Jun 1 2020

Managing Coral Reefs: An Ecological and Institutional Analysis of Ecosystem Services in Southeast Asia

Reviewed by Aria Ritz Finkelstein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

The governments of Southeast Asian countries are creating more and more marine protected areas, but is their centralized management structure really the way to go?
Managing Coral Reefs


Managing Coral Reefs: An Ecological and Institutional Analysis of Ecosystem Services in Southeast Asia, by Kelly Heber Dunning, Anthem Press, 2018, 234 pp.

In Managing Coral Reefs, Dunning compares two ways to manage marine protected area (MPA)—Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s. Malaysia’s MPAs are centrally managed; the central government makes major decisions in the capital city Kuala Lumpur and disseminates them to local governments and to satellite offices of the Department of Marine Parks. In contrast, the Indonesian MPAs are co-managed, meaning that the central government works with local governments and villages to determine their socioeconomic needs and environmental goals and to carry out their management plans. Dunning asks, which structure is more effective?

She converses with the academic literature on institutions and environmental management—in fact the book is a good primer on those bodies of work—but her research is far from dry. Dunning dives deep, figuratively and literally. She offers lively details to illustrate her conclusions, which come both from talking to policymakers and locals and from actually diving and surveying the reefs herself. The book is well worth reading if only to learn how to conduct field research, and it offers great insight into the relationship between institutional organization and marine conditions.

Broadly speaking, in Malaysia people see management as the central government’s job. This sense of distance and disconnection leads to reefs in worse shape. In Indonesia, the picture is more complicated. Where people don’t see the link between MPAs and their own lives, the reefs look much like Malaysia’s. On the other hand, when local management takes local customs, needs, and practices into account and helps people connect their own well-being and reef health to MPA management, reef conditions are much better. Where the central government offers technical and scientific support, even more so. In the interest of brevity, I’ve drastically oversimplified the complex picture that Dunning presents. But ultimately, a system based on some combination of centralized and distributed power proves to be the most effective.

Jun 1 2020

Abundant Earth: Towards an Ecological Civilization

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

Beyond the so-called normal

Abundant Earth


Abundant Earth: Towards an Ecological Civilization, by Eileen Crist, The University of Chicago Press, 2018, 307 pp

It would be hard to reconcile that the species that has all but proven its supremacy with no less than 7.8 billion humans, currently dispersed across the globe and growing, has also stockpiled some 15,000 nuclear weapons – enough for self-annihilation many times over. Even if there are deterrents to pressing the nuclear button, the growing number of humans and their insatiable consumptive desire are sure to suck life out from all other living creatures on this planet. Shockingly, this is the new normal toward which the world is hurtling.

And it doesn’t concern many that at this pace future generations are bound to inherit a different planet, perhaps a very inhospitable place.  Expanding human mobility, spreading modern conveniences, multiplying the glut of commodities, and enabling food choices have given an unrestricted boost to the idea of human expansionism even as nature is screaming for freedom from such an onslaught. That there is a global ecological crisis of unprecedented magnitude knocking at our doors seems hardly to register. Instead, what often gets argued is that with a techno-managerial leap of progress humanity will sail through such adversities. With manmade disasters mounting, how long can market-driven technologies stave off the collapse?

Virginia Tech professor Eileen Crist takes on this overwhelming question. She believes that not only is human impact on nature natural but maintaining wilderness is a defunct idea.  Even though it is not widely acknowledged, a belief in human supremacy is anything but self-destructive. While being optimistic that an ecological civilization is not an altogether utopian idea, she questions why significant steps have not been taken by humans to live in loving fellowship with our earthly wild (without whom the exuberant dance of seasons, diversity, complexity, and abundance will remain mere screen savers in our virtual world). Abundant Earth is a beautifully crafted book that not only touches upon the “why,” “how,” and “what” of the impending ecological crises but provides a “what next” in an effort to halt the inevitable.

Enlisting direct causes and unraveling underlying drivers leading to the eco-crises at hand, Abundant Earth challenges the false sense of human supremacy while calling for scaling it down and pulling it back. Despite being politically controversial, the book strongly advocates the need for reframing the population question because “overconsumption” and “overpopulation” are two faces of the same coin. Given an all-pervasive mainstream trend to bring the entire population at a universal consumer standard, the projected ballooning of the global middle class to 5 billion by 2030, from the present 3.2 billion will turn the earth into an unimaginable waste bin. The world can ill-afford such a transformation, which will cause an irreversible blow to the biosphere if it hasn’t done that already!

Crist is clear in her assessment that an immediate turn in the direction of a global ecological civilization is the only plausible option. For such a change to happen, the current trends of economic growth and techno-managerialism would need to end. Unless the wisdom of limitations becomes mainstream thinking, it is unlikely that the human enterprise will reduce its multiple stresses on the biosphere. While making a fact-filled assessment of the current dystopia, Abundant Earth offers a realistic blueprint to halt the decline. Crist deserves appreciation for writing a book that will appeal to a wider audience interested in the affairs of the Earth.


Jul 23 2019

The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump

Reviewed by Shekhar Chandra, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

What does the Republican Party in the United States really think about environmental protection?

The Republican Reversal


The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump, by James Morton Turner and Andrew C. Isenberg, Harvard University Press, 2018, 280 pp

This book explores what appears to be an about-face in the Republican Party views regarding the importance of environmental protection over the last six decades. The fundamental question the authors try to answer is why the Republican leadership, which once introduced historic legislation including the Environmental Protection Act that created EPA in 1970, the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, has abandoned its support for environmental protection. The Republicans who used to criticize the Democrats in the 1960s and 1970s for obstructing the push for more environmental regulation today question the veracity of anthropogenic climate change. The most recent manifestations of this reversal are President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord and his proposed 31% cut in EPA’s budget.

