Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

Art and Sustainability

The first Resilience Conference in Stockholm back in 2008 had a wonderful art exhibit on resilience and the themes of the conference.  I thought it was very moving to see our discussions in entirely new mediums.

Now one of my current students, Angela Cazel-Jahn, is creating a mural in downtown Phoenix about multiple aspects and concepts of sustainability.  While the images for the mural are under design, one fun idea for selecting themes and designs involves leaving images for people.  This idea builds off of one of her previous projects (see her website at  As the site describes “Out in the world, trustgallery exhibits just a couple of pieces at a time.  You might find them in carefully selected locations, at unexpected moments. I place the artwork here and there, and then I go off and live my life. Some pieces will be found, some will be taken, some will be paid for, some will be damaged or lost, some will be kept and treasured.”

For this project, various images will be left with scholars, practitioners, and others to get diverse perspectives on sustainability.  It lends a collaborative approach, which is key to resolving many sustainability challenges.

I look forward to seeing the final product!



Sustainability Consulting Services

Over the past year, I have had the wonderful experience of working with some of the most motivated and hardworking students that I have ever met.  I serve as faculty advisor for Greenlight Solutions, a student sustainability consulting organization that is rapidly growing beyond the bounds of campus.  Their website,, highlights their vision of their organization, their approach to sustainability, and some of their early success stories and client engagements.

To summarize their vision and mission, I see their work flowing along two parallel tracks.  First, they are engaged with a number of real-world clients (WWF- World Wildlife Fund, General Dynamics, Orcutt-Winslow Architecture, Phoenix Metro, among several others).  For their clients, they deliver professional sustainability solutions to challenges that these companies face.  Second, they provide educational training for students and, more importantly, experiential learning opportunities for their members with real stakeholders.  In both, they are succeeding wildly and positioning themselves for success in their future careers.

The organization currently has around 25 members working on 6 projects with plans to grow over the next two years to 100 members engaged on 20 projects.  They are also in the process of developing satellite chapters at other universities.

As my previous posts have alluded, much of my teaching and mentoring involves problem and project-based learning approaches where students must find solution options to real world problems and challenges, not made for the classroom assignments.  Greenlight Solutions takes this approach to the next level by providing the means and mechanisms for students to find their own challenges and sense of purpose.  With that comes valued experience, a burgeoning network of contacts in the fields in which they want to work, the satisfaction of doing a good job, and the enjoyment of working with a well-functioning team.  If everyone’s work did the same, well, wouldn’t that be a nice thought.

The Problem with Public Policy Schools?

I want to thank John Hulsey for posting this editorial from the Washington Post (  I would have otherwise missed it.

I had a number of quick thoughts and wish that I had the benefit of discussing with Roger Parks and other colleagues and advisors from Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs before jotting down my ideas.

It’s worthwhile to first note that the authors are thinktank leaders and longstanding critics of the academy.  However, they raise a number of points worth considering.  Others have started targeting a number of critical flaws in the article (not fully understanding the enterprise of science, pushing a specific political agenda, etc).  I don’t want to continue dissecting the weaknesses of the article, but I would like to focus on a few of the key points that they have (perhaps unwittingly) raised.  Many of these challenges facing policy schools are the very same challenges that have been leveled at business schools for decades as well, and b-schools, in spite of their high profile, still struggle with their role in the academy around these issues.

First, the field of study is so broad, how does a school focus to the level needed to provide its students the depth of understanding required for future success?  At the same time, how does a school provide the broad perspective required for systems-level thinking and understanding.  Where should a program direct its efforts?  Should it directly them topically (environmental policy, public finance, etc) or around core skills needed by all MPA/MPP graduates?  How do the schools develop a common core curriculum?

Second, how does the faculty balance basic and applied research?  Should the work be predominantly applied and focused on real-world solutions and deliverables?  Should it be focused more on traditional science?  (And yes, I understand that science and application may not be in opposition).  If the focus is on more traditional academia outputs, how do professors balance their research with the solutions-oriented training and needs of their (mostly) professional students?

Third, and related to the previous questions, how do policy schools balance different disciplinary perspectives?  Is the program truly interdisciplinary?  Is it dominated by particular perspectives (hard-core quant, case-driven, environmental science labs,…) or disciplines (economics, political science, policy analysts)?

