Mar 4 2014

THE BET: PAUL EHRLICH, JULIAN SIMON, AND OUR GAMBLE OVER EARTH’S FUTURE, by Paul Sabin

Reviewed by Peter R. Mulvihill, University of York

This book explores the history and development of opposing ideologies and perspectives that shape political discourse about the environment.

11705082454_0da788225c_o

The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future, by Paul Sabin, Yale University Press, 2013, 320 pp.

What are the prospects of informed and nuanced debate on global environmental issues and climate change? If Paul Sabin’s new book is any indication, we have a long way to go before we can reasonably expect edifying debate to take place. The Bet is an exploration of the ideological and political gulf that continues to separate ‘pessimists’ who believe in resource limits and ‘optimists’ who contend that environmental concerns are exaggerated and can be overcome by technology and ingenuity.

In this well written and expertly researched book, Sabin guides the reader through the history of polarized environmental debates in the United States, embodied in particular by two well known and prolific academics. In the green corner is Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb and other notable works. His chief opponent, Julian Simon, penned The Ultimate Resource and numerous other essays in response to what he dismissed as neo-Malthusian hysteria. Sabin offers an intimate history, probing the personalities and motivations of Ehrlich and Simon, and charts their respective career paths as they gathered influence and honed their debating strategies (and informed those of Carter, Reagan and many others in the political arena).

Ehrlich emerged first, and it might surprise today’s younger environmentalists to consider that he was famous enough to have been a guest on The Tonight Show in the 1970s more than twenty times. As Johnny Carson might have said, that is weird, wild stuff indeed. And, pardon the digression, but I would be willing to wager that this is the only book in existence with a bibliography that lists ‘Carson, Johnny’ followed by ‘Carson, Rachel’.

The Bet is part of a growing literature documenting and analyzing the history of the modern environmental movement. The Ehrlich/Simon conflict – as Sabin shows, they became bitter adversaries – is a useful vehicle to examine the underlying reasons for the ongoing lack of productive dialogue on sustainability and climate change. Popular images of the debates and the debaters remain largely stereotypical; any contest between perceived prophets of doom and dinosaurs is bound to be taken with a grain of salt. But it would be a mistake to assume that either side was posturing. It is striking to consider, as Sabin demonstrates, the mutual naivety of the foes. Simon could not grasp why the public seemed to be so interested what he viewed as unfounded and pessimistic prognostications of resource collapse, and Ehrlich, for his part, ‘…. could not fathom the possibility that fundamentally different values or ideologies might yield different conclusions.’ Needless to say, the reader will find little common ground or reconciliation in The Bet, but that is no doubt the point, and it raises important questions about the vagaries of scientific evidence, the mug’s game of prediction, the limits of debate and the dreariness of partisan environmental politics. If there is a silver lining to be found in this story, it may be the relative inexperience of the modern environmental movement and the possibility of future generation doing things differently.


Mar 4 2014

WATER AND THE CITY: RISK, RESILIENCE AND PLANNING FOR A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE, by Iain White

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.

51iO-uDZfOL._

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.


Mar 4 2014

A JOURNEY IN THE FUTURE OF WATER, by Terje Tvedt (translation by Richard Daly)

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma, Development Analyst and Columnist, New Delhi, India

Water binds together the past and the future and helps explain our evolution as a species.

51m07crF-cL._

A Journey in the Future of Water, by Terje Tvedt (translation by Richard Daly), I. B. Tauris, 2013, 262 pp.

Marked by huge amounts of waste and competing demands, the supply of water is presumed to be the precursor to a probable third world war.  Situations with respect to water sharing come perilously close to what Mark Twain once said: ‘Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.’ It seems the universal fluid that will shape humanity’s future could be soaked with blood.

Not deterred by threatening changes in the global climate that may accelerate glacial melting and transform water flows in major river basins, Terje Tvedt portrays an optimistic picture of humanity’s water future after traveling through some of the most amazing locations across five continents. With a professional background in geography, history and political science, the author offers multiple perspectives for the reader to choose from. While Tvedt is forthright in saying that ‘howsoever grandiose attempts to manage water may be, water does not allow itself to be completely controlled’, he is equally candid in concluding that ‘qualified technological optimism is the only optimism that endures.’

