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

Conflict and Sustainability in a Changing Environment: Through the Eyes of Communities

Reviewed by Jungwoo Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How do we overlay various sustainable development frameworks and roadmaps on local governments? Who are the critical actors? What does sustainable development look like at a smaller community scale?

Conflict and Sustainability in a Changing Environment

Conflict and Sustainability in a Changing Environment: Through the Eyes of Communities, by Gwendolyn Smith and Elena P. Bastidas, Anthem Press, 2017, 208 pp.

Sustainable development is pretty well-defined by international organizations, multinational corporations, and governments. But it is still unclear what sustainable development looks like at a smaller community scale. How do we overlay various sustainable development frameworks and roadmaps on local governments? Who are the critical actors? The authors try to answer these questions in this book.

The book is organized in sections on theory and practice. The first part presents alternative conflict resolution frameworks as a way of incorporating community views into sustainable development initiatives. The authors demonstrate that values are a crucial starting point—they dictate choices and actions that communities must sort through when they are faced with environmental problems that call for social change. Social polygraphy is introduced as a joint-problem-solving method through which the researcher and the community collaboratively create maps of the past, present, and future as a way to understand past conflicts and envision a pathway forward.

The second part illustrates how the proposed framework can be used to analyze the views of the Trio indigenous community in the Amazonian forests of Suriname. Chapters 5–7 discuss how the values of the Trio community shape their views about climate change and the actions they decide to take. These chapters help the reader see how climate change must be understood through the lens of the community.

The book concludes with answers to some of the questions posed at the outset, offering a comparison between how sustainable development is viewed by the community and development organizations. The last chapter explores sustainable solutions for the Trio community, for example, combining mitigation with adaptation efforts already practiced by the community. The authors further explain the “unfitting” nature of the REDD+ framework which operates from a limited mitigation point of view.

Conflicts are likely to emerge when behavioral change is necessary to achieve wider social change. The model offered by the authors can be applied to different contexts around the world, helping local and indigenous communities define their own sustainable development pathways in reaction to guidelines provided by global development organizations.


Jul 31 2017

Democratizing Global Climate Governance

Reviewed by Elise Harrington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Can global climate governance be more democratic? Assessing deliberative democracy and networked governance in pursuit of global climate goals. 

Democratization

by Hayley Stevenson and John S. Dryzek Democratizing Global Climate Governance, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 256 pp.

In Democratizing Global Climate Governance Hayley Stevenson and John Dryzek argue that global climate governance can be improved by engaging civil society in multilateral climate negotiations and in the growing networks of actors involved in climate change policymaking. Using critical discourse analysis, the authors examine the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); discussions surrounding the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit; and the work of networks of corporations, nongovernmental organizations, community groups, foundations, government and international organizations. Stevenson and Dryzek focus on discourse (and language) as a key mechanism linking a range of actors. While discourse analysis is a unique contribution to the literature on global climate governance, their discussion of the tension and potential synergy between the formal UNFCCC activity and less-formal networks encourages readers to rethink the role of democratic deliberation in climate governance.

The first two chapters introduce the authors’ argument along with a theory of deliberative democracy as it applies to global climate governance. Chapter 2 unpacks the seven components of their deliberative framework as well as four basic discourses: mainstream sustainability, expansive sustainability, limits and boundaries, and green radicalism. Chapter 3 focuses on discourse analysis in public spaces, assessing four discussions related to the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit: the World Business Summit on Climate Change, the Business for the Environment Summit, Klimaforum09, and the World People’s Summit on Climate Change and Mother Earth. The authors argue that “the democratization of global climate governance can be advanced in the absence of centralized, comprehensive and effective global agreement. […] this requires recognizing and harnessing the coordinating function that discourses play in political life” (p. 59). The subsequent chapters build on this notion by illustrating how a systems approach to deliberation empowers discourse in public spaces.

