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 23 2019

Environmental Governance through Partnerships: A Discourse Theoretical Study

Reviewed by Jungwoo Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Do transnational partnerships for sustainability live up to their hype?

Environmental Governance through Partnerships


Environmental Governance through Partnerships: A Discourse Theoretical Study, by Ayşem Mert, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015, 263 pp

While transnational partnerships are now the norm in global politics and governance, contemporary scholarship often takes partnerships for granted, failing to question the mechanics that underpin them or the degree to which they are shaped by complex organizational dynamics. Having studied the underlying mechanics of partnerships within and outside the United Nations system, Ayşem Mert takes a step back from the contemporary discourse on transnational partnerships and explores why they work and how they have come to be.

This book is interesting because it explores some of the fundamental puzzles at the heart of transnational partnerships, searching for their historical meaning. By analyzing historical discourses, Mert skillfully ties key observations about their origins to the structure and function of current sustainable development partnerships. Issues such as the accountability of partners to each other and the requirements of true participation are examples of these puzzles.

First, Mert sets the stage (in Chapters 2–4), outlining the study’s theoretical grounds and scope. Next, to unpack partnerships and extract their meaningful lessons (for environmental governance in particular), she compares partnerships with privatization (Chapter 5) as they relate to sustainable development (Chapter 6) and in light of the participation of non-state actors (Chapter 7). For example, Mert considers the limited legal liabilities of partners working to advance environmental governance.

While she is critical of the discourse of participation in partnerships, alluding to the inauthenticity of many community involvement efforts or the fantasies of those who imagine that meaningful participation in the UN system is possible, the connection between partnerships and the success of sustainable development efforts is less obvious. Specifically, the concept of sustainable development has evolved repeatedly, but the nature and importance of partnerships in achieving sustainable development is not well understood.

Environmental Governance through Partnerships is less about explaining how existing sustainable development partnerships in the global system are working and more about trying to understand what they could accomplish. Mert concludes by outlining the most important building blocks of desirable partnerships.

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?


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.


Apr 10 2017

Negotiating for Water Resources: Bridging Transboundary River Basins

Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 A three-level analysis across three transboundary river basins concludes that, contrary to the realist perspective, powerful riparians are no less likely to cooperate when they are the upstream country.

Negociating for water_SendInBlue


by Andrea Haefner Negotiating for Water Resources: Bridging Transboundary River Basins, Earthscan, 2016, 212 pp

Negotiating for Water Resources contributes to a long and ongoing debate about the drivers of transboundary water cooperation and conflict. Andrea Haefner asks, “To what extent do power symmetries prevent or inhibit cooperation between riparian states over water resources?” More specifically, she challenges the assumption that an upstream country is less likely to cooperate when it is the basin hegemon, arguing that issue linkage and institutions matter as much as, if not more than, differences in riparians’ material power.

The book begins with a concise review of hydropolitical (i.e., study of interstate transboundary water cooperation and conflict) and international relations literature to define hegemony in a river basin (chapter 2). The next three chapters are detailed analyses of three levels of interactions––regional networks, river basin organizations and project-specific decisions––across three river basins (Mekong, Danube and La Plata).

While impressive, the three-level, three-basin case-study approach is, perhaps, overly ambitious. In an effort to prove the point that regional networks, river basin organizations, and issue linkage affect transboundary water outcomes, the three case study chapters go into great detail about the specifics of each river basin to the detriment of argument development.

For example, the book’s overall argument that cooperation is possible even in basins in which there are asymmetric power relations is irrefutable. However, as Zeitoun and his colleagues at the London School of Economics argue, not all “cooperation’ is created equal and, in some cases, cooperation may exist because of (not despite) asymmetric power relations. At times, the book seems to hint at this, but never explicitly addresses it. For example, in the case of the Danube, Haefner writes that it is possible that the river basin organization “will face challenges when the previously less dominant states become more advanced and will demand to influence the agenda” (110) but later concludes that cooperation is working well in the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River. This, along with descriptions of China (the basin hegemon) remaining unaccountable to the Mekong River Commission and of Brazil and Argentina (the more powerful riparians) preventing the transformation of the La Plata River basin organization into an international organization with legal authority (a proposal favored by the ‘weaker’ riparians) (132), could easily be developed into a deeper discussion of how cooperation among riparians should be evaluated.

Throughout the case studies, the book hints at really interesting findings (e.g., these three river basin organizations were not effective in addressing conflicts that would arise, suggesting that they were not designed with effective conflict resolution mechanisms in mind), but does not give them sufficient attention. This is, at times, frustrating because the author provides rich comparative analyses of three relatively under-studied river basins, but buries the insights in descriptions of the context.

The final chapter provides a summary of the findings––many of which are valuable contributions to the existing literature on transboundary water management. The most salient findings are related to the characteristics of river basin organizations (e.g., level of riparian inclusion, institutional design, funding and opportunity for public participation) that make them more (or less) effective. Overall, this book is a concise primer on three major river basins in the world, an effective demonstration of a case study approach and an excellent resource for anyone interested in hydropolitics.

Sep 12 2014


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.