Apr 10 2017

Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States

Reviewed by Andrea Beck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The conflation of race and waste has a long history in the United States, with serious material consequences for the lives and well-being of ‘non-white’ immigrants and African Americans.


by Carl A. Zimring Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States, New York University Press, 2015, 273 pp

In Clean and White, historian Carl A. Zimring explores how environmental factors have shaped social constructions of race in the United States, from the age of Jefferson to the Memphis Public Works Strike of 1968. Rather than treating race and ethnicity as static constructs, as is often the case in studies of environmental racism, Zimring carefully unpacks the ways in which concerns about urban health, hygiene and sanitation were increasingly conflated with concerns about race over more than one hundred years of American history. Whereas whiteness became equated with cleanliness and purity to justify white supremacy, other skin colors came to be associated with waste, dirt, dust and disease. The infamous Ku Klux Klan, as well as some academics, helped develop and spread these linkages. Advertisers of soap and cleansers likewise promoted notions of race and cleanliness in popular culture.

Beyond their discursive importance, the author shows how these constructions of environmental racism had far-reaching material consequences for the affected groups. With white Americans considering waste-handling beneath their dignity, “dirty” jobs such as laundry, waste collection and scrap recycling were disproportionately relegated to African Americans, Asian Americans, and new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, exposing them to serious environmental health risks. In addition to occupational structures, environmental racism also shaped the spatial organization of cities. Between 1870 and 1960, racial residential segregation increased markedly, as whites “fled” the urban core for the suburbs, and noxious industries and waste-handling businesses clustered in non-white residential areas. Spatial environmental inequalities were facilitated by racially restricted lending practices, municipal zoning ordinances and lax enforcement of regulations in non-white neighborhoods.

After World War II, many Jews and Italian Americans (long perceived as non-white) merged into white society. At the same time, the environmental burdens on African Americans and Hispanics remained and intensified, culminating in the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968. Although workers and organizers in Memphis did not explicitly use the term “environmental justice,” this strike would become foundational for the emergence of the environmental justice movement in the 1980s. Several examples at the end of the book remind us that environmental racism has endured well into the twenty-first century.

By drawing attention to the social constructions of waste and race, and their material implications, Zimring’s research makes a significant contribution to existing scholarship on environmental racism and environmental justice. What is wanting in the book are specific reflections on where we can go from here. How can American society overcome the long-standing and deep-seated biases uncovered in Clean and White? And how can the book’s message best be translated into public policy? Answering these and other questions will be critical to applying Zimring’s important historical research to life in contemporary America.

Apr 10 2017

The Climate Resilient Organization: Adaptation and Resilience to Climate Change and Weather Extremes

Reviewed by Jessica Gordon, Massachusetts Institute for Technology

Given the impacts of climate change, what are the things that private organizations can do to adapt?

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by Martina K. Linnenluecke and Andrew Griffiths The Climate Resilient Organization: Adaptation and Resilience to Climate Change and Weather Extremes, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015, 222 pp

What is a climate resilient organization? Martina K. Linnenluecke and Andrew Griffiths’s call for integrating mitigation, adaptation and resilience recognizes that this will require efforts beyond the organization itself. They assert that “a future key activity will be to create climate change resilient organizations,” which can deal with gradual and extreme changes (v). This begs the question, why is this a future activity and not a present-day one, especially given their lengthy explanation of climate impacts.

The book is divided into two sections, which could have easily been two different books. The first section provides a general overview on climate change impacts and politics. The authors outline the history of international climate policy until 2013 with a particular focus on adaptation and how these international commitments have played out on the national scale. Chapter 2 helpfully presents a short summary of the impacts on the private sector including investment risks, insurance and legal risks.

The second part of the book is more prescriptive and focused on organizational responses to climate change. It includes presenting the impacts of climate change on organizations and challenges to adaptation and resilience. This is primarily focused on private sector organizations. The authors provide an overview of different tools to assist organizations in assessing vulnerabilities and developing adaptation priorities. They also offer a general step-by-step list of activities (drawing on the UK Climate Impacts program) to assess adaptation options, which the authors also suggest using for resilience measures. Short cases studies are scattered throughout and are illustrative of the various ways private sector organizations are tackling climate change but are too cursory to guide decision-making.

Geared toward organizational decision-makers and policymakers, The Climate Resilient Organization is clearly written, nicely summarizes the literature and draws heavily on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. It is a good starting point for those looking for an introduction to climate change and how it might influence their business.

Apr 10 2017

Negotiating for Water Resources: Bridging Transboundary River Basins

Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 A three-level analysis across three transboundary river basins concludes that, contrary to the realist perspective, powerful riparians are no less likely to cooperate when they are the upstream country.

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by Andrea Haefner Negotiating for Water Resources: Bridging Transboundary River Basins, Earthscan, 2016, 212 pp

Negotiating for Water Resources contributes to a long and ongoing debate about the drivers of transboundary water cooperation and conflict. Andrea Haefner asks, “To what extent do power symmetries prevent or inhibit cooperation between riparian states over water resources?” More specifically, she challenges the assumption that an upstream country is less likely to cooperate when it is the basin hegemon, arguing that issue linkage and institutions matter as much as, if not more than, differences in riparians’ material power.

