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Spring 2024: Plastic

Literary Resources

Frederick H Turner and Madeline June Kass


  • Review of the book Rosewood: Endangered Species Conservation and the Rise of Global China by Annah Lake Zhu (Harvard University Press, 2022)
  • Review of the book California Burning: The Fall of Pacific Gas and Electric—and What It Means for America’s Power Grid by Katherine Blunt (Portfolio / Penguin, 2022)
  • Review of the book Our Common Ground: A History of America’s Public Lands by John D. Leshy (Yale University Press, 2022)
Literary Resources
Olena Malik via Getty Images

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Rosewood: Endangered Species Conservation and the Rise of Global China

Annah Lake Zhu

Harvard University Press, 2022

Reviewed By Frederick H. Turner

Annah Lake Zhu centers her thought-provoking book on Madagascar’s forests, which are home to one of the most valuable natural resources in the world—rosewood. Rosewood is a type of hardwood named after its bright red heartwood, and international trade of rosewood from Madagascar has been prohibited since 2013, when it was listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Despite the protection, and perhaps because of it, the wood continues to move through “clandestine circuits,” and Zhu notes it “is the world’s most trafficked group of illicit wildlife by value.” Rosewood tells the story of the economic forces behind that trafficking. In addition to the supply side view of Madagascar, she details the demand for the wood from China, where rosewood furniture is seen as a way to connect with the cultural heritage of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Zhu has a solid grasp on the issue in part because she has spent significant time in both countries, including time in Madagascar doing ethnographic fieldwork.

Yet Rosewood is more than an object lesson in the modern global trade in endangered species. It also engages in the debate about how humans interact with nature. Zhu captures the contours of that debate with an apt metaphor: two trails in a Madagascar forest. One trail is traveled by tourists, who are eager to see rosewood trees before they disappear; the other is navigated by loggers, who move rosewood logs from the country’s interior to the coast for export. These trails represent different approaches to nature. The first aims to protect as much of the environment as possible and to restrict the trade in endangered species. The second promotes the use of forests as working environments and relies on replenishment techniques, such as reforestation. For Zhu, the former aligns more with the West and the latter aligns with China, though she is careful to avoid overgeneralizing.

Zhu states that her objective is to “decenter Western environmentalism.” By pursuing this goal, she situates Rosewood squarely in the field of political ecology, in which scholars focus on the interconnectedness of nature and culture. Zhu writes that “cutting against the grain” of Western environmentalism means understanding that rosewood is both a symbol of “the pristine nature conservationists are intent on preserving” and “a material that gives substance to the cultural heritage that many in China are equally intent on preserving.”

Zhu devotes much of her book to grappling with what a decentered viewpoint might mean for the future of rosewood in Madagascar. To set the scene, she provides a succinct yet sharp overview of forest management in the country since it was colonized by France in the 1890s. To guide the discussion, Zhu invokes a “protectionist / participatory pendulum” swinging in different directions over time. For example, in the mid-20th century, the colonial government allowed for harvesting of some forests, but strictly conserved trees in others. In the 1990s and early 2000s, an independent Madagascar swung toward a participatory approach with efforts to increase local management and access; these efforts were aided by investment from the World Bank and nongovernmental organizations and included the creation of two national parks—Masoala and Marojejy—and Makira Nature Park.

Despite these efforts, the realization of a participatory approach has been elusive because of an uptick in the demand for rosewood in China in the last 20 years. Zhu writes:

With rosewood more lucrative than before, loggers and traders are eager to enter protected areas in search of it. Authorities commissioned to curtail logging instead solicit their slice of the cake, letting logs pass with a fine. Villagers living around the parks in Masoala, Marojejy, and Makira navigate the global junction, deciding at each strategic moment on which side they stand: conservation or logging.

Do the villagers standing at the global junction have other options? Zhu suggests that “another possibility is rosewood reforestation and the creation of nonprotected working landscapes—that is, landscapes that work, that are sustainable, if not pristine.” Zhu adds another layer to this approach when she discusses the possibility of increasing rosewood production in China, which already has a number of rosewood plantations. Zhu also pushes back against the criminalization of the trade in rosewood through international legal instruments like CITES. Here, she describes the “Madagascar phenomenon”—the criminalization of rosewood trade has “contributed to unprecedented price spikes” and “increased enthusiasm for rosewood.”

Rosewood also explores Madagascar’s laws and rules governing rosewood. At points, it was not clear to which types of rosewood and which places the laws applied. However, this might stem from the messiness of the regulations themselves. Following a 2009 coup d’état, a decree allowed export that spurred a “protracted logging frenzy of questionable legality.” In 2011, “comprehensive anti-logging laws” were issued, but five months later, the environment minister authorized new export licenses. In short, “those involved in the rosewood trade remain in a legal gray area.”

