Jan 6 2021

A Better Planet: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future

Reviewed by Aria Ritz Finkelstein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How can systems thinking about democracy and inclusion, about innovation and creativity; technical solutions; and building social equity and environmental justice through community programs and initiatives promote sustainability? 

A Better Planet

A Better Planet: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future, edited by Daniel C. Esty, Yale University Press, 2019, 416 pp.

Esty gathers the thoughts of some truly brilliant and knowledgeable thinkers and scholars in the field of sustainability. The collection of proposals is too broad to even begin to do justice to in such a short review. The authors’ stances run the gamut from a belief in the power of technical innovation to an insistence on deep ecology and the intrinsic value of “nature.” Still, given the book’s title, it will not surprise the reader that the attitude throughout is upbeat. Yes, the chapters describe enormous challenges, but these writers take them on with a shared confidence that these challenges can be—will be—overcome.

The essays range across topics as disparate as Thomas Rashad Easley’s discussion of “hip-hop forestry” as joining young students with foresters and Cary Coglianese’s argument for the use of machine learning in environmental management. Some, Susan Biniaz on international agreements, for example, take on global environmental governance, while others, such as Meha Jain and Balwinder Singh on no-tillage farming, zoom into a closer frame of view.

The essays cover systems thinking, democracy and inclusion, innovation and creativity. All of these terms risk becoming buzzwords, and because of the sheer number of the essays none can dive too deeply into its subject. However, each bite-sized chapter offers enough to introduce the reader to the problem it addresses, to explain what its stakes are, to outline the broad conversation already being had around it, and, usually, to offer a path forward and even a way to join in.

The sections vary in tone and orientation, in ways not entirely surprising. For example, the “Innovation and Technology” section gathers pieces that place their optimism in technical solutions. The “Society, Equity and Process” pieces, as a group, tend to focus more on building social equity and environmental justice through community programs and initiatives. As a group they manage to concisely and engagingly lay the historical groundwork needed to grasp the issues they are tackling, explain why they are important, and suggest at least one path forward. Another thing the writers have in common: Each is almost unflaggingly optimistic.

The collection might benefit from a more structured conversation between the pieces, one that would bring the ideologies and assumptions behind them, and the implicit conflicts between them, into sharper relief. The book shies from facing the full complexity and difficulty of challenges—especially intensely political ones—head on. On the other hand, the way the essays stand alone demonstrates faith in the reader’s capacity to grasp without handholding.

The book is a conversation-starter. This moniker is often a pejorative one, but here it is the book’s strength. On this point, Esty is explicit: “Indeed, our goal is not just to contribute to the substance of the policy dialogue over our environmental future but also to demonstrate how to have such a conversation. So please join us in this debate.” And, at the end of the collection, he invites the reader to participate in an online conversation, an exchange into which the book is only one entrance. The book is welcoming. Together, its essays add up to an entryway into those discussions that have the potential to shape the world to come.

Jan 6 2021

Complexity of Transboundary Water Conflicts: Enabling Conditions for Negotiating Contingent Resolutions

Reviewed by Shekhar Chandra, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How can our understanding of the complexity of water disputes enable us to sustainably manage our dwindling water resources? Why does a unified theory of water conflicts, although attractive among academics, remains elusive?

Complexity of Transboundary Water Conflicts

Complexity of Transboundary Water Conflicts: Enabling Conditions for Negotiating Contingent Resolutions, edited by Enamul Choudhury and Shafiqul Islam, Anthem Press, 2018, 292 pp.

Water is a critical input for economic development and the functioning of the natural environment. Due to the changing climate, increasing demand, unsustainable use of water resources, and political relationships between groups of people, states and countries are being adversely affected—and in some cases even driven—by disputes over shared water resources.   Water-related conflicts are occurring at all geographical scales. There are local disputes among groups fighting for access in the face of increasing demand and supply gaps resulting from poor physical and institutional infrastructure, state-level conflicts within national jurisdiction laying competing claims over shared water resources, and international conflicts, often involving transboundary water disputes. Gleick (2009) shows that the number of violent conflicts over water resources increased from at least 19 in 1900 to at least 61 in 2007.

Enamul Choudhury and Shafiqul Islam provide an interesting perspective on transboundary water disputes. They argue that in transboundary disputes, causal relations are not clear. In such conflicts, uncertainty, non-linearity, and bidirectional feedbacks occur all the time that makes system dynamics highly complex and continuously evolving. The book is in three parts. The first part deals with the theoretical framework, especially the underlying elements of complexity theory. Using examples of the Indus and the Jordan, they identify three enabling conditions—interest identification, interdependence recognition, and conflict-resolution mechanisms. The second part underscores the complexity of some of the ongoing water conflicts around the world that includes the Danube, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Nile, and Colorado rivers. Finally, the third part is mostly a reflection on several cases in different river basins on the roles and interactions of complexity, enabling conditions, and contingency in varying contexts.