The book begins with a concise review of hydropolitical (i.e., study of interstate transboundary water cooperation and conflict) and international relations literature to define hegemony in a river basin (chapter 2). The next three chapters are detailed analyses of three levels of interactions––regional networks, river basin organizations and project-specific decisions––across three river basins (Mekong, Danube and La Plata).

While impressive, the three-level, three-basin case-study approach is, perhaps, overly ambitious. In an effort to prove the point that regional networks, river basin organizations, and issue linkage affect transboundary water outcomes, the three case study chapters go into great detail about the specifics of each river basin to the detriment of argument development.

For example, the book’s overall argument that cooperation is possible even in basins in which there are asymmetric power relations is irrefutable. However, as Zeitoun and his colleagues at the London School of Economics argue, not all “cooperation’ is created equal and, in some cases, cooperation may exist because of (not despite) asymmetric power relations. At times, the book seems to hint at this, but never explicitly addresses it. For example, in the case of the Danube, Haefner writes that it is possible that the river basin organization “will face challenges when the previously less dominant states become more advanced and will demand to influence the agenda” (110) but later concludes that cooperation is working well in the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River. This, along with descriptions of China (the basin hegemon) remaining unaccountable to the Mekong River Commission and of Brazil and Argentina (the more powerful riparians) preventing the transformation of the La Plata River basin organization into an international organization with legal authority (a proposal favored by the ‘weaker’ riparians) (132), could easily be developed into a deeper discussion of how cooperation among riparians should be evaluated.

Throughout the case studies, the book hints at really interesting findings (e.g., these three river basin organizations were not effective in addressing conflicts that would arise, suggesting that they were not designed with effective conflict resolution mechanisms in mind), but does not give them sufficient attention. This is, at times, frustrating because the author provides rich comparative analyses of three relatively under-studied river basins, but buries the insights in descriptions of the context.

The final chapter provides a summary of the findings––many of which are valuable contributions to the existing literature on transboundary water management. The most salient findings are related to the characteristics of river basin organizations (e.g., level of riparian inclusion, institutional design, funding and opportunity for public participation) that make them more (or less) effective. Overall, this book is a concise primer on three major river basins in the world, an effective demonstration of a case study approach and an excellent resource for anyone interested in hydropolitics.

Apr 10 2017

American Environmental Policy: The Failures of Compliance, Abatement and Mitigation

Reviewed by Elise Harrington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Maybe the focus of US environmental policy on compliance, abatement and mitigation has been a mistake. 

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by Daniel Press American Environmental Policy: The Failures of Compliance, Abatement and MitigationEdward Elgar Publishing, 2015, 224 pp

In American Environmental Policy Daniel Press, professor of environmental studies at University of California, Santa Cruz, contests the “widespread acclaim” for US environmental regulation, challenging policymakers and policy analysts to “re-think our objectives for environmental regulation.” Focusing on policy tools and outcomes, Press asks a set of basic, but fundamental, questions: has American environmental policy performed as well as policy in comparable countries? Were the most appropriate policy instruments used and were they implemented correctly? Has environmental regulation transformed patterns of production and consumption?

Press substantiates his argument with previous literature, personal experience as a member of California’s Central Coast Regional Water Quality Board (chapter 4) and descriptive data on US Toxic Release Inventory (chapter 2), emissions factors (chapter 2), SOx emissions (chapter 3), critical load exceedances (chapter 3), paper recovery rates, and related paper shipping and transport statistics (chapter 5). Each chapter illustrates the complexity of implementing environmental policies and opportunities for policy reform. Key areas of improvement include policies that focus more on environmental and public health outcomes, collecting high-quality information and providing incentives for continual improvement.

Press’s critique identifies the failures of the “compliance-abatement-mitigation” approach to environmental policy that dominates US regulatory design. Press claims that this approach does not radically challenge accepted modes of land-use, energy production, manufacturing, construction or transportation, but rather emphasizes pollutant containment and reductions primarily from serious offenders. Thus, US environmental policy tends to “focus on compliance and technology rather than performance” and does not account for growth in the number of polluting sources for end-of-pipe regulations, fails to link policy outputs to outcomes, and provides insufficient incentives to transform manufacturing and industrial processes. Examining successes and failures across the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, Press abstracts lessons learned from successful examples such as the Acid Rain Program’s real-time emissions monitoring, local experimentation with low impact development and effective marketing for recovered paper manufacturing.

Press recognizes that politics play an important role in environmental policymaking (chapter 6), but aside from citing successful examples of local and state “extended producer responsibility” rules he does not discuss how to overcome resistance to change the status quo, what he terms “political or ideological obstruction.” References to political polarization suggest that future work on regulatory design and policy tools must be linked to studies of environmental politics in order to propose “effective, parsimonious, precautionary and participatory environmental regulations.” Following Press’s discussion of regulatory failure and reform in US environmental policy, readers are positioned to further study the role of technology and information in environmental regulatory design.

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