Oct 8 2016

Ecopolitical Homelessness: Defining Place in an Unsettled World

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

We are all experiencing a kind of homelessness in relation to the places where we live.

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By Gerard Kuperus Ecopolitical Homelessness: Defining Place in an Unsettled World, Routledge, 2016, 188pp.

With increasing mobility and the growing homogeneity of living spaces, the idea that ‘home is where the heart is’ may be losing its meaning. With the same corporations not only invading but in many cases constituting the public space in which we live, traditional notions of ‘home’ are being suppressed. We now seem to favor a false home that makes us think we know who we are. In fact, it is more likely that we are utterly lost. The universal marketplaces, automated teller machines and coffee shop chains provide a false sense of home and a fanciful identity. Conversely, we are experiencing a kind of ‘homelessness’ that does not reflect who we are in relation to the places we live. At a philosophical level, we face a crisis: core values of community are eroding and, as a result, we have nothing to hold on to. Instead, we hang on to what celebrities are wearing, the cars our neighbors drive and the brand of mobile phone our friends carry. We have lost our sense of our unique selves.

Drawing on Nietzsche’s philosophy to diagnose this unique form of ‘homelessness,’ Gerard Kuperus argues that a lack of any real grounding in the places where we live is unsustainable and dangerous. Development has turned a majority of humans into nomads, desperately trying to solidify and commercialize the places around them. This nomadism focuses on transformation of the places that we move to and from, but not on transformation of ourselves. This is the crisis of our times: we create homes by immunizing ‘ourselves’ against ‘the other,’ both human and environmental.

Gerard Kuperus, a professor of environment philosophy at the University of San Francisco, proposes an eco-politics that calls for a very different interaction between humans and nature. At the interface, he argues, humans and nonhumans need to coexist by reacting more carefully to each other. Within this interface we must recover a sense of home rooted in homelessness. Esoteric as this may sound, his proposition is distinctly practical. Drawing on the work of Heidegger, Deleuze and Guattari, Kuperus argues for a fundamental shift in human–ecosystem relationships. We are losing ecosystems at an alarming rate; restoration efforts do not match the pace of loss. Perhaps the shift Kuperus advocates means that we ought to restore or recreate forests in which people are able to live. Only by blurring the boundaries of what we call ‘home’ can we integrate the ‘other’ into it.

Loaded with philosophical insights, Kuperus offers a wake-up call. He urges us to think differently about ourselves, our relationship to other people and our connections to the places around us. His book encourages us to let go of prevailing notions of household and rethink our interactions with strangers. The challenge, he suggests, is to find ourselves in the wild and the wild in ourselves. After all, as Nietzsche observed, man is but a bridge and not an end.


Dec 5 2014

SCARCITY: THE TRUE COST OF NOT HAVING ENOUGH

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma
Getting the most out of what we have!

Scarcity: The True Cost of Not Having Enough, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Penguin, 2014

When an economist and a psychologist come together to undertake an intellectual endeavour, the outcome can shatter many myths about everyday living. Together they manage to explain the most fundamental problems in all walks of life viewed through the science of scarcity, which the authors claim is still in the making. The lonely are lonely, dieters are plump and the busy are busy because they are caught in the ‘scarcity trap’.

The authors stretch the notion of fiscal scarcity to include social scarcity and cognitive scarcity as well as scarcity of time and calories. The multiple implications of scarcity not only make us dumber, but cloud our cognitive abilities. Far from making people more effective, as many would believe, scarcity leaves us with reduced fluid intelligence and more impulsive actions. Not without reason, scarcity leads us to borrow, and pushes us deeper into scarcity. Using stories from daily existence and studies from diverse social settings, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir conclude that the feeling of ‘less’ distorts our vision and judgment.

Scarcity is loaded with fresh insights. The idea of scarcity offers clues to managing our lives better during abundance such that there is no slackness when scarcity confronts us. Scarcity can make us wiser provided clear-headed thinking about trade-offs is thoughtfully applied. After all, scarcity is largely an outcome of environmental conditions that can be managed. Scarcity should make us experts, even if in a limited manner.

In a way, the idea of scarcity offers good news because it can help us organize our lives better and design more efficient systems.

