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.

Jun 1 2020

Climate Change and Ocean Governance: Politics and Policy for Threatened Seas

Reviewed by Aria Ritz Finkelstein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

How will marine institutions, laws, and policies respond to radically and quickly changing seas?

Climate Change and Ocean Governance

Climate Change and Ocean Governance: Politics and Policy for Threatened Seas, edited by Paul G. Harris, Cambridge University Press, 2019, 445 pp.

This edited volume starts to fill what is still a major gap in the ocean governance literature—the existing regime’s ability to respond to climate change. The meat of the book is split into five sections: The risks that small islands and coasts face; marine fisheries; possibilities for polar governance; mismatches between ecosystems and governance regimes; and specific issues or cases across sectors rather than across regions.

A case study approach allows each chapter to explore an issue in its specificities while extrapolating broadly applicable lessons. This brief a review can’t begin to do the collection justice, but just one example: Alger’s Chapter 11 illustrates the complex stakeholder politics of large-scale marine protected areas. For instance, often the fishing industry fights with environmentalists to push for “management” rather than “protection.” Alger argues that, while the pushback may seem disproportionate to the actual impact on the fisheries, it is partly due to the fishing community needing to manage the challenge of decreased yields even without the addition of no-take zones threatening to lower their catch.

While the thread throughout the book is oceans, the chapters ask to be separated into two volumes—one on ocean governance and one on coastal adaptation. Each raises such different legal and governance questions (with the exception of how rising seas will affect territorial claims) that bundle them but diminishes the collection’s clarity. Nevertheless, the book is a rich, accessible picture of how ocean governance institutions are currently dealing with the effects of climate change, the challenges they face, and how they might address climate change in the future. It represents a field of inquiry in its youth, and together the chapters lay out an array of important questions and offer launching points for future investigations.

Jun 1 2020

Managing Coral Reefs: An Ecological and Institutional Analysis of Ecosystem Services in Southeast Asia

Reviewed by Aria Ritz Finkelstein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

The governments of Southeast Asian countries are creating more and more marine protected areas, but is their centralized management structure really the way to go?
Managing Coral Reefs


Managing Coral Reefs: An Ecological and Institutional Analysis of Ecosystem Services in Southeast Asia, by Kelly Heber Dunning, Anthem Press, 2018, 234 pp.

In Managing Coral Reefs, Dunning compares two ways to manage marine protected area (MPA)—Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s. Malaysia’s MPAs are centrally managed; the central government makes major decisions in the capital city Kuala Lumpur and disseminates them to local governments and to satellite offices of the Department of Marine Parks. In contrast, the Indonesian MPAs are co-managed, meaning that the central government works with local governments and villages to determine their socioeconomic needs and environmental goals and to carry out their management plans. Dunning asks, which structure is more effective?

She converses with the academic literature on institutions and environmental management—in fact the book is a good primer on those bodies of work—but her research is far from dry. Dunning dives deep, figuratively and literally. She offers lively details to illustrate her conclusions, which come both from talking to policymakers and locals and from actually diving and surveying the reefs herself. The book is well worth reading if only to learn how to conduct field research, and it offers great insight into the relationship between institutional organization and marine conditions.

Broadly speaking, in Malaysia people see management as the central government’s job. This sense of distance and disconnection leads to reefs in worse shape. In Indonesia, the picture is more complicated. Where people don’t see the link between MPAs and their own lives, the reefs look much like Malaysia’s. On the other hand, when local management takes local customs, needs, and practices into account and helps people connect their own well-being and reef health to MPA management, reef conditions are much better. Where the central government offers technical and scientific support, even more so. In the interest of brevity, I’ve drastically oversimplified the complex picture that Dunning presents. But ultimately, a system based on some combination of centralized and distributed power proves to be the most effective.

Jun 1 2020

Abundant Earth: Towards an Ecological Civilization

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

Beyond the so-called normal

Abundant Earth


Abundant Earth: Towards an Ecological Civilization, by Eileen Crist, The University of Chicago Press, 2018, 307 pp

It would be hard to reconcile that the species that has all but proven its supremacy with no less than 7.8 billion humans, currently dispersed across the globe and growing, has also stockpiled some 15,000 nuclear weapons – enough for self-annihilation many times over. Even if there are deterrents to pressing the nuclear button, the growing number of humans and their insatiable consumptive desire are sure to suck life out from all other living creatures on this planet. Shockingly, this is the new normal toward which the world is hurtling.

And it doesn’t concern many that at this pace future generations are bound to inherit a different planet, perhaps a very inhospitable place.  Expanding human mobility, spreading modern conveniences, multiplying the glut of commodities, and enabling food choices have given an unrestricted boost to the idea of human expansionism even as nature is screaming for freedom from such an onslaught. That there is a global ecological crisis of unprecedented magnitude knocking at our doors seems hardly to register. Instead, what often gets argued is that with a techno-managerial leap of progress humanity will sail through such adversities. With manmade disasters mounting, how long can market-driven technologies stave off the collapse?

Virginia Tech professor Eileen Crist takes on this overwhelming question. She believes that not only is human impact on nature natural but maintaining wilderness is a defunct idea.  Even though it is not widely acknowledged, a belief in human supremacy is anything but self-destructive. While being optimistic that an ecological civilization is not an altogether utopian idea, she questions why significant steps have not been taken by humans to live in loving fellowship with our earthly wild (without whom the exuberant dance of seasons, diversity, complexity, and abundance will remain mere screen savers in our virtual world). Abundant Earth is a beautifully crafted book that not only touches upon the “why,” “how,” and “what” of the impending ecological crises but provides a “what next” in an effort to halt the inevitable.

Enlisting direct causes and unraveling underlying drivers leading to the eco-crises at hand, Abundant Earth challenges the false sense of human supremacy while calling for scaling it down and pulling it back. Despite being politically controversial, the book strongly advocates the need for reframing the population question because “overconsumption” and “overpopulation” are two faces of the same coin. Given an all-pervasive mainstream trend to bring the entire population at a universal consumer standard, the projected ballooning of the global middle class to 5 billion by 2030, from the present 3.2 billion will turn the earth into an unimaginable waste bin. The world can ill-afford such a transformation, which will cause an irreversible blow to the biosphere if it hasn’t done that already!

Crist is clear in her assessment that an immediate turn in the direction of a global ecological civilization is the only plausible option. For such a change to happen, the current trends of economic growth and techno-managerialism would need to end. Unless the wisdom of limitations becomes mainstream thinking, it is unlikely that the human enterprise will reduce its multiple stresses on the biosphere. While making a fact-filled assessment of the current dystopia, Abundant Earth offers a realistic blueprint to halt the decline. Crist deserves appreciation for writing a book that will appeal to a wider audience interested in the affairs of the Earth.


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.