Dec 5 2014


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.

Dec 5 2014


Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

We should be looking for transformative approaches to water negotiations

Water as a Catalyst For Peace: Transboundary Water Management and Conflict Resolution, by Ahmed Abukhater, Earthscan, 2013

The central argument of Water as a Catalyst For Peace is that water negotiations can be used to promote cooperation if equity is ensured. Abukhater uses nine cases of bilateral water treaties from around the world to make the point that three types of equity (process, outcome, and perceived) require attention. He explores the commonalities and differences in each case, emphasizing the dispute histories and the treaty outcomes (in terms of types of equity achieved).

Of his nine cases, two are developed in greater depth. The 1994 Israel-Jordan Water Treaty (Chapter 4) is offered as an example of a “low” (or modest) outcome where low outcome and perceived equity were achieved. The 1986 Lesotho-South Africa Highlands Water Project Treaty (Chapter 5) is an example of a “high” outcome in which high outcome and perceived equity were achieved. The author is paradoxically critical of both treaties, arguing that both processes should have been more inclusive and transparent while, at the same time, recognizing the inherent complexities of hydro-diplomacy when substantial power differentials are at work.

He uses his cross-case analysis (Chapter 6) to develop what he calls a ‘transformative approach to conflict resolution’, highlighting the importance of the rules of engagement (international law), the mechanisms of engagement (equitable water sharing criteria), and third-party mediation. His comparative analysis also provides a useful, albeit hidden, summary of process equity parameters. These include, among others, involvement of all stakeholders, trust-building, an incrementalist approach; facilitation, mediation and other uses of third parties; socio-economic considerations; language of equity; joint fact finding; prioritization of uses and users; and monitoring arrangements.

This is a well-written and useful book for anyone interested in transboundary water management, conflict resolution or bilateral management of natural resources. It skillfully demonstrates the potential to use ‘low’ politics (i.e. hydro-diplomacy) as an entry point into ‘high’ politics (e.g., international relations).


Dec 5 2014


Reviewed by Daniel Gallagher, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 A timely call for scholars of urban planning and coastal systems to join forces 

Megacities and the Coast: Risk, Resilience and Transformation, by Mark Pelling and Sophie Blackburn, Routledge, 2013

In their introduction to Megacities and the Coast, Mark Pelling and Sophie Blackburn argue that the lack of focus at the interface of megacities and coastal systems is a dangerous gap in scholarship. This edited volume responds to this gap through a comprehensive synthesis of an international study involving over 60 contributing authors from the environmental sciences, disaster risk management, urban governance, and climate adaptation.

The report explores the definitional challenge of identifying coastal megacities, and locates 23 such cities across five continents. It provides a comprehensive tour of the societal and environmental impacts of urban growth, pointing to strong existing research on earth sub-systems. Where more study is required, they argue, is on integrated, system-level research that captures the dynamic feedback between natural and social systems.

Of most value to policymakers and scholars of urban planning will be the report’s discussion on risk governance.  Drawing on empirical study of disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation, it shows how scholarship must move beyond the universalistic ‘good governance’ discourse to recognize that municipal government autonomy varies hugely with local politics and social networks. The authors argue convincingly that scholars of urban planning and coastal management ought to pursue more joined-up research that recognizes the co-evolution of political, economic and physical systems.

The scholarly argument is complemented by seven case studies of coastal megacities. Although brief, the case studies stay true to the joined-up perspective that the report calls for by stressing the particularities of political economy and context in which public policy responses are formed.

At a time when megacities continue to grapple with long-standing socio-economic issues and the added stresses of disasters and climate change, this volume will be of immense value to scholars of urban planning and coastal systems who seek to undertake cross-disciplinary research at the important intersection between their disciplines.




Dec 5 2014


Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma
Getting the most out of what we have!

Scarcity: The True Cost of Not Having Enough, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Penguin, 2014

When an economist and a psychologist come together to undertake an intellectual endeavour, the outcome can shatter many myths about everyday living. Together they manage to explain the most fundamental problems in all walks of life viewed through the science of scarcity, which the authors claim is still in the making. The lonely are lonely, dieters are plump and the busy are busy because they are caught in the ‘scarcity trap’.