Scarcity is a real page turner, overflowing with fresh insights and simple suggestions to transform the way we live and manage ourselves. If you think traffic on the road is clogged, you have fallen into a scarcity trap. You may need to put on your ‘scarcity cap’ to wriggle out of it. The authors argue that if all the cars went at the same speed, not only would the traffic flow smoothly, but more cars could be accommodated. It is the variation in the speed of the cars that causes congestion, as drivers vie for limited space (a reflection of scarcity).

Scarcity is often associated with dire consequences.  But,  Mullainathan and Shafir consider it a perfect trigger to enhance our abilities to make better choices. Scarcity is a must read, brilliant and engaging.


Sep 12 2014

THE FUTURE IS NOT WHAT IT USED TO BE: CLIMATE CHANGE AND ENERGY SECURITY

Reviewed by Mike Gunter, Jr., Rollins College

 A thought-provoking analysis of the rather pessimistic prospects for dealing effectively with climate change and energy security

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The Future Is Not What It Used To Be, by Jörg Friedrichs, MIT Press, 2013

International development scholar Jörg Friedrichs offers a thought-provoking analysis of the rather pessimistic prospects for dealing effectively with climate change and energy security. Arguing our industrial society is inherently transitory, Friedrichs goes beyond other recent analyses on climate change politics, spelling out in his sixth chapter the “moral economy of inaction.” Such inaction prevails thanks to the four obstinate obstacles of free-riding with collective action problems, psychological coping with seemingly intractable threats, and the discount factors of both time and space. This follows the logic of David Hume (1739) that the more distant a threat is, the less one cares.

After introducing his topic and discussing the links between climate change and energy scarcity in his first two chapters, chapters three and four delve into an intriguing set of case studies. With its focus upon climate change, the second case study in chapter three contrasts the medieval Norse settlements of Iceland and Greenland during the Little Ice Age (pp. 67–71) and makes a convincing argument that settlers in Iceland were more flexible then their Greenland brethren, adjusting agriculturally and becoming more accomplished fishermen.

Similarly, chapter four offers two case studies focusing upon energy scarcity. The latter study, which compares the Hermit Kingdom in North Korea to the Castro regime in Cuba, is more interesting. Both communist regimes were hurt by the loss of Soviet oil subsides at the end of the Cold War. However, while hundreds of thousands died from hunger in mid-1990s in North Korea, those in Cuba exploited the social capital offered by family, friends, and neighbors and survived.

Friedrichs next prescribes four solutions for our twin threats including lower energy consumption, better energy efficiency, the switch from fossil fuels, and carbon capture and storage. At the same time, he takes into account realistic limitations. The rebound effect, or Jevons paradox, for example, limits efficiency as there is considerable risk it will not lead to lower consumption, but will rather, because of reduced costs, actually encourage higher consumption.

Finally, despite its numerous strengths, the book falls short in the fifth chapter, a critique of the struggle over knowledge about climate change and peak oil. While Friedrichs is certainly correct that our knowledge base is flawed, one might take issue with his analysis as to why. Regarding climate in particular, Friedrichs gives the so-called skeptics too much credit. Mainstream climate scientists are labeled as alarmists while skeptics are assigned their preferred choice of terminology (instead of the deniers label) simply for the reason that they “openly talk about climate change” (p. 129).

Friedrichs justifies this reasoning by saying that the deniers label should only be reserved for those who avoid the issue altogether, but in doing so cedes significant rhetorical power to skeptics in terms of agenda setting. Additional references to skeptics as typically less published and less cited than peers (p. 133) is a gross understatement and there is a lack of attention to their financial connections to the fossil fuel industry.


Sep 11 2014

RIVER REPUBLIC: THE FALL AND RISE OF AMERICA’S RIVERS

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma, Independent Reviewer

An authoritative exposé of the political economy of river management in the United States

River Republic: The Fall and Rise of America’s Rivers, Colombia University Press, 2012

Dictatorships are loathed the world over for the fatalities they cause. But rarely have democracies been reprimanded for the living rivers they destroy. Isn’t it a fact that the United States of America has led the world in inflicting grievous damage on its rivers?

It indeed is! In its two centuries of experience in manhandling rivers, the US Army Corps of Engineer has dammed, diverted and dried up nearly all the country’s rivers. It apparently never occurred to this elite force that moving water could also be a resource. Pouring concrete to impound or divert flows has prevailed as a water development strategy known as ‘water hubris’ guiding river management. As a result, some 3.3 million small and big dams have converted free-flowing rivers into a series of interconnected reservoirs in the US. Yet none of these projects have lived up to the promise of being self-sustaining. Annual maintenance expenditures alone have caused the initial cost–benefit calculus to go haywire.

