Nov 10 2021

Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger

Reviewed by Shekhar Chandra, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

What environmental threats do the native, tribal, and other vulnerable communities face and what singular challenges do they encounter when trying to secure environmental justice?

Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger

Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger, by Julie Sze, University of California Press, 2020, 160 pp.

Environmental justice scholarship emerged in the United States with the historical 1982 protests by civil rights activists who stopped North Carolina from dumping 120 million pounds of contaminated soil in Warren County, which had the highest African American population in the state. Robert Bullard, regarded as the father of the environmental justice movement in the United States, found that the communities most resistant to environmental injustice have higher social capital, better education, higher income, and a smaller number of people of color. Julie Sze argues that we ought to learn from historical environmental struggles and forcefully makes a case that environmental injustices in the United States are rooted in racism, capitalism, militarism, colonialism, and native land exploitation. Different chapters in the book discuss important environmental cases, like indigenous land rights in Standing Rock; the Flint, Michigan water contamination case, Hurricane Katrina, as well as key concepts like “climate change denial,” “police violence,” “just transition,” “radical democracy,” “whiteness,” “skepticism,” and “optimism.” They explain the complexity of the environmental justice movement in the United States.

Sze rightly emphasizes the unique circumstances facing indigenous communities and communities of color with regard to environmental justice. The book challenges traditional approaches to environmental justice that focus solely on the distribution of impacts, ignoring the processes and circumstances that result in such maldistribution. As the world recognizes the multifaceted nature of social injustices, moving away from the consequentialist approach to defining environmental justice seems inevitable.

Nov 10 2021

Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don’t Know about the Ocean

Reviewed by Aria Ritz Finkelstein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

A study of the complex interactions between military interests, geopolitics, government funding, and environmental research

Science on a Mission

Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don’t Know about the Ocean, by Naomi Oreskes, University of Chicago Press, 2021, 744 pp.

This book is about the complex interactions between military interests, geopolitics, government funding, and environmental research. It is not about environmental policy, strictly speaking, so why is it relevant to this forum? These interactions have played a crucial part in dictating what we know and what we don’t know about global environmental change, and, in turn, how we are equipped to govern.

Naomi Oreskes tells the story of the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and its work during the Cold War, when it became clear that naval operations required a thorough understanding of the environments within which they would take place. This story is not a new one, but Oreskes explains that this “golden age” of marine science was not as intellectually free as has been supposed. Military needs—naval exploration and new research tools (including the geographical positioning systems without which much of today’s environmental research would be impossible)—directed research, sometimes, to counterintuitive effect.

In each chapter, Oreskes examines a story or project that illustrates a piece of the relationship between military funding and ocean research. Sometimes, naval support led research toward breakthroughs that would otherwise have been overlooked. Sometimes, personal dynamics shaped institutional priorities. Sometimes, the need for secrecy affected the position of military research within the larger scientific community and its collective discoveries.

As Oreskes points out, these effects should be obvious: Had the ONR been backing pure oceanographic research it “would have meant that they were not actually doing their job.” But she uncovers unexpected complexity in the ways that military needs directed this research. Because the Navy was a client in need of accurate data rather than ideological confirmation, its requirements shaped research agendas but not findings or interpretations. As a way of framing this, Oreskes offers that, rather than thinking of it as impure, we can think of alloyed science, “suited to the purposes of the period.”

This history is important in and of itself, but what we can extrapolate from it is, too. On the one hand, because of the emphasis on the ocean as a theater of war, scientists failed to devote the attention to biology and ecology that would have alerted us to climate change’s impacts and to declines in fisheries. On the other, they were able to study physical oceanography thoroughly. Today, not surprisingly, the most prolific marine ecologists are also the loudest proponents of marine conservation. Much of their research is backed by environmental advocacy groups and driven by their enthusiasm for fighting the deterioration of marine ecosystems. “Listen to science” is a refrain in policy so common that it is banal, but Oreskes makes clear how much this science and its priorities are not to be taken for granted.

That we need to fund marine climate research goes without saying. What is less obvious is the insight that this funding can alternately spur and hinder good research. If we believe that sound policy rests on sound research, then alloying research and policy well is critical. Maybe the most provocative question Oreskes leaves us with is: instead of waiting to look back at the effects of our institutional research structures, how can we see them clearly now?

Nov 10 2021

Ocean Outbreak: Confronting the Rising Tide of Marine Disease

Reviewed by Sabine Bailey and Kelly Dunning, Auburn University

What are the causes of marine epidemics, how are they transmitted, and how do we prepare ourselves for the next outbreak?

