The notion of ever-expanding economic growth has been promoted so relentlessly that “growth” is now entrenched as the natural objective of collective human effort. The public has been convinced that growth is the natural solution to virtually all social problems—poverty, debt, unemployment, and even the environmental degradation caused by the determined pursuit of growth. Meanwhile, warnings by scientists that we live on a finite planet that cannot sustain infinite economic expansion are ignored or even scorned.
Before Fukushima, the most notorious large-scale nuclear accident the world had seen was Chernobyl in 1986. The fallout from Chernobyl covered vast areas in the Northern Hemisphere, especially in Europe. Belarus, at the time a Soviet republic, suffered heavily: nearly a quarter of its territory was covered with long-lasting radionuclides. Yet the damage from the massive fallout was largely imperceptible; contaminated communities looked exactly like noncontaminated ones. It could be known only through constructed representations of it.
Germany enjoys an enviably green reputation. Environmentalists in other countries applaud its strict environmental laws, its world-class green technology firms, its phase-out of nuclear power, and its influential Green Party. Germans are proud of these achievements, and environmentalism has become part of the German national identity. In The Greenest Nation? Frank Uekötter offers an overview of the evolution of German environmentalism since the late nineteenth century.
The history of the commons—jointly owned land or other resources such as fisheries or forests set aside for public use—provides a useful context for current debates over sustainability and how we can act as “good ancestors.” In this book, Derek Wall considers the commons from antiquity to the present day, as an idea, an ecological space, an economic abstraction, and a management practice. He argues that the commons should be viewed neither as a “tragedy” of mismanagement (as the biologist Garrett Hardin wrote in 1968) nor as a panacea for solving environmental problems.
The future is not what it used to be because we can no longer rely on the comforting assumption that it will resemble the past. Past abundance of fuel, for example, does not imply unending abundance. Infinite growth on a finite planet is not possible.
Greater knowledge and transparency are often promoted as the keys to solving a wide array of governance problems. In Instituting Nature, Andrew Mathews describes Mexico’s efforts over the past hundred years to manage its forests through forestry science and biodiversity conservation. He shows that transparent knowledge was produced not by official declarations or scientists’ expertise but by encounters between the relatively weak forestry bureaucracy and the indigenous people who manage and own the pine forests of Mexico.
Biological sewage treatment, like electricity, power generation, telephones, and mass transit, has been a key technology and a major part of the urban infrastructure since the late nineteenth century. But sewage treatment plants are not only a ubiquitous component of the modern city, they are also ecosystems--a hybrid variety that incorporates elements of both nature and industry and embodies multiple contradictions.
Americans take for granted that when we flip a switch the light will go on, when we turn up the thermostat the room will get warm, and when we pull up to the pump gas will be plentiful and relatively cheap. In The End of Energy, Michael Graetz shows us that we have been living an energy delusion for forty years. Until the 1970s, we produced domestically all the oil we needed to run our power plants, heat our homes, and fuel our cars. Since then, we have had to import most of the oil we use, much of it from the Middle East.
Global warming skeptics often fall back on the argument that the scientific case for global warming is all model predictions, nothing but simulation; they warn us that we need to wait for real data, “sound science.” In A Vast Machine Paul Edwards has news for these skeptics: without models, there are no data. Today, no collection of signals or observations—even from satellites, which can “see” the whole planet with a single instrument—becomes global in time and space without passing through a series of data models. Everything we know about the world’s climate we know through models.