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

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.

Jul 17 2018

Virtuous Waters: Mineral Springs, Bathing, and Infrastructure in Mexico

Reviewed by Andrea Beck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Renewed engagement with the virtues of waters can promote more sustainable hydro-social relationships.


by Casey Walsh, Virtuous Waters: Mineral Springs, Bathing, and Infrastructure in Mexico, University of California Press, 2018, 226 pp.

In Virtuous Waters, anthropologist Casey Walsh explores the social and cultural history of bathing and hot springs in Mexico. The book traces everyday water cultures surrounding these springs from AD 1500 to the twenty-first century. Originally used for steam baths by the indigenous peoples of Mexico, spring waters came to support a variety of therapeutic, religious, leisurely and sexual activities over the centuries, with uses and practices shifting according to scientific and moral understandings of medicine, public health and social order. Adopting a political ecology perspective, Walsh’s ethnographic narrative is attentive to questions of power and access in day-to-day interactions with spring waters. Stories about exclusion and dispossession due to race, class and gender figure prominently throughout the book, including in a chapter that chronicles attempts at water commodification for commercial bottling and spa tourism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book’s political ecology lens further allows the author to raise fundamental questions about the ontology of water. Adding to the work of scholars like Jamie Linton and Jeremy Schmidt, Walsh offers a detailed account of the homogeneity vs. heterogeneity of water and water cultures in Mexico. Water is commonly conceptualized today as a “single, uniform, inert element that can be managed by a unified infrastructure” (p. 6). Walsh argues that this modern view of water has never fully eradicated traditional understandings of multiple waters, each with its own mineral composition and virtuous effects on the human body. As Walsh’s archival work reveals, the characteristics and benefits of specific waters have long drawn the attention of scientific researchers along with practitioners of “hydropathy,” and continue to be revered by the visitors of bath houses and religious sites.

For Walsh, a renewed engagement with the heterogeneity of waters can facilitate more sustainable uses of the element moving forward. Immersion in hot springs offers the opportunity to engage with waters and with fellow bathers, thereby strengthening environmental awareness and community ties. As the book’s concluding chapter makes clear, the danger remains that the virtues of waters will be exploited for exclusionary profit-seeking activities. At the same time, these virtues hold out the prospect for more sustainable relationships between humans and waters in the future.

Feb 1 2018

Rethinking Private Authority: Agents and Entrepreneurs in Global Environmental Governance

Reviewed by Elise Harrington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Sometimes private authorities have a role in international environmental governance. When and why do states delegate authority to non-state actors? How can private actors play a helpful role in drafting rules and regulations?   


by Jessica F. Green, Rethinking Private Authority: Agents and Entrepreneurs in Global Environmental Governance, Princeton University Press, 2014, 232 pp.

In Rethinking Private Authority: Agents and Entrepreneurs in Global Environmental Governance, Jessica Green makes a distinction between two forms of non-state involvement in environmental governance: delegated private authority and entrepreneurial private authority. Against a backdrop of increased involvement of non-state actors, Green shows that the growth in private authority involves primarily entrepreneurial authority; delegated private authority continues to play only a minor part in international environmental governance. Green provides a model for predicting when private authority will be included and what form that private authority is likely to take. She defines private authority “as situations in which non-state actors make rules or set standards that other relevant actors in world politics adopt” (p. 29). Non-state actors can include NGOs, corporations, advocacy networks and foundations among others. She excludes international organizations involving state representatives. Her forecasting model and its tests offer a valuable study of international delegation and the reasons why private authority is increasing in global environmental governance.

In Chapter 1, Green outlines the first stage of her model. It is based on what she considers to be the supply and demand for private authority, the convergence of state–non-state preferences and the presence of focal institutions. Supply and demand is contingent on costs and benefits, such that “private authority emerges because actors in world politics—states, private actors, and institutions comprising both types of actors—anticipate they will benefit from deferring to private authority” (p. 39). The primary cost to the state of granting more authority to private actors is a loss of autonomy; thus “the less autonomy the adopters have to sacrifice, the greater the net gain for them in deferring to private authority” (p. 47). In the second stage of the model, Green hypothesizes that homogeneous state preferences (among powerful states) will result in increased delegation of private authority, while with heterogeneous preferences entrepreneurial private authority is more likely. Further, the presence of a strong focal institution, such as the Montreal Protocol’s Technical and Economic Assessments Panel, increases the likelihood of delegated authority. Focal institutions‪ likely reduce opportunities for agency slack, both as shirking responsibility or slippage between agency and principal preferences. ‬‬‬

Chapters 2 through 5 provide Green’s empirical analyses of delegation and private authority. Her longitudinal data analysis seeks to account for historical patterns and recent changes in private authority. In Chapter 2, using a random sample of 152 multilateral environmental treaties adopted between 1857 and 2002, Green coded for policy functions and responsible actors. She determined that private authority has not substantially increased over time as a proportion of policy actions; rather, delegation “is a relatively rare occurrence” (p. 66). When delegation does occur, private expertise appears to play a key role. Chapter 2 identifies historical patterns of delegated private authority while Chapter 3 unpacks entrepreneurial private authority using a dataset of transnational civil regulations adopted between 1954 and 2009. Green finds that 90 percent of the regulations in this dataset were created between 1990 and 2009, and over 80 percent created in those two decades were “hard” standards requiring third-party verification. She argues that this indicates “that these rules are being used as real governance tools. They go beyond mere second-party certification where the firm itself judges whether it is in compliance” (p. 91).

Chapters 4 and 5 examine in-depth cases of delegated and entrepreneurial private authority for climate change and regulating carbon emissions. In Chapter 4, Green examines private authority in the operation of the Clean Development Mechanism. She identifies reductions in transaction costs (benefits of private authority) and convergence of negotiating blocs which resulted in delegated monitoring authority to the private sector. Chapter 5 discusses the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which was started by the World Resources Institute and World Business Council on Sustainable Development––two NGOs––rather than by state delegation. Green argues that the Greenhouse Gas Protocol was initiated with entrepreneurial authority because “the inability of public authorities (governments or international organizations) to address the issue of firm-level emissions, combined with the lack of a strong focal institution to screen and monitor agents […] created an opening for entrepreneurial private authority” (p. 133).

Green’s work stands as a strong contribution to the growing focus in political science on the role of non-state actors and state–non-state interactions. Both her model and her empirical findings offer a number of intriguing areas for further study. For example, it should be possible to further specify both the first and second steps in the operation of her model. Questions remain about how and when benefits accrue and whether they are associated with one form of private authority more than another. While Green identifies state autonomy as the primary cost to the state, how within-state politics influence adoption, delegation and enforcement remains unclear. Finally, state–non-state relationships are generally discussed with reference to strong states, but the influence of private authority in developing and weak state contexts is equally interesting and in need of further examination.

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.


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.