I noted earlier that public policy schools and business schools share in many of these dilemmas.  The same can be said for environmental studies programs and schools of sustainability.  At ASU’s School of Sustainability, we struggle with these issues a great deal.  We orient our program toward use-inspired  research and providing real-world solutions.  However, it remains a perpetual challenge to balance the world of academia with this approach.  We focus on an interdisciplinary approach oriented around skill development and sustainability competencies defined by the faculty as a whole (see Wiek, Arnim, Lauren Withycombe, and Charles L. Redman. “Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development.” Sustainability Science 6.2 (2011): 203-218.).  Much of this revolves around a more holistic approach to science and draws on research in complex adaptive systems.  If that sounds further and further from direct application, I need to explain what this means.  But that’s a topic for another day.

Systems Thinking Class Activity and Leverage Points

This morning we ran a bit of an experiment in my Systems Thinking class (mostly sophomore level undergrads).  This comes from the Meadows “Systems Playbook” text.  We formed two groups for ease of organizing.  One group of 8 was run by my TA.  I ran another group of 26.  We gave everyone a number and then had them select two other students as the “reference points”.  However, we gave them some stipulations.  First, if their own number was an odd number, they had to select Student Two.  Second, no one was allowed to select any of the three students wearing red shirts (my randomizing process for my group of 26).

We then asked them to move around until they were equidistant from their two reference points.  Before moving we discussed as a group what they thought would happen.  (Perhaps ask yourself the same question before reading ahead).  When they started moving, it took a couple minutes of shuffling around, bumping into each other, getting a tad too close, etc before settling into a stable formation.

Next, we had everyone return to the circle.  We then ran the same experiment except that when I said “stop”  the three Red Shirts  stopped moving while everyone else continued.   When the others settled into a formation, I said “go” and the Red Shirts moved again.  At this point there was a minor amount of shuffling around, but because none of these three could serve as reference points for others, they made very little difference on the rest of the group.

We returned to our original circle and ran this game a third time.  This time I randomly selected 3 people plus Participant 2 (the reference for the odd numbered participants).  When I said “stop”, these four stopped.  Once the formation emerged, I then said “go” to the four that I had stop earlier.  Because of Participant Two’s high leverage, the system had to reorganize substantially before coming to a halt again.

Finally, we ran the first treatment again with one exception.  This time we added a three second delay between when their reference moved and when they responded.  This caused quite a commotion and the delay kept the system from “equilibrating” in a reasonable amount of time.

This little adventure took about 20 minutes.  At that point, we went back to the classroom and discussed leverage points in systems and related it back to that day’s reading and how these concepts manifest themselves in the experiment.

I highly recommend it.

Video of Water/Climate Briefing

Last week, along with Jonathan Koppell, the dean of ASU’s College of Public Programs and Doug Toy, the city of Chandler’s Water Regulatory Affairs Manager, I participated as a panelist for the first of this year’s Water/Climate Briefings for ASU’s Decision Center for a Desert City.  The discussion was on “The Challenges of Communicating Sustainability in Complex Systems for Public Policy”.  For those interested, here is a link to the video:


Thoughts on Sustainable Development Goals

In 2000, the UN established the Millennium Development Goals to set aspirational targets for international development across a range of issue areas including poverty alleviation, education, gender equality, child and maternal health, environmental sustainability, reducing HIV/AIDS and communicable diseases, and building a global partnership for development.  With a target date of 2015, many of these goals remain both unattained and unattainable.  As a result, at last year’s Rio+20 sustainable development summit UN member states agreed to start a process of designing a new set of “sustainable development” goals to replace the MDGs. The working group proposing the new list of goals is tasked to select goals over the next year that are “action-oriented, concise and easy to communicate, limited in number, aspirational, global in nature and universally applicable to all countries while taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities”.

