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.

Jul 5 2022

Cities, Climate Change, and Public Health: Building Human Resilience to Climate Change at the Local Level

Reviewed by Dr. Priyanka deSouza, University of Denver

How can cities prioritize context specific human vulnerabilities to climate change, and what are the tools that cities can use to operationalize a reframing of the climate crisis to enhance collective decision making?

Cities, Climate Change, and Public Health: Building Human Resilience to Climate Change at the Local Level

Cities, Climate Change and Public Health: Building Human Resilience to Climate Change at the Local Level by Ella Jisun Kim, Anthem Press, 2021, 144 pp.

The effects of climate change are being felt in cities around the world. The severe impacts of floods, droughts, hurricanes, and other climate-related events on health have cost the United States an estimated ~ USD $14 billion in the last decade alone. Cities have started to incorporate climate considerations in their policy and planning processes. However, most urban climatic adaptation actions to date have involved the protection of material assets from potential climate disasters. In her book, ‘Cities, Climate Change, and Public Health: Building Human Resilience to Climate Change at the Local Level’, Dr. Kim argues that such measures are insufficient, and cities should prioritize context-specific human vulnerabilities to climate change, instead. Such an approach can address key concerns of equity and social vulnerabilities that are often missing in existing plans. Dr. Kim argues that this can be achieved by framing climate change as a public health crisis. She argues that such a framing can also increase public awareness, support and involvement in climatic adaptation at the local level.

Dr Kim’s book explores tools that cities can use to operationalize such a reframing of the climatic crisis to enhance collective decision-making. Specifically, the book describes the results from the ‘Frames and Games’ research project that grew out of a unique partnership between the city of Cambridge and MIT, to increase public engagement in local climate change adaptation planning. The Frames and Games project utilized tools such as: 1) providing participants with relevant vignettes, that framed climate change as a public health crisis, 2) role-play simulations that were designed to immerse participants into scenarios to help them engage with thinking about how to respond to the climate crisis, and 3) digital games that allowed players to ‘see’ the impacts of various decisions on the effects of climate change in their cities. Dr Kim conducted a rigorous evaluation to determine the impact of each of these tools on the participant’s perceived knowledge of climate change, and their desire to act. She details the results in her book. She found that the tools proposed had measurable impacts on different aspects of local engagement in climate change adaptation, even among more politically conservative participants. This book is a must read for planners who are looking for new methods to increase public participation in their cities.

Mar 5 2019

The Wisdom of Frugality

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

Being able and willing to live inexpensively may be a virtue that the majority of people across the globe will have to practice out of necessity.

The Wisdom of Frugality


by Emrys Westacott, The Wisdom of Frugality, Princeton University Press, 2018, 328 pp.

Frugality has been abandoned, and with it, the wise words of the sages, from the Buddha to Socrates and from Thoreau to Gandhi. The idea of simple living is now deemed insufficient, unexciting and even uninteresting by a significant portion of the global population. As the lure of purchasable pleasure entices people into relentless earning and spending, a culture of unceasing consumerism has pulled those with resources away from frugal simplicity. Emrys Westacott, a professor of philosophy at New York’s Alfred University, tries to explain why frugality has not become a global norm––despite so many wise people having championed it over the years.

Westacott sees a deep contradiction in the idea of individuals pursuing happiness within a competitive consumptive society. Competitiveness fuels jealousies. Any attempt to distinguish oneself by acquiring products as badges of social position only creates a false and temporary sense of happiness. In extreme cases the propensity to acquire and hoard can turn pathological, dominating a person’s life until they require treatment for a psychological disorder. Epicurus and Plato were convinced that securing material wealth was unlikely to bring happiness and that living simply was the key to moral purity.

It appears that the idea of frugality has fewer and fewer takers because the concept of simple living has turned out to be quite complex. Pursuing frugality in the current world restricts the pursuit of excitement and adventure in a world loaded with such opportunities. Further, we are living in a time when the economic imperative to grow has meant that a minimum level of economic activity must continue to keep several fellow beings busy so they can make sense of their gainful existence. Despite most of us, at one time or another, feeling some sort of moral pressure to embrace frugality, the world is stacked against us. The Wisdom of Frugality isn’t a polemic urging people to change their lives by embracing simplicity, but rather a broader investigation of both frugal and luxurious living. We are each left to draw our own conclusions, regardless of how confusing the choices may be.

Many people jump on and off three different treadmills: the hedonic treadmill for pursuing happiness, the status treadmill for satisfying consumption, and the working treadmill for generating income. All this on and off come at an enormous cost: physically, mentally and emotionally.

Why can’t people break free of the shackles of false happiness? Westacott acknowledges that our culture is torn between accepting acquisitiveness as a necessary condition of economic growth and denouncing it as an undesirable trait that bespeaks false values. Beyond that, though, there is no further explanation.

Freedom has been central to the idea of the good life offered by philosophers of every generation, but consumerism has reinterpreted this through the lens of false values. In the interconnected world of growing individualism backed by the availability of a myriad of economic choices, argues Westacott, freedom needs to be exercised in the context of contributing to the public good. Given the problems of pollution and global warming, we need to live more frugally and less wastefully in order to protect natural resources. That’s in our own interest and the common interest. Technology may be of some help, but it, too, adds to an ever-increasing demand for more goods and services. Frugality is a possible antidote to over-development, one that the world can hardly ignore.

