Jan 6 2021

A Better Planet: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future

Reviewed by Aria Ritz Finkelstein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How can systems thinking about democracy and inclusion, about innovation and creativity; technical solutions; and building social equity and environmental justice through community programs and initiatives promote sustainability? 

A Better Planet

A Better Planet: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future, edited by Daniel C. Esty, Yale University Press, 2019, 416 pp.

Esty gathers the thoughts of some truly brilliant and knowledgeable thinkers and scholars in the field of sustainability. The collection of proposals is too broad to even begin to do justice to in such a short review. The authors’ stances run the gamut from a belief in the power of technical innovation to an insistence on deep ecology and the intrinsic value of “nature.” Still, given the book’s title, it will not surprise the reader that the attitude throughout is upbeat. Yes, the chapters describe enormous challenges, but these writers take them on with a shared confidence that these challenges can be—will be—overcome.

The essays range across topics as disparate as Thomas Rashad Easley’s discussion of “hip-hop forestry” as joining young students with foresters and Cary Coglianese’s argument for the use of machine learning in environmental management. Some, Susan Biniaz on international agreements, for example, take on global environmental governance, while others, such as Meha Jain and Balwinder Singh on no-tillage farming, zoom into a closer frame of view.

The essays cover systems thinking, democracy and inclusion, innovation and creativity. All of these terms risk becoming buzzwords, and because of the sheer number of the essays none can dive too deeply into its subject. However, each bite-sized chapter offers enough to introduce the reader to the problem it addresses, to explain what its stakes are, to outline the broad conversation already being had around it, and, usually, to offer a path forward and even a way to join in.

The sections vary in tone and orientation, in ways not entirely surprising. For example, the “Innovation and Technology” section gathers pieces that place their optimism in technical solutions. The “Society, Equity and Process” pieces, as a group, tend to focus more on building social equity and environmental justice through community programs and initiatives. As a group they manage to concisely and engagingly lay the historical groundwork needed to grasp the issues they are tackling, explain why they are important, and suggest at least one path forward. Another thing the writers have in common: Each is almost unflaggingly optimistic.

The collection might benefit from a more structured conversation between the pieces, one that would bring the ideologies and assumptions behind them, and the implicit conflicts between them, into sharper relief. The book shies from facing the full complexity and difficulty of challenges—especially intensely political ones—head on. On the other hand, the way the essays stand alone demonstrates faith in the reader’s capacity to grasp without handholding.

The book is a conversation-starter. This moniker is often a pejorative one, but here it is the book’s strength. On this point, Esty is explicit: “Indeed, our goal is not just to contribute to the substance of the policy dialogue over our environmental future but also to demonstrate how to have such a conversation. So please join us in this debate.” And, at the end of the collection, he invites the reader to participate in an online conversation, an exchange into which the book is only one entrance. The book is welcoming. Together, its essays add up to an entryway into those discussions that have the potential to shape the world to come.

Jan 6 2021

Complexity of Transboundary Water Conflicts: Enabling Conditions for Negotiating Contingent Resolutions

Reviewed by Shekhar Chandra, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How can our understanding of the complexity of water disputes enable us to sustainably manage our dwindling water resources? Why does a unified theory of water conflicts, although attractive among academics, remains elusive?

Complexity of Transboundary Water Conflicts

Complexity of Transboundary Water Conflicts: Enabling Conditions for Negotiating Contingent Resolutions, edited by Enamul Choudhury and Shafiqul Islam, Anthem Press, 2018, 292 pp.

Water is a critical input for economic development and the functioning of the natural environment. Due to the changing climate, increasing demand, unsustainable use of water resources, and political relationships between groups of people, states and countries are being adversely affected—and in some cases even driven—by disputes over shared water resources.   Water-related conflicts are occurring at all geographical scales. There are local disputes among groups fighting for access in the face of increasing demand and supply gaps resulting from poor physical and institutional infrastructure, state-level conflicts within national jurisdiction laying competing claims over shared water resources, and international conflicts, often involving transboundary water disputes. Gleick (2009) shows that the number of violent conflicts over water resources increased from at least 19 in 1900 to at least 61 in 2007.

Enamul Choudhury and Shafiqul Islam provide an interesting perspective on transboundary water disputes. They argue that in transboundary disputes, causal relations are not clear. In such conflicts, uncertainty, non-linearity, and bidirectional feedbacks occur all the time that makes system dynamics highly complex and continuously evolving. The book is in three parts. The first part deals with the theoretical framework, especially the underlying elements of complexity theory. Using examples of the Indus and the Jordan, they identify three enabling conditions—interest identification, interdependence recognition, and conflict-resolution mechanisms. The second part underscores the complexity of some of the ongoing water conflicts around the world that includes the Danube, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Nile, and Colorado rivers. Finally, the third part is mostly a reflection on several cases in different river basins on the roles and interactions of complexity, enabling conditions, and contingency in varying contexts.

There are practical takeaways from this work. The authors make a case that while developing a general theory of water conflicts remains highly attractive among academics, regardless of the number of conflicts we study, a unified theory would be elusive. It is because each case is continuously evolving and has a set of unique characteristics—what they call “enabling conditions.” Such contextual uniqueness of conflicts makes the pursuit of one single theory of water conflicts extremely difficult. The authors make it amply clear that despite the importance of situational and contextual factors, conflicts are often (unfortunately) reduced to questions about respective shares of a fixed resource (water), which inevitably ends up as a multi-variate optimization problem.

