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.


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.

May 8 2015


Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Providing a helpful review of the Nile Basin in relation to the political economy of transboundary water resource management


Governing the Nile River Basin: The Search for a New Legal Regime, by Mwangi Kimenyi and John Mukin Mbaku, Brookings Institution, 2015

Governing the Nile River Basin: The Search for a New Legal Regime is a clear and timely primer for anyone interested in hydropolitics in the Nile Basin and, more specifically, in understanding the significance of the recently signed Declaration of Principles on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam or Tanzania’s recent ratification of the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA). The book’s eleven chapters provide a helpful desk review of the Nile Basin in relation to the political economy of transboundary water resource management including chapters on hydrology (Ch. 2), 1929 and 1959 Nile Agreements (Ch. 4), and recommendations for a future legal framework (Ch. 11).

Although the book clearly introduces the obstacles to cooperation in transboundary water management in the Nile Basin; at times, it adopts a less than objective tone when describing Egypt’s role in the Basin. While Egypt’s power in the Basin is indisputable, and most of the book’s more critical references to Egypt’s control in the Basin are references to other authors’ works, the ‘Egyptian perspective’ is not as well developed as the upstream perspective. That said, the authors do recognize Egypt’s near-complete dependence on the Nile and emphasize that any future basin-wide legal framework must recognize this as well.

The authors aptly point out that the ‘question in the Nile River basin today is not whether to change the status quo but how to do so.’ In the final chapter, they highlight several components of a process they believe will lead to the development of an effective basin-wide legal instrument. These include (i) recognition of Egypt’s dependence on the Nile; (ii) an inclusive and participatory process; (iii) ownership of the process by the Nile Basin states; (iv) basin-wide consultation to ensure the buy-in of all stakeholders (not just government representatives and technocrats); (v) adequate support (e.g. lodging, translators, etc.) for participants engaged in the process; and (vi) flexibility in the design of the legal instrument to account for uncertainty related to climate change.

It is not entirely clear, however, how their recommendations are different from the CFA drafting and negotiation process. In other words, by the end of the book, although the authors clearly illustrate the limited efficacy of the CFA as a basin-wide legal framework in the absence of Egypt and Sudan’s support, they do not present a very clear or strong case for why their recommendations would lead to a different outcome. Given the very recent developments in the Nile Basin (which occurred after the book was published), it would be interesting to hear the authors’ perspectives on how, if at all, the momentum for cooperation catalyzed by recent events could be used to renew the Basin states’ commitment to the CFA process. After ten years of negotiation, it would be a shame to abandon the CFA altogether.


Jul 4 2014


Reviewed by Frans Evers, Dutch OECD National Contact Point, Netherlands

Combining land use and water management objectives is the key to sustainable development

Water – its Control and Combination: Multifunctionality and Flood Defences, by Monica Altamirano, Rik Jonker, and Jurgen van der Heijden, Osborne/Deltares, June 2013 (Google the title for free download of the recent English version)

A road on a dyke with sheep on the slope beside it. Can this age-old combination inspire the development of modern flood defenses? Think of dykes producing renewable energy, or serving as nurseries for new plantlife. A good reason to make combinations like these is their sustainability. Three Dutch experts present and analyse a collection of almost thirty examples, mostly from the Netherlands. Although meant as a factual report, this book puts forward a message deserving extra thought.

An area is set aside for water storage to prevent flooding of a nearby city. This area is also a place for nature conservation, water treatment, open city and recreation. Developing and using the same land for multiple purposes saves space, time and money. Yet, however interesting, this isn’t what makes these combination special.

Authorities are used to optimizing each function separately; for instance, creating a basin for water storage as wide and deep as possible at the lowest possible cost. Combining functions sharing can bring the cost down, but what is special is how multiple functionalities can optimize one another. Water storage helps nature, and nature helps water treatment. Such combinations enhance spatial quality, resulting in a better place for recreation. Revenues from recreation can be devoted to nature conservation.

