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.

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

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.

Feb 1 2018

Water Governance and Collective Action: Multi-scale Challenges

Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How, if at all, can local residents challenge the commodification of nature and reshape water governance to achieve fairer and more just outcomes? Sometimes this can be accomplished through collective action and by building strategic coalitions involving a range of actors at multiple scales.


edited by Diana Suhardiman, Alan Nicol and Everisto Mapedza, Water Governance and Collective Action: Multi-scale Challenges, Earthscan, 2017, 187 pp.

In Water Governance and Collective Action, editors Suhardiman, Nicol and Mapedza argue that globalization and the “dominant neoliberal development agenda” have led to a commodification of natural resources that allows local communities very little agency over the governance of their own resources. How can these weakened communities shape national and transnational water policy in ways that will achieve more sustainable and just outcomes? Sometimes, they suggest, this can be accomplished through collective action.

The authors argue that conventional approaches to identifying factors that lead to collective action (e.g., Ostrom’s Institutional Analysis Development framework) are a good start, but that power also needs to be taken into consideration. Their central argument relies on the Foucauldian understanding of power (i.e., that power is diffuse and constantly in flux), rather than the international relations understanding of hegemony (i.e., that one state “holds” power). While power differences (e.g., between a company siting a dam and the community that will be displaced if the dam is built) will invariably present obstacles to achieving equitable outcomes, the book suggests that local-level communities can sometimes “balance” the playing field through strategic alliances, or by connecting to actors at different scales (e.g., transnational NGOs with overlapping mandates, empathetic politicians, etc.)––in the language of negotiation, through “coalition building.”

The editors pose three questions that reflect the inherent difficulty of governing a resource that crosses multiple scales: “How is collective action shaped by existing power structures and relationships at different scales? What are the kinds of tools and approaches that various actors can take and adopt to achieve more deliberative processes for collective action? What are the anticipated outcomes for the development processes, the environment and the global resource base of achieving collective action across multiple scales?”

They attempt to address these questions by drawing on 13 case studies of collective action from around the world but, as is the case with most books written by multiple authors, there is very little consistency in how well each chapter or case study explicitly addresses these questions. The Introduction briefly summarizes how each case ties to the central argument, and the Conclusion briefly responds to the core questions. The cases themselves, though, move in different directions.

Of the discussions concerning the three questions, the second (i.e., that of tools and approaches to more deliberative processes) is the least developed. This positions the book as an extension of an academic debate rather than as a guide for local communities. That said, the overall argument that “less powerful actors” such as “NGOs, local government agencies and civil society groups” (p. 179) have an opportunity to shape how natural resources are used and governed through collective action achieved by developing strategic alliances with actors at different scales is compelling.  The same is true of the editors’ call to pay attention to “how development decisions are made, based on what rationale and representing whose interests” (p. 178) to identify ways of influencing policy and institutional change.

Water Governance and Collective Action repeatedly emphasizes the importance of achieving more sustainable and just outcomes in water governance, and carefully balances optimism about the potential for change through collective action with a recognition that the political arena may not always be conducive to change in the status quo. Its call to focus on institutions in analyzing water governance is a promising extension of the state-dominated focus of the “hydro-hegemony” debate because it explicitly recognizes the potential power of local actors and collective action. Arguably, the editors may have chosen only cases that support their argument, but the diversity of cases will nonetheless be of interest to scholars of water governance.