Jul 17 2018

Water: Abundance, Scarcity and Security in the Age of Humanity

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

Water

 

by Jeremy J. Schmidt, Water: Abundance, Scarcity and Security in the Age of HumanitySAGE, 2018, 307 pp.

Cape Town may be the first waterless city, but the fact that humans are drawing more than their fair share of water should make us shudder as things are likely to become worse before they get any better. From surplus to scarcity, human interference with global water systems has created an issue of security, requiring new ways of managing water in the age of the Anthropocene. With the idea of water stability thrown into a tailspin, there is an urgent need to define “safe operating space” for humans to work within planetary boundaries for sustaining life and life forms.

By altering planetary systems, humans have attained the status of a geological force, causing all the ways in which water management connects to geography, culture and economics to lose their relevance. Far from inducing equitable access to water across sectors, the global impact of the American approach to water management has triggered a brazen water grab not only within the local hydrological contexts, but also in regional and national contexts. Unless this prevailing approach is questioned, argues Jeremy Schmidt, inequalities, including those that exist on a geological scale, cannot be addressed.

While it should be apparent that dividing humans from nature will not help us understand our impact on natural processes, a failed attempt to reject the society/nature dualism in the past had led to an oppressive logic and enhanced the prospects of meeting certain ends rather than others. The book asks: how do conflicts over water, such as those over the right to water, gain prominence?

The trouble with a single planetary story about water, especially one tied to a techno-centric philosophy of water management, is that while it does not deny that alternatives exist, it simply posits that we can get by without them. Schmidt presents three philosophical perspectives to counter this view: first, water resources should be managed without privileging a particular cultural understanding; second, we should acknowledge that social relations take shape around different water use practices; and third, we should appreciate and acknowledge the intrinsic importance of different symbolic ends that others attach to water. These three concerns—over subjects, social relations and symbolic goods––could be critical entry points for initiating a new discourse on water management. We need this because the paradigm of “making things public” is inadequate; it fails to see that water problems are the outcome of a failed nineteenth-century solution tied to society/nature dualism. Although this argument may seem troublesome to those excited about emerging social entrepreneurship around water, Schmidt is asking us to consider the questions that arise for modernity as the result of water management practices instead of thinking about water management as the product of modernity.

Relying on volumes of historical sources, the book attempts to bridge engineering solutions and the social ideas that informed them. As we are now part of an “unfolding water drama,” the challenge for global water governance is that it has not separated itself sufficiently from the philosophy that gave rise to the problems it seeks to solve.

 Schmidt does not offer a solution, but rather questions the prevailing philosophy of water, the end result of which is that water, once abundant, is now scarce.  If water continues to be managed as it is at present, the majority of our rivers will only be carrying treated waste water.

Water offers refreshing new historical and philosophical insights to help rethink the prevailing (global) philosophy of water management.


Feb 1 2018

Clouds: Nature and Culture

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

To be on cloud nine!

9781780237237

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

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.

 

WhereRiversFlow

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.

 


Jan 11 2017

Environmental Litigation in China: A Study in Political Ambivalence

Reviewed by Jessica Gordon, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The emergence of and reactions to environmental litigation in China.

Environmental Litigation in China

 

by Rachel Stern Environmental Litigation in China: A Study in Political Ambivalence, Cambridge University Press, 2013, 314 pp.

What happens when tons of industrial waste are dumped in a Chinese river? Rachel Stern’s insightful book Environmental Litigation in China: A Study in Political Ambivalence explores the shifting conditions under which the Chinese legal system is being used to address pollution issues. While the book is written in clear and accessible prose, it complicates common narratives around the Chinese legal system and exposes its many contradictions. The first half of the book provides a nuanced picture of environmental litigation including exploring specific pollution cases with different approaches and outcomes and is fascinating as it reveals the strengths, limitations and creativity within environmental litigation. The second half of the book analyzes the issue from the perspectives of judges, lawyers and NGOs. While the voices of state actors are notably absent, given the limitations of research in China this is understandable. Stern rallies a range of evidence to support her argument.

