Jun 1 2020

Renewable Energy: A Primer for the Twenty-First Century

Reviewed by Shekhar Chandra, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

Why are major developing economies like China and India moving fast in adopting renewable energy sources to fuel their economies and what are the implications it has for the economy of oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia?


Renewable Energy


Renewable Energy: A Primer for the Twenty-First Century by Bruce Usher, Columbia University Press, 2019, 224 pp.

Historically, from wood to coal, coal to oil and gas, and now renewables, the global energy sector has undergone immense technological changes. In recent years, the share of renewable sources of energy, mainly wind and solar, has been increasingly sharply in the energy consumption profile of the countries mainly driven by falling renewable prices, geopolitical uncertainty, and the mounting climate change concerns. As the price of renewables falls further and become even lower than the fossil sources of energy and the role of climate change becomes more central to public policy, it would result into an inevitable transition from fossil energy sources to renewables. The author asks the question whether the world is prepared to handle the consequences of this transition. It is because the transition has implications for the businesses—the growth of solar PV and electric vehicles, and renewable energy storage technology—for the economy of the countries, their geopolitics as well the degree to which they are able to minimize some of the worst impacts of climate change.

The book provides a comprehensive review of these complex challenges, makes a business and climate case for renewables, and how different countries and businesses are going to be either winners or losers depending on their ability to better adapt to these technological changes. It also provides a good explanation why the major developing economies like China and India are moving fast in adopting renewable energy sources to fuel their economies and the implications it has for the economy of oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia. However, in explaining the transition of the energy sector, mainly the unprecedented growth of renewables, the author relies more on the economic forces and formal institutions. This could be a gap as the recent research identifies federal and state politics and informal institutions like individual and societal values as important determinants of the development and adoption of the renewable energy; hence the causal role of economic forces in explaining the rise of renewables in the book may be an overestimation. Overall, the book uses many interesting statistics, which makes it a helpful guide to policymakers, consumers, and businesses to leverage the changes due to the rise of renewables by better planning their energy future.

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.

Jul 23 2019

Loving Water across Religions: Contributions to an Integral Water Ethic

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

Can religious views about water lead to a shared water ethic?

Loving Water across Religions


Loving Water across Religions: Contributions to an Integral Water Ethic,  by Elizabeth McAnally, Orbis Books, 2019, 192 pp

Exploiting the very source of life for economic gains has reduced our individual and collective relationship with water. With the intrinsic value of water being ignored in its sheer assessment as a resource worthy of appropriation, an uncertain and scary water future threatens humanity like never before. Drawing insights from her passion for understanding water and reflections from her study of religious worldviews, Elizabeth McAnally advocates the need for reinventing our relationship with water by developing an integral water ethic. There is much to learn from religious practices in developing an integral approach to understating and preserving this mysterious liquid.

Nothing less than cultivating an “I-Thou” relationship with water can help circumvent global water crises, stresses McAnally. Integrating her personal experiences with practices in Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, the author constructs an integral ethic that brings the study of religion into dialogue with natural and social sciences with the aim of transforming the current objective assessment of water to include a more subjective perspective on this finite living entity. “Seeing the physical world as a manifestation of the divine has the potential to lead religions to a more respectful relationship with the world.” While there is an inherent value in what is being said, how should religions that have already lost out to science reconcile? Were it not so, water reality would be aligned with our religious penchant. Need it be said that despite each religious practice including compassion, respect and reverence for nature, the material world in contrast is a manifestation of indifference, scorn and contempt toward it?

Seized of the contrasting realities, McAnally argues for the need to integrate knowledge from as many different perspectives as possible to address the complexity and urgency of the impending water crises. The world may have gone as far as it can in managing water as objectively as possible, but there is still time to make a fresh start by imagining it through an integral lens. Loving Water across Religions is a clarion call for developing a deep love for water by acknowledging that it has interiority, an intrinsic value over and above its instrumental value.

While invoking love and service as crucial components of an integral water ethic, McAnally observes that the revered Yamuna, among India’s most sacred rivers, remains one of its worst polluted rivers. This should not minimize the importance, though, of listening to water as a source of inspiration, provided individual love and compassion for water gets converted into collective efforts to preserve our rivers. Although it is a work in progress, McAnally is hopeful that by combining our individual efforts and beliefs we can resolve the water crises that we face.

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.