Jan 30 2014

STATE OF THE WORLD 2013: IS SUSTAINABILITY STILL POSSIBLE?, by The Worldwatch Institute

Reviewed by Peter R. Mulvihill, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, Toronto, Canada

Worldwatch Institute’s latest edition of State of the World uncovers the rampant misuse of the term “sustainability” in marketing today and attempts to restore meaning to the cause.

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State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, by The Worldwatch Institute, Island Press, 2013, 200 pp.

This latest report in an ongoing series manages to be fresh and provocative, even as it reiterates messages that are depressingly familiar to many. More than a compilation of sobering news, trends and indicators, State of the World 2013 offers fresh perspectives and alternatives. At a monumental 34 chapters, it leaves few sustainability issues unaddressed, and it offers, as usual, a wealth of data and analysis.

While acknowledging the pitfalls of “sustainability” as an overarching term, the report seeks to add nuance in exploring the many dimensions of “true sustainability,” an even deeper and more complicated challenge than was probably imagined not so long ago. The implications are far reaching: novel interactions unfolding amidst increasing connectivity, speed and scale; footprint and planetary boundaries increasingly exceeded; and wicked problems and social inequities confounding solutions. Compared to earlier State of the World installments, the tone has shifted. In past decades a core message involved the possibility of a grand global turnaround. However, now it is clear that irreversible losses have been incurred, and we must turn our attention to more strategic management of diminishing options.

Notwithstanding the relentless gloom, some will be inspired by the many possibilities. For example, not all of the freshwater sustainability thresholds have yet been reached; increased consumption of anchovies offers an alternative to tuna collapse; opportunities for advances in renewable energy abound; and waste management solutions continue to be identified. In the education sector, greater emphasis on “Big History” may lay the groundwork for changing values and attitudes and re-engineering cultures.

Among the more provocative chapters, we are offered a highly critical examination of environmental studies programs and their “big tent” ethos, an exploration of missionary movements and their lessons for environmentalism and a discussion of the “Cuba Paradigm” as a possible sustainability model. On the strength of its comprehensive reach and insights, State of the World 2013 should be of considerable interest to both newer and older audiences.


Jan 30 2014

WATER SECURITY: PRINCIPLES, PERSPECTIVES AND PRACTICES, Edited by Bruce Lankford, Karen Bakker, Mark Zeitoun and Declan Conway

Reviewed by Lawrence Susskind, MIT

Experts present an overview of the latest research, policies, and various perspectives on water security.

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Water Security: Principles, Perspectives and Practices, Edited by Bruce Lankford, Karen Bakker, Mark Zeitoun and Declan Conway, Routledge, 2013, 376 pp.

Water security requires much more than just an adequate supply of clean fresh water. Relationships with neighboring countries who use shared water resources also matter. So, too, do national policies regarding water conservation, agriculture and food production, flood protection, energy, climate adaptation, patterns of urbanization and investments in infrastructure and water quality improvement technology. To ensure water security, each country must find a way to monitor all these interactions and develop strategies to reconcile the many conflicts involved.

Lankford, Bakker, Zeitoun and Conway have put together the best collection on the subject of water security I’ve ever read. They explain why economic instruments (especially pricing) and international law (particularly “rights frameworks”) are relevant but not decisive, with regard to a country’s water security. Water sharing arrangements, or “water co-security” as the editors call it, are even more important. Thus, “winning” the water wars with adjacent users of transboundary waters (by wresting control) will not guarantee water security. Only helping to ensure mutual sufficiency and equity can accomplish that.

The transition from water co-insecurity to water co-security requires political intervention (or what the editors call “water security governance”), along with investments in new technology and internal harmonization of sectoral policies in each country. These transitions will obviously play out differently in each region (in the face of varying supplies of blue, green and virtual water), but once you read this book the underlying dynamics will be clear.


Jan 30 2014

WHAT HAS NATURE EVER DONE FOR US? HOW MONEY REALLY DOES GROW ON TREES, by Tony Juniper

Reviewed by Gunnar Rundgren, GrolinkAB

Tony Juniper shares impactful stories on the “ecosystem services” nature provides us and our economies which we often take for granted.

