold colors in the hope that experts, planners and scholars will reassess their beliefs. The authors unearth key sociological variables (social institutions, family, friends and support networks, to name the most prominent) that account for the vulnerability or resilience of the children who survived Katrina.

Children of Katrina breaks new ground in the field of disaster research and scholarship. Fothergill and Peek’s approach might be termed “Pediaster,” that is, children’s traumatic experience of disasters. The authors’ compassion is evident. The cover page of Children of Katrina features the art of 10-year-old Joseph, one of their seven informants. Given the frequency and intensity of disasters, Children of Katrina will continue to be read as Children of Disasters, and remain a must-read for disaster scholars.

Oct 12 2015


Reviewed by Jessica Gordon, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

An engaging title demonstrating that climate change action will require more than increased public understanding and access to information

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How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts, by Candis Callison, Duke University Press, 2014

Many of us have wondered what it will take for Americans to finally address climate change, given the overwhelming scientific evidence already in hand.  How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts sheds light on this question by analyzing the discourses and practices of five communities engaging the public on climate change: Arctic indigenous representatives of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, corporate social responsibility activists associated with Ceres, American evangelical Christians, science journalists, and science and science policy experts. The contrast across these communities creates a compelling account and dispels any notion that climate change is simply a scientific question. Using an ethnographic approach, the cases demonstrate how climate change has become intertwined with belief systems, practices, expertise and indigenous knowledge as ideas move across and within these groups and climate change gains in salience.

Callison argues that action on climate change ultimately requires “a negotiation with ethics, morality, and meaning-making both in collective and individual terms.” Thus, the common plea that we need to increase public understanding and access to information will never be sufficient enough to support real change. The differences among the five cases make this abundantly clear and leads Callison to call for collective public engagement across diverse groups.

At times, the book feels a bit too much like a dissertation, but it is engaging nonetheless.  While focused on climate change, it offers useful advice for those interested in other environmental issues as it delves into broad questions about the role of science, scientists and the media, expertise and advocacy in democracies.

Jun 29 2015


Reviewed by Tarique Niazi, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

Natural disasters have claimed more fatalities than armed conflicts.


Human Security and Natural Disasters, edited by Christopher Hobson, Paul Bacon and Robin Cameron, Routledge, 2014

The United Nations is credited with seeding the intellectual world with the concept of human security in the mid-1990s. The concept has since bloomed into a potential rival to such conventional doctrines as state security. Human security envisions freedom from want and fear. More importantly, it implies security embedded in everyday life. In contrast, state security prioritizes state interests over those of citizens. Hobson et al., in their edited volume, Human Security and Natural Disasters, expand this concept to include environmental security, more specifically “natural disasters.” They contend that natural disasters have been underexplored as an integral part of environmental security.

In arguing that natural disasters have claimed more fatalities than armed conflicts, the editors challenge the long-standing exclusive focus on state security. Additionally, they discuss how natural disasters are not equal in whom they strike and with what impact. Women, children and the elderly, who are already more likely to be destitute, are natural disasters’ choice victims. Natural calamities are not gender-neutral because they impact men and women differently. “Fukushima Fifty,” a reference to the daring band of Japanese men who made a last stand of sorts in the face of nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, was the production of socially constructed machismo or “man being the savior” syndrome. Similarly, Lankan women were disproportionate victims of the raging fury of the Indian Ocean during the 2004 tsunami, due to their gendered attire which hampered their flight to safety.

Contributors to this volume do a stupendous job of demonstrating how natural disasters threaten human security by worsening the pre-existing vulnerabilities of their victims. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Vietnamese-American community in New Orleans made a much faster recovery than the African-American community. The concept of human security engages such vulnerabilities and capabilities. One of the key contributions of this volume is accentuating of the “humanness” of natural disasters, i.e., the human and human institutional behaviors that drive them. Social scientists, including Dr. Freudenburg, reveal the role of the “human hand” in the making “natural disasters,” and thus, question their “naturalness.”

Contributors to this volume are sensitive to these distinctions when they argue that natural disasters are “natural hazards” that humans convert into disasters. Yet their insistence on describing such events as “natural” is puzzling. Climate change is conspicuous by its absence in their theoretical discussion. However, the editors compensate for these omissions (and their troubling conceptualization of disasters) with the originality of the debate, analytical sophistication, the persuasiveness of their arguments, intellectual rigor, and highly readable prose.

