Feb 1 2013


Reviewed by Kathy Araújo
, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Benjamin Sovacool and Scott Valentine propose and evaluate a novel, interdisciplinary framework to explain key influences in nuclear adoption pathways.

The National Politics of Nuclear Power: Economics, Security and Governance, by Benjamin Sovacool and Scott Valentine,  Routledge, 292pp

Conventional policy writing on nuclear energy routinely turns to questions of safety and security, proliferation risk, siting, waste management, and opposition, among other considerations. However, much less is understood about underlying sociopolitical economy factors which shape national development trajectories. Benjamin Sovacool and Scott Valentine attempt to demystify this subject by presenting a provocative theory on conditions which shape propensities for nuclear energy development.

Extending earlier work, such as Henry Nau’s National Politics and International Technology: Nuclear Reactor Development in Western Europe (1975), Sovacool and Valentine analyze eight cases of nuclearized countries from North America, Asia, and Europe. Indicating a principally neutral stance on the acceptability of nuclear energy, the two argue that six conditions are historically essential to sustaining commercial nuclear power development: (1) national security and secrecy; (2) technocratic ideology; (3) economic interventionism; (4) a centrally controlled energy stakeholder network; (5) subordination of opposition to political authority; and (6) social peripheralization. Going further, they contend that this set of conditions must exist simultaneously for there to be robust and fluid development of nuclear energy. Sovacool and Valentine also observe that undemocratic regimes are where nuclear development tends to flourish.

Criticism could arguably challenge the scope of determinants and development that are evaluated, or the decidedly inductive nature of the study. Yet reasonable responses exist for both. For the former, the authors acknowledge the novel nature of their framework and encourage further testing. For the latter, statistical analysis could miss deeper and more complex explanations.

Fundamentally, this writing enhances our understanding of nuclear power in areas which intersect with sustainability, governance, and planning, as well as security and development. Taken together, the strengths of the book lie in its lucid discussion of nuclear technology, its cross-country assessment of discrete adoption pathways, and its predictive examination of relevant conditions. At a time when the world muddles through its post-Fukushima thinking on nuclear energy, this book enlightens with a fascinating and timely contribution.

Feb 1 2013


Reviewed by Alexis Schulman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

America the Possible:  A Manifesto for a New Economy, by James Gustave Speth, Yale University Press, 272pp

In the opening of his new book, America the Possible: A Manifesto for a New Economy, James Gustave (Gus) Speth—once called the “consummate environmental insider”—makes a startling claim. After nearly four decades moving seamlessly between the worlds of nonprofits, academia, and government, Speth has concluded that working “inside the system” has failed. Solving the slew of environmental and social ills facing the United States, he argues, requires nothing less than profoundly altering their driving force: our political economy.

For those who doubt that America is struggling, Speth kicks off his manifesto with a disturbing summary of America’s “firsts.” Among all OECD nations, he notes, the United States ranks number one in inequality of incomes, homicide rate, poverty rate, prison population, and international arm sales. And these are just a handful of many other undesirables. However, Speth aims less to sway skeptics than to rally the believers—those desirous of a more just, fair, and sustainable future. With remarkable comprehensiveness and clarity, America the Possible lays out the problems with our system, a vision for the future, as well as the required economic and political reforms. At the core of his vision, is a reigning in of the economic growth imperative. Drawing on the work of economist Herman Daly, Speth envisions a steady state economy, where resource consumption and population growth are reduced within ecological limits; and where economic policies seek to maximize quality of life, not quantity of output.

Speth rightly aligns his arguments with similar narratives emerging from the coalescing new economy movement. Indeed, America the Possible often reads as a Who’s Who of the movement’s rising stars (of which Speth is one), and is replete with their theories and projects, such as the democratization of wealth through stakeholder-owned companies, proposals for 100 percent reserve requirements, and reductions in work hours. Speth’s book provides one of the best new economic primers out there. The only drawback is that Speth’s own insights and cultivated wisdom are frequently lost in the mix. His voice is most original when discussing how to build the political movement to see these reforms forward. This is an important and frequently under-articulated issue, and it is clear that here Speth is drawing on his own lessons learned. But ultimately, one wishes for more of these moments.

Feb 1 2013


Reviewed by Nicholas Marantz, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Collaborative Governance: Private Roles for Public Goals in Turbulent Times, by John D. Donahue and Richard J. Zeckhauser, Princeton University Press, 305pp

In recent decades, U.S. government has relied increasingly on private corporations (including non-profits) to provide an array of services. John Donahue and Richard Zeckhauser call this phenomenon “collaborative governance,” and their book describes strategies to increase the public benefits from such arrangements. Donahue and Zeckhauser present over a dozen cases of collaborative governance in action, in domains ranging from education to national security. They explain how administrators can determine when to delegate tasks to private organizations, how to assess potential collaborators, and how to evaluate ongoing projects. But, while Donahue and Zeckhauser provide much clear technical guidance for government officials and concerned citizens, their evidence suggests that collaborative governance may be inherently upwardly distributive, an issue which they do not clearly address.