Zhu has crafted a story that combines the legal, political, and economic aspects of rosewood in Madagascar. In the process, she does more than decenter the West; she presents an example of how we might recenter the site of valuable natural resources and the people who live and work there.

California Burning: The Fall of Pacific Gas and Electric—and What It Means for America’s Power Grid

Katherine Blunt

Portfolio / Penguin, 2022

Reviewed by Frederick H. Turner

K atherine Blunt’s California Burning is a kaleidoscopic story about Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), and it is populated by dozens of people, from company founders and executives to regulators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges. In fact, the cast of characters at the start of the book runs to a full five pages. Yet the central character here is the corporate entity itself, which is a person for purposes of the two criminal cases that serve as the book’s backbone.

Those cases arose following two deadly incidents that involved the gas and electric wings of PG&E—the explosion of a gas pipeline in the city of San Bruno in 2010 and the Camp Fire in Paradise in 2018, which was started when an electric transmission line collapsed and sent sparks into a tinder-dry forest. Katherine Blunt describes how each incident was caused by incredibly old equipment. For San Bruno, the pipe was laid in 1956 and had been “poorly welded,” thus making it “vulnerable to the effects of sudden changes in gas pressure.” As I was reading these words, I thought about the movie Apollo 13 and Tom Hanks noting that the disastrous incident on that mission was caused by a defect in a coil made two years before Hanks’ character was named mission commander.

For the Camp Fire, the electric line became disconnected from the tower because of the failure of a hook made in 1919. Blunt’s background on this piece is particularly poignant. In an early chapter that represents well-executed business history, she discusses how PG&E became a monopolistic entity. A key turning point occurred when it purchased the Great Western Power Company. Great Western completed a transmission line called the Caribou-Palermo in 1921, and the hooks it used were made of cast iron, which “lost integrity with age.” Nine years later, PG&E acquired the company, and “[n]early a century later, one of Great Western’s malleable cast-iron hooks gave way.” It led to “the deadliest wildfire in California history.”

Blunt’s tale of two calamities also explores the systemic issues at PG&E that made such incidents possible. In particular, Blunt discusses the dearth of inspections. The economics of utility companies plays a role. Here, and throughout the book, Blunt explains complex issues in an easy-to-follow manner: “Utilities earn returns for shareholders on capital investments, multimillion- or multibillion-dollar investments that boost the overall value of their systems. Maintenance and operating expenses are treated differently” as regulators “don’t typically allow utilities to earn returns” on the programs that keep lines running. This structure does not incentivize upkeep. And later in the book, Blunt describes a 1987 document outlining a PG&E policy to patrol each transmission line three times a year, twice in the air and once on the ground. The policy changed in 1995 as PG&E cut spending, and again in 2005. Under the 2005 policy, lines like the Caribou-Palermo would be patrolled from the ground once every five years and inspected from the air in the other years.

Blunt also effectively summarizes the criminal cases that followed. The San Bruno case centered on the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act, which requires operators to retain thorough records and perform safety surveys. In the chapter on the trial, Blunt focuses on the attorneys and key evidence, and avoids getting bogged down in legal minutiae. In 2016, the jury returned a mixed verdict, finding PG&E guilty on five counts of violating the Pipeline Safety Act and one count of obstructing the investigation. The total fine was $3 million, which for the utility giant “amounted to little more than a rounding error.” But the sentence also included a requirement that the company place ads in the Wall Street Journal (where Blunt is a reporter) and the San Francisco Chronicle as well as a five-year probationary period.

The probation was originally focused on the “G” in PG&E but would come to involve the “E” because of the frequency of wildfires in California and the company’s role in the Camp Fire. The judge overseeing the probation added terms—the company now had to meet its tree-trimming targets and it could not pay dividends to shareholders unless it was in full compliance. But this was not the only legal implication of the Camp Fire. PG&E faced a second indictment, this time on 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for each of the victims. The company pleaded guilty in 2020, and as Blunt notes, “PG&E was convicted of the deadliest corporate crime in American history.”

PG&E had also entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2019, the second time it had done so, and California Burning recounts the ins and outs of that proceeding. Compensation for the victims was part of the bankruptcy plan—some of this compensation was cash, but some of it consisted of PG&E shares. The latter concept did not sit well with some of the victims, in part because of the possibility of more fires and a declining share price. That possibility became reality in 2021 when the Dixie Fire burned a million acres and destroyed numerous communities after a tree fell on a PG&E distribution line and “weighed” on the share price.

