The Sustainability Review Interview with Dr. Wallace Broecker

We at The Sustainability Review had the privilege to sit down with the oracular grandfather of climate science, Dr. Wallace (Wally) Broecker, Newberry Professor of Geology in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. We consulted him for his thoughts on his work and on the past and future paths of sustainability science. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. The Sustainability Review (TSR): What started you looking into atmospheric carbon dioxide accumulation?

Dr. Broecker (WB): The first thing I worked on was carbon 14 measurements. The emphasis was on two things: dating of late quaternary events, and using it to get the rate of ocean circulation by measuring the age of the carbon in deep water. The latter lead me to be interested in the carbon cycle. Right now 25 or 30 percent of the CO2 we produce is going into the ocean; eventually that will increase to 80 percent or so, but only over hundreds of years. The way we know this is by measuring the radiocarbon distribution in the ocean. That got me hooked.

While I was doing my thesis, there wasn’t much talk about CO2. Then several papers came out in the late 1950s and Charles David Keeling started his measurement series establishing how rapidly CO2 was going up. This made it more interesting. Could we explain what was happening? We knew the amount of fuels burned and we knew the increase in the atmosphere. Interestingly enough if you put a curve through the measurements assuming that 57 percent of the amount of fossil fuels burned remained airborne, excepting a few fluctuations, it fits Keeling’s curve beautifully. So where was the other 43 percent?

TSR: Where did these efforts take you? Can you touch on having to testify before congress?

WB: The frustrating thing was that in those days, congressmen would want something in the congressional record…initially, you’d be told you had five minutes…which meant they would jibber-jabber around and you’d be cut down to one minute.

I was asked to testify in the 1980s and I learned enough to know that writing down something to present was useless because you probably wouldn’t be able to use it at all, so I decided I’d write something to be published in Nature (1981). It was published and it was the first warning about abrupt climatic changes.

TSR: You once discussed how you find something sacred about science and that you don't like to see findings "monkeyed with." Once knowledge is in the open, however, scientists lose control of the conclusions people make. How do scientists deal with that?

WB: I think that scientists have to be very honest. I’ve always been very honest; people respect me for that. When you start exaggerating to get attention—and a lot of environmental claims have been exaggerated—that just destroys your credibility. I’m guilty of that now and then, but I try not to be.

TSR: How do you approach your work?

WB: I’m considered an idea person. Probably the best feeling you get is when you discover something new. If I had to base my reputation on measurements, I’d be run-of-the-mill. But I’m clever at putting apples and oranges together and coming up with something interesting. That is my strength. I often wondered why I could do that. I’m dyslexic, so maybe that has something to do with it; my mind works differently. People at times have said they’re afraid to show me data because I have such a quick mind that I spot what it means. That’s my talent.

TSR: Taking a step back, we found a profile of you in The New York Times from 1998. It shared some of your thoughts about computers ‘short circuiting’ a researcher’s thinking about the workings of earth’s ocean/atmosphere systems and that a pencil, on plain white paper are your investigative allies of choice. Who are your sleuthing companions these days?

WB: I started all this way before computer simulations. We used what we called box models where you transfer materials from one box to another. We learned enough about how the ocean works to build a simple model. Then we would get to the point where this allowed us to shortcut—we’d been through a number of steps and so we could add new ones more much more quickly.

TSR: In conceiving of this interview, we had an analogy in mind: sustainability science today may parallel where climate science was 50 years ago.

WB: Well, they’re very different. What I was doing was hard science, and in a sense, that’s much easier because you’re trying to do something tangible. A lot of sustainability science is less well-defined, and here [at ASU] specifically it’s more like social science than hard science. Where I am at Columbia it’s more hard science than social science just because Lamont Observatory is so big it tends to dominate the research direction of our Earth Institute. We started a sustainability concentration for undergraduates four years ago, and now there’s a sustainability major. It took a while to get the committees at the university to agree, because there is always the suspicion that it’s too diffuse. But of course, it has to be.

TSR: How do you see climate science informing sustainability science and sustainability science informing climate science? Do you see those interactions happening?

