Apr 24 2014


Reviewed by Peter R. Mulvihill, Faculty of Environmental Studies, University of York


Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries, by Anders Wijkman and Johan Rockstrom, Routledge, 2012

There is by now a vast literature on the theme of sustainability, or, more precisely, unsustainability. New books and reports on the environmental crisis facing the planet appear regularly. It is increasingly difficult to add anything original to such a well-established genre. It may, of course, be possible to reach new audiences, and it is in that sense that a new entry such as Bankrupting Nature should probably be assessed. Seasoned readers looking for fresh news about the global crisis of unsustainable development will probably be mildly disappointed, but newer audiences will find Bankrupting Nature thought-provoking.

This report to the Club of Rome begins by summarizing familiar environmental themes and arguments (humans are not separate from their environment; we rely on nature for everything; biodiversity is declining; mainstream approaches to accounting are incomplete; and excessive consumption levels threaten resource limits). The root causes of the crisis are discussed: lack of education; the power of business interests; anthropocentrism; scientific reductionism; the myth of endless growth; and other factors – all standard fare for volumes of this kind.

Bankrupting Nature redeems itself eventually, starting with a chapter analyzing the phenomenon of climate change denial, “The Weapon of Doubt.” The discussion includes the demands placed on science, the role of media (sometimes distorting the issues), the spuriousness of conspiracy theories, and the effects of misinformation, ideology and well-funded campaigns. Here, the argumentation is strong, the grasp of the complexities is firm, and the conclusions are convincing.

The report has other strong chapters as well. The financial section – “Ignoring the Risks”– examines popular misconceptions about financial systems, offers expert analysis of key gaps and shortcomings, and makes intriguing recommendations for reform. “The Forgotten Issue” revisits the issue of population growth and provides a fresh perspective.

More generally, what does a report such as Bankrupting Nature contribute to the aforementioned genre of unsustainability literature? We have reached a stage where it is impossible to be as provocative as yesterday’s reports – the impact, for example, of “Our Common Future,” “The Population Bomb,” or “The Limits to Growth” had much to do with their timing in an earlier era when environmental messages were still novel. As the ecological crisis worsens, the core messages are no less important, but the delivery will need to be more diversified, making new connections and exploring issues differently. Bankrupting Nature is at its best when it strays from the standard material and takes up new questions.

Apr 24 2014


Reviewed by Michal Russo, Tufts University


Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery, by Daniel P. Aldrich, University of Chicago Press, 2012

Over the last decade the topic of resilience in response to natural disasters has moved from the academy to mainstream practice. Dozens of hazard mitigation plans now offer strategies for enhancing municipal resilience in the face of escalating climate impacts. Aldrich’s new book makes a compelling case for social connections as a critical dimension of a community’s ability to recover from disasters. Further, Aldrich also illustrates the methodological hurdles necessary to establish claims of resilience.

Long before Putnam’s Bowling Alone, scholars and practitioners advocated the importance of social capital – the power of human connections in providing resources and services. According to Horwich, while physical capital is the most visible, human capital is the most important economic resource (2000). Aldrich highlights the various mechanisms by which social capital helps to facilitate recovery including deep levels of social capital provide informal insurance and mutual assistance, dense and numerous social ties help solve collective action problems through spontaneous coordination and cooperation, and strong ties create louder collective voices (than individuals can) which can fight for additional resources. On the other hand, perhaps because social capital is difficult to measure and create, it has been ignored in many recovery plans.

Aldrich combines qualitative and quantitative analysis in assessing four disasters that span both time and culture. His findings on the relationship between population growth rates post-disaster (dv) and dominant drivers of recovery (iv) such as magnitude of impact, population density, income levels, foreign aid, and institutional strength, show mixed results. When controlling for these factors, however, social capital, measured in terms of voting rates, tenure, and participation in civic activities, consistently correlates positively with growth.

The main actionable message of Building Resilience is that disaster aid must move beyond restoring physical infrastructure to emphasize investments in the development of social capital. Aldrich reminds us that social capital generates both benefits and negative externalities (for out-group nonmembers). An iconic example of the hindrance that social capital can create is the opposition FEMA faced when it attempted to site temporary trailers post-Katrina. Neighborhoods with high levels of social capital resisted their imposition. In response, Aldrich suggests that decision makers should aim to build, recognize, and support neighborhood ties before, during, and post-disasters. For example, prior to disasters, cities can invest in trust-building interaction among neighborhood groups as well as expand efforts to include previously excluded groups. During recovery, managers can formulate emergency response plans that don’t unintentionally break communities apart. Finally, following a disaster, decision-makers can use the event as a catalyst for building new social capital.

