Aug 21 2023

Evolution of a Movement

Reviewed by Shekhar Chandra, London School of Economics and Political Science

How can activists use different formal institutional channels, such as electoral politics and policy advocacy, more effectively?

Evolution of a Movement

Evolution of a Movement: Four Decades of California Environmental Justice Activism, by Tracy E Perkins, University of California Press, 2022, 302 pp.

Tracy E. Perkins provides a fresh perspective on the history of environmental activism in California, which is environmentally one of the most progressive states in the United States. Using case studies and interviews, Perkins traces the changing face of the environmental justice movement in California. The movement relied on disruptive techniques in the 1980s to draw the attention of policymakers and waste management companies. However, in the 2010s, activists started institutionalizing their work and playing a more constructive role. As marginalized groups continue to face growing environmental threats and some people question the effectiveness of environmental justice movements in offering actual policy options, the book is a timely reminder of how activists could use different formal institutional channels, such as electoral politics and policy advocacy, more effectively. The Kettleman City case study provides excellent insights into multiple instruments activists use to confront the dynamic political realities of the day and bring environmental concerns to the centre of policy debates.

The book offers several important messages. We could view the book narrative as a theory of social change, a historical account of the environmental justice movement in California or the use of strategic approaches to herald positive changes in marginalized neighborhoods. Perkins rightly compares Kettleman City’s struggle against the incinerator, the largest waste management company in the country, with the David vs. Goliath battle in that hardly anyone imagined that low-income people of a marginalized neighborhood could come together and win against the decision of the company to install a waste landfill near the community. Perkins rightly emphasizes how Kettleman example could inspire the environmental justice movement in the country and the world. Overall, the book is an excellent contribution to environmental justice literature and offers valuable lessons to activists, scholars and policymakers.

Aug 21 2023

Solving Climate Change

Reviewed by Jungwoo Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

What can governments, companies, individual consumers and investors do now to reduce emissions rapidly and how can we organize this collective action based on informed consent (and commitment) across different jurisdictional and geographic contexts?

Solving Climate Change

Solving Climate Change: A Guide for Learners and Leaders, by Jonathan Koomey and Ian Monroe, Iop Publishing Ltd, 2023, 350 pp.

As the title of the volume suggests, Solving Climate Change: A Guide for Learners and Leaders by Jonathan Koomey and Ian Monroe provides a comprehensive yet concise overview of what we know and what needs to be done now to stop climate change. Although the authors indicate that the book is primarily designed for an academic audience (including advanced students), in my view, it is equally suitable for anyone who wants to learn and begin to think about specific actionable items.

What I find most helpful as a reader is chapter 3 that introduces some of the tools that are most widely practiced in planning strategies based on future forecasts, which rely on existing inventories. Readers who want to take a deeper dive at a particular tool can look them up online or read other materials. This chapter in particular could serve as a guidebook for those who aren’t familiar with the palette of tools not unique to a specific area of expertise or discipline.

The book is conveniently organized by the so-called eight pillars of climate action: (1) electrify almost everything, (2) decarbonize the grid, (3) reduce non-fossil GHGs, (4) be efficient, (5) get rid of carbon, (6) align incentives, (7) move money from climate-negative activities to climate-positive ones and (8) fight misinformation. The authors do an excellent job of pulling together all of these critical strategies in an easily digestible manner. In closing, they point out what each of the key constituents (governments, companies, individual consumers and investors) will have to do now to reduce emissions rapidly. The under-explored question in my view is how. Governments can incentivize climate-positive behaviour but that won’t be enough to trigger a transformative change. Unfortunately, perhaps the world needs another crisis resulting in millions in casualties. Miserable events that are so catastrophic at scale that might awaken everyone.

Koomey and Monroe in many ways reassure us that we have what it takes to stop emissions. The problem is we cannot achieve this with only a subset of us taking action. How to get the majority to uniformly take action across different interest groups seems to be a policy and planning question that requires careful process design – how to get all stakeholders to take concerted action that is jointly motivated and agreed upon. How to organize this collective action based on informed consent (and commitment) across different jurisdictional and geographic contexts seems to be the next topic area that deserves unprecedented attention before it’s too late.

Aug 21 2023

Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic

Reviewed by Daniel Morris and Kelly Dunning, Auburn University

What should we have known about runaway pathogens before the COVID-19 pandemic started?

Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, by David Quammen, W. W. Norton & Company, 2013, 592 pp.

Terms like zoonosis and spillover seem to be common in our lexicon these days due to the COVID-19 pandemic. David Quammen published Spillover in 2012, long before the pandemic, painting a detailed picture of how the diseases make the leap, or spill over into human hosts. Reading more like a scientific thriller than a textbook, Spillover points out all of the conditions and warning signs that were missed in the lead up to the 2020 pandemic. Traveling around the globe to sites of historically significant zoonotic events, Quammen shines a light into the interaction of humans, wildlife and their environments (that are being changed on a daily basis) to provide the starting point for the spread of new diseases. Quammen shows how easily ordinary lives can be turned upside down by a handful of runaway pathogens taking deep dives into cases like Ebola and the Hendra viruses. Excellent insights are provided into the way that human disturbances of the environment play a role in the process of spillover, often with fatal results. After reading, you will find yourself ever more conscious of the connection between humans, wildlife and health. Even more salient today, Spillover is a masterpiece at allowing even casual readers a glimpse into the world of disease ecology and its importance moving into the 21st century.

