Apr 10 2017

Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States

Reviewed by Andrea Beck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The conflation of race and waste has a long history in the United States, with serious material consequences for the lives and well-being of ‘non-white’ immigrants and African Americans.

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by Carl A. Zimring Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States, New York University Press, 2015, 273 pp

In Clean and White, historian Carl A. Zimring explores how environmental factors have shaped social constructions of race in the United States, from the age of Jefferson to the Memphis Public Works Strike of 1968. Rather than treating race and ethnicity as static constructs, as is often the case in studies of environmental racism, Zimring carefully unpacks the ways in which concerns about urban health, hygiene and sanitation were increasingly conflated with concerns about race over more than one hundred years of American history. Whereas whiteness became equated with cleanliness and purity to justify white supremacy, other skin colors came to be associated with waste, dirt, dust and disease. The infamous Ku Klux Klan, as well as some academics, helped develop and spread these linkages. Advertisers of soap and cleansers likewise promoted notions of race and cleanliness in popular culture.

Beyond their discursive importance, the author shows how these constructions of environmental racism had far-reaching material consequences for the affected groups. With white Americans considering waste-handling beneath their dignity, “dirty” jobs such as laundry, waste collection and scrap recycling were disproportionately relegated to African Americans, Asian Americans, and new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, exposing them to serious environmental health risks. In addition to occupational structures, environmental racism also shaped the spatial organization of cities. Between 1870 and 1960, racial residential segregation increased markedly, as whites “fled” the urban core for the suburbs, and noxious industries and waste-handling businesses clustered in non-white residential areas. Spatial environmental inequalities were facilitated by racially restricted lending practices, municipal zoning ordinances and lax enforcement of regulations in non-white neighborhoods.

After World War II, many Jews and Italian Americans (long perceived as non-white) merged into white society. At the same time, the environmental burdens on African Americans and Hispanics remained and intensified, culminating in the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968. Although workers and organizers in Memphis did not explicitly use the term “environmental justice,” this strike would become foundational for the emergence of the environmental justice movement in the 1980s. Several examples at the end of the book remind us that environmental racism has endured well into the twenty-first century.

By drawing attention to the social constructions of waste and race, and their material implications, Zimring’s research makes a significant contribution to existing scholarship on environmental racism and environmental justice. What is wanting in the book are specific reflections on where we can go from here. How can American society overcome the long-standing and deep-seated biases uncovered in Clean and White? And how can the book’s message best be translated into public policy? Answering these and other questions will be critical to applying Zimring’s important historical research to life in contemporary America.


Apr 10 2017

The Climate Resilient Organization: Adaptation and Resilience to Climate Change and Weather Extremes

Reviewed by Jessica Gordon, Massachusetts Institute for Technology

Given the impacts of climate change, what are the things that private organizations can do to adapt?

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by Martina K. Linnenluecke and Andrew Griffiths The Climate Resilient Organization: Adaptation and Resilience to Climate Change and Weather Extremes, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015, 222 pp

What is a climate resilient organization? Martina K. Linnenluecke and Andrew Griffiths’s call for integrating mitigation, adaptation and resilience recognizes that this will require efforts beyond the organization itself. They assert that “a future key activity will be to create climate change resilient organizations,” which can deal with gradual and extreme changes (v). This begs the question, why is this a future activity and not a present-day one, especially given their lengthy explanation of climate impacts.

The book is divided into two sections, which could have easily been two different books. The first section provides a general overview on climate change impacts and politics. The authors outline the history of international climate policy until 2013 with a particular focus on adaptation and how these international commitments have played out on the national scale. Chapter 2 helpfully presents a short summary of the impacts on the private sector including investment risks, insurance and legal risks.

The second part of the book is more prescriptive and focused on organizational responses to climate change. It includes presenting the impacts of climate change on organizations and challenges to adaptation and resilience. This is primarily focused on private sector organizations. The authors provide an overview of different tools to assist organizations in assessing vulnerabilities and developing adaptation priorities. They also offer a general step-by-step list of activities (drawing on the UK Climate Impacts program) to assess adaptation options, which the authors also suggest using for resilience measures. Short cases studies are scattered throughout and are illustrative of the various ways private sector organizations are tackling climate change but are too cursory to guide decision-making.

Geared toward organizational decision-makers and policymakers, The Climate Resilient Organization is clearly written, nicely summarizes the literature and draws heavily on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. It is a good starting point for those looking for an introduction to climate change and how it might influence their business.


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

Consensus and Global Environmental Governance: Deliberative Democracy in Nature’s Regime

Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 An engaging argument for pursuing ecologically sustainable and democratically legitimate earth systems governance through democratic deliberation.

 Consensus and Global Environmental Governance

 

by Walter F. Baber and Robert V. Bartlett Consensus and Global Environmental Governance: Deliberative Democracy in Nature’s Regime, MIT Press, 2015, 272 pp

Consensus and Global Environmental Governance: Deliberative Democracy in Nature’s Regime is part of the MIT Press Earth System Governance book series. The series identifies normative discourses about global environmental governance. Following Deliberative Environmental Politics (2005) and Global Democracy and Sustainable Jurisprudence (2009), Baber and Bartlett’s third book examines the application of deliberative democratic theory to the practice of environmental politics. In Global Democracy and Sustainable Jurisprudence the authors argued that the democratic deficit and inefficacy of international environmental law can be addressed through a system of juristic democracy. In this system, environmental law backed by nation-states would be replaced by global common law derived from the rulings of numerous global citizen juries on hypothetical legal cases. Consensus and Global Environmental Governance highlights the practical difficulties and implications of using a deliberative approach to consensus-building.