Apr 24 2014

SPOILING TIBET by Gabriel Lafitte

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma, Development Analyst and Columnist, New Delhi, India


Spoiling Tibet, by Gabriel Lafitte, Zed Books, 2014

If current geological estimations are any indication, there are 80 million tonnes of copper, 2,000 tonnes of gold and 30 million tonnes of lead and zinc extractable from the Tibetan plateau. The cumulative value of these recoverable metals is US$ 420 billion. To imagine that the Chinese would have ripped apart the rooftop to the world in search of an embedded fortune is far from true because, as things stand, the region is cold, its air is perilously thin, its people are unwelcoming and it is poor in infrastructure.

But all this is to going to change as China’s 12th Five-Year Plan, ending in 2015, calls for massive investment in copper, gold, silver, chromium and molybdenum mining in the region. With an aim to achieve 30 per cent self-sufficiency in copper production by the end of the plan period, a state-driven agglomeration of the entire Chinese copper industry will be sufficiently capitalized to finance major expansions in Tibet, which is fast becoming China’s new copper production base. The Tibetan plateau – almost one-sixtieth of the entire global landscape – will be the object of intensive and potentially devastating mining and extraction projects in the years ahead. The signs are ominous!

Without a doubt, Gabriel Lafitte has profound knowledge about this landscape, its people and their cultural resistance. They want to protect the inner strengths of Tibet, cultivated in solitude in the mountains. Given the ecological fragility of the region, mining activities in the watersheds of major rivers, most of which are transboundary, will have a serious impact on hundreds of millions of people downstream in South and South East Asia. China’s track record on environmental concerns evokes little confidence.

Spoiling Tibet is a timely warning to the world about China’s hunger for mineral wealth, and the unscrupulous manner in which this wealth may well be extracted. In the Chinese growth agenda, mining plays a major role, one that will silence the feeble voices of resistance by increasing the non-Tibetan population in the region through mass tourism. But given its global implications, the world should not permit unilateral desecration of its roof top!

Apr 24 2014

RESTORING LANDS: COORDINATING SCIENCE; POLITICS, AND ACTION, edited by Herman Karl, Lynn Scarlett, Juan Carlos Vargas-Moreno, and Michael Flaxman

Reviewed by Danya Rumore, MIT


Restoring Lands: Coordinating Science, Politics, and Action, edited by Herman Karl, Lynn Scarlett, Juan Carlos Vargas-Moreno, and Michael Flaxman, Springer, 2012

Many of the challenges we face in restoring lands and achieving sustainability are “wicked problems”: they defy clear definition, do not lend themselves to singular optimal solutions, and change and evolve over time. As ongoing climate change, habitat loss, and numerous other sustainability challenges show, our traditional institutions – with their rigidity and generally top-down approach – are not sufficient to handle and resolve these complex, amorphous issues. In light of this, how can we achieve solutions for restoring lands and protecting natural resources?

Restoring Lands – a large edited volume encompassing 22 chapters and 536 pages – takes on this challenge. The book is neither a theoretical summary, nor a handbook for practitioners. Rather, “It is a narrative of diverse voices that collectively talk about coordinating science, politics, and communities to manage ecosystems in harmony with social and economic systems.” It is diverse in its scope, bringing together case studies ranging from efforts to adapt to climate change in East Boston to the restoration of the Everglades, and covering topics stretching from tools and methods to governance challenges. The common thread running through each of the chapters, according to the authors, “is the belief in the effectiveness of people acting together to achieve durable solutions for restoring lands.”

While the book is not intended to appeal solely to academics, it is largely academic in tone. Yet, many of the chapters are not heavily theoretically informed, nor do they draw on rigorous research findings. In many ways, this is the weakness of Restoring Lands – it is not clear what audience the book is trying to reach; it is academic in tenor, yet not thoroughly academic in nature. As a related concern, the book includes chapters from many of the top movers and shakers in the field of collaborative governance and participatory environmental decision-making. Yet these chapters stand alone, making the book feel somewhat disjointed. The book also relies overly heavily on a couple case studies, like the Everglades, and focuses disproportionately on climate change adaptation. This is not problematic in and of itself, but it does not fully illuminate the wide range of collaborative efforts aimed at restoring and preserving lands throughout the world.

Despite these limitations, the chapters of Restoring Lands document valuable real-world case studies of efforts to support collaborative adaptive management and to facilitate the integration of science, politics, and action. These case studies reveal that coordinating across these separate domains will require focusing as much on relationships as information; fostering facilitative leadership and more dynamic institutions; promoting adaptive systems that can evolve over time; and integrating multiple forms of knowledge into place-based planning and decision-making. The lessons and wisdom of Restoring Lands are important for all of us working in the field of collaborative adaptive management.