There are practical takeaways from this work. The authors make a case that while developing a general theory of water conflicts remains highly attractive among academics, regardless of the number of conflicts we study, a unified theory would be elusive. It is because each case is continuously evolving and has a set of unique characteristics—what they call “enabling conditions.” Such contextual uniqueness of conflicts makes the pursuit of one single theory of water conflicts extremely difficult. The authors make it amply clear that despite the importance of situational and contextual factors, conflicts are often (unfortunately) reduced to questions about respective shares of a fixed resource (water), which inevitably ends up as a multi-variate optimization problem.

Overall, the book is a wonderful addition to the foundational textbook, Water Diplomacy, on water dispute by Professors Islam and Susskind (2012). Their conceptualization that water is a flexible resource has radically changed the way academics and practitioners think of managing water resources. This book further advances our understanding of the complexity of water disputes to be able to sustainably manage our dwindling water resources. 


Gleick PH. Water Conflict Chronology. The World’s Water, 2008–2009: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources. Washington, DC: Island Press; 2009:151–196.

Susskind, L. & Shafiqul Islam. (2012). Water Diplomacy: A Negotiated Approach to Managing Complex Water Networks. New York: RFF Press.

Jan 6 2021

Conflict and Sustainability in a Changing Environment: Through the Eyes of Communities

Reviewed by Jungwoo Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How do we overlay various sustainable development frameworks and roadmaps on local governments? Who are the critical actors? What does sustainable development look like at a smaller community scale?

Conflict and Sustainability in a Changing Environment

Conflict and Sustainability in a Changing Environment: Through the Eyes of Communities, by Gwendolyn Smith and Elena P. Bastidas, Anthem Press, 2017, 208 pp.

Sustainable development is pretty well-defined by international organizations, multinational corporations, and governments. But it is still unclear what sustainable development looks like at a smaller community scale. How do we overlay various sustainable development frameworks and roadmaps on local governments? Who are the critical actors? The authors try to answer these questions in this book.

The book is organized in sections on theory and practice. The first part presents alternative conflict resolution frameworks as a way of incorporating community views into sustainable development initiatives. The authors demonstrate that values are a crucial starting point—they dictate choices and actions that communities must sort through when they are faced with environmental problems that call for social change. Social polygraphy is introduced as a joint-problem-solving method through which the researcher and the community collaboratively create maps of the past, present, and future as a way to understand past conflicts and envision a pathway forward.

The second part illustrates how the proposed framework can be used to analyze the views of the Trio indigenous community in the Amazonian forests of Suriname. Chapters 5–7 discuss how the values of the Trio community shape their views about climate change and the actions they decide to take. These chapters help the reader see how climate change must be understood through the lens of the community.

The book concludes with answers to some of the questions posed at the outset, offering a comparison between how sustainable development is viewed by the community and development organizations. The last chapter explores sustainable solutions for the Trio community, for example, combining mitigation with adaptation efforts already practiced by the community. The authors further explain the “unfitting” nature of the REDD+ framework which operates from a limited mitigation point of view.

Conflicts are likely to emerge when behavioral change is necessary to achieve wider social change. The model offered by the authors can be applied to different contexts around the world, helping local and indigenous communities define their own sustainable development pathways in reaction to guidelines provided by global development organizations.

Sep 1 2020

Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States

Reviewed by Aria Ritz Finkelstein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

What hindered clean energy policy from taking off, even with the support of broad public opinion and political will?


Short Circuiting Policy


Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States by Leah Cardamore Stokes, Oxford University Press, 2020, 336 pp.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed clean energy production had the political momentum and the legislation in place to support it, so why did it fail to take off at anything close to the rate its advocates hoped it would? The short answer—its opponents, including electric utilities, coal companies, and other companies who profit from fossil fuel extraction obstructed clean energy laws from being passed in the first place, worked to weaken or reverse the ones that did, and delayed the implementation of the ones already in place.

Stokes argues that policy scholars have tended to underestimate the role of interest groups in influencing these policy trajectories. Here, she focuses on four cases of clean energy policy: Arizona, Kansas, Ohio, and Texas. Often, the initial steps in policy development are self-reinforcing (this is called policy “lock-in”), but in these stories the opposite was the case. Stokes sets out to understand what led to the reversals away from clean energy policy even once it was on a forward trajectory, and she argues that, to a large extent, it was how interest groups fought climate policy.