Overall, the book is a wonderful addition to the foundational textbook, Water Diplomacy, on water dispute by Professors Islam and Susskind (2012). Their conceptualization that water is a flexible resource has radically changed the way academics and practitioners think of managing water resources. This book further advances our understanding of the complexity of water disputes to be able to sustainably manage our dwindling water resources. 


Gleick PH. Water Conflict Chronology. The World’s Water, 2008–2009: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources. Washington, DC: Island Press; 2009:151–196.

Susskind, L. & Shafiqul Islam. (2012). Water Diplomacy: A Negotiated Approach to Managing Complex Water Networks. New York: RFF Press.

Sep 1 2020

Carbon Captured: How Business and Labor Control Climate Politics

Reviewed by Nicholas Bradley Allen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Why do national policymakers fail to reach stable carbon pricing agreements in spite of the well-known social costs of carbon and how cross-national differences in domestic climate policymaking are controlled by business and labor?


Carbon captured


Carbon Captured: How Business and Labor Control Climate Politics, by Matto Mildenberger, The MIT Press, 2020, 368 pp.

If we step away from observed experience, national carbon pricing policies seem like they should be easy to pass. The social costs of carbon are well known. Instruments are various and flexible enough that even those harmed by regulation can be placated. Mass movements and extreme weather heighten salience. Delay is exponentially costly. Why, then, do national policymakers fail to reach stable carbon pricing agreements? 

Matto Mildenberger’s new book Carbon Captured scours a 30-year cross-national record to reveal this instability. Writing in the tradition of Theda Skocpol and other comparative political scientists, his interview-based case studies of Norway, the United States, and Australia pursue a historical-institutionalist theory of national climate politics. 

Mildenberger cuts through a thicket of instruments and institutional arrangements to find a simple, chimerical advantage held by carbon polluters: their “double representation.” First, carbon-polluting industries have membership in both left and right political coalitions, ensuring any proposal will fracture internal support. Second, when reform coalitions succeed in passing carbon pricing, carbon-polluting industries may assert themselves in rulemaking or mobilize citizen resistance to higher energy costs. Administrations that marginalize carbon polluters in policy formulation, as Obama’s production-focused Clean Power Plan did, discover their opponents’ blocking power later. Countries with more stable pricing regimes, like Norway and Japan, overcome polluters’ double representation by exempting intensive industries and passing costs to consumers. Accommodation, however economically inefficient and loathsome to climate advocates, prevents sabotage. 

The “double representation” thesis enriches other studies of carbon-pricing opponents’ tactical maneuvering (e.g., Oreskes and Conway 2011). Mildenberger skillfully explains why carbon, unlike other pollutants, is so successfully defended in the policymaking process. Political scientist Robert Keohane (2015) observed that climate policy stalemates have the appearance of “driving one’s car into the wall rather than trying to drive around the wall.” For those interested in the bypass, Carbon Captured offers a few different routes.

Sep 1 2020

Subnational Hydropolitics: Conflict, Cooperation, and Institution-Building in Shared River Basins

Reviewed by Jessica Gordon, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

How and why does water conflict and cooperation play out at the subnational scale?


Subnational Hydropolitics


Subnational Hydropolitics: Conflict, Cooperation and Institution Building in Shared River Basins, by Scott M. Moore, Oxford University Press, 2018, 270 pp.

How and why does water conflict and cooperation play out at the subnational scale? While the scholarly consensus places riparian geography (upstream vs. downstream) or scarcity as the primary drivers of water conflict, Moore’s book sets out to build a new theory for subnational hydropolitics.  Drawing on comparative case studies from the United States, India, China, and France, Moore focuses on a combination of ideational and institutional factors: decentralization, sectional identity, and political opportunity structures.

Moore argues that water conflicts emerge when subnational politicians in decentralized political systems connect water issues to existing ethnic, linguistic, or geographic identities. This occurs within political opportunity structures where officials can gain political advantage from competing with shared jurisdictions over water. For promoting cooperation, Moore finds that third-party actors have the potential to play a large role as a bridge between sectional and elite politics.  Through building alliances with national governments and advocating for interjurisdictional institutions, environmental organizations support collaborative, participatory and adaptive management of water resources, ultimately leading to durable cooperation that exists beyond a political tenure.  

The first part of the book presents three theoretical chapters that provide the conceptual framework across the three primary factors that influence cooperation and conflict.  The second part provides detailed historical comparative case studies. The U.S. cases explore the Delaware River Basin and the Colorado River Basin as examples of cooperation and conflict, respectively.  In India, the Damodar Valley Corporation is presented as a case of cooperation and the Krishna River Basin as a case of conflict.  These are followed by the case of the Yellow River Conservancy Commission in China and river basin agencies in France to test the theory built through the U.S. and India cases. 

While much work has focused on international water conflict, Moore makes strong claims for why local water politics deserve our attention and efforts.  The final chapter provides useful recommendations for policymakers including the need for national leadership and areas for further research.  This book is an engaging examination of comparative water politics that will appeal to students, scholars, and practitioners.

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.