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.

Feb 1 2018

Rethinking Private Authority: Agents and Entrepreneurs in Global Environmental Governance

Reviewed by Elise Harrington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Sometimes private authorities have a role in international environmental governance. When and why do states delegate authority to non-state actors? How can private actors play a helpful role in drafting rules and regulations?   


by Jessica F. Green, Rethinking Private Authority: Agents and Entrepreneurs in Global Environmental Governance, Princeton University Press, 2014, 232 pp.

In Rethinking Private Authority: Agents and Entrepreneurs in Global Environmental Governance, Jessica Green makes a distinction between two forms of non-state involvement in environmental governance: delegated private authority and entrepreneurial private authority. Against a backdrop of increased involvement of non-state actors, Green shows that the growth in private authority involves primarily entrepreneurial authority; delegated private authority continues to play only a minor part in international environmental governance. Green provides a model for predicting when private authority will be included and what form that private authority is likely to take. She defines private authority “as situations in which non-state actors make rules or set standards that other relevant actors in world politics adopt” (p. 29). Non-state actors can include NGOs, corporations, advocacy networks and foundations among others. She excludes international organizations involving state representatives. Her forecasting model and its tests offer a valuable study of international delegation and the reasons why private authority is increasing in global environmental governance.

In Chapter 1, Green outlines the first stage of her model. It is based on what she considers to be the supply and demand for private authority, the convergence of state–non-state preferences and the presence of focal institutions. Supply and demand is contingent on costs and benefits, such that “private authority emerges because actors in world politics—states, private actors, and institutions comprising both types of actors—anticipate they will benefit from deferring to private authority” (p. 39). The primary cost to the state of granting more authority to private actors is a loss of autonomy; thus “the less autonomy the adopters have to sacrifice, the greater the net gain for them in deferring to private authority” (p. 47). In the second stage of the model, Green hypothesizes that homogeneous state preferences (among powerful states) will result in increased delegation of private authority, while with heterogeneous preferences entrepreneurial private authority is more likely. Further, the presence of a strong focal institution, such as the Montreal Protocol’s Technical and Economic Assessments Panel, increases the likelihood of delegated authority. Focal institutions‪ likely reduce opportunities for agency slack, both as shirking responsibility or slippage between agency and principal preferences. ‬‬‬

Chapters 2 through 5 provide Green’s empirical analyses of delegation and private authority. Her longitudinal data analysis seeks to account for historical patterns and recent changes in private authority. In Chapter 2, using a random sample of 152 multilateral environmental treaties adopted between 1857 and 2002, Green coded for policy functions and responsible actors. She determined that private authority has not substantially increased over time as a proportion of policy actions; rather, delegation “is a relatively rare occurrence” (p. 66). When delegation does occur, private expertise appears to play a key role. Chapter 2 identifies historical patterns of delegated private authority while Chapter 3 unpacks entrepreneurial private authority using a dataset of transnational civil regulations adopted between 1954 and 2009. Green finds that 90 percent of the regulations in this dataset were created between 1990 and 2009, and over 80 percent created in those two decades were “hard” standards requiring third-party verification. She argues that this indicates “that these rules are being used as real governance tools. They go beyond mere second-party certification where the firm itself judges whether it is in compliance” (p. 91).

Chapters 4 and 5 examine in-depth cases of delegated and entrepreneurial private authority for climate change and regulating carbon emissions. In Chapter 4, Green examines private authority in the operation of the Clean Development Mechanism. She identifies reductions in transaction costs (benefits of private authority) and convergence of negotiating blocs which resulted in delegated monitoring authority to the private sector. Chapter 5 discusses the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which was started by the World Resources Institute and World Business Council on Sustainable Development––two NGOs––rather than by state delegation. Green argues that the Greenhouse Gas Protocol was initiated with entrepreneurial authority because “the inability of public authorities (governments or international organizations) to address the issue of firm-level emissions, combined with the lack of a strong focal institution to screen and monitor agents […] created an opening for entrepreneurial private authority” (p. 133).

