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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


September-October 2009

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Books of Note - September/October 2009

CO2 Rising: The World’s Greatest Environmental Challenge
by Tyler Volk; MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2008; 223 pp., $22.95 hardcover(ISBN 978-0-262-22083-5)

Global climate change is largely a consequence of the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere, a phenomenon generally linked to the burning of fossil fuels.In his new book, CO2 Rising, Tyler Volk spins a clever tale of the travels of a single carbon atom named Dave to convey a clear sense of the marvelously complex global carbon cycle and the multitude of roles carbon plays in the Earth’s biosphere. The story of Dave also provides a compelling demonstration that human use of fossil fuels is indeed the primary culprit causing the increase in atmospheric CO2. Without even calling on all the evidence available to scientists (for instance, stable isotope data and oxygen-nitrogen ratios), Volk’snarrative should be persuasive for students and many not yet convinced that man's impact is large enough to greatly influence the global carbon cycle.

I confess to initial doubts regarding a narrative about an anthropomorphized carbon atom, and the tale of Dave’s travels did feel a bit silly and contrived at the beginning. But this skeptic got caught up in the story and was impressed by the effectiveness with which Volk conveys complex concepts, the time scale involved, and some illuminating statistics. The science in Volk’s vignettes is intriguing, with a particularly good discussion of ice core data in chapter 6.

Less compelling is the second half of the book, which veers away from Dave’s journeys to outline alternative journeys through the energy challenges of the future. Volk recognizes in the preface that “[t]he material in the later chapters is denser, and the tone more pressing,” and he is surely correct. This second half of CO2 Rising is notable to capitalize on the engaging device Dave provides and comes across as speculative,assertive, and a bit preachy.The phrases “I think it is almost a sure bet” and “some experts claim” do not lead to compelling conclusions.

But even the most sophisticated reader will get new insight into the global carbon cycle from the cleverly conveyed exploits of Dave, the carbon atom.

Gregg Marland

Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Oak Ridge, TN

A Critique of Silviculture: Managing for Complexity
by Klaus J. Puettmann, K. David Coates, and Christian Messier; Island Press, Washington, DC, 2008; 206 pp., $60.00 hardcover (978-1-597-26145-6), $30.00 paperback (978-1-597-26146-3)

A Critique of Silviculture is a groundbreaking analysis of how the two disciplines concerned with forests, silviculture and ecology, move on parallel paths with little interaction between scientists. Authors Klaus Puettmann, a professor of silviculture and forest ecology at Oregon State University; K. David Coates, a research silviculturist at the Ministry of Forests and Range in British Columbia; and Christian Messier, a professor of forest ecology and director of the Center for Forest Studies at the University of Quebec, successfully argue for greatly expanding interdisciplinary work—especially to assure that, as we continue to manage forests for society, we improve efforts to maintain forest ecosystem complexity. With forest harvesting coming under increasing public scrutiny and forests expected to provide an increasing array of products (including, for example, carbon sequestration and biofuels), this book is timely and insightful.

The first three chapters cover the history and development of the fields of silviculture and ecology. The more than 200-year history of silviculture is a fascinating study of local foresters in Europe as they met changing demands for a variety of products via a trial-and-error approach to harvesting techniques. For example, “thinning”—the modern practice of aiding the growth, health, and development of preferred trees— actually began as a method to provide small trees for local markets with no concern for the growth or health of remaining trees. A key turning point for silviculture came in the nineteenth century as the Industrial Revolution created distant markets for wood products. The traditional, local use of wood had been governed by a model of sustained yield; the new model focused more on maximizing rates of returns, which meant a transition to shorter rotations favoring faster growing species.

By contrast, ecology is a much younger science, one that began with Charles Darwin and other early scientists examining the relationships between organisms and their environment in the late nineteenth century. It evolved to examine concepts such as natural community structure, competition, succession, and population dynamics in its early years. While silviculture is based on an agricultural model with studies comparing various treatments to improve tree growth and productivity, ecology examines nonlinear relationships among complex parts of a natural community and often uses complicated mathematical models.

