Mar 27 2015


Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

In a free market economy, the incentive to externalize costs is so huge that the seller and the buyer reach an unapologetic understanding to get away with it.

cheaponomics copyCheaponomics: The High Cost of Low Prices, by Michael Carolan, Earthscan/Routledge, 2014

Cheaper products are a marketing gimmick but an enticing one nonetheless. Deep discounts on popular brands release pent-up demand, and less expensive products encourage over-consumption. ‘Cheapness’ has become an enigma. While one may avoid buying anything considered ‘cheap’, striving for bargains remains alluring, and the lowest possible price paid for a quality product can be a measure of shopping prowess.

In Cheaponomics: The High Cost of Low Prices, sociology professor Michael Carolan states that ‘Cheapness is an illusion.’ Low prices arrive an at alarmingly high cost because this low price neither reflects the real cost of production nor accounts for the environmental factors. A 2008 UN study estimated that the cumulative cost of environmental damages caused by 3,000 of the largest publicly-traded corporations in the world could run future generations up to 2.2 trillion USD.

In a free market economy, the incentive to externalize cost offers a comparative advantage to both buyers and sellers, albeit at a tremendous cost to these later generations. Carolan questions the economic status quo, arguing that a system that socializes costs for the benefit of few can do little to enhance well-being for the majority. Drawing on a wide range of examples, he unfolds the compulsive economy of cheaper goods which create a false sense of consumer celebration by making large social and income inequalities tolerable. Over-consumption, which is linked to cheaper products, lies at the root of present-day crises from growing urban trash to mounting atmospheric emissions.

Cheaponomics is a revelation, and Carolan concludes an engaging story with a set of practical recommendations. Governments ought to incentivize accurate pricing and enable affordability as the key to price rationalization in the market. Real cost may make goods expensive in the short term but not over the long term as these would be designed to last longer and avoid wastage. Affordability is about enabling, about capabilities and about holistic well-being rather than the shallow advantages of cheap goods.

Mar 27 2015


Reviewed by Michal Russo, Tufts University

Legitimization of knowledge production occupies the central story of landscape planning in Berlin.

9780262018593_0 copyGreening Berlin: The Co-Production of Science, Politics and Urban Nature, by Jens Lachmund, MIT Press, 2013

Lachmund’s Greening Berlin offers a rich and historically-exceptional case study to aid scholars in understanding the meaning of “co-producing knowledge,” “boundary objects” and “alternative framing.” Lachmund’s writing can be a bit dense with academic jargon, but the narrative has importance far beyond the field of urban ecology. In the concluding chapter, Lachmund says that “to resolve environmental conflicts what is needed is not just a proliferation of more knowledge,” but “public reflection on how we know what we know.” Such knowledge, he adds, is “not self-evident, but is shaped and negotiated in situated regimes of nature” (236). This legitimization of knowledge production occupies the central story of nearly a century of landscape planning in Berlin. Dates, names, and events comprise the behind-the-scenes story of why certain policies and actions were chosen over others.

Lachmund describes the many tensions that arose in protecting Berlin’s natural areas, echoing Hajer’s sentiment that “public environmental discourses should be seen as assemblages of heterogeneous voices and motives whose intrinsic ambivalence persists under the umbrella of seemingly coherent story lines” (224). These differences result in “compensatory conflicts,” or differences in priorities and tradeoffs across impacts and their interpretations (when assessing ecological knowledge). Lachmund’s protagonists struggle to determine what should count as nature, its value and its function.

Lachmund explains that the conditions surrounding knowledge production in Berlin differed considerably from academic fieldwork. The very practices of observation were reshaped to accommodate issues of evaluation, operationalization, and standardization of institutional and political structures. Far from neutral technical input, ecological knowledge used to resolve compensatory conflicts was up for re-interpretation by interested parties. Lachmund asserts that the city’s ecological surveys took the form of boundary objects, reshaping both the scientific method for assessing ecology in the city as well as how environmental issues were framed and engaged with by citizens. Ultimately, he attributes the success of the program to the “co-production of an urban nature regime which exceeded the formal boundaries of science” through a “mutually constitutive interaction of knowledge generation and politics of species preservation.”

Mar 27 2015


Reviewed by Tarique Niazi, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

All disasters and the responses to them are socially constructed.


Disaster, Conflict and Society in Crises: Everyday Politics of Crisis Response, edited by Dorothea Hilhorst, Routledge, 2013

Disasters have long been assumed to be “natural,” and as such, “inevitable.” The founding fathers of Disaster Studies, many of whom were engineers, focused on designing responsive strategies to mitigate the after-effects of disasters. Disaster Studies has since come a long way to recognize the “social construction” of disasters. Environmental sociologists such as Dr. William R. Freudenburg and his colleagues have made major contributions to this way of thinking, arguing for and illustrating how disasters are socially-constituted. From a sociological perspective, “all disasters are man-made,” and hence avoidable.

In this context, not only have Dorothea Hilhorst and her fellow contributors in their edited volume on Disaster, Conflict and Society in Crises furthered this way of thinking, but they have also mapped the ways in which disasters are socially constructed. In particular, they have concentrated on the way that “responses” to disasters or crises are conceived. They deploy discourse analysis to help the reader understand the process of social construction of disaster events and thus uncover the battles that often go on among vested interests. They apply discursive analyses to such disparate events as “terrorist violence” in Sri Lanka and the impact of climate change on Mozambique.

Discursive strategies, they argue, help government and non-government actors construct “disasters” and “response to disasters” in a way that tangibly shapes state aid policies, aid governance, and aid politics. In discursive battles, words grow into fighting deeds that shape the outcomes of responsive strategies. Also, the authors argue that conflicts and disasters are emblematic of a breakdown of social order (i.e., chaos and disruption). They also contend that disruption and chaos create opportunities to reorder and reconstitute the institutions that deal with disaster events (referred to as continuity and discontinuity).

Hilhorst, the volume’s editor, employs the idiom of “everyday politics” as a frame to uncover the political and social dynamics of aid politics. The first part of the book focuses on the social construction of disasters, responses, and the manner in which local government and non-governmental actors securitize (or depoliticize) their strategies. In the second part, local institutions transform a crisis and become transformed by it, while the third speaks to a variety of interventions that are possible in crisis events. The book offers a wealth of theoretical and empirical ideas in accessible language, providing an invaluable contribution to the discipline of Disaster Studies.

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