Jul 17 2018

The Shale Dilemma: A Global Perspective on Fracking and Shale Development

Reviewed by Priyanka de Souza, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How and why have individual countries with shale resources chosen different paths to shale development, and what can we learn from these divergent paths?


edited by Shanti Gamper-Rabindran, The Shale Dilemma: A Global Perspective on Fracking and Shale Development, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018, 472 pp. 

The explosive rise of the shale industry in the United States since the early 2000s has sparked widespread consideration of shale as an energy source by other countries. Although much can be learned from the United States experience, the benefits and costs of shale production are still subject to large uncertainties (i.e., their likely environmental and health impacts) in every country. These uncertainties have prompted highly politicized debates about whether to proceed with shale production, and if so, how.

The Shale Dilemma, edited by Shanti Gamper-Rabindran, arrives at an opportune moment. It provides a framework that puts these debates in context and makes clear why different countries have chosen the shale development path they have. It applies this framework to the development of shale in the United States and seven other countries: the United Kingdom, Poland, France, Germany, China, Argentina and South Africa.

Decisions about shale development reflect the national characteristics in each country––China and Argentina are small producers of shale; Poland and the UK have undertaken some shale exploration; France has enacted a ban on high-volume hydraulic fracturing; Germany has imposed a moratorium on shale production; and South Africa is assessing permit applications for shale exploration. By comparing such vastly different countries, the authors are able to make a range of cross-cutting observations about the factors that influence the path of shale development. They also offer recommendations for how such pathways can be improved.

The Shale Dilemma begins with the claim that the overall framing of the “shale puzzle” in the public discourse in each country is determined by national energy priorities, including goals for energy security. The authors argue that decision-making processes in each country determine how regulatory trade-offs are made regarding the allocation of spatialized costs and benefits.

Over two chapters the book then talks about the mixed fortunes of shale development in the United States, capturing its recent experience of a downturn in shale production and laying bare important considerations that other countries just starting to think about shale development may want to consider. These chapters are followed by individual chapters on the development of shale in the other seven countries. They use a common structure to aid in their comparative analysis.

Each case study has been written by a researcher with experience in the energy industry in their country. However, by trying to apply a common comparative framework, some of the overall conclusions in the last chapter are necessarily presented in broad brush strokes. Recommendations such as the desirability of more public participation are offered without much detail regarding the best way of doing this. Nevertheless, the comparison of differing regulatory practices, as well as how enforcement is carried out in each context, is very useful in highlighting specific actions that might be taken to mitigate the costs of development.

The comparative framework is heavily centered on the experiences of the United States. The history of land use disputes in the Karoo region in South Africa as well as the historic use of land by indigenous communities in Argentina are important factors that could also feed into the development of shale in these countries. A specific comparison between these two paths of development with an in-depth piece on the modes of resistance used in these two areas would have been very illuminating.

The Shale Dilemma, in a nutshell, is a fascinating and illuminating read about the state of the global shale industry, as well as a timely reminder of the importance of continuing to focus on strengthening regulations to mitigate costs and making the process of shale development more inclusive.

Feb 1 2018

Governance for Urban Sustainability and Resilience

Reviewed by Jungwoo Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Could it be that governance is more important than reliance on either greener technology or reductions in the scale of resource utilization in achieving urban sustainability and enhanced resilience?


by Jeroen van der Heijden, Governance for Urban Sustainability and Resilience, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2014, 229 pp.

There is no doubt that cities could do less harm to the natural environment and use resources more efficiently. Employing “greener” technologies or simply using fewer resources are often cited as solutions––albeit partial––to the environmental challenges that cities face and, in some cases, cause. Van der Heijden suggests that getting governance right may be more important than introducing new technology or using fewer resources. Drawing from about 500 interviews and examining close to 70 real-life governance tools from around the world, this book offers a unique insight into how various governance tools can help cities achieve sustainability and resilience in the face of natural disasters.

Chapter 1 gives a sense of what urban sustainability and resilience mean to practitioners and academics, and explains how governance relates to each concept. Chapter 2 examines the most common approach to governance—direct regulatory intervention––and the tools it relies on, such as statutory regulation, direct subsidies and the application of economic instruments. Chapter 3 explores collaborative efforts by government, businesses and civil society to work together using tools such as networks, negotiated agreements and covenants. Chapter 4 focuses on voluntary programs and market-driven governance tools such as green leasing, private regulation and innovative financing. Chapter 5 discusses five governance trends and their contribution to achieving urban sustainability and resilience. It analyzes real-life examples, especially the prominent role that governments play in promoting the most innovative forms of governance. Chapter 6 concludes with suggestions regarding the choice of governance strategies for sustainability and resilience, building on the ideas explored in Chapters 2–5.

While not suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach to enhancing sustainability and resilience, Governance for Urban Sustainability and Resilience clearly shows that there are windows of opportunities for every city government to shift to more innovative governance tools. This book is particularly useful for those seeking a broad understanding of existing governance tools associated with efforts to enhance urban sustainability and resilience.