Sep 12 2014


Reviewed by Mike Gunter, Jr., Rollins College

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

Jorg Freidrichs2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jul 4 2014


Reviewed by Kelly Heber, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Probably the best environmental economics textbook

An Introduction

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

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

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

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

Jul 30 2013


Review by Janet Martinez, Stanford University

This book reviews the development and influence of the WTO dispute resolution system (DSU), while also assessing the WTO’s environmental competency and the judicial issues that impede progress

The WTO and the Environment: Development of Competence Beyond Trade by James K. R. Watson, Routledge, 2013, 236 pp.

Since it was created in 1995 to manage international trade, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has wrestled with issues of environmental protection. Watson’s volume provides a thoughtful overview of the WTO’s legal and administrative efforts to deal with trade disputes in general, and trade-and-environmental matters in particular. The author finds a growing competence within the WTO, but still procedural and substantive barriers impede progress. The reforms he proposes address both concerns.

The WTO’s Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU) spells out a way of handling disputes through a process that has become increasingly judicial, but is widely viewed as strong, reliable, and effective.  Its trade-expert panelists, along with an Appellate Body review, render decisions that function as “informal precedents.” Watson calls on the WTO to supplement its panelists with lawyer and scientific experts skilled in environmental matters; empower its Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE) to participate in DSU cases in an advisory role; and offer access to “third parties” (i.e., other interested stakeholders) in environmental cases, in the same way that the NAFTA Commission on Environmental Cooperation does.

Watson traces the ways in which environmental concerns have been incorporated into WTO agreements, and sees momentum in favor of making explicit what has been implicit regarding the relationship between the WTO and multilateral environmental agreements, like the Basel Convention on Transboundary Waste, CITES, and the Montréal Protocol. That is, trade agreements affect environmental quality and environmental treaties can have an impact on international trade.

Given his focus on dispute system design, Watson points out the need to intervene in the WTO’s policy making efforts—writing the rule book at the Doha negotiations—as well as in the way DSU’s legal enforcement is handled. I doubt that WTO members will be willing to address environmental concerns apart from parallel demands to accommodate labor and human rights concerns as well. Nevertheless, Watson notes that if the WTO were to enact some kind of trade and environment ground rules, the CTE could transition from a political body to a much stronger implementing committee.

Jun 24 2013


Reviewed by Lawrence Susskind, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Water, Ecosystems and Society: A Confluence of Disciplines by Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, Sage, 2009 (2nd ed.), 212 pp.

Jayanta Bandyopadhyay was the head of the Centre for Development and Environment Policy at the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta. He has also been the President of the Indian Society for Ecological Economics, and held other academic and policy-making roles during his 35 year career as a senior water professional. In his recent book, he makes a strong case for changing the way water is managed in India, urging that basic ecosystem services be protected even as increasing amounts of fresh water are extracted from rivers and streams to meet growing agricultural, industrial and residential needs. It will not be easy to move away from the long-standing paradigm that puts development needs first.

His initial premise is that additional disciplinary diversity is crucial to generating the knowledge needed to achieve a better balance between human requirements and natural ecosystem needs. He is firmly convinced a new water systems management paradigm (that will take on-going ecological sustainability more seriously) will require a shift in the way economic analysis is used to value water and ecological services. Whether traditional economists will cooperate is unclear.

Dr. Bandyopadhyay devotes special attention to the river-link project developed by India’s National Water Development Agency. He names this the largest civil engineering project in the world. A more complete interdisciplinary analysis, and a more open scientific dialogue, he believes, would raise doubts about the social desirability and the ecological sustainability of the project. Moreover, it is not likely, he believes, to achieve the flood control objectives its proponents have in mind. Although Water, Ecosystems and Society is a small book, it raises large questions in a very compelling way.

The disconnect between water systems knowledge and water resource development is certainly not limited to India. And, interdisciplinary efforts to fill gaps in our eco-hydrological understanding of groundwater and surface water dynamics, as well as ways that the ecosystem services provided by water resources should be valued, ought to be at the top of our global research agenda. I would also agree that we need a much a clearer understanding of the ecological effects of extreme events like flooding, draught, and climate change, before the paradigm shift that Dr. Bandyopadhyay and others are advocating can succeed.

