Jul 17 2018

The Shale Dilemma: A Global Perspective on Fracking and Shale Development

Reviewed by Priyanka de Souza, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How and why have individual countries with shale resources chosen different paths to shale development, and what can we learn from these divergent paths?


edited by Shanti Gamper-Rabindran, The Shale Dilemma: A Global Perspective on Fracking and Shale Development, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018, 472 pp. 

The explosive rise of the shale industry in the United States since the early 2000s has sparked widespread consideration of shale as an energy source by other countries. Although much can be learned from the United States experience, the benefits and costs of shale production are still subject to large uncertainties (i.e., their likely environmental and health impacts) in every country. These uncertainties have prompted highly politicized debates about whether to proceed with shale production, and if so, how.

The Shale Dilemma, edited by Shanti Gamper-Rabindran, arrives at an opportune moment. It provides a framework that puts these debates in context and makes clear why different countries have chosen the shale development path they have. It applies this framework to the development of shale in the United States and seven other countries: the United Kingdom, Poland, France, Germany, China, Argentina and South Africa.

Decisions about shale development reflect the national characteristics in each country––China and Argentina are small producers of shale; Poland and the UK have undertaken some shale exploration; France has enacted a ban on high-volume hydraulic fracturing; Germany has imposed a moratorium on shale production; and South Africa is assessing permit applications for shale exploration. By comparing such vastly different countries, the authors are able to make a range of cross-cutting observations about the factors that influence the path of shale development. They also offer recommendations for how such pathways can be improved.

The Shale Dilemma begins with the claim that the overall framing of the “shale puzzle” in the public discourse in each country is determined by national energy priorities, including goals for energy security. The authors argue that decision-making processes in each country determine how regulatory trade-offs are made regarding the allocation of spatialized costs and benefits.

Over two chapters the book then talks about the mixed fortunes of shale development in the United States, capturing its recent experience of a downturn in shale production and laying bare important considerations that other countries just starting to think about shale development may want to consider. These chapters are followed by individual chapters on the development of shale in the other seven countries. They use a common structure to aid in their comparative analysis.

Each case study has been written by a researcher with experience in the energy industry in their country. However, by trying to apply a common comparative framework, some of the overall conclusions in the last chapter are necessarily presented in broad brush strokes. Recommendations such as the desirability of more public participation are offered without much detail regarding the best way of doing this. Nevertheless, the comparison of differing regulatory practices, as well as how enforcement is carried out in each context, is very useful in highlighting specific actions that might be taken to mitigate the costs of development.

The comparative framework is heavily centered on the experiences of the United States. The history of land use disputes in the Karoo region in South Africa as well as the historic use of land by indigenous communities in Argentina are important factors that could also feed into the development of shale in these countries. A specific comparison between these two paths of development with an in-depth piece on the modes of resistance used in these two areas would have been very illuminating.

The Shale Dilemma, in a nutshell, is a fascinating and illuminating read about the state of the global shale industry, as well as a timely reminder of the importance of continuing to focus on strengthening regulations to mitigate costs and making the process of shale development more inclusive.

Jul 17 2018

Virtuous Waters: Mineral Springs, Bathing, and Infrastructure in Mexico

Reviewed by Andrea Beck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Renewed engagement with the virtues of waters can promote more sustainable hydro-social relationships.


by Casey Walsh, Virtuous Waters: Mineral Springs, Bathing, and Infrastructure in Mexico, University of California Press, 2018, 226 pp.

