Feb 1 2018

Clouds: Nature and Culture

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

To be on cloud nine!

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by Richard Hamblyn, Clouds: Nature and Culture, Reaktion Books, 2017, 240 pp.

From the realm of literature and arts to the domain of astronomy and science, clouds have emerged from a muddle of uncertainty into the world of scientific certainty in the context of climate change. Capturing their picturesque journey from “an ultimate art gallery above” in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson to the “center of digital life below” as propounded by Steve Jobs, Richard Hamblyn provides a multifaceted narrative about nature’s most versatile creation. Packed with colorful pictures, Clouds could easily be the most comprehensive and authoritative text on the subject to date.

Hamblyn, an English lecturer at the University of London, has attained undisputed mastery of the subject, having already published two other books on clouds–– The Cloud Book and Invention of Clouds. While the first captures everything to do with the origin and development of clouds, the second is a cultural excavation of our understanding of the science of clouds. In this third book, Hamblyn has brought clouds down to earth and unveiled some of their mystery. Throughout human history, attempts to understand clouds and their behavior has been a subject of delight and fascination, offering limitless opportunities for creative contemplation.

Clouds is a magnificent collection of these stories – from their wooly journey through art, literature, music and photography to their sinister manipulation for military use and anthropogenic modification. (Failed) American attempts at precipitating flash floods during the Vietnam War are part of the legend. Such secret military efforts have invoked widespread prompting by the international community to declare clouds as “a resource that belongs to no one.” Legal remedies for appropriating clouds through artificial seeding may be needed as competition over access to rainwater escalates.

Science is only beginning to understand the role that clouds play in shaping future conditions on earth––a warm atmosphere may reorganize the day-to-day behavior of clouds in ways that could either amplify or mitigate climate change. The trouble, warns Hamblyn, is that clouds have a habit of behaving in complex and surprising ways. The fact that our warming climate is producing ever more lightning strikes is one of many such surprises. Each 1 degree rise in temperature increases lightning activity by around 12 per cent. Will clouds turn out to be agents of global warming or will they end up saving the day by reflecting ever more sunlight back into space?

Clouds challenge human intelligence. Philosophers like Aristophanes have long professed that “from clouds come our intelligence, our dialectic and our reason; also, our speculative genius and all our argumentative talents.” Wondering if clouds were objects or phenomena or processes, Leonardo da Vinci described them as formless triggers of visual invention, their fleeting magnificence and endless variability providing food for thought for scientists and daydreamers alike. Our current predicament with clouds is taking us back in time to reimagine and reunderstand them. There may be clues in art and literature to help us make a fresh beginning!

Hamblyn contends that the law of unintended consequences needs to be kept in mind when embarking on geo-engineering projects aimed at tampering with the atmosphere and with clouds. Clouds are too sensitive not to be taken into account in such anthropogenic adventures, he cautions. In short, there is no way of knowing what will happen to our rapidly changing atmosphere.  Just as in centuries past, when clouds were employed as ready metaphors of doubt and uncertainty, it looks as if they will continue to be so for centuries to come.

The crucial issue is that life without clouds would not be physically possible. Far from just being a source of water, they have a larger role to play in keeping the earth hospitable for living beings. Clouds provides insights into the history and science of clouds, and offers guidance regarding the sensitive handling of the woolly product/process hovering between the sky and earth. Colorfully illustrated, this is the ultimate guide to the past, present and future of clouds.


Jul 31 2017

Democratizing Global Climate Governance

Reviewed by Elise Harrington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Can global climate governance be more democratic? Assessing deliberative democracy and networked governance in pursuit of global climate goals. 

Democratization

by Hayley Stevenson and John S. Dryzek Democratizing Global Climate Governance, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 256 pp.

In Democratizing Global Climate Governance Hayley Stevenson and John Dryzek argue that global climate governance can be improved by engaging civil society in multilateral climate negotiations and in the growing networks of actors involved in climate change policymaking. Using critical discourse analysis, the authors examine the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); discussions surrounding the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit; and the work of networks of corporations, nongovernmental organizations, community groups, foundations, government and international organizations. Stevenson and Dryzek focus on discourse (and language) as a key mechanism linking a range of actors. While discourse analysis is a unique contribution to the literature on global climate governance, their discussion of the tension and potential synergy between the formal UNFCCC activity and less-formal networks encourages readers to rethink the role of democratic deliberation in climate governance.