Jun 24 2013


Review by Matto Mildenberger, Yale University

Eco-Business: A Big-Brand Takeover of Sustainability by Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister, MIT Press, 2013, 208pp.

The last decade has seen global brands, including Walmart, General Electric, and Coca-Cola, proliferate corporate sustainability initiatives. But can these initiatives deliver global sustainability? In a compact volume, Dauvergne and Lister elaborate the theoretical reasons for being skeptical of this approach. Unlike earlier multinational corporate environmental programs, described as little more than greenwashing, the authors argue that recent corporate actions reflect a major, strategic shift in business operations. However, these efforts are motivated more by profit imperatives than by environmental or social goals. The authors argue that sustainability initiatives help moderate the risks associated with complex, global supply-chains, increase global competitiveness and enhance brand loyalty. They assert these initiatives herald a shift in governance power away from the state towards private retail and manufacturing interests. While big-brand sustainability programs can produce some concrete environmental change, they also facilitate consumer growth and stabilize current economic structures. This leaves them unlikely to trigger the transformative change necessary for a sustainability transition.

Eco-Business is brimming with more thought-provoking ideas than many texts twice its length, raising critical questions about corporate sustainability efforts that it does not always give itself time to answer. For example, the reader is left wanting further elaboration of the conditions under which big business sustainability efforts can still generate meaningful environmental change. Nonetheless, Dauvergne and Lister have outlined a fascinating new research agenda that should spark needed debate about business’ ability to drive positive environmental change.

Mar 22 2013


Reviewed by Mattijs van Maasakkers, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael J. Sandel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256pp

The role of markets and market-based approaches in environmental policy has been discussed for many decades, at least since John Robert Dales’ essay Pollution, Property and Prices was published in 1968. The emergence of markets as a policy tool since then has extended far beyond the environmental realm. In his most recent book, Harvard philosophy professor Michael Sandel describes a diverse set of markets and incentive programs, showing that this approach has expanded into a broad range of new social and political arenas. Based on brief descriptions of a variety of economic incentives and markets, like carbon offsets and the practice of selling naming rights to nature trails, Sandel’s core argument, and stern warning, is that market-oriented approaches can “crowd out morals,” to the detriment of society.

While this critique is not necessarily new, the scope and ambition of Sandel’s work reflect the fact that the creation of economic incentives and full-fledged markets has become widespread practice. By describing dozens of incentive programs and markets, in sometimes surprising fields, from education to immigration, and from family planning to blood drives, Sandel raises two profound and connected objections to the use of markets. The first is that the use of economic incentives might not be fair. Sandel mounts a case against markets by using (sometimes hypothetical) examples of markets that would be unacceptable to many, if not all, people. Organ donations are one such example, since Sandel believes strong moral objections exist against the idea of allowing people in dire economic circumstances to sell their kidneys. The second objection Sandel places at the heart of his case against markets is corruption. Here, the author is worried not so much about bribes, but about the notion that buying and selling certain things degrades their moral importance. Sandel uses the example of creating a market for the adoption of babies, which he poses might undermine the norms underlying the parent-child relationship.

While Sandel effectively argues that there are “moral limits of markets,” it is less clear where and how to recognize those limits in specific policy areas or social arenas. This book is clearly written for a broad audience, and as such, it provides a useful warning in an era where efficiency, the market and incentives are often described as unmitigated “goods” in public discourse. This book not only shows that there are certain things that cannot be bought, it also presents a set of compelling arguments that certain things should not be for sale. Whether or not environmental pollution, or ecosystem goods and services, to use a more popular term, belong to that category is not immediately clear from these arguments.

Oct 10 2012

NATURAL CAPITAL by Peter Kareiva, Heather Tallis, Taylor H. Ricketts, Gretchen C. Daily and Stephen Polasky

Reviewed by Marina Alberti, University of Washington

Natural Capital uses a series of assessment models to translate the science of ecosystem services into practice.

Natural Capital: Theory and Practice of Mapping Ecosystem Services, edited by Peter Kareiva, Heather Tallis, Taylor H. Ricketts, Gretchen C. Daily, and Stephen Polasky Oxford University Press, 392pp.