Donahue and Zeckhauser contend that, among other advantages, collaborative governance can increase public benefits by inducing private actors to commit additional resources. To illustrate this potential, the authors invoke examples from three New York City parks. While these collaborations all resulted in the commitment of additional funds and talent, they also entailed the upward distribution of public resources. In the case of Central Park, Donahue and Zeckhauser note that collaboration has produced “an upscale tilt to the park’s image, amenities, and regulations.” Bryant Park “represents a relatively large investment of public funds to create an asset with quite focused private benefits.” Private investment in Harlem’s Swindler Cove Park yielded a $3 million dollar boathouse, used mostly by rowers who live far from the surrounding disadvantaged community.

The authors acknowledge these distributive consequences without addressing whether they are intrinsic to “collaboration for resources,” as they term the relevant arrangements. Given the consistency of their evidence, the question merits attention. Collaborative Governance would have been more successful if Donahue and Zeckhauser had addressed this possibility with the same zeal and insight that they bring to other aspects of their topic.

Feb 1 2013


Reviewed by Mahdu Dutter-Kohler, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Adaptation to Climate Change: From Resilience to Transformation, by Mark Pelling, Routledge, 203pp

In this work, Mark Pelling goes beyond mere examination of the often-myopic defensive strategies to combating climate change in order to understand how human development is being shaped by its impacts. Embedded in a comprehensive socio-political analysis, Pelling’s work examines the interrelationships among the political and cultural norms of a society and its adaptation efforts. Drawing upon a range of perspectives, from organizations to urban governance to state politics, Pelling argues that in order to make significant reductions in human vulnerabilities to environmental risks, we first and foremost must understand the multifaceted social dimensions of climate change.

The book offers a flexible yet robust framework, anchored in what Pelling describes as the “the three visions of adaptation,” which serves as a useful backdrop within which adaptation options can be more comprehensively evaluated. These “visions”—resilience, transition and transformation—differ in their “levels of engagement with specific social systems.” In his explication, resilience corresponds to the most limited of the categories of adaptive actions, while transition, likewise incremental in nature, refers to a situation in which the engagement of the governance regimes has the intent of assuming “full rights and responsibilities” for action “rather than making changes in the regime.” He positions transformation, which he describes as the “deepest level of engagement,” in socio-political, economic, cultural, and developmental discourses; this vision comprehensively addresses overall security and risk related to climate change.

One of the most useful contributions of this book is its take on the new thematic strain, coined as “transformational adaptation,” which has recently emerged in the climate change literature. Transformational adaptation until now has best been viewed as a meta-theory rather than as a set of concrete guidelines for the planning of climate change adaptation. Pelling examines the practical utility of the approach to further this idea. He argues that, for lasting and truly effective climate adaptation to occur, it has to be implemented across geographic and causal lines; piecemeal, localized efforts are thus ineffectual in the longer run. This approach to “adaptation at scale” rests on the premise that, in order to make a palpable difference in situations of grave vulnerability, rapid, systemic, broad-based actions are required to produce significant amelioration of the effects of climate change.

Pelling’s book provides a comprehensive overview of the existing adaptation frameworks and their theoretical underpinnings while attempting to explicate the gaps among them. Through a series of in-depth hypothetical and empirical examples, supported by three detailed case-study chapters, Dr. Pelling analyzes a range of adaptive actions across different scales, from grassroots farmers’ movements to national policies, both in the developed and developing contexts.  In his conclusions, Pelling proposes useful methods for applying his framework in practice and identifies specific sites and levels of intervention for adaptive action contingent upon the social contexts. Pelling’s work represents a compelling contribution to the discourse surrounding the cultural, social, and political environment within which climate change adaptation occurs, while also offering useful insights for practitioners.

Feb 1 2013


Reviewed by David Wirth, Boston College

The Law of Adaptation to Climate Change: U.S. and International Aspects, edited by Michael B. Gerrard and Katrina Fischer Kuh, American Bar Association Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources 2012, 928pp

This collection challenges traditional notions of the purpose of environmental law. From the early 1970s until recently, environmental law has been devoted to conservation, prevention, and restoration. Global warming changed all that, and policy responses now cleave into
one of two conceptual categories: mitigation (shorthand for emissions reductions) and adaptation. The latter has received almost no attention from a legal perspective until now.

The first substantive chapter, by Robert L. Fischman and Jillian R. Rountree, very usefully sets out the architecture for policy responses as “adaptive management.”  But despite the other authors’ valiant efforts, one is inevitably left with the impression that the law is poorly adapted to grappling with the need for adaptation described by Fischman and Rountree. In the U.S., addressed in the first half of the work, efforts worthy of a contortionist are required to press statutes containing regulatory tools designed to meet other policy goals into the service of adaptive management.

In the second half on international aspects, David Freestone sets out an international legal framework considerably more sophisticated than the overemphasized need for funding to developing countries. Kate Purcell addresses challenging questions related to the law of the sea under conditions of rising sea level without, unfortunately, speculating on the fate of a state whose territory is inundated altogether – does it continue even to exist?

Michelle Leighton accepts climate refugees as a practical reality, wisely avoiding the pitfall of attempting to craft a legal definition for those displaced by global warming. But as with domestic law, the overall impression is one of thin or non-existent remedies. Certainly this highly useful volume can serve as a template for the direction in which the law desperately needs to move.