Sep 1 2020

Water Futures of India: Status of Science and Technology

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

What are the water futures of India in the hands of an archaic water sector, predominantly under government control, and afflicted by a business-as-usual approach?

Water Futures of India

Water Futures of India, edited by P. P. Majumdar and V. M. Tiwari, IISc Press, Bengaluru, 481 pp.

Cape Town achieved Day Zero not too long ago, sending alarm bells across the world to set in order its water management system. Despite being clear that improved water management requires better coordination between demand and supply while keeping a close tab on the source, water scarcity continues to haunt human habitations like never before.  With the depth of groundwater having slumped 93.7% during the last decade, and with most water bodies exploited due to unrestricted and uncontrolled development, Bengaluru continues to be in the race for such a dubious distinction after Cape Town to achieve its own Day Zero. 

Water Futures of India, initiated by the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), and supported by two projects at the Inter-Disciplinary Centre for Water Research (ICWaR), includes chapters written by eminent scientists and engineers engaged in water research and practice bringing to light the status of water science and technology dealing with the current water crisis. From water trapped in deep aquifers to that locked in glaciers, and from surface water to that in the atmosphere, the science and technology of understanding water in its different forms and settings has grown in leaps and bounds. Seemingly, science is now able to account for each drop of water as it moves through the different consumptive systems. Paradoxically, however, the more is known about the universal solvent and its source and flow dynamics, the less is known at the systems’ command to resurrect the elixir of life to its pristine glory.  

Covering subjects ranging from groundwater hydraulics, glacier hydrology, desalinization technologies, sediment dynamics, and isotope hydrology, the authors suggest several new tools and techniques to address geophysical complexities within the limited experimental domains. The comprehensive list of scientific challenges raised in the opening chapter, however, remain mostly unaddressed. The book broadly acknowledges gaps in connecting cutting-edge science to policy and practice, but none of the contributions break free from the confines that public-funded science and technology has come to be identified with.
Water Futures in India raises questions about the directions and relevance of public-funded research on a subject as critical as water. Why it remains at a distance from addressing societal problems? Why scientific research does not influence policy? Why communicating science with other stakeholders remains limited? While technological developments are urgently needed to improve efficiency of water use across sectors, it needs to be underpinned by a strong policy response to ensure its effectiveness.    

Part of the problem lies in the water sector being archaic, predominantly under government control, and afflicted by a business-as-usual approach. Consequently, it lacks progressive vision and suffers from a weak adoption of innovative techniques. Given the fact that there is no formal science policy interface that encourages applied research with the aim of adopting science to improve sector performance, much of the high-end research is restricted to only research journals. 

Water Futures of India falls short. It is an assortment of randomly selected papers which does not measure up to the expectations one ought to have of such a book. Given the fact that not all science produced in the country is applicable on the ground, the book could have been better designed to position the contents against a futuristic framework. Nonetheless, it is an ambitious undertaking with a limited shelf life.       


Jul 23 2019

The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump

Reviewed by Shekhar Chandra, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

What does the Republican Party in the United States really think about environmental protection?

The Republican Reversal


The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump, by James Morton Turner and Andrew C. Isenberg, Harvard University Press, 2018, 280 pp

This book explores what appears to be an about-face in the Republican Party views regarding the importance of environmental protection over the last six decades. The fundamental question the authors try to answer is why the Republican leadership, which once introduced historic legislation including the Environmental Protection Act that created EPA in 1970, the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, has abandoned its support for environmental protection. The Republicans who used to criticize the Democrats in the 1960s and 1970s for obstructing the push for more environmental regulation today question the veracity of anthropogenic climate change. The most recent manifestations of this reversal are President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord and his proposed 31% cut in EPA’s budget.

The authors attribute the reversal to three factors: (1) an increasingly strong belief in the effectiveness of markets and technological innovation coupled with related concerns that regulations are contrary to America’s economic interests; (2) the growing concern that scientific facts are uncertain and an inadequate basis for policy-making; and (3) a conviction that environmental improvement requires global action which threatens America’s sovereignty. These views are reinforced by self-interested, industry-funded think-tanks and religious Christians who have waged a misinformation campaign aimed at discrediting federal environmental regulations. Their goal has been to reframe the environmental debate around conservative values rather than scientific expertise.

Overall, the book does a great job of explaining the epochal moments in America’s environmental movement. It falls short, though, on two counts. First, the authors do not discuss how the Republican leadership expects to justify its position on climate change as the impacts of CO2 emissions become more visible in the United States and the nation is increasingly isolated at international forums for not doing enough. These questions were not as relevant in the past decades as they are now. We have seen how the United States was isolated on the issue of the Paris Agreement at the recent G20 meeting. Second, the authors do not address the question of why the Trump administration believes the Republican Party’s anti-environment agenda makes sense politically, even though a majority of Americans not only believe that climate change is occurring, but also want the government to take strong action to combat it.

Mar 5 2019

The Fragmentation of Global Climate Governance: Consequences and Management of Regime Interactions

Reviewed by Elise Harrington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How do different climate governance regimes support or conflict with each other in pursuit of an international climate policy?

