Mar 5 2019

The Wisdom of Frugality

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

Being able and willing to live inexpensively may be a virtue that the majority of people across the globe will have to practice out of necessity.

The Wisdom of Frugality

 

by Emrys Westacott, The Wisdom of Frugality, Princeton University Press, 2018, 328 pp.

Frugality has been abandoned, and with it, the wise words of the sages, from the Buddha to Socrates and from Thoreau to Gandhi. The idea of simple living is now deemed insufficient, unexciting and even uninteresting by a significant portion of the global population. As the lure of purchasable pleasure entices people into relentless earning and spending, a culture of unceasing consumerism has pulled those with resources away from frugal simplicity. Emrys Westacott, a professor of philosophy at New York’s Alfred University, tries to explain why frugality has not become a global norm––despite so many wise people having championed it over the years.

Westacott sees a deep contradiction in the idea of individuals pursuing happiness within a competitive consumptive society. Competitiveness fuels jealousies. Any attempt to distinguish oneself by acquiring products as badges of social position only creates a false and temporary sense of happiness. In extreme cases the propensity to acquire and hoard can turn pathological, dominating a person’s life until they require treatment for a psychological disorder. Epicurus and Plato were convinced that securing material wealth was unlikely to bring happiness and that living simply was the key to moral purity.

It appears that the idea of frugality has fewer and fewer takers because the concept of simple living has turned out to be quite complex. Pursuing frugality in the current world restricts the pursuit of excitement and adventure in a world loaded with such opportunities. Further, we are living in a time when the economic imperative to grow has meant that a minimum level of economic activity must continue to keep several fellow beings busy so they can make sense of their gainful existence. Despite most of us, at one time or another, feeling some sort of moral pressure to embrace frugality, the world is stacked against us. The Wisdom of Frugality isn’t a polemic urging people to change their lives by embracing simplicity, but rather a broader investigation of both frugal and luxurious living. We are each left to draw our own conclusions, regardless of how confusing the choices may be.

Many people jump on and off three different treadmills: the hedonic treadmill for pursuing happiness, the status treadmill for satisfying consumption, and the working treadmill for generating income. All this on and off come at an enormous cost: physically, mentally and emotionally.

Why can’t people break free of the shackles of false happiness? Westacott acknowledges that our culture is torn between accepting acquisitiveness as a necessary condition of economic growth and denouncing it as an undesirable trait that bespeaks false values. Beyond that, though, there is no further explanation.

Freedom has been central to the idea of the good life offered by philosophers of every generation, but consumerism has reinterpreted this through the lens of false values. In the interconnected world of growing individualism backed by the availability of a myriad of economic choices, argues Westacott, freedom needs to be exercised in the context of contributing to the public good. Given the problems of pollution and global warming, we need to live more frugally and less wastefully in order to protect natural resources. That’s in our own interest and the common interest. Technology may be of some help, but it, too, adds to an ever-increasing demand for more goods and services. Frugality is a possible antidote to over-development, one that the world can hardly ignore.


Jul 17 2018

The Shale Dilemma: A Global Perspective on Fracking and Shale Development

Reviewed by Priyanka de Souza, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How and why have individual countries with shale resources chosen different paths to shale development, and what can we learn from these divergent paths?

Shale

edited by Shanti Gamper-Rabindran, The Shale Dilemma: A Global Perspective on Fracking and Shale Development, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018, 472 pp. 

The explosive rise of the shale industry in the United States since the early 2000s has sparked widespread consideration of shale as an energy source by other countries. Although much can be learned from the United States experience, the benefits and costs of shale production are still subject to large uncertainties (i.e., their likely environmental and health impacts) in every country. These uncertainties have prompted highly politicized debates about whether to proceed with shale production, and if so, how.

The Shale Dilemma, edited by Shanti Gamper-Rabindran, arrives at an opportune moment. It provides a framework that puts these debates in context and makes clear why different countries have chosen the shale development path they have. It applies this framework to the development of shale in the United States and seven other countries: the United Kingdom, Poland, France, Germany, China, Argentina and South Africa.

Decisions about shale development reflect the national characteristics in each country––China and Argentina are small producers of shale; Poland and the UK have undertaken some shale exploration; France has enacted a ban on high-volume hydraulic fracturing; Germany has imposed a moratorium on shale production; and South Africa is assessing permit applications for shale exploration. By comparing such vastly different countries, the authors are able to make a range of cross-cutting observations about the factors that influence the path of shale development. They also offer recommendations for how such pathways can be improved.