The authors stretch the notion of fiscal scarcity to include social scarcity and cognitive scarcity as well as scarcity of time and calories. The multiple implications of scarcity not only make us dumber, but cloud our cognitive abilities. Far from making people more effective, as many would believe, scarcity leaves us with reduced fluid intelligence and more impulsive actions. Not without reason, scarcity leads us to borrow, and pushes us deeper into scarcity. Using stories from daily existence and studies from diverse social settings, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir conclude that the feeling of ‘less’ distorts our vision and judgment.

Scarcity is loaded with fresh insights. The idea of scarcity offers clues to managing our lives better during abundance such that there is no slackness when scarcity confronts us. Scarcity can make us wiser provided clear-headed thinking about trade-offs is thoughtfully applied. After all, scarcity is largely an outcome of environmental conditions that can be managed. Scarcity should make us experts, even if in a limited manner.

In a way, the idea of scarcity offers good news because it can help us organize our lives better and design more efficient systems.

Scarcity is a real page turner, overflowing with fresh insights and simple suggestions to transform the way we live and manage ourselves. If you think traffic on the road is clogged, you have fallen into a scarcity trap. You may need to put on your ‘scarcity cap’ to wriggle out of it. The authors argue that if all the cars went at the same speed, not only would the traffic flow smoothly, but more cars could be accommodated. It is the variation in the speed of the cars that causes congestion, as drivers vie for limited space (a reflection of scarcity).

Scarcity is often associated with dire consequences.  But,  Mullainathan and Shafir consider it a perfect trigger to enhance our abilities to make better choices. Scarcity is a must read, brilliant and engaging.

Dec 5 2014


Review by Todd Schenk, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Societies are, in part, products of their changing climate

The Anthropology of Climate Change: An Historical Reader, by Michael R. Dove, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2014

From Hippocrates to Hurricane Katrina, this collection provides a wide perspective. While anthropogenic climate change may be a relatively recent phenomenon, scholars have been reflecting on the relationship between climate and society for millennia. Now more than ever, it is important that we learn all we can about these relationships. Yale University Professor Michael Dove has assembled a collection that demonstrates how anthropology can enhance our understanding of the relationship between climate and society.

Dove has organized his book around eleven themes including: Climate Theory; Climate Change and Societal Collapse; Climatic Events as Social Crucibles; Climatic Disasters and Social Marginalization; and Co-Production of Knowledge in Climatic and Social Histories. Each theme features two papers, although some threads weave throughout the collection. For example, the question of environmental determinism, or ‘climate theory’ – the notion that social development is driven and bounded by environmental conditions – emerges repeatedly.

Hippocrates (Ch. 1), Ibn Khaldûn (Ch. 3), and the Vedic texts (Zimmermann, Ch. 4) argue that societies are products of their environment. Montesquieu (Ch. 2) makes the related assertion that laws should reflect climatic differences. Ratzel (Ch. 7), Meggers (Ch. 8), McGovern (Ch. 9) and Weiss and Bradley (Ch. 10) make more modern arguments for environmental determinism, including that ‘civilized’ societies are more likely to be found in temperate climates than in the tropics. McGovern offers the collapse of Norse settlements during the ‘Little Ice Age’ as an illustration of how societies can be impacted by climate change. Weiss and Bradley draw on palaeoclimatic data to explain the social consequences of climatic change. There are also more subtle explorations. Soloway (Ch. 12) explores how drought in Botswana’s Kalahari provided a window for profound social change, while Scheper-Hughes (Ch. 15) explains how the dramatic impact of Hurricane Katrina was more a product of long-standing inequality and racism than a ‘natural disaster’. Taken as a whole, one might conclude that societies are in part products of their (changing) climates, but that one must acknowledge the myriad of other factors at play, including power and competing interests.

The collection is strengthened by Dove’s excellent introduction, in which he outlines key themes and situates each work. It is too bad we don’t hear more from him. Beyond the 30-page introduction and overview, Dove lets the mostly unabridged readings speak for themselves. His introduction gives us a taste of his astute interpretations, but  we are left wanting more of his analysis of what we can learn about climate and society from the canon of anthropology.



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