Jul 31 2017

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

Reviewed by Andrea Beck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

Global water governance is based on the hidden philosophy of “normal water”––a finding with important ethical and ecological implications for water management in the Anthropocene. 

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by Jeremy J. Schmidt Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity, New York University Press, 2017, 308 pp.

Is water governance guided by a comprehensive philosophy? Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, geographer Jeremy J. Schmidt answers this question in the affirmative: water governance is based on a hidden philosophy which conceptualizes water as a “resource” to be managed in support of liberal ways of life. Rooted in a particular confluence of early American geology and anthropology, this view of water has attained global dominance through strategies of international development. It has become accepted to the extent that its ethnocentric and utilitarian foundations now seem all but forgotten within the global water governance mainstream. Thinking about water as a resource is commonplace today. Schmidt seeks to challenge this complacency by opening our eyes to the fact that what appears to be “normal” is in fact a normative choice.

The bulk of the book traces the origins and subsequent globalization of the philosophy of “normal water.” Schmidt provides insights into the roots and evolution of the “narrative of abundance, scarcity, and security,” while also discussing the implications of this narrative for water management in the Anthropocene. While the accounts of the thinking of protagonists such as John Wesley Powell, William John McGee, David Lilienthal and Gilbert White are illustrative and engaging, frequent philosophical excursions render the book somewhat impenetrable for readers unfamiliar with the philosophical works of Hannah Arendt, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Søren Kierkegaard and several others.

If the book is meant to showcase the results of an interdisciplinary intellectual exercise, its purpose has been achieved. However, Schmidt seeks to go further, spelling out the applied implications of his work. What, specifically, are the problems with viewing water as a resource (a very fundamental question)? What are the mechanisms by which alternate place-based approaches to water are being oppressed or marginalized by “normal water?” Beyond recommendations addressed to social scientists (e.g., disrupt the colonial project of water management within academia, relativize existing “stopping rules”), what are possible action avenues for practitioners committed to promoting water justice and equity in the field? Addressing these questions more explicitly and extensively could enhance the transformative impact of the book and make its important message accessible to a wider audience.

 


Sep 9 2014

MANAGING OCEAN ENVIRONMENTS IN A CHANGING CLIMATE: SUSTAINABILITY AND ECONOMIC PERSPECTIVES

Reviewed by Kelly Heber, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Extremely useful for anyone focused on climate science and climate policy development

Managing Ocean Environments In A Changing Climate: Sustainability and Economic Perspectives, Elsevier, 2013

Managing Ocean Environments in a Changing Climate provides a state-of-the-science examination of several high profile threats to the ocean environment. These include acidification, warming, hypoxia, sea level rise, pollution, and over extraction of resources (the primary focus is fisheries). Where this book differs from others with similar aims is that it does not to discuss each of these global stressors in isolation, rather, it speaks to their relationships to each other, including their synergies, amplifications, and feedbacks across scales. Given such a complex scope, it cannot achieve everything it sets out to do. Some of the more successful chapters include a very practical section on Policy Recommendations, as well as its concluding chapter on Multiple Stressors. At times the discussion of the relationships among the stressors felt a bit vague; however, this does not detract from the overall effectiveness of the volume.

This book is written for a diverse audience, including academics, policy makers, and NGO personnel. The book’s concise and well-written literature reviews of the most up-to-date science in the field are very helpful, and they do converse with one another in the later chapters. The authors also use scenarios to be intentionally consistent with the IPCC Assessment Report 5. The use of scenarios, or storylines of possible future development and resource requirements, help to make the book accessible to the wider audience it is seeking to reach. The scenarios generate a narrative feel that makes for more interesting reading as compared to a technical document like the IPCC report it is meant to accompany. The focus on the relationships among six key stressors also helps to achieve consistency with the research aims of the IPCC Assessment Report 5. Thus, this volume is extremely useful for anyone focused on climate science and climate policy development. It is a timely read in the run up to COP 19 in Lima.



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