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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


November-December 2008

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Books of Note - November/December 2008

A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies
by William Nordhaus; Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2008; 256 pp., $28.00 hardcover (978-0-300-13748-4)

This is a fascinating book, not only for its insights about global warming policies but also for its vivid description of the intellectual detective work that led to those insights. Like very few other books (for example, James Watson’s remarkable The Double Helix), it makes the process of scientific exploration come alive, connected with issues that really matter.

At the heart of Nordhaus’s distinctive exploration process is a quantitative model called DICE: Dynamic Integrated model of Climate and the Economy, which dates back to model developments and refinements over a period of more than 30 years. The version used for this book is its fifth generation, DICE-2007.

This approach to integrating economy and climate has always been distinctive. In a world in which most modelers have tended to think that progress means ever-greater degrees of complexity, using ever-larger computational platforms, Nordhaus has kept his approach relatively simple. Simplicity means accepting certain limitations, such as a lack of geographic, sectoral, or temporal detail. But it offers unique advantages, such as transparency (where its answers come from can be explained to most interested audiences) and agility (it can be redeployed quickly to answer newly emerging questions, in a subject area where knowledge is changing rapidly).

After first describing the approach and the major results in a way that is accessible to a wide range of audiences (a welcome innovation) and then describing the DICE approach, the book sets out on an examination of policies for bringing climate change under control. It analyzes 15 options in 7 categories of major alternatives in terms of economic impacts and effects on greenhouse gas concentrations and associated impacts, including chapters on the economics of participation, uncertainty (including the possibility of abrupt climate change), and advantages of carbon taxes. It adds perspectives on assumptions behind the results of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, issued in November 2006 by the UK government. It then finishes with a summary of conclusions from the analyses.

Along the way, every move is described and explained. At each point, the logic is made explicit so that the reasons for the results will be clear—a tutorial as much as a defense—in a rare way, making the important point that different logics would likely lead to different results.

This journey leads to a number of very important insights. Examples include the following:

• Many policies now being advocated are either inefficient (such as the Kyoto Protocol) or extremely expensive (Al Gore’s and Nicholas Stern’s proposals).

• Both efficiency and cost containment benefit from a “policy ramp”: introducing the changes gradually rather than precipitously.

• Analyses of the costs and benefits of climate change policies are shaped significantly by assumptions about discount rates, which largely determine the present economic value of long-term costs of climate change.

• For efficient management of the climate change challenge, carbon prices must be raised, and carbon taxes are by far the most efficient tool available.

• The net benefits of any climate change policy depend considerably on broad global participation.

• A technology breakthrough that would reduce carbon emissions at an acceptable economic cost has by far the highest benefit-cost ratio of any option considered, although how the breakthrough would occur is beyond the scope of the analysis.

Clearly, this book has important things to say to policymakers, or at least the experts they listen to. It has important things to say to the climate change research community, especially those focused on mitigation alternatives. Beyond these obvious groups, the book will be enormously valuable in education, helping students to understand key issues, how to examine them, and how to seek consistency in integrating economic and climate system information. Finally, I cannot imagine a better place to start for a noneconomist who wants to understand where economists are coming from, how they think (at their best), and how their perspectives fit into transdisciplinary discussions of climate change and other environmental change issues.

Thomas J. Wilbanks

Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Oak Ridge, TN

American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau
edited by Bill McKibben; Library of America, New York, NY, 2008; 1,127 pp., $40.00 hardcover (ISBN 978-1-59853-020-9)

This lavish and thoughtful anthology of words and images differs impressively from all existing collections of American environmental literature. In compiling American Earth, prominent journalist Bill McKibben, who leaped onto the environmental scene in 1989 with his now-classic work on global warming, The End of Nature, drew not only on his own expertise in the history of American environmental thought. He sent out a call to numerous friends, including many of the country’s leading artists, scholars, activists, and public officials, asking what they would put into a volume that documents this subject. The result is readable, surprising, and inspiring.

American Earth is not a collection of nature writing per se. Instead, it is a volume of “environmental writing,” which McKibben defines broadly to include an essay by P. T. Barnum on keeping billboards out of New York’s Central Park and comic strips by J. N. “Ding” Darling and R. Crumb, in addition to the expected writings of Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Terry Tempest Williams, and dozens of other artists whose work represents what may be “America’s single most distinctive contribution to the world’s literature.” Other surprises include Gifford Pinchot’s 1910 essay on prosperity, Justice William O. Douglas’s dissenting opinion in Sierra Club v. Morton (a 1972 case concerning a planned ski resort in the southern Sierra Nevada), Lyndon B. Johnson’s statement about the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, and César Chávez’s “Wrath of Grapes Boycott Speech” of 1986. These sit alongside song lyrics by Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, and Marvin Gaye.