She demonstrates how actors are reacting to a state that sees the advantages of using the law to control pollution, but also recognizes how the law could undermine the state itself. Stern terms these conflicting state signals political ambivalence and analyzes how they provide space for bottom-up experimentation and incremental change. It is, however, also clear that the legal system alone will not be enough to address the variety of forces that allow pollution to continue.

The book focuses on the Hu period and should be taken as a slice in time. The legal landscape is changing as the new environmental law makes it easier for some groups to sue polluting industries. The first public interest case under the new law in 2016 was successful. Most cases, though, are still not making it to the court. The book would be a great choice for an undergraduate or graduate course on environmental politics. It is also likely to engage anyone interested in the intersection of law and the environment.


Oct 8 2016

Ecopolitical Homelessness: Defining Place in an Unsettled World

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

We are all experiencing a kind of homelessness in relation to the places where we live.

ecopolitical-homelessness-defining-place-in-an-unsettled-world-by-gerard-kuperus-1317232704

By Gerard Kuperus Ecopolitical Homelessness: Defining Place in an Unsettled World, Routledge, 2016, 188pp.

With increasing mobility and the growing homogeneity of living spaces, the idea that ‘home is where the heart is’ may be losing its meaning. With the same corporations not only invading but in many cases constituting the public space in which we live, traditional notions of ‘home’ are being suppressed. We now seem to favor a false home that makes us think we know who we are. In fact, it is more likely that we are utterly lost. The universal marketplaces, automated teller machines and coffee shop chains provide a false sense of home and a fanciful identity. Conversely, we are experiencing a kind of ‘homelessness’ that does not reflect who we are in relation to the places we live. At a philosophical level, we face a crisis: core values of community are eroding and, as a result, we have nothing to hold on to. Instead, we hang on to what celebrities are wearing, the cars our neighbors drive and the brand of mobile phone our friends carry. We have lost our sense of our unique selves.

Drawing on Nietzsche’s philosophy to diagnose this unique form of ‘homelessness,’ Gerard Kuperus argues that a lack of any real grounding in the places where we live is unsustainable and dangerous. Development has turned a majority of humans into nomads, desperately trying to solidify and commercialize the places around them. This nomadism focuses on transformation of the places that we move to and from, but not on transformation of ourselves. This is the crisis of our times: we create homes by immunizing ‘ourselves’ against ‘the other,’ both human and environmental.

Gerard Kuperus, a professor of environment philosophy at the University of San Francisco, proposes an eco-politics that calls for a very different interaction between humans and nature. At the interface, he argues, humans and nonhumans need to coexist by reacting more carefully to each other. Within this interface we must recover a sense of home rooted in homelessness. Esoteric as this may sound, his proposition is distinctly practical. Drawing on the work of Heidegger, Deleuze and Guattari, Kuperus argues for a fundamental shift in human–ecosystem relationships. We are losing ecosystems at an alarming rate; restoration efforts do not match the pace of loss. Perhaps the shift Kuperus advocates means that we ought to restore or recreate forests in which people are able to live. Only by blurring the boundaries of what we call ‘home’ can we integrate the ‘other’ into it.

Loaded with philosophical insights, Kuperus offers a wake-up call. He urges us to think differently about ourselves, our relationship to other people and our connections to the places around us. His book encourages us to let go of prevailing notions of household and rethink our interactions with strangers. The challenge, he suggests, is to find ourselves in the wild and the wild in ourselves. After all, as Nietzsche observed, man is but a bridge and not an end.


Jun 13 2016

GLOBAL ECOLOGIES AND THE ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES

Reviewer: Tarique Niazi, Ph.D. University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Global Ecologies and the Environmental Humanities examines how postcolonial theory and critical theory have a bearing on environmental and social realities.

