Mar 22 2013


Reviewed by Mattijs van Maasakkers, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael J. Sandel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256pp

The role of markets and market-based approaches in environmental policy has been discussed for many decades, at least since John Robert Dales’ essay Pollution, Property and Prices was published in 1968. The emergence of markets as a policy tool since then has extended far beyond the environmental realm. In his most recent book, Harvard philosophy professor Michael Sandel describes a diverse set of markets and incentive programs, showing that this approach has expanded into a broad range of new social and political arenas. Based on brief descriptions of a variety of economic incentives and markets, like carbon offsets and the practice of selling naming rights to nature trails, Sandel’s core argument, and stern warning, is that market-oriented approaches can “crowd out morals,” to the detriment of society.

While this critique is not necessarily new, the scope and ambition of Sandel’s work reflect the fact that the creation of economic incentives and full-fledged markets has become widespread practice. By describing dozens of incentive programs and markets, in sometimes surprising fields, from education to immigration, and from family planning to blood drives, Sandel raises two profound and connected objections to the use of markets. The first is that the use of economic incentives might not be fair. Sandel mounts a case against markets by using (sometimes hypothetical) examples of markets that would be unacceptable to many, if not all, people. Organ donations are one such example, since Sandel believes strong moral objections exist against the idea of allowing people in dire economic circumstances to sell their kidneys. The second objection Sandel places at the heart of his case against markets is corruption. Here, the author is worried not so much about bribes, but about the notion that buying and selling certain things degrades their moral importance. Sandel uses the example of creating a market for the adoption of babies, which he poses might undermine the norms underlying the parent-child relationship.

While Sandel effectively argues that there are “moral limits of markets,” it is less clear where and how to recognize those limits in specific policy areas or social arenas. This book is clearly written for a broad audience, and as such, it provides a useful warning in an era where efficiency, the market and incentives are often described as unmitigated “goods” in public discourse. This book not only shows that there are certain things that cannot be bought, it also presents a set of compelling arguments that certain things should not be for sale. Whether or not environmental pollution, or ecosystem goods and services, to use a more popular term, belong to that category is not immediately clear from these arguments.

Mar 22 2013


Reviewed by Leah Stokes, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Putting Social Movements in their Place: Explaining Opposition to Energy Projects in the United States, 2000–2005, by Doug McAdam and Hilary Schaffer Boudet, Cambridge University Press, 280pp

Social movement theory has typically focused on what many would call the dependent variable: successful mobilization. As a result, it is unclear how often mobilization occurs and whether or not it is successful. Instead of following this pattern, McAdam and Boudet seek to understand whether mobilization against energy infrastructure is a common or a rare phenomenon. They develop a unique research method, rooted in fuzzy set theory and qualitative comparative analysis (QCA). Focusing on energy infrastructure proposals, they randomly selected 20 cases, and after imposing some constraints, study 18 projects across 12 American states between 2001 and 2008. These include liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, nuclear power plants, cogeneration facilities, hydroelectricity projects and a wind farm. The authors are trying to find a middle ground between rigorous case research and large N statistical work.

Overall, they find very little mobilization: only one energy project out of 18 triggered a sustained social movement. A mere 50% of the projects experienced a single protest event. They suggest that three key factors affect social mobilization against energy projects: risk, political opportunity and civic capacity. In addition, they think context matters, including whether a community is experiencing economic hardship, has previously mobilized against a land-use project or already hosts a similar industry. Finally, they argue that political opportunity and civic capacity provide objective measures of whether a community could mobilize, while context helps people interpret whether or not they should mobilize.

The book presents a unique research approach and very rich findings. Future work could examine networked social movements against wind turbines, which seem to be increasing in prevalence.

Mar 22 2013


Reviewed by Kian Goh, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Reigning the River: Urban Ecologies and Political Transformation in Kathmandu, by Anne Rademacher, Duke University Press, 264pp

Exploring the conflicts surrounding plans for the ecological restoration of the Bagmati and Bishnumati rivers in Kathmandu, Anne Rademacher deftly weaves a complex story of Nepal’s monarchical and religious history, development as a nation state and contemporary political fractiousness. Looking at the rivers as “biophysical” sites, Rademacher unpacks the competing agendas and stakes around them – between state and development experts, cultural heritage activists and housing advocates for migrants settled along riverbanks.

Rademacher focuses on links between ecology and polity, the ways that “urban nature was experienced […] through claims about cultural meaning, history, and territorial belonging” (13). She unravels multiple intertwined histories, from the ecological degradation of the river and loss of national history and identity (19), to the formation of Nepalese middle-class anxiety. Her sensitivity to the temporal shaping of both the physical and social brings her to the “competing definitions of degradation” (57) of the river. “Facts” themselves were controversial. “What was the problem?” she asks (57), beyond what was known, scientifically, in reports issued by development consultants. Scientific knowledge here becomes simply another political facet.

Political incongruities abound. Rademacher traces the irony when, rather than expressing disapproval at heavy-handed state-run beautification projects during a period of state emergency, NGO groups working for river restoration expressed relief (127). When environmental degradation is equated with democratic dysfunction, such beautification provoked a suspension of disbelief, hopes of a more perfect democracy, a more perfect river. She illuminates the persistent denigration of the landless migrants, considered not simply illegal, but obstacles in the path of river restoration, people and places of “ecological illegitimacy” (144).