In addition to writings by household American environmental names, interesting perspectives are provided by less well-known authors, such as W. H. H. Murray, J. Sterling Morton, Caroline Henderson, and Calvin B. DeWitt. In all, 104 authors, musicians, and cartoonists contributed to this book, along with painters and photographers, from Asher B. Durand to Ansel Adams, whose work appears in 82 dazzling plates. McKibben has clearly made an effort to include multicultural dimensions of American environmental writing, but some readers might balk at the overwhelmingly Euro-American focus of the collection.

The 27-page chronology at the end of the volume touches upon significant phases and events in American environmental history from 15,000–10,000 BCE to 2007, reinforcing McKibben’s effort to create a useful reference book for readers ranging from the general public to environmental professionals.

In the foreword, Al Gore states: “It is humbling for a politician—even a recovering one—to reflect on the role writers have played, and continue to play, in developing and shaping the environmental movement. A truth eloquently expressed has an influence greater than any elected official.” This insight is amply borne out in American Earth.

Scott Slovic
University of Nevada, Reno

American Environmental History: An Introduction
by Carolyn Merchant; Columbia University Press, New York, NY, 2007; 504 pp., $74.50 hardcover (ISBN 978-0-231-14034-8), $24.50 paper (ISBN 978-0-231-14035-5)

Carolyn Merchant, an environmental historian at the University of California, Berkeley, perhaps best known for her groundbreaking 1980 work The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, has written a wonderful and comprehensive examination of U.S. environmental history. Starting with Native Americans, she thematically moves through U.S. history, mixing economic, social, and political history with analyses of each topic’s impact on the environment. She has done a remarkable job, for example, of weaving issues like the history of slavery into a discussion of the impact of cotton on land quality; she also includes an insightful description of the multiple attitudes of blacks during the period of slavery toward the wilderness—a refuge for runaway or escaped slaves, but also the site of rapes and murders. On almost every issue, she gives the narration of its development as well as the declensionist account of increasing environmental degradation.

The book is in two parts; the narrative is followed by an equally sized comprehensive bibliography, plus “American Environmental History A to Z—Agencies, Concepts, Laws, and People.” In addition, there is an extensive resource guide, divided into text, films, and electronic resources. I can see several very interesting courses developing out of this book. Citing many of the leading environmental historians, this is a veritable reference work for the field and should be in every environmentalist’s library.

Alan H. McGowan
The New School
New York, NY

Water War in the Klamath Basin: Macho Law, Combat Biology, and Dirty Politics  
by Holly Doremus and A. Dan Tarlock; Island Press, Washington, DC, 2008; 280 pp., $60.00 hardcover (ISBN 978-1-597-26393-1), $30.00 paper (ISBN 978-1-597-26394-8)

Oregon’s Klamath River basin provides the setting for this book, and the 2001 water crisis there gives an impetus for its story to be told, but the broader focus is on the complex and difficult conundrum of contemporary water problems: changing climate, limited water supplies, and more variable and increasing human uses. Environmental and equity values are pressing forward, and long-term agricultural interests are holding the line on historic water “rights.” Holly Doremus, a professor of law at the University of California, Davis, and Dan Tarlock, distinguished professor of law at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, term the Klamath water crisis a “train wreck”—a cautionary tale of what may happen absent significant reform in the way water decisions are made. They also explain that the Klamath differs from other contemporary water controversy cases because it is an “upside-down watershed” with respect to typography: the Klamath River’s headwaters are flat, and its lower reaches flow through mountainous terrain. It is also different in that the agricultural interests in this case come close to the progressive era reclamation ideal of small, independent farmers, perhaps explaining the farmers’ special fervor in advancing their cultural values and historic claims.

At the heart of the story is the decision of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to close the headgates of the Klamath irrigation project in the middle of a severe drought in August 2001 in an effort to conserve water for downstream fisheries and species protected under the Endangered Species Act. The action essentially deprived farmers in the region of their water supply and provoked a firestorm of protests. The book covers events in the Klamath basin from the late 1990s to 2007, including actions of agencies, courts, the National Academy of Sciences, affected Native Americans, environmental groups, politicians, political parties, and others. Despite indications of mounting problems, clear criteria and rules to deal with endangered salmon and suckers were not in place prior to the stressful drought in 2001. 