Dam building and river engineering generate sufficient political capital to sustain themselves while water projects have become instruments of power, prestige and political gamesmanship. To get a sense of how water hubris has been nurtured, Daniel McCool, Professor of Political Science at the University of Utah, provides bio-sketches of two leading agencies: the US Army Corps of Engineers and the US Bureau of Reclamation. Through their relentless pursuit to “curb the sinful rivers,” these two agencies have turned water hubris into a moral right, almost in religious terms, to conquer rivers. No wonder, then, that calls for new water projects are almost always accompanied by dire projections of impending “water crises.” The actual crisis is that the real requirements of water management are lost in the din.

The collapse of the Teton Dam on World Environment Day in 1976 may have been the tipping point. From a 27 km long reservoir, 80 billion gallons of water swept through the 305-feet-high earth-filled dam killing about a dozen people in Rexburg, Idaho. Ironically, the disintegration of the Machhu Dam in Gujarat in 1979, which killed as many as 25,000, hasn’t had any impact on the prevailing water hubris in India.

It has been officially acknowledged that there are 15,237 dams in the US with high hazard potential. As many as 890 of these dams have been dismantled due to public outrage. Water hubris appears to be giving way to a new water ethic in the US. Inspiring accounts of citizen triumphs against the institutionalized annihilation of rivers are worth emulating.

McCool confirms that not only has the status quo been challenged, but that some rivers are returning to their free-flowing condition. River instigators are working their way through a maze of institutional obstacles. River restoration is now something of a cottage industry. Indeed, there are as many as 2,500 non-profit groups in the US partnering with the agencies that originally built the dams now working to restore rivers to their pristine status.

River Republic is an authoritative exposé of the political economy of river management in the United States. McCool stresses that the great challenge for this generation is to figure out a way to reverse the downward corkscrew of our rivers before we reach a point where there is nothing left to save.

Personal anecdotes and insightful analysis make it an important book. River Republic offers essential lessons for entrenched water bureaucracy.

 


Feb 1 2013

AMERICA THE POSSIBLE: A MANIFESTO FOR A NEW ECONOMY by James Gustave Speth

Reviewed by Alexis Schulman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

America the Possible:  A Manifesto for a New Economy, by James Gustave Speth, Yale University Press, 272pp

In the opening of his new book, America the Possible: A Manifesto for a New Economy, James Gustave (Gus) Speth—once called the “consummate environmental insider”—makes a startling claim. After nearly four decades moving seamlessly between the worlds of nonprofits, academia, and government, Speth has concluded that working “inside the system” has failed. Solving the slew of environmental and social ills facing the United States, he argues, requires nothing less than profoundly altering their driving force: our political economy.

For those who doubt that America is struggling, Speth kicks off his manifesto with a disturbing summary of America’s “firsts.” Among all OECD nations, he notes, the United States ranks number one in inequality of incomes, homicide rate, poverty rate, prison population, and international arm sales. And these are just a handful of many other undesirables. However, Speth aims less to sway skeptics than to rally the believers—those desirous of a more just, fair, and sustainable future. With remarkable comprehensiveness and clarity, America the Possible lays out the problems with our system, a vision for the future, as well as the required economic and political reforms. At the core of his vision, is a reigning in of the economic growth imperative. Drawing on the work of economist Herman Daly, Speth envisions a steady state economy, where resource consumption and population growth are reduced within ecological limits; and where economic policies seek to maximize quality of life, not quantity of output.

Speth rightly aligns his arguments with similar narratives emerging from the coalescing new economy movement. Indeed, America the Possible often reads as a Who’s Who of the movement’s rising stars (of which Speth is one), and is replete with their theories and projects, such as the democratization of wealth through stakeholder-owned companies, proposals for 100 percent reserve requirements, and reductions in work hours. Speth’s book provides one of the best new economic primers out there. The only drawback is that Speth’s own insights and cultivated wisdom are frequently lost in the mix. His voice is most original when discussing how to build the political movement to see these reforms forward. This is an important and frequently under-articulated issue, and it is clear that here Speth is drawing on his own lessons learned. But ultimately, one wishes for more of these moments.