Green’s work stands as a strong contribution to the growing focus in political science on the role of non-state actors and state–non-state interactions. Both her model and her empirical findings offer a number of intriguing areas for further study. For example, it should be possible to further specify both the first and second steps in the operation of her model. Questions remain about how and when benefits accrue and whether they are associated with one form of private authority more than another. While Green identifies state autonomy as the primary cost to the state, how within-state politics influence adoption, delegation and enforcement remains unclear. Finally, state–non-state relationships are generally discussed with reference to strong states, but the influence of private authority in developing and weak state contexts is equally interesting and in need of further examination.

Jan 11 2017

Consensus and Global Environmental Governance: Deliberative Democracy in Nature’s Regime

Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 An engaging argument for pursuing ecologically sustainable and democratically legitimate earth systems governance through democratic deliberation.

 Consensus and Global Environmental Governance


by Walter F. Baber and Robert V. Bartlett Consensus and Global Environmental Governance: Deliberative Democracy in Nature’s Regime, MIT Press, 2015, 272 pp

Consensus and Global Environmental Governance: Deliberative Democracy in Nature’s Regime is part of the MIT Press Earth System Governance book series. The series identifies normative discourses about global environmental governance. Following Deliberative Environmental Politics (2005) and Global Democracy and Sustainable Jurisprudence (2009), Baber and Bartlett’s third book examines the application of deliberative democratic theory to the practice of environmental politics. In Global Democracy and Sustainable Jurisprudence the authors argued that the democratic deficit and inefficacy of international environmental law can be addressed through a system of juristic democracy. In this system, environmental law backed by nation-states would be replaced by global common law derived from the rulings of numerous global citizen juries on hypothetical legal cases. Consensus and Global Environmental Governance highlights the practical difficulties and implications of using a deliberative approach to consensus-building.

Baber and Bartlett present convincing arguments regarding the merits of a more democratic process of global environmental policymaking in the first half of the book (Ch. 1–5). Chief among these are that a more democratic process would (i) ensure public support and stronger political will (something that has been missing from past negotiated climate agreements), (ii) lead to a much-needed shift in values and (iii) ensure more environmentally just outcomes. They point to several conditions that must be met for rules to be effective (Ch. 1) and advocate for deliberative techniques (such as juristic deliberation) to ensure “ecologically sustainable and democratically legitimate environmental governance” (Ch. 2). International law and negotiations, they argue, have been ineffective due to poor implementation and regulation marked by a democratic deficit (Ch. 3).

Baber and Bartlett anchor themselves squarely on the side of deliberative democracy in the broader academic debate. They address common criticisms: deliberation may (i) push conflict aside rather than resolve it; (ii) exacerbate existing inequalities and lead to unfair outcomes; (iii) discriminate against political perspectives held by minorities; (iv) be overly technical in nature, thereby inadvertently excluding historically disadvantaged groups; and (v) fail to affect policymaking, thereby further disenfranchising politically marginalized groups (Ch. 4). Like other deliberative democracy advocates, they respond to these complaints by emphasizing the importance of the design and implementation of the process of deliberation and by countering with a critique of the alternative (i.e., aggregative democracy).

The obvious challenge of a deliberative approach to international policymaking is that it becomes unwieldy. Baber and Bartlett propose a system of juristic deliberation in which citizen juries from around the world would be convened to adjudicate hypothetical environmental disputes. When transnational consensus is reached on a specific issue, the results of the deliberation would then be made available to “international tribunals for citation as a general principle of law in support of their resolution of specific environmental disputes” (p. 168). In this way, they argue, we would gain more insight into shared global values and identify similar approaches to disputes across cultures. In theory, this should enable policymakers to develop a new system of environmental policies built on normative consensus.

The authors use research on trial juries to support their call for citizen juries (Ch. 6), continue to develop their vision of juristic democracy in the second half of the book (Ch. 7–9) and conclude with a defense against charges that consensus may not be possible or desirable (Ch. 10). The book includes an example case (Appendix B) of a hypothetical water-warming dispute between three countries (Arroya, Panterra and Meerland). Baber and Bartlett describe the results of testing this case with twelve citizen panels from the United States, Germany, Russia, Sweden and the United Kingdom (Appendix A).

Their overarching argument is that democratic deliberation can be used at every step of global environmental governance and policymaking to build and identify normative, political and social consensus. Juristic deliberation can be used to spot “widely supported normative principles and general propositions of law” (i.e., normative consensus), whereas classic deliberative techniques (e.g., deliberative polling, consensus conferences, planning cells, etc.) can only be used to engage the public in choosing among alternative policy paradigms (i.e., identify political consensus). In the final step, policies are implemented through stakeholder partnerships to help ensure social consensus.

