Spring 2018 (32.1) Review

Environmental Success Stories: Solving Major Ecological Problems & Confronting Climate Change by Frank M. Dunnivant

Environmental Success Stories: Solving Major Ecological Problems & Confronting Climate Change, Frank M. Dunnivant (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 256 pp., $90 cloth, $30 paper.

Global environmental challenges such as climate change are sometimes viewed as so daunting and complex that we can only aim to mitigate rather than solve the problems they cause. Texts used to instruct students on such challenges often present a pessimistic outlook for managing global environmental change, discouraging readers from viewing them as governable or within the capacity of human institutions to effectively respond. To such pessimism Frank M. Dunnivant, a chemist and environmental scientist, responds with a series of “success stories” in environmental policy designed not only to instruct on the role of environmental science in policymaking but also to “give us hope for cautious optimism that we can once again come together at an international level to solve the issues facing our planet in the twenty-first century” (p. 5).

As Dunnivant details, the challenges of providing safe drinking water, treating wastewater, reducing lead and mercury emissions, protecting the ozone layer, and controlling toxic chemicals all appeared similarly daunting at one time, yet it is now commonly agreed that humanity has made significant progress toward protecting against these pernicious sources of anthropogenic environmental degradation. If we can “learn from our history” (p. 3) of successful policy interventions, we might be more prepared and empowered for “the greatest challenge humans face, and likely ever will” in climate change (p. 149).

Dunnivant focuses on science as the key to understanding and eventually addressing serious environmental problems. Often identifying the role of scientific discovery or technological advancement in breaking political impasse or otherwise enabling effective intervention, as well as noting the politicization of science by industry and ideologues as culpable in policy obstruction, he closes his work by exhorting readers to “vote for politicians who believe in science” (p. 171). For students and other observers of environmental politics, the message captures current U.S. antipathy toward science combined with newly mobilized responses to the perceived marginalization of science within policy circles, as reflected by events such as the 2017 March for Science.

While the book’s optimistic tone and can-do attitude are generally effective in narrating these cases for instructional and motivational purposes, it does occasionally risk lapsing into oversimplification. Having detailed the history of regulations designed to remove lead from paint and gasoline, for example, Dunnivant claims that “for all practical purposes, Global North countries have solved the lead crisis,” suggesting that “our efforts” must now “shift to the rest of the world and finally eliminate all profits from leaded gasoline throughout the world” (p. 67). He immediately acknowledges the Flint water crisis as a “cautionary note” in this otherwise triumphalist narrative; but while he identifies the causes of that crisis as resulting from “city managers and elected officials” who “chose to ignore science” (p. 67), he ignores the roles played by race, socioeconomic inequality, and neoliberal policy reform pressures as significant structural complements to his diagnosed agential failings. Nor does he grapple with the findings of the more extensive testing of drinking water prompted by Flint—findings that suggest lead in drinking water remains a more serious public health threat than previously thought.

Dunnivant is strongest and most informative when he is in his element, describing the chemistry of environmental problems, whether in offering a primer on organic chemistry for understanding the impact of chlorinated hydrocarbons or detailing the science of endocrine disrupters in human health impacts from exposure to pollution. Details about the development of relevant regulatory and governance institutions are often thinner and more conventional, as might be expected from a book designed to introduce nonscientists to the environmental sciences. Similarly, references to ethical issues often take the form of blunt pronouncements rather than carefully developed and circumscribed analyses, as in his account of the Flint water crisis, where he writes: “Hopefully someone will go to jail for choosing to save a few dollars over solid scientific evidence known since the 1800s” (p. 68). Overall, however, and given the intended audience, the book’s coverage of environmental science topics is immersed within a policy narrative that provides just enough connection with institutional contexts and normative concerns such that readers will see the relevance of environmental science to ethics and environmental policy.

Given Dunnivant’s announced focus on climate change, and his intention to draw on earlier successful cases as inspiration for motivating effective remedial action in response to climate change, one might expect the book to treat issues in international ethics that are of interest to readers of Ethics & International Affairs. Issues of justice, equity, and human rights are occasionally raised and are omnipresent throughout; but connections are only occasionally drawn between the scientific or technical aspects of environmental policy and some of its normative dimensions, and then not treated in any novel or comprehensive way.

Given its design as a text for environmental science courses, however, one might instead view the book as providing linkages to normative discussions found elsewhere, in which the science of environmental problems is less carefully presented but where normative issues enjoy more rigorous analysis, fostering interdisciplinary understanding in combination with other works. Readers should not expect any one scholar to be equally well versed in every disciplinary knowledge base relevant to understanding climate change, but should appreciate books that can be readily connected to other works in interdisciplinary conversation, as this one can.

Included is an afterword by Kari Marie Norgaard, who brings a sociologist’s perspective to the book’s otherwise largely science-driven narrative. As she writes, climate change research from the social sciences has raised two key questions: whether and how we can sufficiently reduce emissions to avoid climate catastrophe, and whether and how we will adapt to climatic changes already in place or now unavoidable. To do either, she argues, we need to develop an ecological imagination, which allows us to better conceive of relationships between humans and the planet’s ecological systems, along with a sociological imagination, which allows us to “see the relationships within society that make up this environmentally damaging social structure” (p. 173).

Together, these two kinds of imagination point a way forward, embracing Dunnivant’s optimism while trying to engage readers in collective efforts to remake society in a more sustainable fashion. As a concluding note to an exploration of environmental problems through the lens of environmental science, this final chapter answers Dunnivant’s call for more conversation between the environmental and social sciences, and scholars working in normative international relations should also take note.

—Steven Vanderheiden

Steven Vanderheiden is associate professor of political science and environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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