For the first time in history, an absolute choice was made between irrigation and conservation of species that could not withstand subsequent opposition. Further, no definitive actions have been taken in recent years to avoid a rerun of pitched battle, as the authors’ astute discussion of the roles of law, science, and politics in social choice about the distribution and quality of water resources illustrates. There is plenty of blame to share for the inaction in the Klamath, and the authors are clear that problems leading up to the closure are far from resolved.

Water War in the Klamath Basin questions a widespread assumption that crisis can force learning and innovation in water policy. Doremus and Tarlock unequivocally say that while good science is important, science cannot resolve what are basically value and political conflicts over water resources. Additionally, markets, litigation, and stakeholder-driven, “bottom up processes [cannot] satisfactorily deal with contemporary water complexities.” Instead, they argue more fundamental reform that embraces bioregionalism—making political boundaries coincide with biological or topological boundaries—and place-based experimentation is essential.

It is rare to find a water resources book that clearly identifies the nature of contemporary water problems and bravely maps a path for improved social decisionmaking. The reader need not wholly subscribe to the authors’ prescriptions to be impressed with the quality of analysis and thought-provoking ideas. Water War in the Klamath Basin’s quality suggests that water resources scholarship may be undergoing a much-needed transformation for the better.

Helen Ingram
University of California, Irvine

American Environmental Policy, 1990–2006: Beyond Gridlock 
by Christopher McGrory Klyza and David Sousa; MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2008; 408 pp., $69.00 hardcover (ISBN 978-2-262-11313-7), $28.00 paperback (ISBN 978-0-262-61220-3)

Much has changed in American environmental policy since Rachel Carson’s seminal Silent Spring was published in 1962. The enthusiasm and bipartisanship for the environment during the mid-1960s and 1970s led to the enactment of numerous statutes, including the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Clean Water Act. However, the conservative backlash of the 1980s arrested the momentum of what authors Christopher McGrory Klyza and David Sousa call the “golden era of environmental lawmaking.” The 1990s and 2000s have been marked by legislative gridlock, regardless of who has controlled the White House or Congress. Has the legislative gridlock translated into policy gridlock? What is the future of policymaking?

American Environmental Policy makes a forceful argument that legislative gridlock has channeled political action and policy experimentation along other pathways. The book identifies five of these: budgetary politics (Chapter 3), executive branch policymaking (Chapter 4), judicial politics (Chapter 5), collaborative decisionmaking (Chapter 6), and state-focused policymaking (Chapter 7). While some of these pathways (such as collaborative decisionmaking) suggest policy reform, others (such as budgetary and executive branch politics) reinforce the gridlock.

Pragmatists seeking to balance economic and environmental interests have promoted policies rooted in collaboration, consensus, and incentives. However, as the authors note, these policies do not constitute “the central tendency in modern environmental policymaking.” Reforms have faced challenges from interest groups with multiple attack points. In addition, new initiatives, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Project XL, coexist uncomfortably with prior regulations like the Clean Air Act, creating doubts whether the pragmatists have the regulatory authority to usher in changes. These reforms have also been challenged on the grounds of legitimacy and effectiveness. The environmentalists find Project XL as favoring business interests while firms find it slow and procedurally cumbersome. Despite these challenges, the book suggests a “green drift” in environmental policymaking. One manifestation is the mobilization of private sector via green consumerism, corporate social responsibility, and private efforts to protect land. However, these private initiatives tend to face similar institutional and legitimacy problems as new, de facto environmental regulations.

Clearly, environmental policymaking stands at a crucial juncture. While new environmental management and private initiatives can lead to policy reform, they do not absolve Congress of its responsibilities. Politics cannot be divorced from policymaking. This book will be useful for scholars who care about the future of environmental policymaking and wish to understand the historical and institutional contexts that have led to both legislative gridlock and policy innovations.

Aseem Prakash
University of Washington

The End of Food
by Paul Roberts; Houghton Mifflin, New York, NY, 2008; 416 pp., $26.00 hardcover (ISBN 978-0-618-60623-8)

In this timely and remarkable book, journalist Paul Roberts demonstrates that the miracle of the industrial agricultural system that brought us the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s is at the end of its cornucopian promise. Human history is the story of food, and Roberts’ narration begins that chronology 3 million years ago. As he continues that history through to the current period of apparent wealth and food security, he reveals the intimate links between human evolution, development, and the environment as the productive resource base.