Although Baber and Bartlett argue persuasively that deliberative democracy has the potential to increase the political legitimacy of environmental governance and lead to more ecologically sustainable policies, the real challenge lies in convincing nation-states that the costs (including the political costs) associated with such deep engagement with the public will be offset in the long run.

Jan 11 2017

Can Science Fix Climate Change? A Case against Climate Engineering

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

A case against planet plumbing.



by Mike Hulme Can Science Fix Climate Change? A Case against Climate Engineering, Polity, 2014, 158 pp.

Mike Hulme, a professor of climate and culture at King’s College London, holds no two opinions that the proposals to use stratospheric aerosols to cool the planet are inherently flawed and deeply undesirable, if not dangerous. Engineering the world’s climate by using global temperature as the control variable cannot secure the intended benefits for humans and the things that matter to them. Hulme’s argument is that the environmental, political and psychological costs of designing global climate through aerosol injections overwhelmingly outweigh any assumed benefits.

Research studies show that it may not be possible to stabilize the climate in all regions simultaneously. There is regional diversity in response to different levels of aerosol injection. These variations could make geo-engineering a difficult proposition. Hulme evaluates an array of geo-engineering technologies including orbital mirrors, ocean fertilization, carbon capture and urban whitewashing, concluding that none are technically feasible enough to be scaled up to the planetary level. Add to this, the relevant computer simulation models are not sufficient to determine the possible risks of geo-engineering at scale. There are, after all, limits to human knowledge. Our species is a product of evolution, not its author or controller.

This slim volume argues that human-induced climate change is not the sort of problem that lends itself to a technological end-of-pipe solution. Instead, climate change is a “wicked problem” and needs to be approached as such. Hulme suggests “climate pragmatism” as a way to reframe the problem of climate change: first, by decoupling the energy question and, second, by recognizing that there are many ways to alter the functioning of the atmosphere. Viewing the singular problem of climate change through the lens of climate pragmatism can lead the world to a three-pronged strategy: first, enhance social resilience to meteorological extremes; second, reduce emissions of atmospheric pollutants; and, third, meet the growing demand for energy in the world through cheap, reliable and sustainable means. By suggesting climate pragmatism as an approach, the author seeks to advance human welfare and human development by relying on fixes other than technological.

Jan 11 2017

Environmental Litigation in China: A Study in Political Ambivalence

Reviewed by Jessica Gordon, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The emergence of and reactions to environmental litigation in China.

Environmental Litigation in China


by Rachel Stern Environmental Litigation in China: A Study in Political Ambivalence, Cambridge University Press, 2013, 314 pp.

What happens when tons of industrial waste are dumped in a Chinese river? Rachel Stern’s insightful book Environmental Litigation in China: A Study in Political Ambivalence explores the shifting conditions under which the Chinese legal system is being used to address pollution issues. While the book is written in clear and accessible prose, it complicates common narratives around the Chinese legal system and exposes its many contradictions. The first half of the book provides a nuanced picture of environmental litigation including exploring specific pollution cases with different approaches and outcomes and is fascinating as it reveals the strengths, limitations and creativity within environmental litigation. The second half of the book analyzes the issue from the perspectives of judges, lawyers and NGOs. While the voices of state actors are notably absent, given the limitations of research in China this is understandable. Stern rallies a range of evidence to support her argument.

She demonstrates how actors are reacting to a state that sees the advantages of using the law to control pollution, but also recognizes how the law could undermine the state itself. Stern terms these conflicting state signals political ambivalence and analyzes how they provide space for bottom-up experimentation and incremental change. It is, however, also clear that the legal system alone will not be enough to address the variety of forces that allow pollution to continue.

The book focuses on the Hu period and should be taken as a slice in time. The legal landscape is changing as the new environmental law makes it easier for some groups to sue polluting industries. The first public interest case under the new law in 2016 was successful. Most cases, though, are still not making it to the court. The book would be a great choice for an undergraduate or graduate course on environmental politics. It is also likely to engage anyone interested in the intersection of law and the environment.