WB: There has to be interaction. If somebody has a scenario about switching to a new energy [we need to know], how much will it cost? What I do could be called reverse engineering. Engineers design systems. We try to figure out the design of God’s machine, the earth’s systems. It’s complicated. Just to make a model of the atmosphere that includes cloud droplets is a tough chore. So we’re working to understand how this system operates and therefore, what will happen if we perturb it. We’re good at what’s called "back of the envelope" calculations. It’s very important to eliminate the easy things right away. We quantify. You have to have that, because everything we do is going to cost money, and everything we do is going to have environmental consequences.

What I see now is that the concern about environmental consequences is stalling many things that could be done about CO2. We must get away from that mentality because everything we do has environmental consequences. Also I get discouraged when I see people competing. I was asking Klaus Lackner, my hero, why people are so antagonistic toward his idea that you can take CO2 out of the air. He said there are lots of reasons, and one is that there’s a large group of people who want to re-fit power plants and of course that would take huge profits. So they don’t want air capture. That’s insane; we must do both. One will prove to be cheaper and environmentally less objectionable and that one will win out. That’s the way the world runs.

TSR: You once noted, "No one lives on their past successes…It isn't very satisfying. You live on what you're doing this year, this month. My great joy in life comes in figuring something out. I figure something out about every six months or so, and I write about it and encourage research on it, and that's the joy of life" (1). What are you working on now?

WB: One is what I call the Mystery Interval. Twenty-five thousand years ago the carbon 14 content of the carbon in the atmosphere and upper ocean was 40 percent higher than now. That stunned us. By dating corals using uranium series isotopes, the radiocarbon signature content can be turned, making it possible to calculate back to what it was initially. In many different kinds of samples, it was shown to be 40 percent higher. Now we’re trying to figure out why that was. The only way we can explain it is that during glacial time the ocean was stratified—instead of mixing the radiocarbon through the whole ocean, it was mixed only through the upper part, while in the lower half radiocarbon was decaying away. Because of this the upper half in the atmosphere would have more radiocarbon and the lower half would have less, and then at the end of the glacial period these two reservoir were mixed together.

The other thing I’m working on is paleohydrology—using stalagmites and closed basin lakes—to say something about moisture history. Fifteen thousand years ago, during part of the deglaciation, the water cover in the great basin—Oregon, Utah, Nevada—was ten times more than today. That means there had to have been somewhat less evaporation, but also seven or eight times more water coming down rivers. That’s amazing. And there was probably only two times more rainfall. This wet period lasted hundreds of years, and then there was a millennial duration drought that cut the water availability to less than today’s.

We found that these changes are globally orchestrated. The thing that interests me is that what happened 15,000 years ago had to do with a shift caused by a southward shift in the location of the thermal equator. When the northern hemisphere was cooled by extra sea ice this shift made huge and abrupt hydrologic changes.

Climate change models say that as CO2 rises the northern hemisphere will heat twice as fast as the southern hemisphere. The reason is that there’s more ocean in the southern hemisphere—it will hold back the heating. This is going to shift the thermal equator. So the question is, will that produce similar effects to the shifts we see in closed-basin lake records? If so you Westerners are in bad trouble. However, what’s happening today is not the same as the previous shifts. One was induced by sea ice and the other was induced by differential CO2 warming. There are differences. Maybe the differences will cause what happens to be very different.


Digital Farm Collective

By Matthew Moore The Digital Farm Collective is an international initiative to record and share footage, philosophies and scientific data on the growth of produce. Using time-lapse films, interviews with farmers and agricultural data, artist Matthew Moore hopes to contribute to a more sustainable global food system by sharing and preserving the growing practices of produce farmers from all over the world.

Moore is a fourth generation farmer whose land and agricultural practice are quickly being overcome by suburbia. He was inspired by his personal experiences and interactions with other farmers to create the "Digital Farm Collective." Using time-lapse photography, Moore began filming everything he grows and inviting other farmers to do the same. The arranged short films show a single production cycle of each plant or tree. These films, along with interviews with farmers and measurements of the conditions in which the plants are grown, will be compiled to create an international database, or living library, to engage, educate and reconnect people with their food by sharing the stories of the plants and of the farmers and families that grow them.