He organizes his immensely readable narrative on water into three distinct sections: the impact of ‘water blindness’ across countries; the implications of ‘water control’ in contested river basins; and the power of science and technology to usher in a bright ‘water future’. Tvedt avoids taking an ideological position as to whether the glass is half full or half empty, instead leaving it to the reader to make an objective assessment of impending water crises. However the world responds to these imminent crises, water fundamentally binds together the past and the future and points to the continuity of our evolution as a species.

A Journey in the Future of Water suggests that the new age of uncertainty will have a dramatic impact on water landscapes. Not only are water conflicts likely to escalate, but control over water will be in the hands of those possessing technological and economic power. The temptation to use this power in despotic ways is unlikely to disappear. So, we need binding international laws and regulations backed by resource-endowed international institutions to ensure that human and ecological rights to water are met.

Although this book was originally published in Norwegian in 2007, the English translation by Richard Daly is refreshingly original. More than a travelogue, it is an authoritative treatise on water that makes for compelling reading. It is one book that I intend to keep close at hand. I will use it as a ready reckoner of exotic places should an opportunity arise for me to undertake such interesting travels. If I sound envious of Terje Tvedt, so be it. He has helped me to learn a great deal about water issues.

 


Mar 4 2014

SECRETS OF THE ICE: ANTARCTICA’S CLUES TO CLIMATE, THE UNIVERSE AND THE LIMITS OF LIFE, by Veronika Meduna

Reviewed by Michael M. Gunter, Jr, Rollins College

Antarctica holds the key to understanding not only how life evolved on earth and the climate change underway today, but also what lies well beyond our planet.

51Wb9K6K0hL._SX385_

Secrets of the Ice: Antarctica’s Clues to Climate, the Universe, and the Limits of Life, by Veronika Meduna, Yale University Press, 2012, 232 pp.

Combining lyrical prose with over 150 colour photographs that capture both the breathtaking beauty and intense challenges of the Antarctic landscape, Secrets of the Ice provides an engaging overview of collaborative international scientific research in Antarctica across a range of disciplines, from astronomy to zoology.

Trained as a microbiologist and now one of New Zealand’s leading science journalists, author Veronika Meduna utilizes both of these backgrounds to produce an attractive and eminently readable work as well as a valuable scientific resource. Based in part on formal interviews with a range of scientists and informal conversations dating back to her first visit to New Zealand’s Scott Base over a decade ago in 2001, Meduna deftly transports readers to the last frontier on our planet and a new heroic age of discovery in Antarctica.

After a short introduction, Meduna’s first chapter explores Antarctica’s climate history, from its warm Gondwana origins teeming with life to the frozen landscape that is the world’s largest desert today. Chapter two then focuses on marine life, highlighting the migration and breeding of the continent’s iconic emperor penguin species as well as lesser known endemic species such as white-blooded fish with an unique chemistry of antifreeze proteins that facilitate their survival in such harsh conditions.

Chapter three targets terrestrial survivors of freeze–thaw cycles and the six-month-long polar night, while chapter four concentrates on microscopic life in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, spotlighting scientists in their search for life on the coldest continent. In closing, a concise coda suggests Antarctica holds the key to understanding not only how life evolved on earth and the climate change underway today, but also what lies well beyond our planet. This section suggests the frozen landscape provides a fresh perspective for astronomers and physicists studying elusive particles known as neutrinos and insights into the Big Bang theory.

An additional section on resources and recommended reading further enhances Meduna’s contribution, including annotations on everything from academic works on fish, penguins and invertebrates to biographies of golden age explorers such as Scott and Shackleton.

In summary, Meduna deftly details a continent of extremes. Antarctica is the coldest, driest, highest and windiest continent. This 10 per cent of the earth’s landmass is also our best archive of past climate conditions and a valuable resource for understanding the climate change underway today. With nearly three-quarters of the world’s fresh water frozen in a precarious balance, moreover, Meduna convincingly points out that Antarctica is not just a ‘passive bystander’ when it comes to climate change but also a major driver.



Parse error: syntax error, unexpected 'endif' (T_ENDIF) in /home/anthempr/public_html/anthemenviroexperts.com/wp-content/themes/elegant-grunge/footer.php on line 14