Baber and Bartlett present convincing arguments regarding the merits of a more democratic process of global environmental policymaking in the first half of the book (Ch. 1–5). Chief among these are that a more democratic process would (i) ensure public support and stronger political will (something that has been missing from past negotiated climate agreements), (ii) lead to a much-needed shift in values and (iii) ensure more environmentally just outcomes. They point to several conditions that must be met for rules to be effective (Ch. 1) and advocate for deliberative techniques (such as juristic deliberation) to ensure “ecologically sustainable and democratically legitimate environmental governance” (Ch. 2). International law and negotiations, they argue, have been ineffective due to poor implementation and regulation marked by a democratic deficit (Ch. 3).

Baber and Bartlett anchor themselves squarely on the side of deliberative democracy in the broader academic debate. They address common criticisms: deliberation may (i) push conflict aside rather than resolve it; (ii) exacerbate existing inequalities and lead to unfair outcomes; (iii) discriminate against political perspectives held by minorities; (iv) be overly technical in nature, thereby inadvertently excluding historically disadvantaged groups; and (v) fail to affect policymaking, thereby further disenfranchising politically marginalized groups (Ch. 4). Like other deliberative democracy advocates, they respond to these complaints by emphasizing the importance of the design and implementation of the process of deliberation and by countering with a critique of the alternative (i.e., aggregative democracy).

The obvious challenge of a deliberative approach to international policymaking is that it becomes unwieldy. Baber and Bartlett propose a system of juristic deliberation in which citizen juries from around the world would be convened to adjudicate hypothetical environmental disputes. When transnational consensus is reached on a specific issue, the results of the deliberation would then be made available to “international tribunals for citation as a general principle of law in support of their resolution of specific environmental disputes” (p. 168). In this way, they argue, we would gain more insight into shared global values and identify similar approaches to disputes across cultures. In theory, this should enable policymakers to develop a new system of environmental policies built on normative consensus.

The authors use research on trial juries to support their call for citizen juries (Ch. 6), continue to develop their vision of juristic democracy in the second half of the book (Ch. 7–9) and conclude with a defense against charges that consensus may not be possible or desirable (Ch. 10). The book includes an example case (Appendix B) of a hypothetical water-warming dispute between three countries (Arroya, Panterra and Meerland). Baber and Bartlett describe the results of testing this case with twelve citizen panels from the United States, Germany, Russia, Sweden and the United Kingdom (Appendix A).

Their overarching argument is that democratic deliberation can be used at every step of global environmental governance and policymaking to build and identify normative, political and social consensus. Juristic deliberation can be used to spot “widely supported normative principles and general propositions of law” (i.e., normative consensus), whereas classic deliberative techniques (e.g., deliberative polling, consensus conferences, planning cells, etc.) can only be used to engage the public in choosing among alternative policy paradigms (i.e., identify political consensus). In the final step, policies are implemented through stakeholder partnerships to help ensure social consensus.

Although Baber and Bartlett argue persuasively that deliberative democracy has the potential to increase the political legitimacy of environmental governance and lead to more ecologically sustainable policies, the real challenge lies in convincing nation-states that the costs (including the political costs) associated with such deep engagement with the public will be offset in the long run.


Mar 27 2015

CHEAPONOMICS: THE HIGH COST OF LOW PRICES

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

In a free market economy, the incentive to externalize costs is so huge that the seller and the buyer reach an unapologetic understanding to get away with it.

cheaponomics copyCheaponomics: The High Cost of Low Prices, by Michael Carolan, Earthscan/Routledge, 2014

Cheaper products are a marketing gimmick but an enticing one nonetheless. Deep discounts on popular brands release pent-up demand, and less expensive products encourage over-consumption. ‘Cheapness’ has become an enigma. While one may avoid buying anything considered ‘cheap’, striving for bargains remains alluring, and the lowest possible price paid for a quality product can be a measure of shopping prowess.

In Cheaponomics: The High Cost of Low Prices, sociology professor Michael Carolan states that ‘Cheapness is an illusion.’ Low prices arrive an at alarmingly high cost because this low price neither reflects the real cost of production nor accounts for the environmental factors. A 2008 UN study estimated that the cumulative cost of environmental damages caused by 3,000 of the largest publicly-traded corporations in the world could run future generations up to 2.2 trillion USD.

In a free market economy, the incentive to externalize cost offers a comparative advantage to both buyers and sellers, albeit at a tremendous cost to these later generations. Carolan questions the economic status quo, arguing that a system that socializes costs for the benefit of few can do little to enhance well-being for the majority. Drawing on a wide range of examples, he unfolds the compulsive economy of cheaper goods which create a false sense of consumer celebration by making large social and income inequalities tolerable. Over-consumption, which is linked to cheaper products, lies at the root of present-day crises from growing urban trash to mounting atmospheric emissions.

Cheaponomics is a revelation, and Carolan concludes an engaging story with a set of practical recommendations. Governments ought to incentivize accurate pricing and enable affordability as the key to price rationalization in the market. Real cost may make goods expensive in the short term but not over the long term as these would be designed to last longer and avoid wastage. Affordability is about enabling, about capabilities and about holistic well-being rather than the shallow advantages of cheap goods.


Sep 12 2014

THE FUTURE IS NOT WHAT IT USED TO BE: CLIMATE CHANGE AND ENERGY SECURITY

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

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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.


Sep 11 2014

RIVER REPUBLIC: THE FALL AND RISE OF AMERICA’S RIVERS

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

ENVIRONMENTAL ECONOMICS: AN INTRODUCTION by Barry C. Field and Martha K. Field

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.


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

9781107698048

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

and

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.



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