May 8 2015


Reviewed by Frank Ackerman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Seemingly intended for a specialized niche as a supplementary text in certain courses

An Introduction to Ecological Economics, Second Edition, by Robert Costanza, John H. Cumberland, Herman Daly, Robert Goodland, Richard B. Norgaard, Ida Kubiszewski, and Carol Franco, CRC Press, 2014

Ecological economics is an important field that typically receives little, if any, attention in standard economics textbooks. The title and authorship of this book suggest that it could fill that void, as a text coauthored by some of the best-known names in the field. Unfortunately, it may instead be an example of the problems of writing a book by committee; several of the authors have done more interesting and compelling writing in sole or dual-authored works.

This book opens with the statement that it “is not intended to be a stand-alone economics textbook, nor is it a comprehensive treatment” of ecological economics. Rather, it seems intended for a specialized niche as a supplementary text in certain courses. Issues are explained in the authoritative and somewhat simplified voice of a textbook, yet familiarity with the underlying material is often assumed. The bulk of the book consists of two long chapters, one on principles of ecological economics and the other on institutions and policies. These are generally better than the earlier material, though they suffer from some of the same defects. A two-page discussion of the 1997 paper by Constanza et al. on the total value of the world’s ecosystems mentions that it has been cited 5,000 times, that it has since been updated by the authors, and that it has been controversial among economists (the latter is an understatement). Nothing at all is said, however, about the content of those controversies.

The discussion of institutions and policies helpfully includes Herman Daly’s list of ten key principles. I would be delighted to endorse eight of them as cornerstones of a new economy. One of the exceptions is “stabilize population,” which seems to include enforcement of immigration laws – a topic fraught with troubling implications for racial and economic inequality in rich countries today, where a more nuanced and detailed discussion is needed. Finally, there is “move away from fractional reserve banking toward a system of 100% reserve requirements.” How did this make it into the top ten policy ideas of ecological economics? It proposes a very complex restructuring of the banking system, which is on no one else’s agenda, and does not address the important current questions of financial regulation.

Better alternatives are available. For a textbook on ecological economics, try Ecological Economics, Second Edition: Principles and Applications, by Herman Daly and Joshua Farley, or Ecological Economics, An Introduction, by Michael Common and Sigrid Stagl. And if colleagues ask you to join an enormous committee to write a book, just say no.

May 8 2015


Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Providing a helpful review of the Nile Basin in relation to the political economy of transboundary water resource management


Governing the Nile River Basin: The Search for a New Legal Regime, by Mwangi Kimenyi and John Mukin Mbaku, Brookings Institution, 2015

Governing the Nile River Basin: The Search for a New Legal Regime is a clear and timely primer for anyone interested in hydropolitics in the Nile Basin and, more specifically, in understanding the significance of the recently signed Declaration of Principles on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam or Tanzania’s recent ratification of the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA). The book’s eleven chapters provide a helpful desk review of the Nile Basin in relation to the political economy of transboundary water resource management including chapters on hydrology (Ch. 2), 1929 and 1959 Nile Agreements (Ch. 4), and recommendations for a future legal framework (Ch. 11).

Although the book clearly introduces the obstacles to cooperation in transboundary water management in the Nile Basin; at times, it adopts a less than objective tone when describing Egypt’s role in the Basin. While Egypt’s power in the Basin is indisputable, and most of the book’s more critical references to Egypt’s control in the Basin are references to other authors’ works, the ‘Egyptian perspective’ is not as well developed as the upstream perspective. That said, the authors do recognize Egypt’s near-complete dependence on the Nile and emphasize that any future basin-wide legal framework must recognize this as well.

The authors aptly point out that the ‘question in the Nile River basin today is not whether to change the status quo but how to do so.’ In the final chapter, they highlight several components of a process they believe will lead to the development of an effective basin-wide legal instrument. These include (i) recognition of Egypt’s dependence on the Nile; (ii) an inclusive and participatory process; (iii) ownership of the process by the Nile Basin states; (iv) basin-wide consultation to ensure the buy-in of all stakeholders (not just government representatives and technocrats); (v) adequate support (e.g. lodging, translators, etc.) for participants engaged in the process; and (vi) flexibility in the design of the legal instrument to account for uncertainty related to climate change.

It is not entirely clear, however, how their recommendations are different from the CFA drafting and negotiation process. In other words, by the end of the book, although the authors clearly illustrate the limited efficacy of the CFA as a basin-wide legal framework in the absence of Egypt and Sudan’s support, they do not present a very clear or strong case for why their recommendations would lead to a different outcome. Given the very recent developments in the Nile Basin (which occurred after the book was published), it would be interesting to hear the authors’ perspectives on how, if at all, the momentum for cooperation catalyzed by recent events could be used to renew the Basin states’ commitment to the CFA process. After ten years of negotiation, it would be a shame to abandon the CFA altogether.


May 8 2015


Reviewed by Danya Rumore, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

A helpful primer for those interested in what research has to say about why climate change remains so socially contentious


How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate, by Andrew Hoffman, Stanford University Press, 2015

Andrew Hoffman’s new book How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate skillfully weaves together research from numerous social sciences – ranging from psychology to sociology – to show that public confusion about and lack of action on climate change is not the result of a knowledge deficit or a misunderstanding of the relevant science. Instead, Hoffman shows the startling disconnect between the high level of scientific consensus on one hand and the lack of social consensus on the other is the result of people’s intentional and unintentional avoidance of information.

Research suggests that avoidance of information is the result of a variety of cultural and cognitive dynamics. Hoffman effectively summarizes four such forces: (1) humans use cognitive filters, such as motivated reasoning; (2) our cognitive filters reflect our cultural identity; (3) cultural identity can overpower scientific reasoning; and (4) our political economy creates inertia for change.  He concludes “The debate over climate change in the United States (and elsewhere) is not about carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas models; it is about opposing cultural values and worldviews through which that science is seen.” Building on what research has to say about these forces, he suggests that no amount of science, in and of itself, can reconcile conflicting cultures and values. Instead, he advises that worldviews will have to be altered. This, in turn will necessitates careful public education and engagement campaigns that take account of the strong cultural and cognitive forces causing the current cultural schism.

Hoffman’s conclusions are by no means new – indeed, similar points have been made, albeit in bits and pieces, by the many scholars he cites. He does add great value, however, and advances our understanding by summarizing and insightfully stitching together existing scholarship. His goal in writing this book was to “build an edifice from the large and growing body of research in sociology, psychology, and other social sciences about why people accept or reject the science of climate change.”

In successfully doing this, Hoffman’s small book – with its less than 100 pages of text – packs a big punch. It is a helpful primer for those interested in what research has to say about why climate change remains so socially contentious despite the considerable scientific consensus that exists. Written in readily accessible language, How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate will be user-friendly for anyone trying to grasp what social science research has to say about the lack of action on climate change.

Hoffman’s book provides an excellent example of the kind of writing — succinct, clear, interesting, that we need.

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