 Global Ecologies and the Environmental Humanities

Elizabeth DeLoughrey, Jill Didur and Anthony Carrigan (eds.) Global Ecologies and the Environmental Humanities: Postcolonial Approaches, Routledge, 2015

How environmental and social realities are presented and represented is the question that is critically engaged by the field of environmental humanities. Global Ecologies and the Environmental Humanities is a testament to the scholarly sophistication that defines this discipline. The editors, Elizabeth DeLoughrey, Jill Didur and Anthony Carrigan, are the leading lights of environmental humanities. They bring critical approaches, especially postcolonial theory and critical theory, to bear upon a range of topics that are of concern to a planet divided between the privileged and the underprivileged. Postcolonial theory bears kinship with subaltern studies, while critical theory is inspired by Marxian thought and the Frankfurt School. Both theories bind texts to context to demonstrate their inextricability and ‘relations of definition’.

Texts matter in shaping human perception of the environment, its defilement and despoliation, ‘natural’ disasters, commodification of nature, the Anthropocene and climate change. As such, the volume’s real strength rests in situating contemporary environmental concerns in colonial (imperial) and postcolonial contexts to understand their historical constitution. The collection deploys a number of innovative methods to address the past, present and future state of ‘global ecologies’. All this enriches the ecocriticism presented in Global Ecologies and the Environmental Humanities to determine the ways in which the environmental predicament is interpreted and mitigated.

Divided into five sections, the volume argues that a critical study of narrative is vital to human understanding of the environment. The first section focuses on colonial and nationalist framings of ecology while conducting postcolonial readings into ‘particular environments’ (provincializing the environment). The second section is devoted to the study of disasters and resilience in different cultural contexts. How ‘natural disasters’ come to be defined is where postcolonial theory and environmental humanities shine best. The third section centers on political ecology, environmental justice and ‘environmentalism of the poor’ in African, Indian and Latin American contexts. Contributions in the fourth section delve into the ways in which ‘world ecology’ was constructed over time. In particular, it examines how ‘globatarian’ approaches to ecological manipulation caused a drift to neoliberal globalization, and asks how the capitalist world system can be considered in terms of ‘world-ecology’ The last section accounts for human transformation of the environment in the Anthropocene.

The real challenge for environmental humanities is to reconcile its postmodernist, postcolonial, critical knack for deconstructing ‘grand narratives’ with the organic unity of global ecology.

 Global Ecologies is destined to become a classic text in environmental humanities.


Apr 19 2013

THE CASE OF THE GREEN TURTLE: AN UNCENSORED HISTORY OF A CONSERVATION ICON by Alison Rieser

Reviewed by Kelly Heber, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Case of the Green Turtle: An Uncensored History of a Conservation Icon by Alison Rieser, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 352pp

Alison Rieser’s new book begins by outlining the history of efforts to conserve the green turtle, depicting its transition from a food source to a beloved conservation icon. Ecologically, green turtles are a bellwether species. Their well-being signifies ocean health while their diseases and population decline reflect oceanic toxicity. They serve as a charismatic symbol behind which people can unite in a broad movement to conserve our oceans.

Rieser begins with a rich historical description of the high demand for green turtle meat, spanning several centuries involving indigenous groups and Columbian-era explorers. The most interesting takeaway from her book is the question of whether, in the face of contemporary demand, a green turtle fishery emphasizing farming could spur conservation. The argument is that farming the species would spare wild populations. Critics assert that any increase in demand would undermine conservation. While leaders of this movement tout the possibility of relabeling the green turtle as the “bison of the sea,” detractors note its role as a conservation symbol.

The book ends by covering the recent push by some to de-list the Hawaiian subspecies of the green turtle so that pilot farming practices could be tested in the Pacific. As a reader, Rieser’s book forced me to reflect on my own ethical stance on endangered species, and if seemingly counterintuitive practices could be better for conservation overall.


Dec 21 2012

POWER AND WATER IN THE MIDDLE EAST: THE HIDDEN POLITICS OF THE PALESTINIAN–ISRAELI WATER CONFLICT by Mark Zeitoun

Review by Professor Lawrence Susskind, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Zeitoun’s work argues that attempts to monopolize control of the water supply in the Middle East is seriously undermining hopes for peace in the region.