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What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? How Money Really Does Grow on Trees, by Tony Juniper, Profile Books, 2013, 336 pp.

Vultures can clean up a cow carcass in minutes, leaving only bones behind. In India, considering the resistance to eating cattle, most cows have historically been eaten by vultures. At a certain point, however, the Indian vulture population collapsed from some 40 million to merely a fraction of that. The use of a new anti-inflammatory drug on the cattle proved to be lethal for vultures. As a result, “There was an explosion in the population of wild dogs,” says environmentalist Tony Juniper, “More dogs led to more dog bites and that caused more rabies infections among people.” The disease killed thousands and cost the Indian government an estimated $30 billion.

The story of the Indian vultures is one of the most striking from What Has Nature Ever Done for us?:  How Money Really Does Grow on Trees by Tony Juniper. Through numerous stories Juniper reveals how nature is not only the provider of all our food and oxygen but also the world’s largest water utility, and it provides us with many more ecosystem services such as pest and disease control and soil reproduction.

I expected that Juniper, with his combined experience with Friends of the Earth, business and politics, would have some fresh insights into the question, “how do we go forward?” Unfortunately, I am disappointed by his common suggestions that have been around for decades: developing better indicators, selling ecosystem services and valuing nature. There is nothing wrong with these suggestions, but they fall short of expectations and are in no way innovative.

 


Jan 30 2014

WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE, by Kerry Emanuel

­­Reviewed by Michael M. Gunter, Jr., Rollins College

Kerry Emanuel offers a concise overview of the science of climate change and deftly explains the difficulties of communicating its complexities to the general public.

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What We Know about Climate Change (2nd ed.), by Kerry Emanuel, The MIT Press, 2012, 128 pp.

What We Know about Climate Change (2012) offers a concise and non-intimidating overview of the science of climate change while deftly explaining the political difficulties involved in communicating its complexities. In less than 100 pages Emanuel offers a tightly scripted summary of the basic science of climate change, noting that broad scientific consensus on human activity as the significant causal agent is still met by obstinate global warming skeptics and ill-informed elected officials within the United States. A professor of atmospheric science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science at MIT, Emanuel was named by Time magazine in May 2006 as one of the “100 People Who Shape Our World.” This second edition covers eight chapters with a new section about the prospects of confronting climate change using adaptation, mitigation and geo-engineering.

The first two chapters introduce the dynamic nature of our 4.5 billion year-old planet, from Wegener’s continental drift to the advance and retreat of huge ice sheets over millennia, all while emphasizing that our civilization developed during a period of exceptional climate stability over the last 7,000 years. The second chapter explains greenhouse physics and the central role of water vapor in trapping more and more heat. In essence, the warmer the atmosphere, the more water vapor evaporates, with the extreme end result akin to the planet Venus where the oceans are depleted and an average surface temperature of 900 degrees Fahrenheit cooks everything.

The real strength of this book is in later chapters that effectively flesh out the link between science and the politics of climate change, emphasizing the difficulty of communicating climate science to the general public. For example, in chapters three and four, Emanuel explains that while evidence clearly exists that our climate is changing, exactly how much it will change remains uncertain. Climate modeling distinguishes “climate noise” which occurs in short spurts of less than 30 years from the frightening shifts underway since industrialization. It forecasts more intense storms, droughts and floods as well as rising sea levels and acidification. These changes are already underway, but positive feedback loops, with their very negative impacts, continue to challenge climate models. For instance, despite millions of lines of computer instructions, climate models cannot yet simulate critical heat-transferring dynamics involving cumulus clouds. These clouds, typically only a few miles wide, are simply too small to fit into current models that are segmented into 50 mile horizontal blocks.

Like many before him, from Ross Gelbspan to Michael Mann, Emanuel notes that fossil fuel interests have capitalized on these uncertainties, taking a page out of the tobacco lobby playbook to confuse the electorate and stall transition away from a carbon intensive economy. To his credit, though, Emanuel does not restrict his finger pointing to conservatives and the Republican Party. He also notes that liberals need to rethink nuclear power and that journalists, with their “attraction to controversy,” have done a woeful job reporting on climate change to date, actively abetting climate change skeptics in the process.



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