Using one function to optimize others provides a unique economic force that has always been there, but has yet to be fully explored. The authors prove with almost thirty examples that such an approach contributes to sustainable development. This is an inspiring book for water managers who want to go beyond traditional solutions.

Mar 4 2014


Reviewed by Michal Russo, Tufts University

White suggests that planners have a crucial role to play in avoiding or overcoming hydrological disasters in the city.


Water and the City: Risk, Resilience and Planning for a Sustainable Future, by Iain White, Routledge, 2010, 224 pp.

In his brief yet surprisingly comprehensive book White deconstructs risk and resilience from the perspective of spatial planning for water in cities. Central to his argument is a conviction, which he draws from Gilbert White, that hydrological disasters in cities are not ‘acts of god’ or natural events. Rather, they are the result of manufactured risks created by patterns of urbanization. In fact, he goes so far as to say that ‘the historical development of many cities may appear to have almost been designed to maximize the risk of flooding and water scarcity’ (p. 175). The silver lining – since the way we design and plan cities has accentuated flood impacts and water scarcity challenges – is that planning could just as well offer a way out of this situation.

White provides much needed clarity regarding ways of handling risk and enhancing resilience. He emphasizes mitigation and adaptation as the goals of intervention. Mitigation takes a longer view. Hazards might be minimized to support a return to equilibrium. Adaptation entails building capacity to respond to changing conditions in the short run by reducing exposure and vulnerability.

My challenge to White concerns the role he assigns to planners in deciding how to lay out cities to reduce risks. He recognizes the surprisingly stationary nature of the problem (citing philosophers and planners from centuries ago who depict challenges reminiscent of those we face at present). This suggests that we run the risk of returning to old blueprints for new solutions. ‘Risk’, he writes, ‘may not be removed but instead transferred spatially and deferred temporally’ (p. 182). Thus, the challenge of choosing the right intervention strategy requires making decisions in the face of substantial uncertainty and picking winners and losers. Are planners up to these tasks? It might make more sense for planners to take the lead in organizing collaborative efforts to manage collective risks.

Nov 5 2013


Reviewed by Gregg Macey, Brooklyn Law School

David Hess delves into the politics and economics of the transition towards green energy and the development of a green workforce in the U.S.

Good Green Jobs in a Global Economy: Making and Keeping New Industries in the United States, by David Hess, The MIT Press, 2012, 304 pp.

In Good Green Jobs in a Global Economy (MIT Press, 2012), David Hess moves beyond the stale dichotomies of climate change response, such as mitigation vs. adaptation and market- vs. standards-based policies. The 111th Congress was our most dramatic attempt to enact a market-based solution to climate change. In the wake of H.R. 2454, S. 1733, and other dead bills, the Obama administration marshaled its existing executive authority, such as section 111 of the Clean Air Act, to adopt performance standards for stationary sources of carbon emissions. Hess offers a more nuanced approach to the congressional term and its crisis of leadership. He views it as a moment along a broader transition from a carbon-based economy. Good Green Jobs examines the unevenness of this “green transition,” how it leads to weaknesses in our industrial policy, and the prospects for bending the direction that the transition will take.

As a sociologist, Hess explores the transition with tools that are familiar to students of social movement theory: cultural frames, resource mobilization, and political opportunities. His past works share a concern for political opportunity structures used by locally owned organizations (Localist Movements in a Global Economy) and civil society groups aligned against harmful or risky technologies (Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry).  Good Green Jobs continues this focus, and at a particular level of analysis: social fields, and the definitional and object conflicts that happen within them. With qualitative data (interviews, observation of conference meetings, and surveys of industry reports) and statistical modeling (to explain variation in green transition policies), Hess locates the battle against climate change in cultural shifts at different levels of governance. These changes underlie the birth of a “developmentalist” ideology, which defends domestic industry through a mix of industrial policy and the remedy of unfair trade practices. This is the landscape in which our response to climate change takes shape.

