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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


July/August 2008

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Books of Note - July/August 2008

The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability
by James Gustave Speth; Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2008; 320 pp., $28.00 hardcover (ISBN 978-0-300-13611-1)

The fruition of a life of engagement and reflection, James Gustave Speth’s latest book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World, is a passionate and incisive call for the environmental movement to deepen its critique and enlarge its politics. A leading environmentalist since the 1960s, Speth’s perspective has evolved with the changing times, his worldview growing more systemic and radical in a world growing more complex and imperiled. The resulting work is nothing short of pathbreaking.

After setting the stage with a survey of humanity’s ominous assaults on the biosphere, Speth turns to three far-reaching propositions. First, the root cause of the environmental crisis is modern capitalism—the motor of boundless growth, accumulation, and consumption. Second, the reformist and fragmentary environmental agenda, while important, is insufficient for altering the basic patterns of the prevailing political economy. Third, the great and urgent task ahead is to cultivate a transformative consciousness and a new politics for reshaping civilization to foster human and ecological well-being.

In making his case, Speth synthesizes a tremendous range of contemporary writing. The critique he makes of capitalism’s growth imperative, environmental insensitivities, and consumerist lifestyles is particularly trenchant. He finds envisioning an alternative model of global development and a plausible strategy for getting there less tractable, although he does sketch the contours of such a scenario (disclosure: he draws here on this reviewer’s publications). The book’s important gift to the next wave of environmentalism is to ask the right questions and broaden the conceptual terrain for addressing them.

Industrial capitalism generated two great oppositional forces—one for social justice, the other for environmental preservation—that evolved largely in parallel and often in tension. In recent decades, the social justice camp has extended its indictment to incorporate capitalism’s environmental predations. Now Speth, his feet firmly planted in mainstream environmentalism, arches across boundaries to point the way to a holistic movement for fundamental change. This book should strike a resonant chord in a public growing increasingly apprehensive, and merits inclusion in the canon of environmental literature alongside the works of Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and Gro Harlem Brundtland.

Paul Raskin
Tellus Institute
Boston, MA

Dictionary of Environment and Conservation
by Chris Park; Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2007; 522 pp., $40.00 hardcover (ISBN: 978-0-198-60995-7), $18.95 paper (ISBN: 978-0-198-60996-4)

This dictionary is a remarkably interdisciplinary work to have been created by a single individual. Geographer Chris Park of Lancaster University briefly defines close to 9,000 environmental terms from the physical, social, historical, and policy realms. A single dictionary in which the entries “sheep dip,” “shopping center,” “shortwave radiation,” and “Silent Spring” appear on facing pages is a delight for those interested in both nature and society. Biographical entries, including Maurice Strong, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and George Perkins Marsh, strengthen the book’s human component.

Twenty-eight longer entries of a few hundred words each are interspersed throughout the book. Unfortunately main text articles do not point to these longer entries, causing readers to easily miss one if it is pushed to the next page. It is difficult for a dictionary of this scope to be comprehensive in 500 pages, and there are rare omissions of terms one might expect to find, including “bush meat,” “flux tower,” and “slow food.” These faults are tiny, however, compared with the overall accomplishment of the work.

The dictionary includes 21 figures, mostly of natural systems, such as the jet stream and water cycle. There are 10 appendices, including a list of international environmental treaties and their signatory nations, five hazard severity scales (including the Torino asteroid and comet impact hazard scale), the periodic table of chemical elements, and a list of unit conversion factors.

This book is an excellent selection for academic libraries, consulting firms, nonprofits, government agencies, personal collections, and the ready-reference shelf in a university environmental studies department office.

George E. Clark
Harvard University
Harvard College Library
Cambridge, MA

Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren
edited by Joseph F. C. DiMento and Pamela Doughman; MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007; 232 pp., $60.00 hardcover (ISBN 978-0-262-042413), $19.95 paper (ISBN 978-0-262-541930)

Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren
covers a breadth of issues related to climate change, but its focus on the social aspects of climate change, including policy, science journalism, and human security, distinguishes it from other works.

The book begins with the science of climate change and discusses the effect of climate change from both global and regional perspectives. Notably, the regional view emphasizes that highly populated areas, not just remote areas such as the Arctic or Antarctica, will experience the consequences of climate change. In a fourth chapter, Naomi Oreskes, a science historian, questions whether science may in fact be wrong about its projections for the effects of global warming. However, as she notes, even if this was the case, correcting mistakes in our basic physical understanding may not lead to a more optimistic scenario.

The chapters that follow discuss important social issues that surround climate change. The chapter “How the World is Responding,” written by the editors, provides a good historical perspective on policy activity related to climate change starting from the First World Climate Conference in 1979 to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that led to the Kyoto Protocol, to the current U.S. government position. This chapter also looks at how states and cities in the United States are taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the private sector’s response, and the role of organizations such as the Pew Center on Climate Change.

Andrew Revkin, a science journalist, discusses the role of the media in communicating the science of climate change. Revkin points out that a lack of basic scientific literacy among the public makes it difficult to explain complex science in brief news articles. While aiming for an unbiased perspective, journalists, who present polarized views in an attempt for balance, lose “the grayer middle where consensus generally lies,” leading to more confusion about the threat of global warming.
In the book’s most intriguing chapter, Richard Matthew investigates the nexus of climate change and human security, which he defines as “freedom from fear and want at the level of the individual, family, or community.” Using cases studies of Bangladesh, Sudan, and New Orleans, Matthew asks, “[W]hat moral obligation do we have when a process of global change in which we are deeply implicated places great burdens on people who have had a fairly negligible impact on the global change itself?”