The website,, will be the repository for all of the footage and data that are garnered from efforts to document cultivated plants from around the world. Each selected farmer is sent a time-lapse video package to record the lifecycles of selected crops from seed to harvest as well as a system that monitors the environmental conditions under which each plant is grown. Their personal growing history and philosophies are also recorded in order to retain and share the cultural knowledge of farmers from around the world. In a time of shifting growing regions and movement away from individualized farming practices, the images and information gathered will serve as important sources for consumer engagement and education, curriculum development and scientific research, and as a social network of involved growers and farming professionals.

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Contributor's Biography:

Matthew Moore was born in 1976 in San Jose, California. He lives and works in Phoenix, Arizona. He received a B.A. in studio art and art history from Santa Clara University, California, in 1998 and a M.F.A. in sculpture from San Francisco State University in 2003. His work has been shown around the country, including at the Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena, California (2009), the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota (2008), and MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts (2005). He has been featured in international publications including Metropolis Magazine, Dwell and Architecture Magazine, as well as Mark Magazine and Dazed and Confused of Europe.

Manufacturing: The Key to Sustainable Business Innovation in the U.S.

By Daniel Riley and Jacob Park When President Barack Obama gave his State of the Union Address (1) last month, he made the case that U.S. economic revival is tied to a healthy manufacturing sector. Of course, he is not the first to triumph the importance of manufacturing to the economy. The key question, however, is what type of manufacturing the U.S. should have in the future. The answer, for the economy and for sustainable business innovation, may lie in advanced 3D printing technologies (2) or what some technology analysts refer to as, "additive manufacturing whereby machines based on advances in electronics and laser technology build complex materials from granules of plastics or metal" (3).

While not usually touted as a traditional sustainable technology, additive manufacturing processes can dramatically reduce the amount of waste created in the production of items from furniture to packaging. As compared to traditional manufacturing technologies, 3D printing technologies have relatively small capital requirements. MakerBot Industries (4), for instance, sells 3D kits designed for hobbyists for around $1,000.

According to the UN Environmental Program, the typical car wastes about 10,000 kg of raw materials during production (5). For example much of the bulk of a fender, because of uniform thickness requirements of typical manufacturing processes like welding and molding, is completely unnecessary. To Jim Kor of KOR EcoLogic who wanted to create the most efficient car possible, that unnecessary material increased drag and decreased fuel economy. "If you look at a cross section of a bird bone, you'll see that there is bone only where the bird needs strength," Kor explained. "The bone looks like chaotic webbing. [3D printing] is the only process that can replicate a bird bone." This logic led to the creation of the Urbee, the world’s first 3D printed car (6).

Like stacking bricks to build a house, 3D printing creates objects in layers, from the base up, without the limiting constraints of molding requirements or human error in welding. The result maximizes material usage, ensuring that no material needlessly goes from welder’s torch to junkyard. Even in smaller 3D printing projects, material use efficiency is an automatic consideration. The small scale of production typical of most 3D printing efforts means that, unlike with large-run manufacturing the cost of wasted material does not have to be ameliorated through economies of scale.

Shapeways, a company that allows customers to design custom products like furniture and household objects that might be hard to replace otherwise, actively encourages customers to save money by using less material (7). By prompting their customers to actively think about the materials that go into the production of their products, 3D-printing businesses like Shapeways foster consumer awareness of cost and material wastes involved production. This transparency is increasingly relevant as consumers demand that products be not only cost competitive (obviously an important factor in our current economic times) but also designed and produced with environmental sustainability in mind (8).

In addition, the U.S. is still dominated by the business model of making as many products as cheaply as possible, which often means outsourcing the actual manufacturing.A truly innovative feature of the additive manufacturing model is that it brings the possibility of scale to the emerging "hyperlocal" trend that can be seen from Northern California to Vermont. There are many emerging sustainable business enterprises that attempt to build on the growing consumer interest in all things local (e.g. food, energy, economic development, etc) and additive manufacturing provides a market template from which to scale a local business model to greater competitive advantage.