Ocean Outbreak: Confronting the Rising Tide of Marine Disease

Ocean Outbreak: Confronting the Rising Tide of Marine Disease, by Drew Harvell, University of California Press, 2019, 232 pp.

Drew Harvell writes a captivating and personal account of discovering ocean disease outbreaks and raises awareness of the profound effects of marine epidemics which are often out of sight, and thus out of mind. Although written before the COVID-19 pandemic, this book provides insights relevant in the wake of the pandemic. It outlines the causes and transmission of evolving diseases and offers initiatives to prepare ourselves for the next ocean outbreak.

Life in our oceans is becoming increasingly vulnerable to warming and acidification driven by climate change and other anthropogenic activities. As a marine ecologist specializing in disease, Harvell focuses on the threat of microbes carrying diseases in our oceans. These are especially concerning because once they have been established, it is nearly impossible to get rid of them, partly because the ocean comprises a far more complex mix of bacteria and viruses than land. Additionally, from aquaculture, agricultural runoff, poor sewage treatment, global trade, pollution, to warming sea temperatures, we have created an ideal environment for outbreaks to emerge.

With anecdotes, good-natured humor, and scientific facts woven throughout the narrative, Harvell describes her work in the field studying sea fan and coral disease in the Caribbean and Indonesia. She also writes about her research on the Abalone Withering Syndrome disease, Salmon Disease outbreaks, and Starfish Epidemic in 2014 along the West Coast. Harvell discovers that some diseases, such as Withering Syndrome in abalone, are induced by warmer temperatures, and others are exacerbated by plastic pollution creating lesions, making corals more vulnerable. Some discoveries offer more hope, such as chemical defenses that protect sea fans from bacteria and fungi, which had previously led to mass sea fan mortality in 1994 in the Bahamas.

Harvell warns that we are ill-prepared to handle epidemics and predicts that more ocean disease disasters are in our future. Surveillance and monitoring of ocean health are essential to confronting these threats. In addition, cutting off the flow of human sewage and agricultural waste into our oceans, limiting carbon emissions, relieving economic pressures, improving scientific technologies, and incorporating nature’s services in our management plans are of highest priority. She makes the case while immersing the reader in her adventures diving reefs, observing tidal pools, and scientific discovery that incites compassion and, somehow, optimism for our oceans. The bottom line to saving irreversible biodiversity loss in our oceans, Harvell says, is shifting public perception and policy change.


Nov 10 2021

Environmental Problem-Solving: Balancing Science and Politics Using Consensus Building Tools; Guided Readings and Assignments from MIT’s Training Program for Environmental Professionals

Reviewed by Lidia Cano, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

A mediation and consensus-building perspective on learning, teaching, and imbuing oneself in the world of environmental problem solving

Environmental Problem-Solving: Balancing Science and Politics Using Consensus Building Tools
Environmental Problem-Solving: Balancing Science and Politics Using Consensus Building Tools; Guided Readings and Assignments from MIT’s Training Program for Environmental Professionals, by Lawrence Susskind, Bruno Verdini, Jessica Gordon and Yasmin Zaerpoor, Anthem Press, 2020, 506 pp.

This book is a great tool for practitioners, teachers, students, and others looking to inform their theory of practice and gain a better understanding of environmental problem solving. It guides the reader through three initial considerations with which every environmental problem solver should be acquainted: the environmental policy-making process (and ways to influence it), the ethical dilemmas that arise when attempting to address environmental management challenges, and the diverse array of policy and project analysis tools that decision makers usually use when faced with such challenges.

The book sends a clear message: when it comes to environmental problem solving “there are no right answers.” This compendium of readings is carefully selected to help the reader reflect on key conundrums surrounding environmental problem solving from the policy-making, technical and ethical perspectives. At the end of each unit, the reader quickly realizes that the proposed study exercises are aimed at putting future problem-solvers on the spot—urging them to define their personal theory of practice.

The fact that the book’s main objective is to help learners define their own theory of practice does not mean that the authors refrain from showcasing their own. In fact, the opposite is what provides the richness of the many commentaries presented in the book. After reflecting on the work of multiple authors in the first three units, the book’s authors present a series of arguments demonstrating that environmental management decisions can never be made in an objective way. Instead, they require finding a balance between science and politics and confronting key ethical choices and non-objective judgments. This claim frames the book’s grand finale in unit four.