The final two chapters contrast the two disciplines and propose steps to incorporate emerging ecological theories into modern forestry. The challenge in melding the two disciplines is to produce a continuing supply of products for society while maintaining ecosystem biodiversity, resilience, productivity, and complexity. In the process, the study of ecology can benefit from the more management-oriented discipline of silviculture by using the long history of comparative studies and tested techniques for producing products for society. The authors lay out principles necessary for forestry to make the leap to more complex forests, including the concepts of managing the forest, not just the trees; accepting more variability in managed forests; and measuring forest structural targets on a landscape basis. Ultimately, to attain the benefits that complex, adaptive forests can provide, such as resilience to climate change and invasive species, society and forest landowners need to realize the value of these benefits. The authors successfully lay out a justification and roadmap to continue this necessary transition.

Bob O’Connor

Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs
Boston, MA

Food and Water Security
edited by U. Aswathanarayana; Taylor & Francis, London, 2007; 360 pp., $134.95 hardcover (ISBN 978-0-4154-4018-9)

Food and Water Security, edited by U. Aswathanarayana of the Mahadevan International Centre for Water Resources Management in Hyderabad, India, covers three dimensions of water and food security: biophysical dimensions of food production in 14 chapters; socioeconomic dimension of food security in 7 chapters; and governance of food security in 6 chapters (although the distinction between the latter two is somewhat blurred). Each section concludes with a quite useful summary by the editor.

The strength of the book lies in the wide range of topics it examines—a list that includes remote sensing, aerobic rice, the benefits of fermented food, the role of microenterprises, and the need for enhanced governance of food systems. While the book is not biased toward any specific water-saving intervention, it focuses geographically on Asia, with 10 chapters on India alone. Experts and policymakers interested in Africa—a hotspot for water and food security—will find that the volume does not address the region’s challenges, and only one chapter relates to Latin America (Brazil). This narrow focus is probably explained by the fact that most chapters of this volume are based on a panel discussion held in Hyderabad in 2006. Moreover, the volume clearly concentrates on water for food; readers interested in domestic water security or supply may want to look elsewhere.

While the range of authors and chapter content is nevertheless impressive, I had problems following some of the technical speak in the remote sensing chapters and some of the agronomic chapters. Stronger introductions and conclusions, enhanced labeling of maps, and clearer differentiation in the set of color plates at the end of the volume would have been helpful for a lay reader in this area

I also missed a final summary chapter synthesizing the previous 27 chapters with a focus on policy conclusions. The book raises important issues affecting water’s role in food security, but it provides no clear guidance on next steps. While Food and Water Security leaves the reader with a toolkit on how to detect and tackle food production constraints, other questions—such as whether the world will be able to feed itself given the large number of constraints to water and food or which priority investments governments should undertake in the face of growing water-for-food challenges—go unanswered. The book is thus a very useful introduction on developing-country—chiefly Asian—water-for-food issues, aimed at professionals and students in the areas of agricultural and water science, engineering, and planning.

Claudia Ringler

International Food Policy Research Institute
Washington, DC

Environmental Policy Integration in Practice: Shaping Institutions for Learning
edited by Måns Nilsson and Katarina Eckerberg; Earthscan, London, UK, 2007; 192 pp., $79.95 paperback (978-1-844-07815-8)

Somewhere behind the popular litany of sustainable development challenges we are all familiar with, such as climate change, pollution reduction, and biodiversity preservation, lies the far less graspable notion of environmental policy integration (EPI). This concept focuses on the underpinning challenge of including sustainability concerns within a government’s entire portfolio rather than relegating them to the exclusive domain of a “Department of Environment” or similar agency. Successful integration, also known as “mainstreaming,” is a rarity in politics today, not least because it entails a complex amalgam of rationality, politics, opportunity, learning, and, perhaps hardest of all, institutional change.