The first two chapters introduce the authors’ argument along with a theory of deliberative democracy as it applies to global climate governance. Chapter 2 unpacks the seven components of their deliberative framework as well as four basic discourses: mainstream sustainability, expansive sustainability, limits and boundaries, and green radicalism. Chapter 3 focuses on discourse analysis in public spaces, assessing four discussions related to the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit: the World Business Summit on Climate Change, the Business for the Environment Summit, Klimaforum09, and the World People’s Summit on Climate Change and Mother Earth. The authors argue that “the democratization of global climate governance can be advanced in the absence of centralized, comprehensive and effective global agreement. […] this requires recognizing and harnessing the coordinating function that discourses play in political life” (p. 59). The subsequent chapters build on this notion by illustrating how a systems approach to deliberation empowers discourse in public spaces.

Chapters 4 and 5 each discuss a different empowered space, or a space where institutions make collective decisions and ensure some form of public accountability. Chapter 4 analyzes the UNFCCC as a formal empowered space and primarily finds support for mainstream sustainability discourse, in particular for “ecological modernization and climate marketization.” Chapter 5 analyzes the informal empowered space created by public partnerships, public-private partnerships and private initiatives. The networks of actors in this space differ from the UNFCCC networks. They obtain authority by filling gaps in regulation, identifying common interests and using peer pressure to support voluntary rules and standards. Three networked governance examples are analyzed in some detail: the Clean Technology Fund, the Climate Technology Initiative’s Private Financing Advisory Network and the Verified Carbon Standard. Based on a “deliberative democratic deficit” in these networked spaces, the authors argue for stronger linkages between the UNFCCC and networked governance.

Chapters 6 and 7 examine the deliberative components of transmission and accountability. These two features of deliberative democracy are vital to the way ideas from public spaces are transmitted to empowered spaces and link accountability back to the public spaces. Yet, transmission and accountability tend to be weak in both formal and networked governance for climate change. Chapter 8 proposes a number of ways to strengthen transmission and accountability. Finally, chapter 9 concludes with a discussion of reflexivity in climate governance, highlighting opportunities to disrupt the status quo. Missing is a discussion of the part political power and financial resources play in forming and propagating the discourses present in the UNFCCC and networked governance. Democratizing Global Climate Governance provides researchers and practitioners with a whole new set of questions to ask.


Jul 31 2017

Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

This review was first published in Current Science, July 10, 2017.

While the United States may have leveled off its water use to 1970 levels, in spite of both population and economic growth, the health of its rivers continues to remain a concern.

 

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by Sean W. Fleming, Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways,  Princeton University Press, 2017, 216 pp.

Its global prevalence notwithstanding, the state of water in nature reflects our inadequate understanding of its intricate flow dynamics. Despite its abundance, access to water eludes millions of people, and the stress on the ecosystems involved continues to grow. More than one billion people lack access to clean water, and in the near future, the global demand for water will be twice what it is now. With no substitute for this life-nurturing fluid, it is more important than ever that we ask the right questions so we can get past the current muddle.

All rivers are alike in the broadest sense, but they have different meandering curves, diverse aquatic fauna and distinct morphological features. Unraveling this distinctiveness and the (unknown) variables that contribute to it are the challenges that confront hydrologists. Existing watershed models are insufficient. Indeed, many of the best modelers don’t rate their results too highly. Part of the problem, in the words of Belgian Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine, rests on our innate desire to simplify complexity. Unfortunately, reducing elaborate systems into simpler subsystems doesn’t necessarily help: we end up learning more about less. Such an approach is particularly unhelpful when we are trying to understand river hydrology. The uncertainty involved is a function of a great many environmental and social factors that shape stream flow and underlying aquifers.

Sean Fleming’s Where the River Flows calls for a paradigm shift. He favors a radical departure from the usual disciplinary thinking; indeed, since rivers are a reflection of the profound interrelationships between landscapes, ecosystems and societies, no disciplinary perspective can adequately address their complex dynamics. He believes that fractal mathematics along with chaos and information theory can be used to generate new insights into the overall patterns of river systems. As anthropogenic impacts on the natural environment (like climate change) accelerate, there is a need for both finer detailed forecasts (e.g., will my farm get rain next week?) and big picture understanding (e.g., will the river topple its banks this coming season?). New insights in both dimensions are critical to understanding the common but differentiated patterns that each river generates in its unique geomorphological setting.

Unfortunately, a counter narrative persists, making it harder to get a better sense of river hydrology. Damming, diversion and contamination pose formidable challenges, beyond the normal ecological complexity, to figuring out how to sustain healthy stream flows for human welfare and ecosystem survival. Be it the Mississippi, Ganges or Yangtze, river degradation has thrown off balance the delicate equilibrium between ever-increasing human populations and their relentless aspiration to stay adequately watered. The United States may have leveled off its water use to 1970 levels in spite of both population and economic growth, but the health of its rivers continues to remain alarming. While every drop of water pumped from the Colorado river is used at least 17 times, which may sound like good news, the net impact of all that pumping on the Gulf of California has grossly disrupted the hydrological cycle. River water hasn’t reached the delta since 1960.