Chapters 4 and 5 each discuss a different empowered space, or a space where institutions make collective decisions and ensure some form of public accountability. Chapter 4 analyzes the UNFCCC as a formal empowered space and primarily finds support for mainstream sustainability discourse, in particular for “ecological modernization and climate marketization.” Chapter 5 analyzes the informal empowered space created by public partnerships, public-private partnerships and private initiatives. The networks of actors in this space differ from the UNFCCC networks. They obtain authority by filling gaps in regulation, identifying common interests and using peer pressure to support voluntary rules and standards. Three networked governance examples are analyzed in some detail: the Clean Technology Fund, the Climate Technology Initiative’s Private Financing Advisory Network and the Verified Carbon Standard. Based on a “deliberative democratic deficit” in these networked spaces, the authors argue for stronger linkages between the UNFCCC and networked governance.

Chapters 6 and 7 examine the deliberative components of transmission and accountability. These two features of deliberative democracy are vital to the way ideas from public spaces are transmitted to empowered spaces and link accountability back to the public spaces. Yet, transmission and accountability tend to be weak in both formal and networked governance for climate change. Chapter 8 proposes a number of ways to strengthen transmission and accountability. Finally, chapter 9 concludes with a discussion of reflexivity in climate governance, highlighting opportunities to disrupt the status quo. Missing is a discussion of the part political power and financial resources play in forming and propagating the discourses present in the UNFCCC and networked governance. Democratizing Global Climate Governance provides researchers and practitioners with a whole new set of questions to ask.


Jan 11 2017

Children of Katrina

Reviewed by Tarique Niazi, PhD, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

 Children who are the victims of natural disasters may be more resilient than many people assume.

 Children of Katrina _9781477303894

 

by Alice Fothergill and Lori Peek Children of Katrina, University of Texas Press, 2015, 321 pp.

When disasters strike, children, the elderly and women endure the worst. Children suffer the most, but in silence. Their lived experience goes unaccounted for. It is often explained by adults, parents and caregivers, while children are rarely given a chance to speak for themselves. This scholarly and sociological inattention led Alice Fothergill and Lori Peek, seen by some as leaders of the new generation of disaster studies scholars, to pursue a new path in their quest to help child victims of Hurricane Katrina find their own voice. They wanted to give the children a chance to recount their own experiences.

Their methodically plotted, meticulously detailed and aptly named study Children of Katrina was seven years in the making. It captures the magnitude of the catastrophe that displaced 372,000 children. It features the life-histories of 7 children selected from the 650 that Fothergill and Peek studied. These children’s memories of the traumatic event shine a burst of light on their varying paths to recovery. The authors name several pathways: Declining Trajectory, Equilibrium Trajectory and Fluctuating Trajectory. Decliners did not fare well. Those in equilibrium found a balance in life. Those who fluctuated swung between recovery and relapse. In all of the identified trajectories, the accessibility of social and material resources was central to those children who failed to recover, recovered or modulated between recovery and relapse.

Drawing on their findings, Fothergill and Peek challenge three myths that still abound in disaster studies: (i) children are helpless victims, (ii) children are resilient and bounce back from disasters and (iii) disasters are equal opportunity events. On the contrary, the reality of recovery is too tangled to be captured in these oversimplified truths. They paint in bold colors in the hope that experts, planners and scholars will reassess their beliefs. The authors unearth key sociological variables (social institutions, family, friends and support networks, to name the most prominent) that account for the vulnerability or resilience of the children who survived Katrina.

Children of Katrina breaks new ground in the field of disaster research and scholarship. Fothergill and Peek’s approach might be termed “Pediaster,” that is, children’s traumatic experience of disasters. The authors’ compassion is evident. The cover page of Children of Katrina features the art of 10-year-old Joseph, one of their seven informants. Given the frequency and intensity of disasters, Children of Katrina will continue to be read as Children of Disasters, and remain a must-read for disaster scholars.


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

Jorg Freidrichs2

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.