In Environmental Policy Integration in Practice, authors Måns Nilsson and Katarina Eckerberg, researchers at the Stockholm Environment Institute in Sweden, present a rare insight into this complexity. Their home country presents an interesting exemplar case. Given Sweden’s strong environmental performance; high public awareness and support for sustainability initiatives; and open, consultative style of governance, the authors note, “we expect it to be good at EPI as well, and the study of Sweden can be expected to also generate lessons for other countries.” Or, in converse, if EPI cannot happen in Sweden, it is not likely to find success elsewhere.

Nilsson and Eckerberg’s detailed analysis focuses on agriculture and energy—policy domains that are clearly implicated in efforts to meet environmental objectives but historically have been dominated by economic and production concerns. The authors also examine the production and use of bioenergy as an intriguing example of a cross-sector issue that does not sit neatly within either of these policy domains. The challenge is to effectively incorporate sustainability into the policies of these sectors and bioenergy related policy through the process they call “policy learning.” Policy learning processes sit between normative and rational perspectives on policymaking, acknowledging rational learning and a clear normative commitment to environmental policy work together in EPI.

Nilsson and Eckerberg identify mixed, but predominantly positive progress toward EPI in Sweden’s agriculture and energy sectors. Their analysis demonstrates that shifting policy frames—dominant ways of approaching policymaking—provided opportunities for EPI, even where those shifts were in response to other political changes, such as market reform. Bioenergy, on the other hand has made slow progress toward EPI, suffering from a lack of coordination between sectors.

The strength of the book lies in the depth and breadth of the analysis that supports these conclusions, examining external (national and international) drivers, actors within each of the sectors, and internal policy drivers designed to foster EPI. The authors conclude with 10 useful tips for EPI that draw broadly applicable recommendations from their exemplar case. These include technical issues, such as the need for innovation in auditing and assessment, as well as more socially oriented issues, such as the need to build trust across sectors and create carefully designed learning platforms.

Environmental Policy Integration in Practice offers a detailed, empirically based examination of the EPI concept and what it takes to make it work. While the authors clearly recognize the shortcomings of Sweden’s performance in this area, they also offer conceptual tools and practical pointers for those grappling with this thorny political, institutional, but ultimately very human issue of cooperation, learning, and commitment to sustainability goals.

Lorrae van Kerkhoff

The Australian National University

Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change
by Peter Newman, Timothy Beatley, and Heather Boyer; Island Press, Washington, DC, 2009; 166 pp., $60.00 hardcover (ISBN 978-1-597-26498-3), $35.00 paper (ISBN 978-1- 597-26499-0)

This short, readable volume lays out the authors’ admonitions for cities, now home to half the world’s inhabitants, to respond to the “double whammy” of declining oil supplies and global warming. “Resilience” is the hopeful term they use to frame these challenges and possible urban responses. Written primarily from an urban transportation perspective, the book provides examples of how we could build and adapt cities that are better able to endure peak oil and climate change. While principally U.S. focused, it includes good examples (and terminology) from Australia, which may not be as familiar to U.S. readers.

Rather than drowning in dire predictions, the bulk of Resilient Cities suggests the need for hope and vision in the face of these difficult driving forces. It is organized to provide a kind of cookbook for attaining resilient cities: 10 ingredients for the built environment, 7 ingredients for resilient transportation, and 10 steps to help put all this together.

The authors paint four possible scenarios for future cities: “collapse,” “ruralized,” “divided,” and “resilient.” As might be expected, the only hopeful outcome is the resilient city.

The book’s primary concern is seemingly peak oil, which is covered in greater detail than climate change and strongly linked to the transportation content of the book. The more complex issue of climate change is only briefly discussed and primarily as it relates to greenhouse gas reductions. Unfortunately Resilient Cities offers little mention of the more troublesome question of how to adapt to climate change impacts, an issue now being more openly discussed at national levels.

Also lacking is guidance on resilient governance at all levels, sorely needed for urban and regional responses to the difficult array of challenges.

Despite these shortcomings, the book forthrightly targets two major forces that will shape cities and urban life for the next hundred years and offers numerous examples for furthering urban resilience.

David Hitchcock

Houston Advanced Research Center
The Woodlands, TX

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