Jun 13 2016


Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

The Last Drop is a wake-up call to liberate water from the predominant notion that ‘whoever controls water controls society’.

The Last Drop

Mike Gonzalez and Marianella Yanes, The Last Drop, Pluto Press, 2016

Focusing on the trade and politics of water, the professor-journalist duo of Mike Gonzalez and Marianella Yanes laments the growing insanity of identifying bottled water as a social drink – consumed by elegant people in elegant bars. It is no surprise that some nine billion bottles of water are sold annually across the world. The massive expansion of the private water industry, including the bottled water industry, is an outcome of the commitment of neoliberalism to the privatization of all public goods and services.

Though outwardly it may seem to be the only way to address the issue of access and quality, the reality however is that big corporations with turnover exceeding US$40 billion annually have contributed literally nothing to the resolution of the water problem. This isn’t surprising when one learns that 34 per cent of water and sewerage privatizations have failed across the world, with as many as 180 cities having re-municipalized their water operations.

Citing actual cases of predatory privatization, from Mexico to India and from Laos to Bolivia, the authors contend that capitalism is anything but blind to ecology. It transforms nature into commodities, homogenizing it into products that can be traded for profit. Calling for a new world water order, the book seeks collective engagement of all small movements in a big picture change in favor of water peace, as opposed to the widely publicized prediction of possible ‘water wars’. Simply put, the struggle over water is not only about water, but also about land and more extensively about democracy and rights.

Examining corporate control over water and the ensuing struggle for water resources worldwide, Gonzalez and Yanes join the activists in calling for action to save water from overt and covert privatization. The Last Drop is a grim reminder and a wake-up call to liberate water from the predominant notion that ‘whoever controls water controls society’. Exposing the complex arguments surrounding water, the book makes a technical and scientific case for pushing back market fundamentalism in favor of equity and social justice.

Oct 12 2015


Reviewed by Kelly Heber Dunning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

An excellent primer for those interested in or teaching on Arctic governance

cover_artic_marine_governanceArctic Marine Governance: Opportunities for Transatlantic Cooperation, edited by Elizabeth Tedsen and Sandra Cavalieri, R. Andreas Kraemer, Springer, 2013

This book opens with a clear and thorough explanation of European Union and American policies concerning the Arctic. In addition, it provides a supplemental overview of the way these countries approach ocean planning and management in general. Within this discussion, I was interested to see that the authors addressed recent regional policy developments, such as the enactment of regional ocean planning by the Obama administration. Additionally, the authors discuss multilateral institutional arrangements for Arctic management in a way that solidly grounds the sections that follow.

After its opening, the book shifts its attention to the most relevant environmental processes—both natural and man-made—that warrant changes in the way the Arctic is managed. These include the albedo effect, increased CO2 from melting permafrost, and expansion of various industrial activities. Again, the authors provide a clear map of the relevant institutional and governance arrangements, offering an excellent primer for anyone new to the issues of Arctic governance or for those teaching classes on the subject. The first two chapters deliver a succinct overview of the relevance of human and ecological. The third chapter offers a helpful explanation of governance, a nebulous topic. The remainder of the book “zooms in” on important challenges, especially those to be faced by indigenous communities in a changing Arctic. These include ways in which crisis management may be necessary along with resilience thinking and efforts to build adaptive capacity, particularly as these relate to the needs of indigenous groups.

The next section of the book focuses on economic issues, potential impacts of environmental change, and impending shifts in policy or regulation. The chapter on fisheries is excellent and will be appreciated by fisheries management professionals concerned about trans-boundary disputes caused by mobile and valuable stocks. Overall, the book is a thorough and well-edited account of contemporary policy and management issues in the Arctic. It covers environmental as well as socio-economic variables and can be used for teaching purposes as a single text or in sections.

Oct 12 2015


Reviewed by Jessica Gordon, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

An engaging title demonstrating that climate change action will require more than increased public understanding and access to information

climate change matter

How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts, by Candis Callison, Duke University Press, 2014

Many of us have wondered what it will take for Americans to finally address climate change, given the overwhelming scientific evidence already in hand.  How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts sheds light on this question by analyzing the discourses and practices of five communities engaging the public on climate change: Arctic indigenous representatives of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, corporate social responsibility activists associated with Ceres, American evangelical Christians, science journalists, and science and science policy experts. The contrast across these communities creates a compelling account and dispels any notion that climate change is simply a scientific question. Using an ethnographic approach, the cases demonstrate how climate change has become intertwined with belief systems, practices, expertise and indigenous knowledge as ideas move across and within these groups and climate change gains in salience.

Callison argues that action on climate change ultimately requires “a negotiation with ethics, morality, and meaning-making both in collective and individual terms.” Thus, the common plea that we need to increase public understanding and access to information will never be sufficient enough to support real change. The differences among the five cases make this abundantly clear and leads Callison to call for collective public engagement across diverse groups.

At times, the book feels a bit too much like a dissertation, but it is engaging nonetheless.  While focused on climate change, it offers useful advice for those interested in other environmental issues as it delves into broad questions about the role of science, scientists and the media, expertise and advocacy in democracies.

Oct 12 2015


Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor

Nineteen case studies providing insights into the inherent complexity of water management

peace building

Water and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding, edited by Erika Weinthal, Jessica Troell, and Mikiyasu Nakayama, Earthscan, 2013

Editors Erika Weinthal, Jessica Troell and Mikiyasu Nakayama present 19 case studies from 28 conflict-affected countries highlighting the importance of water in post-conflict peacebuilding. The book is one in a collection of seven that examines the relationship between natural resources and different aspects of peacebuilding. This behemoth of a project seeks to address a perceived gap in the literature, asking ‘How can natural resources support post-conflict peacebuilding?’ and ‘What are the potential risks to long-term peace in the absence of effectively addressing natural resources?