Case in point: what if a small community-oriented bookstore like Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont, had a machine that allowed consumers to print books that were in the Public Domain (i.e. do not have copyright protection)? All you would have to do is search and find the book of your choice and, if it were in the Public Domain, order the number of copies you want at a fraction of the cost of going through traditional book retailers. Through what Northshire Bookstore refers to as "print on demand technology"(10), this small but innovative business can now more effectively compete with large e-retailers like and chain book retailers like Barnes & Noble.

The argument that the future of the US economy lies in sustainable business has been made before, and additive manufacturing cannot substitute for well-designed tax and other policy incentives for green energy technologies. Rather, there is a strong case for building a well-articulated U.S. additive manufacturing strategy to complement current green technology research and development efforts, such as solar and wind energy. This could have a major impact on the entire American business system By using 3D printing technologies to promote local production and advances in material sustainability, U.S. manufacturing has a real opportunity to be reborn as a hub of 21st century sustainable business innovation (11).

As Cory Doctorow, author of Makers, suggests in an influential 2010 Wired magazine article (12): "The days of companies with names like ‘General Electric’ and ‘General Mills’ and ‘General Motors’ are over. The money on the table is like krill: a billion little entrepreneurial opportunities that can be discovered and exploited by smart, creative people."


(1) President Barack Obama State of the Union Address (January 24, 2012)

(2) "The Fundamentals of 3D Printing," The Future of Open Fabrication, n.d.,

(3) March. P. (2011) "Production Processes: A Lightbulb Moment", Financial Times, December 29, p. 5.


(5)  "Waste and car production - Maps and Graphics at UNEP/GRID-Arendal," Maps & Graphics, n.d.,

(6) "URBEE car - 3D Printed Body," Resources: Case Studies, n.d.,

(7) "Shapeways | creating hollow objects," Creating Hollow Objects, n.d.,

(8) OgilvyEarth research is one important source

(9) Alexa Clay and Jon Carnfield, "5 Big Ideas for a New Economy", Co.Exist Blog


(11) 3-D printer is featured in Fortune Magazine’s "Brave New Work: The Office of Tomorrow" photo essay (pg. 49-55) in its January 16, 2012 "The Future Issue"


Contributor Biographies

Daniel Riley (email: is a senior studying Environmental Management at Green Mountain College. After graduation he plans to start a business using 3D printing as a way to solve current environmental issues of resource use and material efficiency.

Jacob Park (, Associate Professor of Business Strategy and Sustainability at Green Mountain College, specializes in the business of social and environmental innovation and entrepreneurship in emerging economies.

Re-Establishing Ancient Agricultural Practices: Lessons from the Recent Past (Part Two)

By Jennifer Huebert Forgotten or fading traditional agricultural practices may be able to address modern-day agricultural challenges. In this series, several recent efforts to re-establish such practices are reviewed. Each example illustrates a distinct problem, and has a unique history to consider. In the last issue, key criteria for an effective revival of forgotten agricultural technologies were outlined, and a case study from an Israeli desert was presented. This second installment highlights two additional case studies: one from the forests of Central America and another from the Andean highlands.

Case Study #2: Mayan forest gardening in Belize at El Pilar

The Mayan people have lived in the lowlands of the Belize - Guatemala border for several millennia. This region is home to a subtropical forest that stretches into southern Mexico. Mayan farmers have traditionally practiced a method of agriculture that is centred on the cultivation of forests which produce food, building materials, medicine and other plant products (1, 2). The Mayan language reflects an intimate knowledge of the natural environment, including subtle distinctions of land in various stages of cultivation (3).