Approaching climate change as a social movement challenge rather than a generic collective action problem yields substantial insights. Hess’s distinct form of field analysis isolates the “political ideologies associated with different types of policy interventions.” Change occurs at different scales (“organizational and urban scale to national or international”) in a social field, and by focusing on institutional change, Hess pivots from sociology’s preoccupation with how fields are reproduced. Hess uses these innovations to offer a roadmap for reform. He explains the green energy transition as an uneven selection of “demand” (e.g., cap-and-trade, renewable electricity standards) and “supply” (e.g., research and development, tax credits and subsidies, regional cluster development) policies. He surveys the role of coalitions in framing green development in each policy field, robust descriptive work that reveals constituencies that promote supply and regional demand policies, such as those found in California’s AB 32. He finds important variation across policy fields and scales of governance. The result is an account of the green transition’s political opportunity structures, and our slow, yet surprisingly robust transition from a carbon-based economy. Hess also suggests that we have entered a new generation of environmental policy, where sustainability and developmentalist design tools will predominate instead of market, command, or informational approaches. His multilevel study of policy fields, their shaping by localist and regional efforts, and the impact of systemic shocks such as funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, explodes the usual boundaries of environmental federalism. Stale fights over the benefits of state versus federal regulation, at times waged with little analytic backing, would benefit from Hess’s urgent and more complete analysis.

Sep 27 2013


Reviewed by Isabelle Anguelovski, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

This book, co-edited by Hernan Casakin and Fátima Bernardo, looks into the role of place identity in shaping a person’s perception, understanding and appreciation of their physical environment.

2 - The-Role-of-Place-300
The Role of Place Identity in the Perception, Understanding, and Design of Built Environments, Edited by Hernan Casakin and Fátima Bernardo, Bentham Science, 2012, 231 pp.

How are place attachment, sense of belonging, and place identity relevant to the experience of residents, urban planners, and architects in the built environment? A number of disciplines ranging from environmental psychology, geography, urban sociology, architecture, or urban planning have engaged at length with the concept of place identity – that is the part of our personal identity through which people express their belonging to a specific place. However, to date little attention has been paid to the relationships between identity, place, and urban design and planning. This is an important gap in theory, empirical research, and practice-oriented work that the wide diversity of chapters in The Role of Place Identity in the Perception, Understanding, and Design of Built Environments attempt to fill.

Not only does this volume provide insights into the diverse ways through which people experience their city or neighborhood and the ties they weave with it despite disruptions, change, and new developments. The authors also offer in-depth analysis about place (re)creation over time and the specific role of architects, developers, and policies (such as overcrowding ordinances, zoning, urban renewal and redevelopment) as they affect the identity of a place and the local value it has for residents. This intellectual concern is particularly relevant in a context of urban globalization, competition, integration, homogenization, and architecture’s obsession with modernism, together with demands for urban design originality and differentiation.

A few chapters (13,14) analyze those tensions very nicely as they uncover the multiple ways in which architects reshape cities and neighborhoods, and how many new projects and buildings create anonymity, vacuum, and disconnection for traditional residents. As place identity becomes reshaped, the built environment is at risk of losing its vitality and livability. Most of the authors also propose concrete recommendations for creating more holistic and deeper approaches to urban design through a variety of nicely documented cases studies – from the design of welcoming and useful spaces for elderly residents in Israel (Chapter 8) to the protection and enhancement of public spaces in informal settlements in Colombia (Chapter 7).

Despite these compelling insights, the volume is bit repetitive in regards to the theoretical frameworks or definitions offered in each chapter. It would also gain from an Introduction and Conclusion bringing all the chapters together and providing greater cohesion to the volume. It reads more like a – rich and detailed – collection of essays than a true edited volume with an original argument. The argument is not new that urban designers must understand people’s experiences of and expectations from places when they develop, (re)develop, or rebuild them. The book only alludes to the numerous conflicts and forms of contestation that arise over place transformation and place identity disruption, and how urban planners, designers, and architects confront these movements and conflicts. How does place identity in the built environment becomes reshaped and reasserted in light of resistance?