The concept of ecosystem services has provided a useful framework to explicitly link nature conservation to human wellbeing. Although the inextricable links between natural processes and human society trace all the way back to Greek philosophers such as Plato, the explicit recognition of nature’s benefit to humanity is relatively recent. Daily’s Nature’s Services (1997) is perhaps the first attempt to systematically assess ecosystem values and advance the notion that valuing ecosystem services may provide an effective approach for conservation. During the last decades, we have learned a great deal about the role of ecosystem functioning to provide critical services such as clean water, carbon sequestration, and crop pollination. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) has provided a powerful framework to assess global ecosystem services and a first synthesis of potential threats. However, we know much less about how to integrate the emerging science into everyday decisions.

Natural Capital takes on this challenge with an essential first step. A diverse team of scientists has put together a compelling synthesis of explicit links between ecosystem services and human benefits and has developed a series of assessment models to translate the science of ecosystem services into practice.

As the authors indicate, it is only a beginning. Next steps will imply refining methods and accounting for complex feedback loops, dynamic effects and uncertainty. Yet to fulfil the objective of translating the knowledge to practice, the authors recognize the need for the natural and social science to address some difficult questions about quantification, predictability and cultural values. I would highlight that among them, the greatest challenge is understanding the complexity of decision processes, the diversity of decision makers and dynamic of institutional change. Primarily grounded in ecology and economics, the science of ecosystem services will need to expand the disciplinary boundaries. Natural Capital poses important challenges and creates new opportunities for building bridges with a diversity of social sciences and humanities.

Oct 9 2012

THE OIL CURSE by Michael Ross

Reviewed by Saleem Ali, University of Queensland

Michael L. Ross looks at how developing nations are shaped by their mineral wealth.

The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations, by Michael Ross, Princeton University Press, 296pp

The distortions in economic development that  natural resource wealth can cause have been well-studied for many years by social scientists. UCLA political scientist Michael Ross’s new book, The Oil Curse is premised on his view that hydrocarbon wealth has four key attributes that lead to its potential for being “cursed”: scale, source, stability, and secrecy. Hydrocarbon projects have massive capital investment (scale), are not funded by citizen taxation or innovation incentives and are hence less connected to democratic parameters (source),  are beholden to volatile commodity markets (stability) and have easily concealed revenues from oil, due to the contract norms between companies and governments (secrecy).

Ross further contends that the curse started to gain traction when state-run oil companies became more common. Such companies have much less accountability than privately held firms, and Ross considers their structure a major cause for perpetuating the “oil curse.” Therefore, although corporate executives may find Ross’s negative revelations about the essential lubricant of modern capitalism to be troubling, they can gain some solace that he strongly blames this outcome on government control of industry.

However, Ross remains nuanced about assigning culpability by also noting that private-sector management still needs some government oversight to be constructive. Ross’s key prescription to grapple with the oil curse is developing mutual accountability between the private and public sectors. Though he tends to make some broad causal statements and relies far too much on regression for his insights, Ross’s work is an important contribution to the literature on the consequential role of oil in development planning.

Oct 9 2012


Reviewed by William Moomaw, Tufts University

A forceful argument against America’s vicious circle of growing inequality by the Nobel Prize–winning economist.

The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, by Joseph Stiglitz, W.W. Norton Company , 448pp

Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality offers a remarkably insightful analysis of the economy that has major implications for sustainable development. One of the fundamental premises of sustainable development is equity, but Stiglitz demonstrates that the growing inequality of incomes in the United States is extracting a high cost not just from the economy, but also  from the environment and  society.

Using solid data, he lays bare the means by which the dramatic shift in income disparity has occurred. Wealth increases at the top have resulted from rent-seeking in the financial and other industries, changes in tax policy that favor the already wealthy and reductions in the negotiating capacity of labor. Stiglitz documents the financial instruments that lead to the transfer of wealth and ultimately caused the recent collapse of the global economy.

Of comparable importance are recently enacted governmental policies that externalize more of the environmental costs of doing business onto the public, and the destructive incentives that have flowed to resource-based industries. Subsidies include direct payments, but also enhanced profit from the very low prices paid to the government by extractive industries for leases on federal lands. This shift in governmental policies has been fuelled by the ability of top income earners to pay the “re-election costs” of politicians who will favor their economic interests. As Stiglitz notes, these anti-society and anti-environmental policies actually reduce the viability of the economy rather than enhance it. Not a strategy for a sustainable future.

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