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.


Jan 6 2021

A Better Planet: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future

Reviewed by Aria Ritz Finkelstein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How can systems thinking about democracy and inclusion, about innovation and creativity; technical solutions; and building social equity and environmental justice through community programs and initiatives promote sustainability? 

A Better Planet

A Better Planet: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future, edited by Daniel C. Esty, Yale University Press, 2019, 416 pp.

Esty gathers the thoughts of some truly brilliant and knowledgeable thinkers and scholars in the field of sustainability. The collection of proposals is too broad to even begin to do justice to in such a short review. The authors’ stances run the gamut from a belief in the power of technical innovation to an insistence on deep ecology and the intrinsic value of “nature.” Still, given the book’s title, it will not surprise the reader that the attitude throughout is upbeat. Yes, the chapters describe enormous challenges, but these writers take them on with a shared confidence that these challenges can be—will be—overcome.

The essays range across topics as disparate as Thomas Rashad Easley’s discussion of “hip-hop forestry” as joining young students with foresters and Cary Coglianese’s argument for the use of machine learning in environmental management. Some, Susan Biniaz on international agreements, for example, take on global environmental governance, while others, such as Meha Jain and Balwinder Singh on no-tillage farming, zoom into a closer frame of view.

The essays cover systems thinking, democracy and inclusion, innovation and creativity. All of these terms risk becoming buzzwords, and because of the sheer number of the essays none can dive too deeply into its subject. However, each bite-sized chapter offers enough to introduce the reader to the problem it addresses, to explain what its stakes are, to outline the broad conversation already being had around it, and, usually, to offer a path forward and even a way to join in.

The sections vary in tone and orientation, in ways not entirely surprising. For example, the “Innovation and Technology” section gathers pieces that place their optimism in technical solutions. The “Society, Equity and Process” pieces, as a group, tend to focus more on building social equity and environmental justice through community programs and initiatives. As a group they manage to concisely and engagingly lay the historical groundwork needed to grasp the issues they are tackling, explain why they are important, and suggest at least one path forward. Another thing the writers have in common: Each is almost unflaggingly optimistic.

The collection might benefit from a more structured conversation between the pieces, one that would bring the ideologies and assumptions behind them, and the implicit conflicts between them, into sharper relief. The book shies from facing the full complexity and difficulty of challenges—especially intensely political ones—head on. On the other hand, the way the essays stand alone demonstrates faith in the reader’s capacity to grasp without handholding.

The book is a conversation-starter. This moniker is often a pejorative one, but here it is the book’s strength. On this point, Esty is explicit: “Indeed, our goal is not just to contribute to the substance of the policy dialogue over our environmental future but also to demonstrate how to have such a conversation. So please join us in this debate.” And, at the end of the collection, he invites the reader to participate in an online conversation, an exchange into which the book is only one entrance. The book is welcoming. Together, its essays add up to an entryway into those discussions that have the potential to shape the world to come.


Jun 1 2020

Climate Change and Ocean Governance: Politics and Policy for Threatened Seas

Reviewed by Aria Ritz Finkelstein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

How will marine institutions, laws, and policies respond to radically and quickly changing seas?

Climate Change and Ocean Governance

Climate Change and Ocean Governance: Politics and Policy for Threatened Seas, edited by Paul G. Harris, Cambridge University Press, 2019, 445 pp.

This edited volume starts to fill what is still a major gap in the ocean governance literature—the existing regime’s ability to respond to climate change. The meat of the book is split into five sections: The risks that small islands and coasts face; marine fisheries; possibilities for polar governance; mismatches between ecosystems and governance regimes; and specific issues or cases across sectors rather than across regions.

A case study approach allows each chapter to explore an issue in its specificities while extrapolating broadly applicable lessons. This brief a review can’t begin to do the collection justice, but just one example: Alger’s Chapter 11 illustrates the complex stakeholder politics of large-scale marine protected areas. For instance, often the fishing industry fights with environmentalists to push for “management” rather than “protection.” Alger argues that, while the pushback may seem disproportionate to the actual impact on the fisheries, it is partly due to the fishing community needing to manage the challenge of decreased yields even without the addition of no-take zones threatening to lower their catch.

While the thread throughout the book is oceans, the chapters ask to be separated into two volumes—one on ocean governance and one on coastal adaptation. Each raises such different legal and governance questions (with the exception of how rising seas will affect territorial claims) that bundle them but diminishes the collection’s clarity. Nevertheless, the book is a rich, accessible picture of how ocean governance institutions are currently dealing with the effects of climate change, the challenges they face, and how they might address climate change in the future. It represents a field of inquiry in its youth, and together the chapters lay out an array of important questions and offer launching points for future investigations.


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.