Sep 27 2013


Reviewed by Lawrence Susskind, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Dr Brian Stone, Jr. provides new information about the disastrous heat island effects created by urban centers and prescribes various policy frameworks to help correct this increasingly urgent situation.

3 -- City and the Coming CLimate

The City and the Coming Climate: Climate Change in the Places We Live, by Brian Stone, Jr., Cambridge University Press, 2012, 187 pp.

In his incredibly important book, Professor Brian Stone and his team at Georgia Institute of Technology show in no uncertain terms that CO2 emissions are not the only cause of climate change. Thus, reducing CO2 emissions won’t address the heat waves and frightening heat island threats that kill more people than any other climate-related risk each year. The “loss of trees and other vegetative cover combined with the emission of waste heat from industries, vehicles and buildings” is causing dangerous heat island effects in cities all over the world. Climate science has tended to ignore the fact that cities are getting hotter than the countryside that surrounds them. And adaptation strategies that don’t reduce the causes of urban heat islands are beside the point.

In an easily accessible but scientifically scrupulous way, Stone explains why climate skeptics no longer have any basis for doubting that human actions are the cause of current worldwide temperatures increases. And, he provides persuasive modeling evidence to show that temperature increases in cities represent a serious health hazard.

Stone argues for (1) broadening the definition of climate change to encompass land-surface drivers; (2) a regional scale approach to monitoring and explaining temperature changes; (3) a commitment to forest protection and reforestation, particularly in developing countries like Brazil and Indonesia; and (4) adaptive mitigation (e.g. ways of reducing climate change impacts that help cities achieve other objectives at the same time).

In my view, Stone doesn’t get the international relations behind climate change treaty-making right; and, because he doesn’t put climate change treaty-making in the broader context of other global negotiations (e.g. perpetual North-South disagreements, the difficulties of getting any country to relinquish any of it sovereignty, enforcement problems with all international law, the principle of differentiated responsibility that was the key to getting developing countries to sign the original 1992 Framework Convention, etc.), his proposed reforms are less than compelling. Nevertheless, after reading this book it is impossible to think about climate change as a problem we can pass on to future generations. Cities need to do something now. Moreover, we don’t need international mandates to force us to implement land-based mitigation. The health and welfare of current residents depends on cities restoring vegetation and reducing (and capturing) the thermal radiation created by urban development.

Jun 24 2013


Reviewed by Kelly Heber, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Science-Based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs by Jonathan Koomey, Analytics Press, 2012, 222pp.

Cold Cash, Cool Climate begins with a novel, concise, and easy-to-read explanation of current climate science, as if pitching a green startup to an investor. It is a useful presentation for a society burdened by what a recent New York Times article called “climate fatigue.” It offers what could be a practical response to the unnecessary stalemate between industrial competition and sustainability noted by Michael Porter. Koomey summarizes decades of climate science, positing unprecedented levels of greenhouse gases already in the earth’s atmosphere. From there, he illustrates how entrepreneurs, would-be investors, and startups interested in turning a profit can make money while addressing the challenges posed by climate change. The book reads like the kind of policy report a consulting firm might turn out. Non-business and non-technical readers will remain engaged as he makes connections between impending crises and market-driven change possibilities. Most of this change, according to Koomey, should occur in industries prepared to develop infrastructure for renewables. He makes a surprising assertion, though, when he alleges that the Apollo Program is an inadequate analogy for the role government might play to bring about systemic change, since it is too myopic. I would argue that Congressional politics are also too polarized for government to take the steps necessary to support relevant entrepreneurial efforts. Nevertheless, Koomey argues that newer areas of innovation like connectivity and social media will allow for a more cohesive institutional overhaul of what is possible, setting the stage for would-be investors and startups looking to profit from helping to “solve” the climate problem. In Koomey’s book, the entrepreneur is both the protagonist and the target audience, cast as a convincing bringer-of-change, where slow moving institutions have failed in the past.

