Aug 21 2023

Evolution of a Movement

Reviewed by Shekhar Chandra, London School of Economics and Political Science

How can activists use different formal institutional channels, such as electoral politics and policy advocacy, more effectively?

Evolution of a Movement

Evolution of a Movement: Four Decades of California Environmental Justice Activism, by Tracy E Perkins, University of California Press, 2022, 302 pp.

Tracy E. Perkins provides a fresh perspective on the history of environmental activism in California, which is environmentally one of the most progressive states in the United States. Using case studies and interviews, Perkins traces the changing face of the environmental justice movement in California. The movement relied on disruptive techniques in the 1980s to draw the attention of policymakers and waste management companies. However, in the 2010s, activists started institutionalizing their work and playing a more constructive role. As marginalized groups continue to face growing environmental threats and some people question the effectiveness of environmental justice movements in offering actual policy options, the book is a timely reminder of how activists could use different formal institutional channels, such as electoral politics and policy advocacy, more effectively. The Kettleman City case study provides excellent insights into multiple instruments activists use to confront the dynamic political realities of the day and bring environmental concerns to the centre of policy debates.

The book offers several important messages. We could view the book narrative as a theory of social change, a historical account of the environmental justice movement in California or the use of strategic approaches to herald positive changes in marginalized neighborhoods. Perkins rightly compares Kettleman City’s struggle against the incinerator, the largest waste management company in the country, with the David vs. Goliath battle in that hardly anyone imagined that low-income people of a marginalized neighborhood could come together and win against the decision of the company to install a waste landfill near the community. Perkins rightly emphasizes how Kettleman example could inspire the environmental justice movement in the country and the world. Overall, the book is an excellent contribution to environmental justice literature and offers valuable lessons to activists, scholars and policymakers.

Nov 10 2021

Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger

Reviewed by Shekhar Chandra, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

What environmental threats do the native, tribal, and other vulnerable communities face and what singular challenges do they encounter when trying to secure environmental justice?

Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger

Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger, by Julie Sze, University of California Press, 2020, 160 pp.

Environmental justice scholarship emerged in the United States with the historical 1982 protests by civil rights activists who stopped North Carolina from dumping 120 million pounds of contaminated soil in Warren County, which had the highest African American population in the state. Robert Bullard, regarded as the father of the environmental justice movement in the United States, found that the communities most resistant to environmental injustice have higher social capital, better education, higher income, and a smaller number of people of color. Julie Sze argues that we ought to learn from historical environmental struggles and forcefully makes a case that environmental injustices in the United States are rooted in racism, capitalism, militarism, colonialism, and native land exploitation. Different chapters in the book discuss important environmental cases, like indigenous land rights in Standing Rock; the Flint, Michigan water contamination case, Hurricane Katrina, as well as key concepts like “climate change denial,” “police violence,” “just transition,” “radical democracy,” “whiteness,” “skepticism,” and “optimism.” They explain the complexity of the environmental justice movement in the United States.

Sze rightly emphasizes the unique circumstances facing indigenous communities and communities of color with regard to environmental justice. The book challenges traditional approaches to environmental justice that focus solely on the distribution of impacts, ignoring the processes and circumstances that result in such maldistribution. As the world recognizes the multifaceted nature of social injustices, moving away from the consequentialist approach to defining environmental justice seems inevitable.

May 21 2021

This Land Is My Land: Rebellion in the West

Reviewed by Gregory Johnson, PhD student, Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife, and Dr. Kelly Dunning, Assistant Professor Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife

What insights can the politics of public land management yield regarding one of the most important acts of political violence this decade?

This Land Is My Land

This Land Is My Land: Rebellion in the West, by James R. Skillen, Oxford University Press, 2020, 296 pp.

James Skillen’s account of how an ideologically conservative movement contests federal land management in the West means more in the wake of the events of January 6, 2021. What insights can the politics of public lands lend us to understanding one of the most important acts of political violence this decade?

Public lands in the United States have been an issue of great contention for well over 100 years. Eleven Western states live with 50 percent of their available land managed by the federal government in the form of National Parks, Wilderness Areas, National Conservation Lands and National Monuments, to name a few. The book begins with describing the large number of Western Americans that rely on the land for their livelihood, lifestyle and culture. These same people, regarded in popular culture as “cowboys,” have to follow the federal policies that have changed repeatedly in the name of conservation and economic needs. Since the beginning of federal public lands, challenges to who should manage the land have manifested themselves in the Sagebrush Rebellion, the War of the West and the so-called Patriot Rebellion.

The book goes into great detail about each of these phenomena to demonstrate to the reader how an ideologically conservative movement in the United States was formed, shaped and driven to conflict with the federal government. Readers of policy process literature will appreciate Deborah Stone’s ideas translated from Policy Paradox, drawing on symbols and narratives to make his point. One of the main characters, Cliven Bundy, known for his armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agents in Nevada over cattle grazing on federal property, is a powerful symbol for Western determination.

Adherents of this movement see Washington (and its distant, “out of touch” lawmakers) violating the Constitution, suggesting that such “tyranny” would eventually lead to socialism. Bundy even goes on to compare himself to Rosa Parks, M. K. Gandhi, Henry Thoreau and even to George Washington standing up to British oppression. This political grandstanding and the use of symbols has gained an astonishingly broad support from mainstream conservatives, to the Tea Party, to members of Congress, and even to armed militias. The author deftly predicts the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 by noting that the history of Western America “provides enough information for a tentative prediction” that “as soon as a Democrat moves into the White House and enjoys Democratic support in the Congress” that “the next rebellion is likely to erupt.” Quelling future political violence in a contentious era requires us to understand the lessons contained in Skillen’s book.

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.

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.