Extensively supported by evidence, Roberts persuasively argues that today’s deepening food crisis is the combined outcome of the end of cheap fossil fuels, an irreparably damaged environment, and relentless population growth. The era of superabundant, cheap food is now over, with still more than a billion people hungry and chronically malnourished, and another billion overfed and in consequent ill health. Clearly, the way that food is made and traded in the modern economy is not socially, politically, or environmentally sustainable and will not be able to meet the growing demands for food from the population increase and rising incomes associated with higher consumption demands. The prospect of the “gene revolution” being the magic pill that will solve the world food problem is examined and found wanting. Food security is the ultimate crosscutting issue, and solving the food challenge will therefore require a keen openness to new approaches and technologies that address at least rising energy costs and the need for clean, cheap alternatives; soil degradation; water scarcity; climate change; population growth; and human health. Ensuring food security among the poorest people remains an unsolved priority.

Richly researched, steeped in personal experience, and compellingly written, this book is accessible to the lay person while also sufficiently well-referenced to be used with confidence as a textbook in higher education. The final message is a simple one: achieving food security for perhaps 10 billion people this century will require a major paradigm shift in the world’s relationship with food, and this mandate is the responsibility of individuals in the choices we each make, governments in the priorities they set and follow, research scientists in the directions and goals they pursue, and industry in the search for sustainable market systems.

Roberts challenges us to reexamine our failing relationship with food through the lens of food security rather than the lens of industrial profit. While the story he tells is about how we have entered the era of “no more food,” Roberts makes it clear that this situation is not a random outcome of events, but an ongoing, active, and conscious creation in which we all participate. Likewise, we have the potential to change our vision toward creating an alternative, food-secure future. In Roberts’s own words, “Hunger has always been an invitation to make a better world, and it remains so.”

Bruce Frayne
Program in Urban Food Security
University of Cape Town
South Africa
Southern African Research Center
Queen’s University


Wildfire and Americans: How to Save Lives, Property, and Your Tax Dollars
by Roger G. Kennedy; Bison Books, Lincoln, NE, 2008; 352 pp., $19.95 paperback (ISBN 978-0-803-21604-4)

As a former director of the U.S. National Park Service (1993–1997), Roger Kennedy draws on his extensive historical knowledge and personal experiences in American policy development throughout the second half of the twentieth century to illustrate the current problems with the migration of people into wildfire-prone areas of the United States. Wildfire and Americans: How to Save Lives, Property, and Your Tax Dollars offers a historical perspective of population policies embraced by the U.S. government after World War II.

In May 2000, officials at Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico set a prescribed burn that quickly grew out of control due to high winds and dry conditions. The Cerro Grande fire, which overran Los Alamos National Laboratory and the surrounding communities, was the result. Kennedy focuses the book on this event, treating it as a microcosm of the larger picture as he takes a wide-ranging look at population dispersion and transportation policies designed to reduce the “targetability” of American cities by nuclear weapons.

The in-depth account of the Cerro Grande fire at the heart of the book examines the succession of reports and investigations into the decision to light the fire at Bandelier. Kennedy’s description of the events and their aftermath demonstrate the limitations of managing a natural ecosystem within a sociopolitical framework. Kennedy’s synthesis of housing and transportation policies and tax incentives provides insight into some of the social and economic factors that influenced individual migration decisions during this period. However, Kennedy ignores or discounts other causes of population dispersion, such as economic upswings in the national economy, which encourage migration, and Americans’ residential preferences for rural or exurban areas.

Looking back since 2000, Kennedy also discusses the historical influences of George Perkins Marsh, Carl Schurz, Albert Gallatin, Ignatius Donnelley, Frederick Law Olmsted, and John Wesley Powell on American society’s perceptions of wildfire by putting their writings in a modern context.
The final section of Wildfire and Americans recommends how to revise housing, insurance, and transportation policies to manage development in wildfire-prone areas and other areas at risk from natural hazards. Kennedy notes it is time to move “fire protection out of its traditional commodity-style economy and into a service-style economy.”

Wildfire and Americans has a few flaws that detract from the author’s ability to effectively carry his message—the chapters could be better organized, and it lacks detailed documentation—but overall, Kennedy provides an interesting perspective on how U.S. planning and transportation policies may have influenced migration patterns during the second half of the twentieth century.

Tamara Wall
University of Montana

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