The book is divided into five parts: (i) Basic services and human security; (ii) Livelihoods; (iii) Peace processes, cooperation, and confidence building; (iv) Legal frameworks; and (v) Lessons learned. Each section begins with a concise introduction summarizing the dominant message and themes in the case studies that follow. The case studies can be taken as stand-alone pieces, read in relation to one of the broad themes, or combined with other case studies of the same country. A focus on Afghanistan, for example, might lead one to read about restoring water services in Kabul (Piner and Reed), community water management (Burt and Keiru), water resource management (McCarthy and Mustafa), or water scarcity and security (Dehgan, Palmer-Moloney and Mirzaee) in the Afghan context. The case studies vary in length and detail, but all relate to water as either a potential source of conflict or cooperation. Each case study includes a fairly extensive list of references, making it a helpful starting point for additional reading and research.

The final section of the book is a well-written synthesis of the lessons related to water management in post-conflict settings and is organized along a ‘timeline of peacemaking’ – starting from post-conflict humanitarian interventions in water and sanitation to longer term peacemaking through regional efforts to cooperatively manage water resources. This book will be useful for practitioners, academics and policymakers in international relations, natural resource management, security, and peacebuilding. It also provides very helpful and generalizable insights into the inherent complexity of water management.


Jun 29 2015


Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

Will everyone get a Ferrari one day?


Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, edited by Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria & Giorgos Kallis, Routledge, 2014

It is tough to imagine ‘de-growth’ as an idea of our times. Resisting growth is to risk economic and social collapse. But to pursue it relentlessly is not without risk either – it endangers the ecosystems on which we depend. Despite the classical idea of development being declared dead several times in the past, it continues to persist because a ‘Ferrari for all’ is the dream everyone has been urged to strive for. Will the world be able to produce enough Ferraris for everyone, including those who are yet to be born? The truth is, we just don’t know.

Even if everyone were to get a Ferrari, in the future it would only be the Fiat of its generation. In the future, market managers will seek to get people to yearn for something more, without any let down in the growth of unending materialistic desires. The reach of markets into aspects of everyday life traditionally governed by non-market values and norms, will only rob us of the individual meaning of life. Isn’t unending desire the reason for growing anxiety?

De-growth, an idea that has been around for a long time, has been rechristened by a group of academicians at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. They are trying to pull society out of its current abyss. Since the movement was launched at an international conference in Paris in 2008, de-growth has engaged researchers in elaborating the idea from many perspectives. De-growth advocates shrinking production and consumption with the aim of achieving social justice and ecological continuity.

Spread over four sections, the book is a compilation of easy-to-read essays which argue that the ‘shift’ is indeed possible. It in no way advocates a return to the past, but it does suggest learning from indigenous cultures and techniques for paving an autonomous, close-to-nature, and ecological way of life.

To help de-growth ideas like frugality, sobriety, dematerialization and digital commons sink in, the editors have assembled keywords and concepts to construct a language that will move the discourse on de-growth forward. The book is not prescriptive but rather suggestive: inviting readers to devise their own sense of what de-growth means. It is a valuable book for all those who firmly believe that the modern economy has reached a dead-end.

Jun 29 2015


Reviewed by Tarique Niazi, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

Natural disasters have claimed more fatalities than armed conflicts.


Human Security and Natural Disasters, edited by Christopher Hobson, Paul Bacon and Robin Cameron, Routledge, 2014

The United Nations is credited with seeding the intellectual world with the concept of human security in the mid-1990s. The concept has since bloomed into a potential rival to such conventional doctrines as state security. Human security envisions freedom from want and fear. More importantly, it implies security embedded in everyday life. In contrast, state security prioritizes state interests over those of citizens. Hobson et al., in their edited volume, Human Security and Natural Disasters, expand this concept to include environmental security, more specifically “natural disasters.” They contend that natural disasters have been underexplored as an integral part of environmental security.

In arguing that natural disasters have claimed more fatalities than armed conflicts, the editors challenge the long-standing exclusive focus on state security. Additionally, they discuss how natural disasters are not equal in whom they strike and with what impact. Women, children and the elderly, who are already more likely to be destitute, are natural disasters’ choice victims. Natural calamities are not gender-neutral because they impact men and women differently. “Fukushima Fifty,” a reference to the daring band of Japanese men who made a last stand of sorts in the face of nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, was the production of socially constructed machismo or “man being the savior” syndrome. Similarly, Lankan women were disproportionate victims of the raging fury of the Indian Ocean during the 2004 tsunami, due to their gendered attire which hampered their flight to safety.

Contributors to this volume do a stupendous job of demonstrating how natural disasters threaten human security by worsening the pre-existing vulnerabilities of their victims. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Vietnamese-American community in New Orleans made a much faster recovery than the African-American community. The concept of human security engages such vulnerabilities and capabilities. One of the key contributions of this volume is accentuating of the “humanness” of natural disasters, i.e., the human and human institutional behaviors that drive them. Social scientists, including Dr. Freudenburg, reveal the role of the “human hand” in the making “natural disasters,” and thus, question their “naturalness.”

Contributors to this volume are sensitive to these distinctions when they argue that natural disasters are “natural hazards” that humans convert into disasters. Yet their insistence on describing such events as “natural” is puzzling. Climate change is conspicuous by its absence in their theoretical discussion. However, the editors compensate for these omissions (and their troubling conceptualization of disasters) with the originality of the debate, analytical sophistication, the persuasiveness of their arguments, intellectual rigor, and highly readable prose.

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.

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.

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