El Pilar has always been remote. In ancient times, it was at the edge of the large Mayan civilization of Tikal. It was of little interest to the Spanish who controlled the area after conquest in the 16th century. In the 19th century the area became known as a resource for mahogany wood, ingredients to make dye, and chicle, which was used to make chewing gum. There is evidence that most of the plants utilized for commercial purposes were the result of relict Mayan agricultural activities (1, 4). For centuries after Western contact, the Maya migrated in small groups throughout the area, largely avoiding notice until both government harassment and paying work opportunities drew them into larger settlements in the 19th century. Their traditional agricultural practices were then discouraged to weaken indigenous claims to the land. In the mid 20th century, indigenous Mayans returned to the region after land reform laws were passed, but there is a concern that traditional Mayan culture is breaking down as traditions, such as forest gardening, are forgotten (4).

A multi-tiered version of agroforestry termed forest gardening is an important traditional Mayan agricultural practice. This type of agroforest is not often easy to discern from the surrounding forest. Crops are tended by subtle manipulations of the environment, ranging from merely encouraging plant growth to sowing seeds in ordered rows. Though no specialized equipment is needed, farmers practicing these techniques draw on an extensive knowledge of plants and the environment in their techniques (1). Hundreds of different crops are raised with these methods, including tamarind, mango, cacao and papaya, and various spices as well as dyes, wood, fodder and ornamental flowers.

Archaeological excavations of household complexes and surveys of the surrounding vegetation indicate that most of the area consists of anthropogenic forest, modified by residents over many thousands of years. Higher densities of useful crop plants are found in areas where forest gardens were thought to exist in the past (1). Archaeological surveys have uncovered patterns of ancient Mayan land use, which will be easier to interpret as knowledge of forest gardening practices grow. Over the years, extensive excavation and restoration of temple complexes near the site has taken place, and the excavation team is still studying the chronology of the area as part of the larger goal of understanding El Pilar in relation to the major ancient centres of Mayan civilization (4).

The El Pilar project that initiated this revival effort was founded by American archaeologist Anabel Ford, who has been working in this region since the early 1980s. The project was founded in 1992 and is sponsored in part by the University of California, Santa Barbara. It includes restored Mayan temples, surrounding houses, and forest gardens near thetemple and plaza remains of El Pilar. The site also includes an informational trail through an example forest garden and a cultural centre that hosts community educational workshops (2).

The project aims to support the application of indigenous knowledge to modern day concerns for conservation and development in the region (4). In order to preserve the environment, Ford has campaigned for government protection of the forests and advocates community leadership to sustain these efforts. Local college graduates have been brought on as part of the project staff. Several goals for the forest garden project were defined in collaboration with local community members; these include promoting the forest gardens as a sustainable alternative to the slash and burn agriculture practiced in much of the area today, and a means to resist outside pressure to raise single crops and invest in expensive technology to increase yields.

The community has also expressed interest in promoting these techniques as an honoured skill, rather than a simple peasant tradition. Part of the El Pilar program consists of teaching the methods to others by hosting training seminars and constructing a demonstration garden. An illustrated plant database and informational web site have been produced with data collected from present-day forest gardens. Over 400 different cultivated plants from two dozen forest gardens are recorded, along with their uses and photographs. The cultivars of each field can be searched, compared and contrasted to better understand the intricacy and diversity of this method of agriculture (5).

Case Study #3: Raised field agriculture on the Andean altiplano

Lake Titicaca sits high in the Andes Mountains of South America on the altiplano, a high-altitude plateau on the border between Bolivia and Peru. The basin surrounding this lake receives irregular rainfall, suffers unpredictable frosts and has generally poor soil for growing crops (6, 7). It has been home to indigenous populations who have farmed the land for thousands of years. These peoples endured the rise and fall of the powerful Tiwanaku state in prehistoric times and later endured conquest by the Inca and Spanish (8). The Quecha and Aymara peoples who live in this region have long subsisted on agricultural crops and livestock such as llama, alpaca and guinea pig. However, today the growing population relies heavily on imported food, as productivity is limited by poor soils and climatic extremes (6, 7).