The Shale Dilemma begins with the claim that the overall framing of the “shale puzzle” in the public discourse in each country is determined by national energy priorities, including goals for energy security. The authors argue that decision-making processes in each country determine how regulatory trade-offs are made regarding the allocation of spatialized costs and benefits.

Over two chapters the book then talks about the mixed fortunes of shale development in the United States, capturing its recent experience of a downturn in shale production and laying bare important considerations that other countries just starting to think about shale development may want to consider. These chapters are followed by individual chapters on the development of shale in the other seven countries. They use a common structure to aid in their comparative analysis.

Each case study has been written by a researcher with experience in the energy industry in their country. However, by trying to apply a common comparative framework, some of the overall conclusions in the last chapter are necessarily presented in broad brush strokes. Recommendations such as the desirability of more public participation are offered without much detail regarding the best way of doing this. Nevertheless, the comparison of differing regulatory practices, as well as how enforcement is carried out in each context, is very useful in highlighting specific actions that might be taken to mitigate the costs of development.

The comparative framework is heavily centered on the experiences of the United States. The history of land use disputes in the Karoo region in South Africa as well as the historic use of land by indigenous communities in Argentina are important factors that could also feed into the development of shale in these countries. A specific comparison between these two paths of development with an in-depth piece on the modes of resistance used in these two areas would have been very illuminating.

The Shale Dilemma, in a nutshell, is a fascinating and illuminating read about the state of the global shale industry, as well as a timely reminder of the importance of continuing to focus on strengthening regulations to mitigate costs and making the process of shale development more inclusive.


Feb 1 2018

Governance for Urban Sustainability and Resilience

Reviewed by Jungwoo Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Could it be that governance is more important than reliance on either greener technology or reductions in the scale of resource utilization in achieving urban sustainability and enhanced resilience?

Governance-Jeroen

by Jeroen van der Heijden, Governance for Urban Sustainability and Resilience, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2014, 229 pp.

There is no doubt that cities could do less harm to the natural environment and use resources more efficiently. Employing “greener” technologies or simply using fewer resources are often cited as solutions––albeit partial––to the environmental challenges that cities face and, in some cases, cause. Van der Heijden suggests that getting governance right may be more important than introducing new technology or using fewer resources. Drawing from about 500 interviews and examining close to 70 real-life governance tools from around the world, this book offers a unique insight into how various governance tools can help cities achieve sustainability and resilience in the face of natural disasters.

Chapter 1 gives a sense of what urban sustainability and resilience mean to practitioners and academics, and explains how governance relates to each concept. Chapter 2 examines the most common approach to governance—direct regulatory intervention––and the tools it relies on, such as statutory regulation, direct subsidies and the application of economic instruments. Chapter 3 explores collaborative efforts by government, businesses and civil society to work together using tools such as networks, negotiated agreements and covenants. Chapter 4 focuses on voluntary programs and market-driven governance tools such as green leasing, private regulation and innovative financing. Chapter 5 discusses five governance trends and their contribution to achieving urban sustainability and resilience. It analyzes real-life examples, especially the prominent role that governments play in promoting the most innovative forms of governance. Chapter 6 concludes with suggestions regarding the choice of governance strategies for sustainability and resilience, building on the ideas explored in Chapters 2–5.

While not suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach to enhancing sustainability and resilience, Governance for Urban Sustainability and Resilience clearly shows that there are windows of opportunities for every city government to shift to more innovative governance tools. This book is particularly useful for those seeking a broad understanding of existing governance tools associated with efforts to enhance urban sustainability and resilience.

 


Jul 31 2017

Environmental Policy and Governance in China

Reviewed by Jessica Gordon, Massachusetts Institute for Technology 

China faces severe environmental challenges and its environmental policies and governance arrangements are in the process of changing.

Environment

edited by Hideki Kitagawa Environmental Policy and Governance in China, Springer, 2017, 198 pp.

China is facing severe environmental challenges including pervasive water, air and soil pollution. To address these issues, its environmental governance regime has undergone significant transformations. These include the emergence of new laws and regulations, new enforcement strategies, and increasing participation of the public and non-state actors. This edited volume provides a predominately historical and legal analysis of China’s unique environmental governance system.