Stokes claims that the policy literature underestimates the full impact of lobbying and campaign groups in shaping policy. She argues that in fact this oversight is precisely due to the strategies that interest groups use to create a “fog of enactment.” One thing that allows actors to create this fog is the uncertainty that accompanies a new policy, or the lack of clarity about how a particular policy will play out in its implementation. It is greatest when a new policy is a big departure from the status quo, when it is untested in other contexts, when its provisions are highly technical and poorly understood by the public, or when it requires changes at multiple scales or levels of government.

These cases are stories of battles between two sets of interest groups—those for clean energy policy and those who profit by obstructing it—and in each how these groups work under the cover of fog is what determines their successes or failures. Stokes’s focus here is on the space between passing and implementation. Yes, passing policy is critical, but “[t]he spoils from victory in organized combat go to the party whose laws are implemented—not just passed” (p. 119). For better or for worse, the advocates win their battles by virtue of organizing national collective action within interest group networks. While their outward facing collaborations are important—their work to sway public opinion can translate to a big impact on politicians—their more important work happens quietly. Collaborating with those within their interest group networks, organizers learn strategies from the successes and failures of those before them, provide legislators with model bills and ordinances, sway political campaigns through financial contributions, and work together to predict the impacts of various policies.

Stokes claims that the existing thought that lobbying and campaign contributions have relatively little impact actually represents a success on the part of advocacy groups. By using highly complex and sometimes indirect methods, fossil fuel companies have obfuscated their efforts even from policy scholars. She concludes that there is much to learn from understanding these strategies. Clean energy advocates can study their techniques to fight them effectively and even to borrow from them. And, by increasing transparency in political donations, holding organizations accountable, making policy decisions easier for the public to understand, and pressuring politicians to refuse money from fossil fuel campaigns, clean energy advocates can help make sure that once clean energy policy laws are passed they are actually enacted. Stokes’s work comes none too soon because, as she encapsulates the driver of her research, “The fossil fuel era must end” (p. 257).

Sep 1 2020

Cities, Climate Change, and Public Health: Building Human Resilience to Climate Change at the Local Level

Reviewed by Mike Raleigh and Dr Kelly Dunning Auburn University

How the public engages more readily with planning efforts that frame human wellness concerns as part of the climate adaptation process and how can adaptation planning and policies remain aware of wellness concerns between and within urban areas?


Cities, Climate Change, and Public Health


Cities, Climate Change, and Public Health: Building Human Resilience to Climate Change at the Local Level, Ella Jisun Kim, Anthem Press, 2020, 131 pp.

Awareness of the intersection between climate change and public health has often been ignored by formal adaptation planning; however, as the author, Dr. Ella J. Kim, carefully examines, the public engages more readily with planning efforts that frame human wellness concerns as part of the climate adaptation process. Furthermore, adaptation planning and policies must remain aware of wellness concerns between and within urban areas. Kim indicates that adaptation plans must examine climate and health linkages beyond mere recognition of their existence. Given the current challenges we face with COVID-19, Kim’s argument feels more urgent, pushed to the forefront of public policy thinking at the intersection of climate and public health.

The purpose of this book is to advocate for public health as a primary focus of adaptation planning and policy making. To this end, the author has developed a game scenario to engage the public in public health awareness and policy implementation as related to climate change. The author begins by examining climate change impacts on public health and local-level adaptation policy making.

The remainder of the book delineates the “frames and games” scenario and subsequent results from its implementation. Games were played in two different forms: a role-play and digital scenario. The role-play scenario involved citizens assuming the role of fictionalized policy makers in Cambridge, MA. The digital format included fictionalized citizens of Cambridge of varied socioeconomic status and their individual health concerns.  

Of note are the results from politically conservative players of the role-play scenario: these individuals had the largest increases in knowledge of and concern for climate change impacts as well as increased confidence in local-scale planning efforts. As the author notes, Cambridge residents skew liberal and more receptive to climate change adaptation.

The future applications for these scenarios show promise if replicated in highly vulnerable, predominantly conservative areas as found in the Southeastern United States. Kim presents an unprecedented approach to engaging conservative citizens on issues of climate change and adaptation governance, which previously may have been nonstarters. Her research shows that it is how you engage people that matters, and that universal concerns like human health open a window for engagement on previously polarizing issues like climate change.