Agriculture in this region takes place on hilly upland slopes and, to a lesser degree, on grassy, seasonally flooded plains called pampa. Potatoes and quinoa, crops first domesticated in the Titicaca Basin, are the primary cultivars (6). The farming methods used on the altiplano don’t make for easy work. A variety of hand-held hoes and a traditional foot plow, which consists of a digging stick with a paddle attached for the foot, are used to till the soil (7). In this region, there is a wet season and a dry season, each lasting for approximately half of the year. Unexpected dry spells and frosts make this a high-risk area for agriculture (6).

In recent decades, there had been attempts to introduce modern agricultural technologies in this area. Most met with failure, as the costs of implementing the practices were too high or the schemes judged too risky. One challenge has been the size of land holdings in the region (7, 9). Most families own small parcels of land, and choosing to raise cash crops instead of food crops would pose a serious food security risk. Another challenge has been presented by the government, which encourages the use of expensive modern machinery, fertilizers and pesticides. The majority of the rural population in the Andes do not have an outside income and cannot afford to own, operate or invest in such yield-improving technologies (6).

Raised agricultural field relicts have been found extensively throughout the Titicaca basin on the pampa plains (7, 9). By all current observations, such a practice has been long forgotten by the indigenous people in the region. The methods were not noted even by Spanish explorers in the 16th century (6). In the 1980s, two separate teams of American academics, led by Clark Erickson and Alan Kolata, visited the region and conducted experiments in attempts to resurrect these agricultural fields and provide a new method of subsistence to the indigenous population.

Archaeological excavations of these relict fields have uncovered a system of high, raised beds with deep canals. Pollen and soil analysis of ancient canal sediments has shown these to be rich soils cycled from canal to field bed. Erickson and his team also located and excavated farm settlements near the fields. They studied subsistence patterns and agriculture in these areas by examining plant remains from middens and fill. Remains of potatoes, quinoa, fish, camelids, bird, guinea pig and lake plants represented a diet similar to that of people in the region today. They also found many stone fragments from broken hoes (6).

Aerial photo of ancient raised agricultural beds near Lake Titicaca, Peru (Image © 2012 Google)

A rough chronology of the fields was established by dating potsherds present in the ancient field soil. A date range of 3000 before present (BP) was established as the inception of the agricultural beds, and cultivation appears to have continued for several thousand years (6, 7). The precise reasons for adoption of raised-bed agriculture are not clear, though Erickson and Kolata agree that widespread development and use of these fields was tied in some ways to population growth and the influence of the Tiwanaku state, and later the Aymara kingdoms in the region (6, 10). At its height the region supported more than 350,000 people; these numbers dwindled considerably after Spanish conquest (8).

Raised agricultural fields consist of elevated beds surrounded by water canals. Earth dug from the canals is mounded to create beds for planting crops. The canals are flooded with water, providing irrigation in times of drought and protection from unexpected frosts (6). Green manure is created from canal sediment including algae, and there is some speculation that canals may have also supported fish in ancient times (6, 9). Fields were further fertilized with animal dung, as livestock was allowed to graze on them after harvest (7). However, Erickson and Chandler (9) discouraged this practice as it was destructive to the field platforms.

Both teams determined that raised-bed agriculture could be revived as a highly productive, economical and sustainable solution appropriate to the region (6, 7, 9). They hypothesized that these methods were well suited to the altiplano environment and the technologies people were using there today. They also believed that the population, though financially poor, had a surplus of labour available to invest in these practices and that the effort required to cultivate the fields would fit well with the tradition of communal social groups in the culture.

Erickson undertook the first raised-bed experiments in this region in the early 1980s in conjunction with colleagues in Peru and with funding from the Peruvian government. This project was admittedly a small-scale experiment, involving 10 hectares in the northern area of the lake basin (6, 9). Erickson formed a team of anthropologists, archaeologists and agronomists to work with Quecaha and Aymara volunteers on the experimental test beds over the course of five years. Metrics for the bed and canal sizes were based on data from archaeological excavations of the relict fields. Traditional tools were utilized to cultivate the soil. Considerable labour was required to reconstruct fields, but after the initial investment annual maintenance and rebuilding efforts were considered manageable tasks. Crops were chosen with the help of the community. For the duration of the experiment, potato and grains such as quinoa produced yields that far exceeded those achieved by modern methods used by farmers in the region today (6).

