Oct 10 2012

NATURAL CAPITAL by Peter Kareiva, Heather Tallis, Taylor H. Ricketts, Gretchen C. Daily and Stephen Polasky

Reviewed by Marina Alberti, University of Washington

Natural Capital uses a series of assessment models to translate the science of ecosystem services into practice.

Natural Capital: Theory and Practice of Mapping Ecosystem Services, edited by Peter Kareiva, Heather Tallis, Taylor H. Ricketts, Gretchen C. Daily, and Stephen Polasky Oxford University Press, 392pp.

The concept of ecosystem services has provided a useful framework to explicitly link nature conservation to human wellbeing. Although the inextricable links between natural processes and human society trace all the way back to Greek philosophers such as Plato, the explicit recognition of nature’s benefit to humanity is relatively recent. Daily’s Nature’s Services (1997) is perhaps the first attempt to systematically assess ecosystem values and advance the notion that valuing ecosystem services may provide an effective approach for conservation. During the last decades, we have learned a great deal about the role of ecosystem functioning to provide critical services such as clean water, carbon sequestration, and crop pollination. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) has provided a powerful framework to assess global ecosystem services and a first synthesis of potential threats. However, we know much less about how to integrate the emerging science into everyday decisions.

Natural Capital takes on this challenge with an essential first step. A diverse team of scientists has put together a compelling synthesis of explicit links between ecosystem services and human benefits and has developed a series of assessment models to translate the science of ecosystem services into practice.

As the authors indicate, it is only a beginning. Next steps will imply refining methods and accounting for complex feedback loops, dynamic effects and uncertainty. Yet to fulfil the objective of translating the knowledge to practice, the authors recognize the need for the natural and social science to address some difficult questions about quantification, predictability and cultural values. I would highlight that among them, the greatest challenge is understanding the complexity of decision processes, the diversity of decision makers and dynamic of institutional change. Primarily grounded in ecology and economics, the science of ecosystem services will need to expand the disciplinary boundaries. Natural Capital poses important challenges and creates new opportunities for building bridges with a diversity of social sciences and humanities.

Oct 9 2012


Reviewed by Matthias van Maasakkers, MIT

Douglas Kysar exposes a critical flaw in the dominant environmental law and policy paradigm of risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis.

Regulating from Nowhere: Environmental Law and the Search for Objectivity, by Douglas Kysar, Yale University Press, 336pp

Cost-benefit analysis has become virtually inescapable in environmental decision-making. Yet, as Douglas Kysar points out in this nuanced yet profound critique of that method and the narrow assumptions of welfare maximization it is based upon, there are plausible alternative frameworks to inform decision-making in the environmental realm. This book moves beyond mounting ethical, theoretical and practical arguments to show the shortcomings of cost-benefit analysis, although it probably is the most detailed and sustained development of those arguments since Mark Sagoff’s The Economy of the Earth.

The book is most effective when describing the ways in which precaution is not only a viable alternative, it is also already embedded in many environmental laws and activities in the United States and elsewhere. In the appendix, a draft Environmental Possibilities Act is included, showing Kysar’s commitment and ability to translate precautionary philosophies into specific, if hypothetical, policies. The Yale Law School professor moves between practical examples and French philosophers like Derrida. He produces a sustained argument that cost-benefit analysis restricts informed decision-making as opposed to enabling it because of increasingly untenable restrictions on standing and the assumption of impermeability of national boundaries. Important questions regarding legal standing that are emerging in relation to new biological and genetic manipulation technologies are described in detail.

This book is important not so much because of its current and compelling critique of cost-benefit analysis, but mainly because of its impassioned and effective reframing of the precautionary principle as an active and effective idea in environmental decision-making. Kysar reclaims the centrality of morality in environmental law, without ignoring the need for practical engagement.

Oct 9 2012

PLANNING WITH COMPLEXITY by Judith Innes and David Booher

Reviewed by Shafiqul Islam, Tufts University

This book presents a new theory of collaborative rationality to help make sense of the new practices.

Planning With Complexity: An Introduction to Collaborative Rationality for Public Decision-making, by Judith Innes and David Booher, Routledge, 256pp

In Planning with Complexity, this scholar-practitioner team looks at planning and public policy through the lens of complexity science. They explicitly recognize that many social policy, planning and management problems are “wicked” as defined by Rittel and Webber (1973). They argue that there is no consensus even on the definition of the problem, much less on goals to achieve. The uncertainty inherent in such complex systems means that even powerful actors and knowledgeable experts cannot predict how uncertainty in information, action and perception will manifest itself on a particular policy prescription. A central aspect of their argument is that for wicked problems, there is no solution that can be shown to be predictable and optimal.