This unit reveals how and why consensus building is the most valuable tool for achieving the delicate balance that is needed in practice. Open public deliberation and stakeholder participation across different stages of decision-making, the authors argue, allows scientists, elected officials and stakeholders to collaborate in generating the kind of information and analyses that are needed to inform technically and politically credible decision making. And finally, consensus building can empower citizens to understand and, when necessary, challenge the assumptions on which public policy decisions are made, allowing them to contribute to the nonobjective judgments embedded in all complex environmental decisions. Such democratic engagement, despite its challenges, “can lead to ‘fairer, more stable, wiser and more efficient’ processes and outcomes,” the authors argue. Upon reading this last unit, learners can clearly see how the arguments and commentaries offered throughout the book contribute to the theory and practice of collaborative problem-solving.  This is certainly what distinguishes the book from other books about environmental problem solving.

Nov 10 2021

Giving Future Generations a Voice: Normative Frameworks, Institutions and Practice

Reviewed by Jungwoo Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

A structured approach to studying the interests of future generations in sustainability and environmental justice

Giving Future Generations a Voice
Giving Future Generations a Voice: Normative Frameworks, Institutions and Practice, edited by Jan Linehan and Peter Lawrence, Edward Elgar, 2021, 232 pp.

The importance of future generations in discourses about the environment and sustainability is universal. Future generations are often described as a symbol of hope and action. At the same time, they are the victims of the choices made by past and current generations. It is becoming clear that generations in the future will be faced with increasingly difficult problems associated with the changing climate, rising temperatures, and higher sea levels.

The question is, are current generations doing enough to lay the foundation for the future or are they simply depending on them to find their own solutions? Giving Future Generations a Voice, edited by Jan Linehan and Peter Lawrence, helps make clear the kinds of things current generations ought to be thinking about with the future in mind.

This book is particularly helpful in two respects. One, it paints discussions of the needs of future generations in an appropriate institutional context: institutions that are designed to support future generations more directly (often led by an appointed commissioner), and institutions that indirectly address intergenerational concerns around sustainability and climate change (i.e., UN Sustainable Development Goals). Two, it provides a normative basis to think about the work of such institutions, drawing on philosophy, law and political science, particularly scholarly work on intergenerational justice.

The book is organized into three sections: (1) normative basis, (2) mandate and operating principles, and (3) lessons from practice. In the first, Peter Lawrence (in Chapter 2) argues in favor of a procedural reform of Institutions for Future Generations (IFGs) to factor in their true interests. He introduces the concept of proxy institutions underpinning the democratic values of equity and inclusion. Nicky van Dijk (in Chapter 3) suggests that a “Capability Approach” ought to guide the IFGs in the area of sustainability and human rights. Similarly in Chapter 4, Bridget Lewis argues that both moral and legal rights provide a basis for appropriate IFGs despite current limitations in human rights law regarding obligations to future generations.

In section 2, Jonathan Boston (Chapter 5) and Friedrich Soltau (Chapter 6) propose helpful operating principles to guide a more effective functionality of IFGs as exemplified by what Boston calls “commitment devices” that can help with enforcement. Soltau also examines the “time” variable to make clear what needs to be done now, and how benefits can flow to future generations.

In the last section, the contributors draw on empirical experiences ranging from the Australian ombudsman to other European approaches to IFGs. Phillipa McCormack and Cleo Hansen-Lohrey (Chapter 7) draw lessons from the ombudsman tradition and argue that IFGs should be equipped with a flexible mandate centered on principles and values rather than specific outcomes. They also raise the importance of processual issues such as education and outreach. In Chapter 8, while Alan Netherwood and Andrew Flynn praise the establishment of the Wales Well-being of Future Generations Act under the auspices of the Commissioner of Future Generations, they admit a lot of work needs to be done to account for the distinctive interests of the future generations. Jan Linehan (in Chapter 9) focuses on the reform of legislatures in a number of countries (mostly in Europe) and argues that proposals for independent parliamentary bodies and deliberative assemblies are crucial to providing a voice for future generations. Finally, Elizabeth Dirth (in Chapter 10) explores various concepts that can ensure more fluid and effective decision-making for future generations by offering a systematic account of different kinds of existing European IFGs.

To date, at least to this reviewer’s knowledge, there has not been an adequate effort to consolidate the debates around the interests of future generations. This edited volume is particularly helpful because it provides a bit of everything: raising the question of why IFGs are needed and presenting what they might look like in practice. The book offers a structure for those interested in studying the interests of future generations in various substantive fields, most notably sustainability and environmental justice.