Since Rio+20 a huge number of potential goals have been generated by development experts, agencies, NGOs, government bureaucracies, and researchers.  One prominent example that integrates the SDGs into research on the planetary boundaries literature is Griggs et al’s piece last month in Nature (Griggs, D., Stafford-Smith, M., Gaffney, O., Rockström, J., Öhman, M. C., Shyamsundar, P., … & Noble, I. (2013). Policy: Sustainable development goals for people and planet. Nature495(7441), 305-307.).  In this piece, the authors propose viewing the goals for a system whereby the economy services society that is itself nested within the Earth’s life-support system.  From here, they elicit a number of potential SDGs.

In response to this piece (see our comments in the 20 June 2013 edition of Nature) and to the broader set of literature, the Beijer Young Scholars highlight the necessity to incorporate a scientific understanding of social change into goal formulation at scales ranging from the individual to that of the international community.  Without a view of what change is feasible, how goals interact with each other, and means of overcoming negative institutional inertia, the international community will once again be left with a list of noble, yet unachieved, goals similar to the MDGs.  It is our hope that we can use our knowledge to improve upon past outcomes.

Optimism in Sustainability and Environmental Studies

In all of my courses, I strive to focus on positive signs for sustainability and improvements in both the human condition and in the state of the planet.  The field is packed with naysayers and doomsday predictions, many of whom, I think, may prove to be correct for their concern.  In spite of this, I am optimistic.  The apocalyptic forecasts often (but clearly not always) lead to adaptation and changing behaviors.  This is the reflexivity that social scientists often discuss (and struggle with in our research) – the dynamic and introspective nature of many of the systems that we study.  In my policy classes, we often discuss the oft-cited example of the Montreal Protocol on Ozone-depleting Substances and how the international community effectively mitigated a serious problem (the Ozone Hole) and made it a non-issue.  In my Workshop course, student groups have looked at a number of local sustainability challenges and have taken concrete steps to resolve the problems on a local-scale (the “Think globally, act locally” idea put into practice).  With this in mind, I was quite curious to read a couple of books written with a similar optimistic mindset – “The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley and “Abundance” by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler.  For now, I want to focus on some of Ridley’s writing.

As I hope the preceding paragraph makes clear, I’m fully supportive, indeed, overly eager, for writing that looks at positive signs for humanity and sustainability.  Ridley does a great job at highlighting many of the ways that the human condition has improved over the years.  For this reason alone, it’s a worthwhile read.  A marked contrast to the eloquent yet pessimistic writing of many resilience/sustainability/environmental writers.  But there are a number of caveats to my recommendation.  First, as I stated above, the “pessimists” are 1) not wrong as often as Ridley makes it seem and 2) their clarion calls often lead to changes (and hence, often making their own predictions wrong).  Second, Ridley, as expected from a former editor of “The Economist” advocates a neoliberal agenda.  For those not familiar with the academic jargon, this means he is a strong advocate of international trade, the market as the main solution to many dilemmas, small government, and commodification of many goods not currently in the market.  If this is or isn’t your cup of tea, you have been forewarned.  If it is, enjoy.

Now, instead of writing a rather formal review, I’d like to avoid a debate on many of the strengths (some of which I mentioned in the opening paragraph) and weaknesses (particularly a noted lack of understanding of tipping points, nonlinear systems, and thresholds, fat tailed distributions, and most surprisingly a lack of nuanced understanding of discount rates over long-time horizons).  I would like to draw attention to 3 areas that the book avoids, which may lead to Ridley’s overly smug findings:

  • The role of innovation and technological fixes
  • The challenge of inequality
  • The difference between governance and government as well as government failures as opposed to market failures

First, everything Ridley discusses presupposes innovation as a cure-all for many of today’s dilemmas.  While the pessimists often overlook society’s capacity to innovate for either adaptation or mitigation, the rational optimist presupposes  technological fixes to everything.  However, this overlooks the effects of timing between innovation and when its needed, and it ignores the repeated instances of innovation plateaus.  These plateaus have regularly occurred since the Acheulean tools of homo erectus and sometimes last a long, long time.  This also overlooks the role of innovation and technology as the cause of many of our current problems.  Ridley, for instance, cites the role of fossil fuels in improving our standard of living, but for some reason he doesn’t see innovation as an effective response to eliminating the “bads” of fossil fuels now.