Alan Kolata organized a larger-scale, systematic project on the south side of the lake in the area near the ruins of Tiwanaku. Scientific analyses of the soils, water and climate were conducted to study the growing conditions of the area, and 50 hectares were planted with the involvement of 22 communities. Training materials were developed including multilingual videos, texts and hands-on instruction in the fields. Leaders of the local indigenous communities were involved to convey the potential of these methods to their people, with the intention of motivating groups to participate in the project. A formal agreement with these community leaders included a supply of seed and hand tools in exchange for participation in the project. The selection of crops took place with community members, and included primarily potatoes, grains and vegetables to a smaller extent (7).

Climate and politics halted both projects intermittently, as a severe drought and later political unrest swept through the region in the mid-1980s. However, by the end of the decade Erickson considered his team’s experiments a success (6). Kolata and his team reported high but widely variable yields in the 1991-92 seasons. He claims that this is due to variable compliance with the suggested practices and the uneven distribution of natural resources such as good soils and access to reliable sources of water (7). Practical problems were encountered, such as the draining of the canals to water livestock and resistance by some groups to invest labour in mucking out canal sediments. While some communities were enthusiastic and managed labour well, others were poorly organized and missed key milestones that affected crop yields. The yields from Erickson’s experiments were larger than those achieved by Kolata. Both were widely variable across the different communities. Ultimately, these experiments yielded crops two to three times larger than those raised with traditional methods (7, 11).

Kolata concludes that his project is a success in the short term, where program compliance fostered high crop yields for some participant groups, and the potential benefits of raised-bed agriculture were clearly demonstrated. However, he also expressed serious considerations regarding the long-term sustainability of this agricultural technique in the region. Both Kolata and Erickson suggest that agricultural practices need to be considered in the larger context of society, including considerations of economics, politics, technology and the environment (7, 12). Erickson and Chandler (9) point out that experiments such as these can generate the interest of the local community and stimulate change, but that lasting change must arise from within communities.

Part three in this series will compare and contrast these case studies, and evaluate their potential to affect change in global food-production practices today.


1. Ford A (2004) Human Impacts on the Maya Forest Linking the Past with the Present for the Future of El Pilar, Report on the 2004 Field Season. (The BRASS/El Pilar Program, University of California Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara).

2. Ford A (2008) The BRASS / El Pilar Program: Archaeology Under the Canopy. (MesoAmerican Research Center, University of California Santa Barbara).

3. Flannery KV ed (1982) Maya Subsistence (Academic Press, New York).

4. Ford A, Egerer C, Moore K, & Stanley E (2005) Culture & Nature in the Maya Forest: A Report on the 2005 Field Season - El Pilar. (Maya Forest Alliance & ISBER/MesoAmerican Research Center, University of California Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara).

5. Anonymous (2008) The El Pilar Forest Garden Network.

6. Erickson C (1988) Raised Field Agriculture in the Lake Titicaca Basin. Expedition 30(3):8-16.

7. Kolata AL, Rivera O, Ramirez JC, & Gemio E (1996) Rehabilitating Raised-Field Agriculture in the Southern Lake Titicaca Basin of Bolivia. Tiwanaku and its Hinterland : Archaeology and Paleoecology of an Andean Civilization, ed Kolata AL (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington), Vol 1: Agroecology, pp 203-230.

8. Binford MW & Kolata AL (1996) The Natural and Human Setting. Tiwanaku and its Hinterland : Archaeology and Paleoecology of an Andean Civilization, ed Kolata AL (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington), Vol 1: Agroecology, pp 23-56.

9. Erickson C & Chandler K (1989) Raised Fields and Sustainable Agriculture in the Lake Titicaca Basin of Peru. Fragile Lands of Latin America: Strategies for Sustainable Development, ed Browder JO (Westview Press, Boulder), pp 230-248.