They propose a new form of planning and policy called, collaborative rationality. This is a welcome departure from traditional instrumental rationality for decision-making. Their collaborative decision-making theory – Diversity, Interdependence, Authentic Dialogue (DIAD) – is based on three conditions embedded within it. It is theoretically elegant and grounded in the work of Habermas (1981) and the notion of communicative rationality. When all of the ordinary constraints on the free exchange of ideas (such as differences in status, power, etc) are lifted, Habermas believes that good faith discourse between individuals will allow them to reach a consensus about the truth. Authors explicitly recognize that collaborative rationality requires an equalization of power among all stakeholders (P. 111).

It is not clear, however, how pragmatic such an equalization of power is for planning and management of wicked problems. This is partly because rationality based on scientific method and positivist approach is a highly contested notion, while collaborative decision-making relies heavily on interpretive, pragmatic and experiential way of knowing. How to make these apparently dichotomous ideas into collaborative decision-making process in a politically real world is a practical challenge. Authors are pragmatic in acknowledging that “dialogues cannot directly change the deep structure of power (P. 110)” but actions can have second or third order effects. Their observation that planning has to proceed independent of trust  is somewhat puzzling. Recent literature on planning and management of common pool resources (Ostrom 2011, Susskind and Islam 2012) suggest creating trust and values to be fundamental in this regard.

To summarize, Innes and Booher have provided a fresh look and theoretical foundation on how to think about planning and managing wicked problems from complexity science perspectives. Hopefully, their future contribution will provide more insight on how to practically manage wicked problems within the context of collaborative rationality.

Oct 9 2012

THE OIL CURSE by Michael Ross

Reviewed by Saleem Ali, University of Queensland

Michael L. Ross looks at how developing nations are shaped by their mineral wealth.

The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations, by Michael Ross, Princeton University Press, 296pp

The distortions in economic development that  natural resource wealth can cause have been well-studied for many years by social scientists. UCLA political scientist Michael Ross’s new book, The Oil Curse is premised on his view that hydrocarbon wealth has four key attributes that lead to its potential for being “cursed”: scale, source, stability, and secrecy. Hydrocarbon projects have massive capital investment (scale), are not funded by citizen taxation or innovation incentives and are hence less connected to democratic parameters (source),  are beholden to volatile commodity markets (stability) and have easily concealed revenues from oil, due to the contract norms between companies and governments (secrecy).

Ross further contends that the curse started to gain traction when state-run oil companies became more common. Such companies have much less accountability than privately held firms, and Ross considers their structure a major cause for perpetuating the “oil curse.” Therefore, although corporate executives may find Ross’s negative revelations about the essential lubricant of modern capitalism to be troubling, they can gain some solace that he strongly blames this outcome on government control of industry.

However, Ross remains nuanced about assigning culpability by also noting that private-sector management still needs some government oversight to be constructive. Ross’s key prescription to grapple with the oil curse is developing mutual accountability between the private and public sectors. Though he tends to make some broad causal statements and relies far too much on regression for his insights, Ross’s work is an important contribution to the literature on the consequential role of oil in development planning.

Oct 9 2012

COMMUNITY-BASED COLLABORATION by E. Franklin Dukes and Juliana E. Birkhoff

Reviewed by Ric Richardson, University of New Mexico

This book offers an in-depth interdisciplinary exploration of what attracts people to community-based collaboration.

Community-Based Collaboration: Bridging Socio-Ecological Research and Practice, by E. Franklin Dukes, Karen E. Firehock, and Juliana E. Birkhoff, Eds., University of Virginia Press, 240pp

This book is one of a kind. Dukes, Firehawk and Birkoff, leading researchers and practitioners in community-based collaboration, provide insightful guidance on solving local environmental and natural resource management problems. Community-Based Collaboration, the culmination of a decade of work, is an accessible compendium on U.S. experience with collective management of land and water resources.

The book focuses on the importance of creating change through collaboration between environmental groups, landowners, Indian tribes, farmers, ranchers, and local, state and federal agencies. The authors address thorny environmental issues leading to local management systems that result in sustainable and ecological resilience.

Community-Based Collaboration is a valuable resource providing new knowledge about the community-based collaborative movement from on-the-ground experience. Except for a chapter about the theory of collaboration, the book is accessible to both academic and lay audiences. Duke’s concluding chapter is especially valuable in laying out an agenda for action and providing his view on the promise for the future of community-based collaboration. The book stands apart from other publications about land use and natural resource dispute resolution by accepting the assumption that the best problem solving strategies lie in community collaboration. However, this may also be the book’s weakness as it overlooks complementary strategies and higher-level policy dialogue to create and implement environmental policy.