Second, this rational optimism assumes that if everyone improves a little (the pareto frontier gets pushed out), that this is enough.  There is no mention of current levels of inequality or any place for redistribution.  If this doesn’t seem to be an issue, please read Stiglitz’s “The Price of Inequality” for an overview of why this could be important.

Third, for some reason, there is a noted focus on the various types of government failure (clearly an issue).  But there is little discussion of noted market failures and the role of government in addressing them.  Nor is there much understanding of the role of government in supporting market institutions (the rules that enable it), the securing of property rights (in spite of invoking de Soto’s work), or a legal system that helps grease the wheels of his market-based system.  In addition, there is no understanding of how governance (the ordering of interpersonal or intergroup relations) differs from formal government.  Governance occurs within all groups – in/through businesses, NGOs, civil society, within families, formal and informal groups, etc.

More to follow on “Abundance”.  For now, please enjoy.  And do think about the benefits from a positive outlook.

Research Ideas on Boundaries and Natural Resource Management

Compare these two images:


On the left is a photo of the South Africa-Mozambique border in the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park.  On the right is a classic border shot from the Sierra Club of the US-Mexico border wall.  In both cases, these fences are in the middle of regions with a great deal of transboundary conservation and collaborative environmental management.  In both cases, we have tremendous economic disparity driving illegal migration and law enforcement responses (US-Mexico difference in GDP/capita = 3333% and South Africa-Mozambique = 9750%).  In addition, the US and Mexico struggle with drugs and gun smuggling.  South Africa and Mozambique have smugglers, but they also face one of the worst outbreaks in rhino poaching in recent times.  ALL rhinos in the Mozambican section of the transboundary park have been slaughtered in the past year (see  See also this brilliant response by Biggs et al in Science:

In such environments, it may be questionable to see how transboundary conservation can work.  In fact, these are hardly the most trying cases.  See these efforts in the Korean DMZ ( or these in Israel-Palestine (  My own work over the past several years has focused on working across borders in conservation and environmental management in Southern Africa and along the US-Mexico border, the locations in the two photos.

My latest project, in conjunction with David Manuel-Navarrete of ASU’s School of Sustainability and Forrest Fleischman of Dartmouth College, compares theories of borders and boundaries from common-pool resource literature with that from geography and sustainability to try to understand and bring together ecological boundaries, social boundaries and social conceptions of the first two.  The hope is to better understand effective governance of natural resources and how we can build relationships and work across many types of boundaries.  In the process, we want to create new bridges and dismantle the barriers standing in the way.

Ultimately, I’d like to follow up some of this theoretical work with new case studies in both the US Southwest and in some of the new transboundary parks of southern Africa.  In particular, working with Bram Buscher, we’d like to look at the attempts to reconcile the cross-border challenges of the massif of a transboundary protected area known as KAZA – the Kanvango-Zambezi Transfrontier Park which spans some 300,000 square kilometers across Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Place-based Knowledge in a World of Globalization


The photo above shows US Forest Service cultural officers on Agua Fria National Monument with decades of experience in the area meeting along with natural scientists and field officers from the BLM, Arizona Game and Fish and dozens of other stakeholders.  Many of the field officers and stakeholders have also worked in the area for many years.  The stakeholder field trip at which this photo was taken brought together a tremendous amount of local expertise and resulted in great collaboration.  As a scientist new to the region, this gathering was enlightening, exciting, and disheartening in that it showed the clear limits to my own local knowledge.

This type of engagement exemplifies literature on the importance of traditional or local knowledge from research on social-ecological systems and clearly draws on anthropological findings from the last several decades.  Kudos to the anthropologist for leading the charge for so long.  Finally, others are getting on the bandwagon.

However, the dilemma that emerges in the globalized world of much of today’s scholarship is that academics rarely have the luxury or time horizons to develop this place-based knowledge.  With notable exceptions, it seems that the majority of academics praise the idea of place-based knowledge while practicing the opposite.  As we fly around the world drawing comparisons between disparate cases (see link to this critical review of Jared Diamond’s latest comparative study “The World until Yesterday” at or creating larger and larger databases (see my own work with the SESMAD project), we improve our generalizability and strengthen external validity.  But I’m afraid that this is often at the expense of a more comprehensive understanding of local peculiarities and strong internal validation.