Fragmentation of Global Climate Governance


by Harro van Asselt, The Fragmentation of Global Climate Governance: Consequences and Management of Regime Interactions, Edward Elgar, 2014, 360 pp

Harro van Asselt argues in The Fragmentation of Global Climate Governance (2014) that while the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is responsible for many global climate initiatives, other initiatives have developed outside of it and are not directly coordinated with the UN framework. This governance fragmentation is the key focus of his analysis. The book contributes to the growing emphasis on the diversity of actors involved in global climate governance and the importance of examining how formal and informal institutions interact.

While van Asselt emphasizes that his purpose is not to provide “ideal-type solutions” regarding regime interactions, the benefits of policy coherence rather than fragmentation seem to be assumed along with an emphasis on institutional coordination as a solution to regime conflicts. While both the pitfalls and promises of fragmentation are described, the shortcomings are discussed in greater detail than any positive outcomes of fragmentation. Open questions include, does conflict in regime interactions undermine policy goals? Or does overlap provide valuable duplication? The Fragmentation of Global Climate Governance provides a foundation for studying such interactions in global climate governance and encourages further analysis of interactions between hard and soft law, the role of non-state actors, as well as among climate regimes at different levels of governance.

Drawing on concepts from international law and international relations, the analytical framework provided by the author examines multiple features of regime interaction, including relationships between hard and soft law, causal mechanisms, intentionality and consequences (conflict, synergy, neutral).

Empirical chapters offer comparative case studies. Each begins with the UNFCCC as the dominant global climate regime, and then compares it to multilateral clean technology agreements (e.g., Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate), other global environmental priorities (e.g., Convention on Biological Diversity) and different branches of international law relevant to climate change (e.g., the World Trade Organization). Van Asselt focuses on the consequences (conflicts or synergies) of the ways in which these regimes interact.

His analysis of regime interactions suggests a number of parallel concerns at the international policy scale, as well as interactions across local and state levels. Van Asselt might have extended the findings from his three regime interaction cases to these parallel concerns, including interactions among more than two regimes as well, but these are not discussed in the present volume.

With the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, regime interactions––in particular those led by non-state actors and subnational governments––may be of even more importance. With greater flexibility due to the pledge and review process, the interactions between soft and hard laws and between regimes established in different sectors may require us to extend our understanding of the impacts of regime interactions for global climate governance.

Mar 5 2019

The Wisdom of Frugality

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

Being able and willing to live inexpensively may be a virtue that the majority of people across the globe will have to practice out of necessity.

The Wisdom of Frugality


by Emrys Westacott, The Wisdom of Frugality, Princeton University Press, 2018, 328 pp.

Frugality has been abandoned, and with it, the wise words of the sages, from the Buddha to Socrates and from Thoreau to Gandhi. The idea of simple living is now deemed insufficient, unexciting and even uninteresting by a significant portion of the global population. As the lure of purchasable pleasure entices people into relentless earning and spending, a culture of unceasing consumerism has pulled those with resources away from frugal simplicity. Emrys Westacott, a professor of philosophy at New York’s Alfred University, tries to explain why frugality has not become a global norm––despite so many wise people having championed it over the years.

Westacott sees a deep contradiction in the idea of individuals pursuing happiness within a competitive consumptive society. Competitiveness fuels jealousies. Any attempt to distinguish oneself by acquiring products as badges of social position only creates a false and temporary sense of happiness. In extreme cases the propensity to acquire and hoard can turn pathological, dominating a person’s life until they require treatment for a psychological disorder. Epicurus and Plato were convinced that securing material wealth was unlikely to bring happiness and that living simply was the key to moral purity.

It appears that the idea of frugality has fewer and fewer takers because the concept of simple living has turned out to be quite complex. Pursuing frugality in the current world restricts the pursuit of excitement and adventure in a world loaded with such opportunities. Further, we are living in a time when the economic imperative to grow has meant that a minimum level of economic activity must continue to keep several fellow beings busy so they can make sense of their gainful existence. Despite most of us, at one time or another, feeling some sort of moral pressure to embrace frugality, the world is stacked against us. The Wisdom of Frugality isn’t a polemic urging people to change their lives by embracing simplicity, but rather a broader investigation of both frugal and luxurious living. We are each left to draw our own conclusions, regardless of how confusing the choices may be.

Many people jump on and off three different treadmills: the hedonic treadmill for pursuing happiness, the status treadmill for satisfying consumption, and the working treadmill for generating income. All this on and off come at an enormous cost: physically, mentally and emotionally.

Why can’t people break free of the shackles of false happiness? Westacott acknowledges that our culture is torn between accepting acquisitiveness as a necessary condition of economic growth and denouncing it as an undesirable trait that bespeaks false values. Beyond that, though, there is no further explanation.

Freedom has been central to the idea of the good life offered by philosophers of every generation, but consumerism has reinterpreted this through the lens of false values. In the interconnected world of growing individualism backed by the availability of a myriad of economic choices, argues Westacott, freedom needs to be exercised in the context of contributing to the public good. Given the problems of pollution and global warming, we need to live more frugally and less wastefully in order to protect natural resources. That’s in our own interest and the common interest. Technology may be of some help, but it, too, adds to an ever-increasing demand for more goods and services. Frugality is a possible antidote to over-development, one that the world can hardly ignore.

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.