May 8 2015


Reviewed by Danya Rumore, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

A helpful primer for those interested in what research has to say about why climate change remains so socially contentious


How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate, by Andrew Hoffman, Stanford University Press, 2015

Andrew Hoffman’s new book How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate skillfully weaves together research from numerous social sciences – ranging from psychology to sociology – to show that public confusion about and lack of action on climate change is not the result of a knowledge deficit or a misunderstanding of the relevant science. Instead, Hoffman shows the startling disconnect between the high level of scientific consensus on one hand and the lack of social consensus on the other is the result of people’s intentional and unintentional avoidance of information.

Research suggests that avoidance of information is the result of a variety of cultural and cognitive dynamics. Hoffman effectively summarizes four such forces: (1) humans use cognitive filters, such as motivated reasoning; (2) our cognitive filters reflect our cultural identity; (3) cultural identity can overpower scientific reasoning; and (4) our political economy creates inertia for change.  He concludes “The debate over climate change in the United States (and elsewhere) is not about carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas models; it is about opposing cultural values and worldviews through which that science is seen.” Building on what research has to say about these forces, he suggests that no amount of science, in and of itself, can reconcile conflicting cultures and values. Instead, he advises that worldviews will have to be altered. This, in turn will necessitates careful public education and engagement campaigns that take account of the strong cultural and cognitive forces causing the current cultural schism.

Hoffman’s conclusions are by no means new – indeed, similar points have been made, albeit in bits and pieces, by the many scholars he cites. He does add great value, however, and advances our understanding by summarizing and insightfully stitching together existing scholarship. His goal in writing this book was to “build an edifice from the large and growing body of research in sociology, psychology, and other social sciences about why people accept or reject the science of climate change.”

In successfully doing this, Hoffman’s small book – with its less than 100 pages of text – packs a big punch. It is a helpful primer for those interested in what research has to say about why climate change remains so socially contentious despite the considerable scientific consensus that exists. Written in readily accessible language, How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate will be user-friendly for anyone trying to grasp what social science research has to say about the lack of action on climate change.

Hoffman’s book provides an excellent example of the kind of writing — succinct, clear, interesting, that we need.

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.

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.

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.

Nov 5 2013


Reviewed by Nicholas A. Ashford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In this book, eleven prominent climate change authorities discuss the moral, legal and political implications of imposed climate-modifying geoengineering projects.

Climate Change Geoengineering: Philosophical Perspectives, Legal Issues, Governance Frameworks, edited by Wil C. G. Burns and Andrew L. Strauss, Cambridge University Press, 2013, 328 pp.

This book is an apology for addressing global climate change through the application of geo-engineering (GE) which encompasses injection of reflective sulfate particles into the air and seeding the ocean with iron.  The ethical implications of CE are addressed but most of the book is relegated to examining the technical, economic, legal, and political implications of its adoption – including challenges posed by nations taking unilateral action. Many of the essays in this multi-authored book argue that we have made little progress on reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs) – because of the large economic costs and lack of a collective world agreement – and that the imperative of a worsening global climate leaves us little choice but to undertake the R&D necessary to develop CE, which some of the authors of the chapters consider inevitable.  While the need to clarify and assess the side effects of CE is acknowledged, perhaps too much optimism – and too little technological and legal uncertainty – about their management is voiced and in some cases defended on cost-benefit grounds.  While the difficulties of getting a global agreement on reducing GHGs are discussed, a close reading of the book reveals equivalent, if not greater difficulties in addressing the legal barriers to CE.

What is sorely missing from the book is an acknowledgement that since the economic meltdown of 2008, industrial activity and emissions have in fact slowed and some progress has been made in global-climate policy alliances of western North-American states/provinces and some European countries, and the beginnings of GHG legal regulation are in process by the US EPA. The historic large rate of economic growth of the industrial nations is no longer assured as a result of the financial crisis. Meeting voluntary GHG reduction targets may now be more easily realized, not because of technological progress or political commitment, but because the developed world’s high throughput economic system may be reaching its systemic and economic limits.  Further, should the real costs of global climate disruption begin to be increasingly fully realized in terms of agricultural disruption, coastal destruction, and weather-related disasters, the economic futility of reducing nations’ dependence on energy-intensive activities may also be waning.  Cultural shifts in patterns of consumption, decreasing disposable income by many, cutbacks in industrial production, and an environmental awakening may well counter the arguments that we have no choice but to develop GE. The book makes an important contribution to policy discussions about CE, but its underlying premise that CE is inevitable and probably good is questionable.

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