May 23 2013

FLEXIBILITY IN ENGINEERING DESIGN by Richard de Neufville and Stefan Scholtes

 Reviewed by Todd Schenk, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Flexibility in Engineering Design
Flexibility in Engineering Design by Richard de Neufville and Stefan Scholtes, MIT Press, 2011, 312 pp

For all our engineering marvels, the world has seen its share of white elephants and design failures – bridges to nowhere, communications networks out-of-date by the time they are deployed, and dikes overtopped leading to flooding. Perhaps these problems are to be expected; designers and engineers are always confronted with significant biophysical, social and economic uncertainty, and no model is perfect. Furthermore, the world is constantly changing, making different designs optimal at different points in time. The conventional approach to design is to use average or worst-case forecasts, add in safety factors and proceed as though we know what the future holds. Unfortunately, this leads to wasted resources when projects are overdesigned and failure when they are underdesigned.

de Neufville and Scholtes make a compelling case for another approach. Instead of preparing a single forecast of a possible future, they argue for building in flexibility so that engineered projects can be adapted easily as conditions change. One example they present is the bridge over the Tagus River in Lisbon, Portugal. When it was constructed in the 1960s, its designers had the foresight to make it strong enough to hold a second deck at some point in the future, if that became necessary. They also included a railroad station underneath the toll plaza in case rail connections were ever added. Thirty years later, their foresight paid off when a second deck carrying commuter rail lines was constructed at modest cost and little disruption to the transportation system.

While it may sound simple, the challenges associated with shifting the way project design proceeds, from the traditional predict, plan and build approach to something more iterative should not be underestimated. Designers and engineers need to rethink the way they use forecasting models. Budgeting and capital planning need to allow for longer-term project adaptation. de Neufville and Scholtes introduce a variety of tools to support this shift, including phasing projects and investments, Monte Carlo simulation for exploring scenarios, and dynamic forecasting to highlight uncertainties.

Strategies for making planning and design nimbler can not come soon enough, given that climate change is increasing uncertainty and budgets are regularly stretched. Flexibility should become the new design norm. This book represents both a manifesto for this important shift as well as an early guidebook instructing us how to get there.

Feb 1 2013


Reviewed by Alexis Schulman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

America the Possible:  A Manifesto for a New Economy, by James Gustave Speth, Yale University Press, 272pp

In the opening of his new book, America the Possible: A Manifesto for a New Economy, James Gustave (Gus) Speth—once called the “consummate environmental insider”—makes a startling claim. After nearly four decades moving seamlessly between the worlds of nonprofits, academia, and government, Speth has concluded that working “inside the system” has failed. Solving the slew of environmental and social ills facing the United States, he argues, requires nothing less than profoundly altering their driving force: our political economy.

For those who doubt that America is struggling, Speth kicks off his manifesto with a disturbing summary of America’s “firsts.” Among all OECD nations, he notes, the United States ranks number one in inequality of incomes, homicide rate, poverty rate, prison population, and international arm sales. And these are just a handful of many other undesirables. However, Speth aims less to sway skeptics than to rally the believers—those desirous of a more just, fair, and sustainable future. With remarkable comprehensiveness and clarity, America the Possible lays out the problems with our system, a vision for the future, as well as the required economic and political reforms. At the core of his vision, is a reigning in of the economic growth imperative. Drawing on the work of economist Herman Daly, Speth envisions a steady state economy, where resource consumption and population growth are reduced within ecological limits; and where economic policies seek to maximize quality of life, not quantity of output.

Speth rightly aligns his arguments with similar narratives emerging from the coalescing new economy movement. Indeed, America the Possible often reads as a Who’s Who of the movement’s rising stars (of which Speth is one), and is replete with their theories and projects, such as the democratization of wealth through stakeholder-owned companies, proposals for 100 percent reserve requirements, and reductions in work hours. Speth’s book provides one of the best new economic primers out there. The only drawback is that Speth’s own insights and cultivated wisdom are frequently lost in the mix. His voice is most original when discussing how to build the political movement to see these reforms forward. This is an important and frequently under-articulated issue, and it is clear that here Speth is drawing on his own lessons learned. But ultimately, one wishes for more of these moments.

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