Fleming calls for an entirely new way of viewing the natural environment, suggesting that we need to process vast and complex information to reconceptualize and understand the dynamics of the natural environment. But can reams of hard data and new quantitative modeling techniques give us a better sense of river systems that are not only dynamic but also living entities? As the need for more accurate, precise and consistent forecasts move center stage in our dealings with the rivers, somehow cultural perspectives must also be included. It is not clear how we can convert human observations into actionable information.

 


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.


Jan 11 2017

Can Science Fix Climate Change? A Case against Climate Engineering

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

A case against planet plumbing.

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by Mike Hulme Can Science Fix Climate Change? A Case against Climate Engineering, Polity, 2014, 158 pp.

Mike Hulme, a professor of climate and culture at King’s College London, holds no two opinions that the proposals to use stratospheric aerosols to cool the planet are inherently flawed and deeply undesirable, if not dangerous. Engineering the world’s climate by using global temperature as the control variable cannot secure the intended benefits for humans and the things that matter to them. Hulme’s argument is that the environmental, political and psychological costs of designing global climate through aerosol injections overwhelmingly outweigh any assumed benefits.

Research studies show that it may not be possible to stabilize the climate in all regions simultaneously. There is regional diversity in response to different levels of aerosol injection. These variations could make geo-engineering a difficult proposition. Hulme evaluates an array of geo-engineering technologies including orbital mirrors, ocean fertilization, carbon capture and urban whitewashing, concluding that none are technically feasible enough to be scaled up to the planetary level. Add to this, the relevant computer simulation models are not sufficient to determine the possible risks of geo-engineering at scale. There are, after all, limits to human knowledge. Our species is a product of evolution, not its author or controller.

This slim volume argues that human-induced climate change is not the sort of problem that lends itself to a technological end-of-pipe solution. Instead, climate change is a “wicked problem” and needs to be approached as such. Hulme suggests “climate pragmatism” as a way to reframe the problem of climate change: first, by decoupling the energy question and, second, by recognizing that there are many ways to alter the functioning of the atmosphere. Viewing the singular problem of climate change through the lens of climate pragmatism can lead the world to a three-pronged strategy: first, enhance social resilience to meteorological extremes; second, reduce emissions of atmospheric pollutants; and, third, meet the growing demand for energy in the world through cheap, reliable and sustainable means. By suggesting climate pragmatism as an approach, the author seeks to advance human welfare and human development by relying on fixes other than technological.


Oct 8 2016

The Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus: Lessons from India for Development

Reviewed by Elise Harrington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 Is there a water-energy-food security nexus? What can we learn about managing this nexus from India’s experience?

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Edited by M. Dinesh Kumar, Nitin Bassi, A. Narayanamoorthy and M. V. K. Sivamohan The Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus: Lessons from India for Development, Routledge, 2014, 246 pp.

The Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus unpacks the three critical components of development in India given concerns about climate change and sustainable resource management.

While collectively the authors cover issues related to water management, energy pricing and agriculture, each chapter generally focuses on one component of the energy-water-food security nexus. The “nexus” is knit together primarily in the introduction and the conclusion, with the exception of chapters 6 and 8, which examine the potential impact of metered and subsidized electricity on groundwater use and agriculture. In the final chapter, M. Dinesh Kumar introduces a new nexus, the “politics-bureaucracy-academics” nexus––the combined force behind historical policies of free power, free water access and subsidies that he views as ineffective and costly approaches to development. Ultimately the goal of this volume “is to trigger an informed debate on some of the most controversial and yet unresolved issues concerning water-energy-food security nexus in developing countries.”

Despite the varying degrees to which each chapter addresses water, energy, and food security as integrated concerns or as individual challenges, three common themes emerge from this volume. First, the water management challenges presented highlight the need to reframe existing planning models to encourage integrated approaches that consider, for example, basin-wide hydrological planning (chapter 2) and integrated hydrological and economic planning (chapter 3). Second, each chapter focuses on a specific state, handful of states, or a particular geographic region, indicating that natural resource management in India must account for differing social, political, ecological and climatic conditions, allowing for solutions and policy experiments at subnational levels. Third, evidence points to new opportunities for policy experimentation related to pricing of water and energy that may help manage consumption and allow for increased measuring, monitoring and testing of new resource management solutions.


Jun 13 2016

THE FRAGMENTATION OF GLOBAL CLIMATE GOVERNANCE

Reviewed by Jania Chilima, School of Environment and Sustainability & Global Institute for Water Security, University of Saskatchewan

The Fragmentation of Global Climate Governance is an in-depth discussion of regime interactions in global climate governance.

