|This site maintained by: Aomar Boum. Site last updated on October, 2001.||
Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 4 (1997)
Environmental Challenges and International Responses, Nazli Choucri,
editor. 1995. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. xxiv, 562 pp.
Reviewed by Aaron
T. Wolf, Department of Geography, University of Alabama
The major hurdle in addressing issues of global change
is that they stretch the limits both of scientific forecasting and of
institutional capacity to handle uncertainty. Results from global forecasting
models have immense uncertainties, whereas institutional planning horizons
are generally only as distant as the next election. As the time scale
of study increases, scientific uncertainty drops, but so does the ability
of institutions to address the problems.
Stepping squarely into the breach of this frictional
intersection between science and policy is Global Accord: Environmental
Challenges and International Responses, edited by MIT professor Nazli
Choucri. This collection of 15 chapters makes explicit each of the sets
of relations that make global change such a difficult topic to address--relationships
between science and policy, nature and humanity, growth and preservation,
more-developed and less-developed nations, and even between present and
In fact, the entire book is about relationships: most
of its sections are even titled in pairs ( Actors and Processes, Economics
and Law, Institutions and Systems ). Its fundamental premise is that whereas
in the past some leeway has existed for many of these relationships to
be skewed one way or the other, all of these actors and their interests
(including those of nature) are now so intertwined that, in the words
of Maurice Strong in his foreword, "effective international responses
can be achieved only on the basis of cooperation among nations, and effective
cooperation must be based on common interests."
Choucri, in her introductory chapter on theoretical,
empirical, and policy perspectives, gives more detail:
To this end, she identifies three conceptual challenges
posed by global environmental change, all related to these sets of relationships:
the linkage challenge, the policy challenge, and the institutional challenge.
The organization of the book might almost be thought
of as a global model which, rather than addressing the science of climate
change, addresses the relationships affected instead. Like a model, the
conceptual framework is first presented (in Part I-- Conceptual and Empirical
Dimensions of Environmental Change ), with chapters by Nazli Choucri,
Thomas Homer-Dixon, Choucri with Robert North, and Hayward Alker and Peter
Haas. In subsequent chapters, again as in a model, the "real world"
of interacting people and their paradigms and institutions are broken
down and simplified for assessment. Part II, Actors and Responses, includes
contributions from Francisco Sagasti and Michael Colby, Choucri again,
Eugene Skolnikoff, and Garry Brewer. Part III, Economics and Law, includes
Edith Brown Weiss, and two chapters by Jerome Rothenberg. Part IV, International
Institutional Responses, includes contributions from Peter Haas and Jan
Sundgren, Oran Young and David Victor, Abram Chayes and Eugene Skolnikoff.
Finally, the simplified pieces of reality are put back
together and their relationships assessed for implications for the future.
Part V, Imperatives for the 21st Century, is a synthesis of policy issues
and empirical interactions by Choucri and North.
The book is strong when examining the pieces of society
s struggle with the issue of global change. Two possible futures--one
for the optimist, and one for the pessimist--are nicely laid out by Thomas
Homer-Dixon. Choucri and North include a particularly useful chapter describing
issues of growth, development, and sustainability. And chapters on international
environmental law, by Weiss and by Haas and Sundgren, leave one startled
at how poorly equipped we are at the international level to address legal
issues of environmental change or, worse, to enforce compliance with any
of the lukewarm codes that have emerged recently.
Even stronger are examinations of the seemingly disparate
links between pieces of the whole of societal response. Skolnikoff s thoughtful
chapter on science and technology as sources of change includes their
relationships within industry, governments, and the social effects of
change. In a wonderful interplay, Rothenberg points to weaknesses in classical
economics discounting for time, which, surprisingly, is an apt introduction
to Weiss chapter describing the roots of intergenerational justice in
international law. Weiss s piece, in turn--and even more surprisingly
-- leads directly back to another chapter by Rothenberg on alternatives
to time discounting. This type of playful interaction between many of
the chapters, along with many the overlapping references and cross-cutting
collaborations among contributors (e.g., chapters by Choucri; Choucri
and North; Alker and Haas; Choucri; Skolnikoff; Rothenberg; Rothenberg;
Haas and Sundgren; Victor, Chayes, and Skolnikoff; and Choucri and North),
leads one to suspect that the contributors had quite a bit of fun putting
this volume together. One is struck by the impression of an exchange that
is less like a conference of experts, and more like the neighborhood pub
where the experts have decided to carry on their intense discussions once
the meetings are ended. Eavesdropping on these discussions, quite a bit
of useful information is available.
My only quibble (and it really is only a quibble),
is that all of the contributors buy without question the premise that
the only rational response to global change is global cooperation. Certainly
this is true in an ideal world, and when one has the luxury to prevent
future change. But I am not yet convinced that, with the exception of
scale, the situation is entirely without precedent --any navigation treaty
of the eighteenth century had the same immediacy and requirements for
international cooperation--or that any other than lukewarm (politically,
not climatologically) coordination is feasible, given the nature of global
politics. (This review is being written on the eve of the Kyoto Summit
on global climate change, which gives every indication of being a disappointment.)
People have always lived beyond the local carrying capacity (witness Los
Angeles, the Sahara rim, and deltaic Bangladesh)--the rich survive and
the poor don t. Recent attempts at global cooperation do not provide much
hope that the immediate future will be any different.
Despite this unexamined premise, the volume is a thoughtful, well-(and playfully) organized reference that will be of value for anyone interested in the painful, critical dialog between the science of global environmental change and the institutions entrusted with a response.