The first chapter by Kitagawa reviews recent environmental policy reforms that have been implemented during the current Xi government. In Chapter 2, Wang examines the detailed changes in the drafts and final texts of the environmental protection law. This includes an overview of the latest, 2014 revisions, providing a useful historical perspective. In Chapter 3, Zhao examines the limited laws and regulations dealing with contaminated land, pointing out, for example, that there are no guidelines regarding soil pollution monitoring. In Chapter 4, Jin offers a legal analysis of the Target Responsibility System, which was created to ensure local compliance and enforcement of national policy in an effort to address widespread implementation gaps. In Chapter 5, He offers an economic analysis of coal resource taxation as a means of reducing fossil fuel use.

In Chapter 6, Sakurai presents a case study of a class action lawsuit brought by pollution victims, making it clear that the absence of an independent judiciary is significant given the ways in which various political bodies influence outcomes. In Chapter 7, Zhang examines environmental petitions, a means for citizens to report issues to the Chinese Communist Party. This is a long-standing alternative to litigation. Given the system’s current shortcomings, and drawing on cases from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, the author suggests China ought to establish a new environmental dispute resolution system. In Chapter 8, Wang demonstrates how legislation related to Environmental Impact Assessment has provided increased opportunities for public participation. In Chapter 9, Chiashi looks beyond the state, at the role of environmental NGOs in industrial and air pollution control. In Chapter 10, Aikawa takes a historical look at the evolution of environmental NGOs in China.

Interestingly, several chapters focus on the increasing role of public participation, and its limitations, in environmental governance in China. Jin and Wang focus on environmental information disclosure requirements in conjunction with Environmental Impact Assessment requirements. Sakurai describes how the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuits formed an environmental advocacy organization, although it was later shut down. Chiashi and Aikawa focus on the increasing role that NGOs play in environmental policy-making and implementation.

Environmental Policy and Governance in China demonstrates the extensive environmental challenges that China still faces. The book chapters can easily be read individually, depending on the interests of the reader, and understood even by those unfamiliar with China’s legal system. The book includes extensive background information. However, the volume is most likely to engage those with a long-standing interest in China.


Apr 10 2017

Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States

Reviewed by Andrea Beck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The conflation of race and waste has a long history in the United States, with serious material consequences for the lives and well-being of ‘non-white’ immigrants and African Americans.

Clean_White_SenInBlue

by Carl A. Zimring Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States, New York University Press, 2015, 273 pp

In Clean and White, historian Carl A. Zimring explores how environmental factors have shaped social constructions of race in the United States, from the age of Jefferson to the Memphis Public Works Strike of 1968. Rather than treating race and ethnicity as static constructs, as is often the case in studies of environmental racism, Zimring carefully unpacks the ways in which concerns about urban health, hygiene and sanitation were increasingly conflated with concerns about race over more than one hundred years of American history. Whereas whiteness became equated with cleanliness and purity to justify white supremacy, other skin colors came to be associated with waste, dirt, dust and disease. The infamous Ku Klux Klan, as well as some academics, helped develop and spread these linkages. Advertisers of soap and cleansers likewise promoted notions of race and cleanliness in popular culture.

Beyond their discursive importance, the author shows how these constructions of environmental racism had far-reaching material consequences for the affected groups. With white Americans considering waste-handling beneath their dignity, “dirty” jobs such as laundry, waste collection and scrap recycling were disproportionately relegated to African Americans, Asian Americans, and new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, exposing them to serious environmental health risks. In addition to occupational structures, environmental racism also shaped the spatial organization of cities. Between 1870 and 1960, racial residential segregation increased markedly, as whites “fled” the urban core for the suburbs, and noxious industries and waste-handling businesses clustered in non-white residential areas. Spatial environmental inequalities were facilitated by racially restricted lending practices, municipal zoning ordinances and lax enforcement of regulations in non-white neighborhoods.

After World War II, many Jews and Italian Americans (long perceived as non-white) merged into white society. At the same time, the environmental burdens on African Americans and Hispanics remained and intensified, culminating in the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968. Although workers and organizers in Memphis did not explicitly use the term “environmental justice,” this strike would become foundational for the emergence of the environmental justice movement in the 1980s. Several examples at the end of the book remind us that environmental racism has endured well into the twenty-first century.

By drawing attention to the social constructions of waste and race, and their material implications, Zimring’s research makes a significant contribution to existing scholarship on environmental racism and environmental justice. What is wanting in the book are specific reflections on where we can go from here. How can American society overcome the long-standing and deep-seated biases uncovered in Clean and White? And how can the book’s message best be translated into public policy? Answering these and other questions will be critical to applying Zimring’s important historical research to life in contemporary America.