The authors attribute the reversal to three factors: (1) an increasingly strong belief in the effectiveness of markets and technological innovation coupled with related concerns that regulations are contrary to America’s economic interests; (2) the growing concern that scientific facts are uncertain and an inadequate basis for policy-making; and (3) a conviction that environmental improvement requires global action which threatens America’s sovereignty. These views are reinforced by self-interested, industry-funded think-tanks and religious Christians who have waged a misinformation campaign aimed at discrediting federal environmental regulations. Their goal has been to reframe the environmental debate around conservative values rather than scientific expertise.

Overall, the book does a great job of explaining the epochal moments in America’s environmental movement. It falls short, though, on two counts. First, the authors do not discuss how the Republican leadership expects to justify its position on climate change as the impacts of CO2 emissions become more visible in the United States and the nation is increasingly isolated at international forums for not doing enough. These questions were not as relevant in the past decades as they are now. We have seen how the United States was isolated on the issue of the Paris Agreement at the recent G20 meeting. Second, the authors do not address the question of why the Trump administration believes the Republican Party’s anti-environment agenda makes sense politically, even though a majority of Americans not only believe that climate change is occurring, but also want the government to take strong action to combat it.

Jul 23 2019

Climate Engineering and the Law: Regulation and Liability for Solar Radiation Management and Carbon Dioxide Removal

Reviewed by Aria Ritz Finkelstein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

How will existing international legal frameworks apply to climate engineering?

Climate Engineering and the Law


Climate Engineering and the Law: Regulation and Liability for Solar Radiation Management and Carbon Dioxide Removal, edited by Michael B. Gerrard and Tracy Hester, Cambridge University Press, 2018, 350 pp

While climate engineering is the last resort for dealing with the challenges of climate change, it is one that states must be prepared to consider as the effects of unchecked CO2 emissions become increasingly untenable. This premise has motivated a new collection of articles by environmental law experts. If states do not take preemptive action, the book argues, they risk rogue actors attempting to engineer large-scale changes unilaterally by, say, spraying aerosols into the atmosphere to decrease the amount of sunlight we receive (“albedo modification”) or dumping iron filings into the ocean (“ocean fertilization”) to hasten the growth of carbon-sequestering algae. The collection offers a legal playbook for heading off worst-case climate scenarios, ones that would have seemed outrageous only a few years ago but are appearing more and more realistic.

While the collection’s scope is global, its focus is on strategies that people are already beginning to consider or test in the United States. It explores the current legal frameworks that might support or challenge the two main approaches to climate engineering—solar radiation management (SRM) and carbon dioxide removal (CRM). One by one, the book offers clear, brief explanations of the actions people are already taking, the scientific evidence supporting or challenging such interventions, the areas of global environmental law that might apply, and what might be the least resolved issue, namely, the relationship between available scientific research and the claims of climate engineers. The writing is plain enough to brief a lay person on the technicalities of climate engineering and relevant international agreements. At the same time, the chapters are well-cited and thorough enough to guide scholars interested in deeper exploration.

By its conclusion, the book moves from its initial agnostic stance toward the view that climate engineering is inevitable. Still, the collection reads as evenhanded; those hoping for a definitive position on the legalities of climate engineering will be unsatisfied, since the question has yet to be tested in the courts. The contributors do an excellent job of laying out the arguments international lawyers are likely to use on either side of the question and suggesting how an international agreement on climate engineering might clarify existing ambiguities.

Jul 23 2019

Loving Water across Religions: Contributions to an Integral Water Ethic

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

Can religious views about water lead to a shared water ethic?

Loving Water across Religions


Loving Water across Religions: Contributions to an Integral Water Ethic,  by Elizabeth McAnally, Orbis Books, 2019, 192 pp

Exploiting the very source of life for economic gains has reduced our individual and collective relationship with water. With the intrinsic value of water being ignored in its sheer assessment as a resource worthy of appropriation, an uncertain and scary water future threatens humanity like never before. Drawing insights from her passion for understanding water and reflections from her study of religious worldviews, Elizabeth McAnally advocates the need for reinventing our relationship with water by developing an integral water ethic. There is much to learn from religious practices in developing an integral approach to understating and preserving this mysterious liquid.

Nothing less than cultivating an “I-Thou” relationship with water can help circumvent global water crises, stresses McAnally. Integrating her personal experiences with practices in Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, the author constructs an integral ethic that brings the study of religion into dialogue with natural and social sciences with the aim of transforming the current objective assessment of water to include a more subjective perspective on this finite living entity. “Seeing the physical world as a manifestation of the divine has the potential to lead religions to a more respectful relationship with the world.” While there is an inherent value in what is being said, how should religions that have already lost out to science reconcile? Were it not so, water reality would be aligned with our religious penchant. Need it be said that despite each religious practice including compassion, respect and reverence for nature, the material world in contrast is a manifestation of indifference, scorn and contempt toward it?

Seized of the contrasting realities, McAnally argues for the need to integrate knowledge from as many different perspectives as possible to address the complexity and urgency of the impending water crises. The world may have gone as far as it can in managing water as objectively as possible, but there is still time to make a fresh start by imagining it through an integral lens. Loving Water across Religions is a clarion call for developing a deep love for water by acknowledging that it has interiority, an intrinsic value over and above its instrumental value.

While invoking love and service as crucial components of an integral water ethic, McAnally observes that the revered Yamuna, among India’s most sacred rivers, remains one of its worst polluted rivers. This should not minimize the importance, though, of listening to water as a source of inspiration, provided individual love and compassion for water gets converted into collective efforts to preserve our rivers. Although it is a work in progress, McAnally is hopeful that by combining our individual efforts and beliefs we can resolve the water crises that we face.