In focusing on the social aspects of climate change, this book addresses the challenge of convincing society of climate change’s urgency and to transform in ways that will mitigate its effects. This book is a worthwhile read for the general public and a step toward engaging them in this process.

Bhawani Venkataraman
Eugene Lang College
The New School for Liberal Arts
New York, NY

Seeking Sustainability in an Age of Complexity
by Graham Harris; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2007; 374 pp., $130.00 hardcover (ISBN 978-0-521-87349-9), $55.00 paper (ISBN 978-0-521-69532-9)

This book seeks to explain and recommend responses to the local and global sustainability challenges arising from the interactions between complex social, economic, and natural systems. The book’s author—Graham Harris of the University of Tasmania and Lancaster University—has had a long research career, is widely read in many different disciplines, and is well placed to write such a book.

Unfortunately, the first few chapters, which are meant to provide an overview of the basic concepts, are not very helpful. Buzzwords like “complexity,” “singularity,” and “consilience” float about with too little definition and context, especially for a reader who has not come across them before. Harris expresses palpable joy and wonder at the interconnectedness and underlying structures of diverse social and natural systems. Unfortunately, his enthusiasm often seems to lead to unseemly haste, as he jumps from one concept (and the corresponding acronym) to the next without much discussion.

Things improve in later chapters that discuss the manifestations and implications of complex systems at the landscape and catchment level. Here, Harris considers particular examples in enough detail to provide some tangible context and explanation. For instance, an interesting discussion of the history of the English countryside explores how more recent developments have contributed to increased complexity and, hence, vulnerability to the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

The concluding chapters consider some implications of a greater appreciation of complexity in nature-society interactions, including a recurring call for more context-specific and ethics-conscious dialogue between science and society. Another worthwhile argument points out the dangers of too great a reliance on markets in natural resource management, given the uncertainties inherent in our understanding of ecosystems.

Harris’s ambition is commendable and necessary in our quest for more holistic understanding and action. It also deserves defending against knee-jerk criticism from those who resist synthesis and syncretism on the basis of a misguided emphasis on academic and disciplinary rigor. Unfortunately, while the book holds many important ideas, its somewhat obscure and sketchy style makes it unnecessarily difficult for the reader to find and appreciate them.

Ralph Hamann
Environmental Evaluation Unit
University of Cape Town
South Africa

A Contract with the Earth
by Newt Gingrich and Terry L. Maple; Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 2007; 256 pp., $20.00 hardcover (ISBN 978-0-801-88780-2), $14.00 paper (ISBN 978-0-452-28992-0)

A Contract with the Earth borrows its title from the Contract with America, the 1990s Republican revolution that shook the foundations of government. In the run-up to the 1994 congressional elections, President Clinton dubbed the latter the “Contract on America,” a theme the Sierra Club later picked up as the contract’s influence on weakening environmental protections became clear. So a reasonable question to ask is can the new Contract do for the environment on a sustained basis what the previous contract did for the Republican Party for a decade?

The architect of both is the same—Newt Gingrich, the once-powerful U.S. Speaker of the House, who, if we did not know it then, we now learn is an avid environmentalist. He, along with co-author Terry L. Maple, president and CEO of the Palm Beach Zoo, draw a political parallel and a grand design in choosing the title. The authors sketch a confident argument that the environment should (they suggest “does”) transcend politics, common ground can be staked out, and behaviors can be structured without needless regulation. The problem, they say, is that “adversarial politics has prevented a strategic consensus” from pushing a shared vision on environment for the nation.  

The first chapter provides a menu for consensus based on 10 foundational commitments—to American leadership, entrepreneurship, innovation, transformative government, aspirational and inspirational goal setting among sectors, improvements in foresight and response to unknown environmental challenges and threats, scientific literacy, nonpartisan environmental problem solving, coordinated and strategic philanthropy, and collaboration among and enlistment of all actors. These are laudable pronouncements of how citizens and private-sector and government actors should work together. The remaining chapters attempt to serve up the 10 items on the menu, offering a lot of salt to freshen the taste of environmentalism but very little pepper to make stakeholders sneeze into collective action.  

The well-heeled environmentalists among us will be already familiar with most of what the authors offer to explain the problems underlying the lack of consensus on the environment to date; this is probably less true for the skeptical environmentalists finding their footing. If their desire was to march both groups under a common tent, the authors should have taken the time to reference the material. The skeptics will scoff at undocumented statistics. The converted will needlessly question the authenticity of the arguments.   

The other disappointment is that the book provides few new suggestions for narrowing the divides between politics and action and between business and conservation. And the same examples of what works crop up in each chapter.  

So, can A Contract with the Earth deliver for the environment? The success of the Contract with America was in reforming government through legislation. A key recommendation of A Contract with the Earth is the reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act, which the authors say is “the most effective piece of environmental legislation in our country’s history.” Further, the Bush administration’s proposed listing of the polar bear as a threatened species under the act “puts [the administration] on record in acknowledging the deleterious effects of climate change.” The authors “hope that this initiative is a genuine example of badly needed presidential leadership.” If, in the Contract with America, the metaphor was the Republican elephant ascending to congressional domination, perhaps in this one, it is a polar bear struggling for survival in a sea of little ice. If the Contract delivers consensus on and leadership for the environment, the polar bear survives.

Sherburne B. Abbott
University of Texas at Austin
Austin, TX

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