Power and Water in the Middle East: The Hidden Politics of the Palestinian–Israeli Water Conflict, by Mark Zeitoun, IB Tauris, 224pp

Mark Zeitoun is an experienced water engineering affiliated with the Center of Environmental Policy and Governance at the London Science of Economics and Political Science. His focus is on the ‘hidden politics’ behind the Israeli–Palestinian water conflict. As Elon Tal says in his long review of this book, “Zeitoun argues that Israel has successfully made its domination of water resources part of the subconscious paradigm that drives the decisions and menu of policy options held by Palestinian water managers and politicians. In so doing, it has turned the pragmatic Palestinian professional community into accomplices in Israel’s post-colonial larceny of its neighbors’ hydrological resources.”

I take Zeitoun’s analysis very seriously, but I also find parts of Tal’s defense compelling. Having interacted with a number of Palestinian water professionals, I don’t think Zeitoun’s charge is fair. The water professionals in Palestine know exactly what is going on at every level. And, having talked with a number of senior Israeli water policy analysts, I don’t find Tal’s defense entirely convincing. Israel is preoccupied with its long-term security (what country wouldn’t be?). It won’t agree to sort out questions of fundamental rights to water on a permanent basis until all the details of a stable two-state solution are clarified. Palestinian water professionals don’t want to wait, and who would blame them, given that the small share of the region’s water that goes to the Palestinians is unacceptable.

What if Israel offers to sell the Palestinians (and Jordanians) all the water they could possibly want? The National Water Plan for 2040 calls for Israel to provide 70% of its water from desalination. If this happens, there should be more naturally occurring water available for the Palestinians. If Israel agrees to sell unlimited amounts of water (generated through multiple use of the same water supplies, more efficient agricultural production, reductions in the loss of ‘virtual water’ by cutting back shipments of fruits and vegetables out of the region, and massive investment in desalination), at modest prices, is it further evidence of hydro-hegemony? Or, is it a step toward economic interdependence? While future attacks on Israel might be met by turning off the water spigot, Palestinian investment in independent desalination facilities—and Israel’s willingness to share new low energy desalination technology—might be jointly planned moves toward peace.


Dec 21 2012

WATER DIPLOMACY: A NEGOTIATED APPROACH TO MANAGING COMPLEX WATER NETWORKS by Shafiqul Islam and Lawrence E. Susskind

Reviewed by W. Todd Jarvis, Oregon State University

Shafiqul Islam and Lawrence E. Susskind provide an interesting new framework that is both innovative and complementary to existing water negotiations frameworks.

Water Diplomacy: A Negotiated Approach to Managing Complex Water Networks, by Shafiqul Islam and Lawrence E. Susskind, RFF Press, 334pp

The days of groundwater problems being solved by hydrologists watching water move through well screens or across computer screens is quickly being replaced by the political melodramas typically found on the movie screen – negotiating over water use and reuse. This is where the new book by Shafiqul Islam and Lawrence Susskind is an important addition to the library of postmodern hydrologists. The objective of the book is to provide “a 21st century approach to water management that acknowledges the complexity and uncertainty of natural and societal systems, accepts the increasing interconnectivity and consequences of important decisions, and rejects the unquestioned authority of hierarchical governance structures.”

Water Diplomacy reads like three books under one cover. The first book develops the water diplomacy framework with an introduction to complexity theory, scale and networks through the clever use of a fable about a fictitious river basin, Indopotamia. The second book sets the stage for negotiations by examining a non-zero sum approach to water negotiations. Special features of the first two ‘books’ include many excerpts from selected journal articles related to each chapter topic, followed by short commentary by the authors.

The reader revisits Indopotamia in the third book, where a well-documented role play simulation is offered as a capacity-building exercise. I participated in this role play simulation during the 2012 Water Diplomacy Workshop. The book, the annual workshop and the role play are wonderful additions to the many other trainings and frameworks on negotiations over water resources.



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