Last summer, I was in the Plumas National Forest, and from a lookout on the Pacific Crest Trail, I could see the damage to the landscape caused by the Dixie Fire. California Burning has provided invaluable perspective on the story behind some of the largest disasters to strike the state in the last two decades. It also raises question about the grid writ large. Near the end of the book, Blunt writes:

Once an inconspicuous machine, [the grid’s] failures were becoming more obvious, and more consequential. The grid had been built to withstand climate patterns of the past, and those patterns were changing fast at a time when electricity had never been more critical. Every utility would soon face the same question: How should its system change to account for future risk?

Our Common Ground: A History of America’s Public Lands

John D. Leshy

Yale University Press, 2022

Reviewed by Madeline June Kass

In the United States, the federal government owns more than 600 million acres, comprising nearly a third of the nation’s land. These lands—America’s public lands—contain an abundance of the world’s most majestic and iconic natural landscapes and some of the nation’s greatest cultural and ecological resources. In his book Our Common Ground: A History of America’s Public Lands, John Leshy shares a political history of these lands, from their origin coinciding with the birth of the nation to present day challenges. It’s a political history, one the author observes as “deeply rooted in the history of the nation and the events that have shaped our culture and the structure and operation of our government.”

Leshy approaches the subject matter with a distinctive eye and a perspective informed by extensive experience in political positions in government, including as former solicitor of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The book looks expansively at “the entire history of these lands as a single American institution.” This isn’t just the story of the great U.S. national parks or forests, or a chronicle of the multitude of federal land laws and judicial decisions regarding public lands, or a tale of the institutional rivalries and alliances among federal land managers—it’s the big picture and the small bits, all of it from start to finish. In telling of how we got here, Our Common Ground bestows upon readers the politics, policies, laws and legal decisions, personalities, and pioneering ideas that collected, consolidated, divested and distributed, traded and acquired, set aside, and ultimately saved America’s public lands for the American people.

Our Common Ground vigilantly details foundational public lands laws, political wrangling and machinations over public lands policy and management, and major historic events of each public lands era, including many personalities who shaped this public lands history. From the legacies of U.S. presidents, such as Harrison, Cleveland, Taft, Hoover, and, of course, Theodore Roosevelt, to the contributions of iconic public lands figures such as Frederick Law Olmsted, John Muir, Mark Twain (“‘nothing helps scenery like ham and eggs’”), and Gifford Pinchot, to a collection of many well-known and less known writers, journalists, photographers, artists, naturalists, scientists, philosophers, explorers, adventurers, and other private individuals and government officials who inspired and influenced the history of public lands.

An intriguing theme throughout the book is the persistent tug-of-war over the direction of federal public lands policy. Pulling in one direction are concerted efforts to safeguard the land for the benefit of the nation, its people, and for generations to come. These sought after public benefits (broad public purposes) have ranged over time to include some or all of protecting scenery and wildlife for inspiration, tourism, and recreation; preserving cultural and ecological resources for scientific study; and protecting watersheds, water and timbers supplies, and ecosystems. Recurrently pulling in opposition are forces for divestment, development, and extraction, often accompanied by greed, speculation, plunder, and outright fraud. Leshy describes, comprehensively and in the greatest of detail, how this back and forth plays out through America’s legal, political, and policy history, from nation building to periods of land grabbing, “plunder and backlash,” through periods of “great transition,” and finally to modern times.

Fittingly, the book concludes by looking forward with an assessment of future public lands challenges. Climate change and biodiversity loss top the list. According to the author, a “destabilizing climate poses countless tests for public lands”— lands which are simultaneously being relied upon “to help limit greenhouse gas emission” and to serve as protected areas for at-risk species. Another challenge, which Leshy describes as “loving the lands to death,” recognizes the quandaries posed by exploding recreational use and tourism on public lands. As just one example, Leshy notes “[i]n 1980, Grand Canyon National Park reported 2 million visitors; in 2011, 4 million; in 2017, 6 million.” And, though degradation of public lands associated with commodity extraction has diminished, Leshy recognizes that domestic livestock grazing remains a challenge for public lands management. Last but not least, “funding for public lands has not kept pace with the dramatic increases in visitation and growing costs of meeting the other challenges.” Inadequate funding, Leshy notes, impacts not only the federal government’s ability to “fulfill their stewardship mission,” but also “undermines public support for public lands.”

Ultimately, despite the nation’s sometimes rough past and current partisan divides, Our Common Ground reminds us of a collective thread that weaves through our history—the “strong, long-standing consensus supporting the national government’s ownership of large amounts of land,” and the steady growth in support for using those lands “to provide recreation and inspiration, to protect wildlife and other natural attributes, and to restore abused lands to productive health.”