In Virtuous Waters, anthropologist Casey Walsh explores the social and cultural history of bathing and hot springs in Mexico. The book traces everyday water cultures surrounding these springs from AD 1500 to the twenty-first century. Originally used for steam baths by the indigenous peoples of Mexico, spring waters came to support a variety of therapeutic, religious, leisurely and sexual activities over the centuries, with uses and practices shifting according to scientific and moral understandings of medicine, public health and social order. Adopting a political ecology perspective, Walsh’s ethnographic narrative is attentive to questions of power and access in day-to-day interactions with spring waters. Stories about exclusion and dispossession due to race, class and gender figure prominently throughout the book, including in a chapter that chronicles attempts at water commodification for commercial bottling and spa tourism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book’s political ecology lens further allows the author to raise fundamental questions about the ontology of water. Adding to the work of scholars like Jamie Linton and Jeremy Schmidt, Walsh offers a detailed account of the homogeneity vs. heterogeneity of water and water cultures in Mexico. Water is commonly conceptualized today as a “single, uniform, inert element that can be managed by a unified infrastructure” (p. 6). Walsh argues that this modern view of water has never fully eradicated traditional understandings of multiple waters, each with its own mineral composition and virtuous effects on the human body. As Walsh’s archival work reveals, the characteristics and benefits of specific waters have long drawn the attention of scientific researchers along with practitioners of “hydropathy,” and continue to be revered by the visitors of bath houses and religious sites.

For Walsh, a renewed engagement with the heterogeneity of waters can facilitate more sustainable uses of the element moving forward. Immersion in hot springs offers the opportunity to engage with waters and with fellow bathers, thereby strengthening environmental awareness and community ties. As the book’s concluding chapter makes clear, the danger remains that the virtues of waters will be exploited for exclusionary profit-seeking activities. At the same time, these virtues hold out the prospect for more sustainable relationships between humans and waters in the future.

Jul 17 2018

Water: Abundance, Scarcity and Security in the Age of Humanity

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma



by Jeremy J. Schmidt, Water: Abundance, Scarcity and Security in the Age of HumanitySAGE, 2018, 307 pp.

Cape Town may be the first waterless city, but the fact that humans are drawing more than their fair share of water should make us shudder as things are likely to become worse before they get any better. From surplus to scarcity, human interference with global water systems has created an issue of security, requiring new ways of managing water in the age of the Anthropocene. With the idea of water stability thrown into a tailspin, there is an urgent need to define “safe operating space” for humans to work within planetary boundaries for sustaining life and life forms.

By altering planetary systems, humans have attained the status of a geological force, causing all the ways in which water management connects to geography, culture and economics to lose their relevance. Far from inducing equitable access to water across sectors, the global impact of the American approach to water management has triggered a brazen water grab not only within the local hydrological contexts, but also in regional and national contexts. Unless this prevailing approach is questioned, argues Jeremy Schmidt, inequalities, including those that exist on a geological scale, cannot be addressed.

While it should be apparent that dividing humans from nature will not help us understand our impact on natural processes, a failed attempt to reject the society/nature dualism in the past had led to an oppressive logic and enhanced the prospects of meeting certain ends rather than others. The book asks: how do conflicts over water, such as those over the right to water, gain prominence?

The trouble with a single planetary story about water, especially one tied to a techno-centric philosophy of water management, is that while it does not deny that alternatives exist, it simply posits that we can get by without them. Schmidt presents three philosophical perspectives to counter this view: first, water resources should be managed without privileging a particular cultural understanding; second, we should acknowledge that social relations take shape around different water use practices; and third, we should appreciate and acknowledge the intrinsic importance of different symbolic ends that others attach to water. These three concerns—over subjects, social relations and symbolic goods––could be critical entry points for initiating a new discourse on water management. We need this because the paradigm of “making things public” is inadequate; it fails to see that water problems are the outcome of a failed nineteenth-century solution tied to society/nature dualism. Although this argument may seem troublesome to those excited about emerging social entrepreneurship around water, Schmidt is asking us to consider the questions that arise for modernity as the result of water management practices instead of thinking about water management as the product of modernity.

Relying on volumes of historical sources, the book attempts to bridge engineering solutions and the social ideas that informed them. As we are now part of an “unfolding water drama,” the challenge for global water governance is that it has not separated itself sufficiently from the philosophy that gave rise to the problems it seeks to solve.

 Schmidt does not offer a solution, but rather questions the prevailing philosophy of water, the end result of which is that water, once abundant, is now scarce.  If water continues to be managed as it is at present, the majority of our rivers will only be carrying treated waste water.

Water offers refreshing new historical and philosophical insights to help rethink the prevailing (global) philosophy of water management.

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