Aug 21 2023

Ecojustice, Water, and Environmental Racism

Reviewed by Andre D. Turner, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How does a transformative approach to water governance consider the intersection of race, power and justice to address the systemic issues of environmental racism?

Ecojustice, Water, and Environmental Racism

Gonna Trouble the Water: Ecojustice, Water, and Environmental Racism, by Miguel De La Torre, The Pilgrim Press, 2021, 164 pp.

The issue of environmental racism poses a complex and multidimensional problem that has been routinely disregarded in the discourse about the tension between environmentalism and social equity. Environmental racism occurs when marginalized communities of colour are disproportionally impacted by environmental hazards, often as a result of wilfully discriminative regulatory systems designed to protect the financial benefits of those with privilege and power. Gonna Trouble the Water: Ecojustice, Water, and Environmental Racism, is a powerful collection of essays that examines the intersection of race, power and justice through the lens of water.

The collection of essays is organized into three sections that explore water as sacred, water as a human right and water as a weapon. The authors draw on personal narratives and case studies to illustrate the destructive impacts of neoliberal and anthropocentric worldviews of water as a commodity to be extracted and exploited. The chapter on conflicting worldviews revealed to me a profound understanding of power, privilege and wealth – illustrating that some view the idea of water as a pubic right as an ‘extreme solution’, famously proclaimed by Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, former CEO of Nestle (p. 18).

Thinking of water as a commodity creates an environmental problem as well as a social justice problem. It is rooted in racist white Eurocentric neoliberal economic worldviews reinforcing social and economic disparities for people of colour. As a result, water is privatized, excluding communities of colour from ‘a seat at the table’ or ‘a say in the decision that is made’ regarding its use (p. 74). The authors provide a detailed account of the legacy of racism and exploitation of water in the United States, demonstrating how policies and practices, such as redlining, racial zoning and environmental dumping, have shaped the distribution of environmental harms. The collection documents the history of water as a weapon of colonialism as well as the ways in which water scarcity and mismanagement are often used to perpetuate power imbalances and reinforce existing inequities.

The book concludes with a strong statement on the need to address environmental racism through a transformative approach to water governance that will challenge dominant power structures and create more equitable and just systems of water management, respecting water as a sacred resource.

Aug 21 2023

How Neuroscience Can Help Solve Our Environmental Crisis

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

Mind over matter that seriously mattersHow Neuroscience Can Help Solve Our Environmental Crisis

Minding the Climate: How Neuroscience Can Help Solve Our Environmental Crisis, by Ann-Christine Duhaime, M.D., Harvard University Press, 2022, 336 pp.

To achieve climate change goals, a neuro-scientist urges the world to work on the mind.

The greatest paradox of our time is that while climate change has widely been recognized as an urgent problem, it does not press the emergency button for individual and collective action to counter it. Knowing well the root cause and the possible solutions to the problem, why does it gets pushed on to others to fix it? Why are we hardwired not to change our behaviour and consumer tendencies? Simply put, it is the neuroscience of decision making that works to prioritize short-term survival over long-term consequences. No wonder, the risk of anticipated 2°C rise in temperature before the close of the century remains disconcerting.

In Minding the Climate, Ann-Christine Duhaime, a professor of neurosurgery at the Harvard Medical School, explores why changing behaviour in response to the climate crises remains challenging. Having lived life for eons on resource scarcity, human mind responds to better rewards for changing the old behaviour. If a behaviour isn’t perceived as immediately rewarding, we probably won’t change it – never mind that we know we should. In a market economy, just giving people information without incentives and rewards doesn’t work to change consumptive behaviour. Writing lullabies won’t cure opioid addiction by itself.

Environmental issues have been known to present challenges for behaviour change, in part because the phenomenon and the fix are many steps removed from our immediate sensory perception. While the perception may have started changing due to increasing frequency of climatic events in recent times, we are physiologically not equipped with carbon dioxide sensors to reflect strong personal threatening experience to affect behavioural change. Add to this the fact that behaviour change research has focused on choices that individuals make in their domestic lives, rather than on a more collective and political sphere. Furthermore, the invisibility of greenhouses gases adds to the visible challenge.

Duhaime presents a systematic study of the human brain – from understanding its evolutionary origin to strategies for its pro-environmental shift. Taking a deep dive into the human decision-making apparatus, she found that the brain is heavily influenced by its evolutionary design but is also exquisitely flexible. The brain design both constrains and frees us. By linking neuroscience with evolutionary biology, consumer psychology and environmental science, the author reflects hope that humans do in fact have the capacity to change. Minding the Climate is a groundbreaking work on how we might leverage our brains to fight climate change.

It is a thinking person’s guide to encourage our neurological circuits to embrace new rewards. To demonstrate how indeed this could be possible, the Green Children’s Hospital has been initiated by the author and her colleagues as a prototype that makes connection between the environment and health. No reward is good enough for people to see their loved children have a good life. It works both ways as it not only helps cut down emissions from the sector that contributes 8 percent to the atmospheric carbon load but also reminds people that hospital patients looking at trees recover faster than those who look at the brick wall. Such small, incremental steps that individuals take are necessary to look at rewards differently.

Duhaime is not suggesting a quick fix though. The task is to understand how our ingrained tendencies could be overridden by our brain’s capacity to adapt. Minding the Climate is a pioneering work on a subject that has so far not been considered in the global discourse on climate change. It is a work in progress and will only be considered complete when people in the 20-tons-of-carbon-emissions-a-year consider themselves a burden on the society. Our brain has got us to this point, it alone will take us into the future of possibilities.

First published in The Hindu on July 2, 2023.