The Fragmentation of Global Climate Governance

Harro van Asselt, The Fragmentation of Global Climate Governance: Consequences and Management of Regime Interactions, Edward Elgar, 2014

One cannot but be overwhelmed by how many global regimes for climate change exist especially as we emerge from the COP21 (2015 Paris Climate Conference) negotiations, and also wonder how they can all function in the same policy domain. Harro van Asselt, in The Fragmentation of Global Climate Governance, draws attention to the complexity arising from the multitude of levels of global governance laws and policies (as regimes). He points out how their evolution, happening mostly in isolation, necessitates further exploration of their fragmentation in order to understand how to manage the consequences and interactions of such regimes for the sake of governing climate change effectively.  He defines fragmentation broadly as “the increased specialization and diversification in international institutions, including the overlap of substantive rules and jurisdictions” (p. 35). This definition guides the two objectives of the book: (1) To provide insight into the consequences of fragmentation of global climate governance and the subsequent interactions between different regimes related to climate change; and (2) To examine strategies for dealing with regime interactions in global climate governance, with emphasis on analysing the advantages and drawbacks of the different ways of managing interactions in terms of effectiveness and feasibility of the management strategies.

The Fragmentation of Global Climate Governance is divided into four parts and ten chapters. However, the impetus of this text is set around the author’s analytical framework that is introduced in chapters 3–5. The remaining chapters demonstrate this framework as a methodological tool for analysis and the lessons learned from its application. The basis of the analytical framework is the need for integration of more legal techniques to enhance the analysis of interactions through what the author terms the ‘legal approach’, and also merging this approach with the much more studied ‘policy approach’ (institutionalist view), which focuses on how the regimes affect each other’s development and performance through understanding regime coordination and cooperation.

Van Asselt argues that the analytic framework expands on the study object – ‘what tends to interact’ in an innovative way. He notes that other scholars have largely set their work along discipline-specific boundaries rather than focusing on tools of analysis. Through binary approaches of law and policy arise new advances in understanding fragmentation, its consequences and how to manage them.

This analytical framework accomplishes the analysis of the three extensive cases found in chapters 6–8. The cases reveal the shortcomings and opportunities in regime interactions. Granted, the in-depth analysis of the cases is a major success of the application of the framework. However, the arrangements of the many typologies, hierarchies and categorizations which form the basis of the author’s analytical framework makes understanding difficult at times. There tends to be meagre explanations in some parts and extensive discussions in other parts, leading to an unevenness in arguments. For example, the discussions under the political approach receive little attention in some cases compared to the legal approach. Additionally, what could have been helpful to the reader, given the extensive concepts and nomenclature introduced, is a schematic representation of all these terms, highlighting how they link and form parts of the analytical framework prior to introducing the three cases. This would have reinforced the concepts and mentally prepared the reader to engage deeply with the cases. Nevertheless, this book is ideal for global environmental governance scholars who wish to delve deep into the subject  to understand the ways in which one can study the interaction of regimes. Lessons learned in analysing climate change as a policy domain are without a doubt transferable to other global environmental governance policy domains, such as transboundary water resources and pollution control.

 


Oct 12 2015

HOW CLIMATE CHANGE COMES TO MATTER: THE COMMUNAL FACTS OF LIFE

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.


May 8 2015

HOW CULTURE SHAPES THE CLIMATE CHANGE DEBATE

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

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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.


Dec 5 2014

MANAGING ADAPTATION TO CLIMATE RISK: BEYOND FRAGMENTED RESPONSES

Reviewed by Jessica Gordon, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Framing resilience properly could lead to radical institutional reforms


Managing Adaptation to Climate Risk: Beyond Fragmented Responses, by Geoff O’Brien and Phil O’Keefe, Routledge, 2014

Managing Adaptation to Climate Risk provides a critical analysis of development, adaptation and disaster management, arguing for the importance of resilience as a means of connecting these siloed fields and developing a people-centred response to extreme events, which the authors see as the primary climate risk of concern. The book, to its credit, criticizes the various uses of resilience, recognizing that the term can lead to the abdication of political responsibility and the continuation of the status quo. The authors instead call for a framing of resilience that could lead to radical institutional change in the relationship between people and the environment, refocusing the discussion where sustainability has failed.  The authors make clear that their argument is grounded in a critique of capitalism and the neoliberal project, which has produced poverty, inequality and increased vulnerability. At the heart of the book is the assumption that humans can adapt and learn in times of stress, which we are currently facing given the urgency of climate change.

Written in clear and accessible language and filled with examples, the book is a useful text for newcomers to the topics discussed. The sections include detailed historical analyses and a literature review with helpful diagrams and tables.  The chapters feel a bit fragmented and certainly could be read separately. The final chapter links resilience to social capital and social learning, a refreshing addition to the argument, demonstrating how new ways of thinking and learning can support transformational change. In the end, the book calls for reform of governance and institutions, driven by proactive bottom-up processes and a concern about equity. This is a welcome thought, but it seems like a big mouthful for resilience to chew.



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