This reminds me of a story that my grandfather told me.  A lifelong farmer, with a deep knowledge of the fields, weather, and natural surroundings from decades of work, he tells of meeting a university agriculture officer.  The young, well-educated man spent a day with my grandfather deriding practice after practice that my grandfather used.  My grandfather silently continued to take the “expert” around the farm while listening to the harangue.  At the end of the day, the university man said, “This is so out-of-date.  I’ll bet that you don’t even get a bushel of apples off of that tree.”  My grandfather responded, “I reckon that you’re right.  That’s a pear tree.”

Amidst the excitement of new (dare I say, exotic) sites and the pursuit of widely ranging ideas, it’s easy to get drawn in new directions and field sites.  But I hope that, in spite of the incentives pushing us more widely afield, we can bear in mind the great ecological and anthropological research that emerged solely because of the development of local knowledge.  Even more, I hope that we can bear in mind the story from my grandfather.

A Brief Comment on Problem and Project-based Learning in the Classroom

Over the past few years, I’ve had the good fortune to work with some experts on problem- and project-based learning (PPBL) through my courses in the School of Sustainability.  The idea behind this is to allow students to self-guide and direct their learning through engagement beyond the classroom.  Rather than having lecture-based classes, PPBL shifts the role of the instructor from “sage on the stage” to “guide from the side”.

The basic tenets (per Katja Brundiers, who has taught me about PPBL) are to create a learning environment where students work:

  • on “wicked problems” in sustainability,
  • in collaborative teams,
  • conducting self-directed research to investigate an issue,
  • simulating and/or engaging with real-world settings and developing life skills, and
  • reflecting on their learning, the group processes, and project outcomes.

It uses projects to convey two sets of learning – the core material of the course and skills in project management and team-building.  There are a number of ways to accomplish this in the classroom ranging from less self-directed learning in more traditional class settings to highly self-directed and real-world oriented.  I have used two formats in my own work.  The first is a group project which formed the core deliverables in a traditional class setting.  The second is a workshop course structured entirely around a real-world sustainability project – a sustainability consulting engagement, if you will.

In the classroom

The traditional class experience of PPBL divided the class up into small groups of 5 (12 groups in a class of 60).  The groups all selected from a handful of projects across a range of real-world issues in the community.  Examples included working with the Arizona State Land Department on conservation on public land, working on community engagement in the clean-up efforts of a Superfund site, looking at transportation options in a low-income section of Phoenix, and  so on.  The students were required to split the project up into sub-projects and have each team member investigate a portion of the project.  Some groups divided up around stakeholder groups.  Others took on various aspects of the project (the economics, the ecological component, the political/policy issues, etc).  They then prepared individual papers on their aspect of the problems being confronted in their project.  The next deliverable was a team presentation on the overall problem, integrating the individual components.  They also presented potential solutions.  After the presentation, they then began researching, as a group, which solution to recommend.  Throughout this, the students had some engagement with the external stakeholder, who also served as mentors (as well as judges for the presentations).  The projects had varying degrees of interaction between students and stakeholders.

In the workshop

The workshop course was a two semester course.  The first semester had graduate students working with external stakeholders to develop projects.  For this past term, we had projects on composting at the community-level (both institutionally at ASU and in providing a service to local restaurants), on urban farming and developing a student farm, and on building a retreat center for a sustainability consulting group using alternative building designs (rammed earth, straw bale, cord wood).  The grad students spent the fall creating the project frameworks and developing educational components around a number of skills and competencies that they would teach undergraduates in the spring.

This spring the three graduate student led projects interviewed and selected undergraduates for the class.  The students work in teams on 4 on the projects.  Class is structured around skill building once a week followed by a lab session where the teams meet to further their project.  They meet with the external stakeholders, conduct research (surveys, focus groups, semi-structured interviews, standard archival research), and prepare reports, presentations, and other feedback to the grad students and external project partners.  In the process, the grad students use the projects to convey educational material on sustainability and skill development.  The students gain knowledge, project experience, and real-world learning that they can use to convey their expertise as they approach graduation and pursue their careers.

I must admit that I’m still a novice, experimenting with new methods to instruct and to develop my students.  These are first steps to break free of old, dated modes of education.  Thoughts?