10. Janusek JW & Kolata AL (2004) Top-down or bottom-up: rural settlement and raised field agriculture in the Lake Titicaca Basin, Bolivia. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 23(4):404-430.

11. Erickson C (2003) Agricultural Landscapes as World Heritage: Raised Field Agriculture in Bolivia and Peru. Managing Change: Sustainable Approaches to the Conservation of the Built Environment. The 4th Annual US/ICOMOS International Symposium 6-8 April 2001, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, eds Teutonico JM & Matero FG (Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles), pp 181-204.

12. Erickson C (1998) Appllied Archaeology and Rural Development. Crossing Currents: Continuity and Change in Latin America, eds Whiteford MB & Whiteford S (Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River), pp 34-45.

Contributor’s Biography

Jennifer Huebert is a doctoral candidate in archaeology at the Department of Anthropology, University of Auckland, New Zealand. She is an archaeobotanist with a particular interest in the identification and analysis of archaeological wood charcoal. Her primary research topics include the study of human palaeoecology and the development of arboriculture in the archipelagos of East Polynesia.

Factors that Influence the Exit Rates of Sustainability Science: A Graduate Student’s Perspective

By Colin Kunzweiler Sustainability has been called both a buzzword and the issue of our age, but the field’s explosive growth demonstrates that it is also an "infectious" concept and field. Through a population model that included states of susceptibility, exposure and infectiousness (Figure 1), two authors recently explored individuals’ introduction to and progression within the emerging discipline of sustainability science (1). To summarize, susceptible individuals may understand sustainability to a certain extent or are interested in what the field has to offer, but they simply have not had enough contact with the concept or the field’s members to be sufficiently exposed to the idea. Exposure occurs through education and action, and the susceptible individual soon becomes capable of harboring and supporting the concept of sustainability. After extensive contact with infectious members (professors, researchers, or practitioners) the individual becomes a true member capable of infecting, or recruiting, others. While the authors use this model to describe the field’s rapid growth, they fail to describe the exit rate of individuals, which limits the field’s expansion and growth. Too often these exit rates, and the factors that influence them, are ignored. In this piece, I address this deficit and explore some of the challenges that may drive students, researchers, and practitioners away from or out of the field of sustainability science.

Two years ago, I was a susceptible individual assessing a future in sustainability science in light of many factors that could have resulted in a quick exit from the field. At the forefront of my mind, what exactly does a degree in sustainability entail? I come from a life sciences background so while I understand to a certain extent what biologists and ecologists study, what exactly do sustainability scientists study; what would I "sustain?" To the sustainability student, questions like "what are you studying" become antagonizing when they are coupled with "is sustainability science just learning how to go green?" An early mentor, however, was able to help me make sense of the many perspectives and worldviews within the field. Through challenging interactions with sustainability scientists and practitioners, I became convinced that the field was more than simply "studying recycling," it was a field dedicated to addressing the "wicked" problems of our time. In my mind, I had negotiated the factors that might drive susceptible individuals away from the field and soon became excited for an intense exposure to the concepts of sustainability.

What started as excitement for a new discipline; however, quickly turned into frustration. While my program attempted to overcome the ossification of stand-alone academic departments, what seemed to result was a haphazard introduction to entirely foreign theoretical and methodological frameworks. In my first year, I began to question what the skills of a sustainability scientist were and how my instruction was providing me with the appropriate theories and methods to address "wicked" sustainability problems. More importantly, I was concerned how the knowledge and skills I was supposedly gaining would help me achieve my own professional and academic goals.

I found out my frustrations were not unique and that sustainability scientists are currently addressing these very concerns. While still a work in progress, the field has taken a first step towards developing key competencies that enable students and practitioners to appropriately address sustainability challenges (2). While the competencies of sustainability science have been identified, it remains a daunting task to find sufficient theoretical and methodological inputs. This challenge is overcome only with the help of vetted sustainability scientists who have likewise struggled, yet have emerged prepared to address real world problems.

From my experience, exposed students and infectious researchers and practitioners of sustainability science encounter one additional challenge, navigating the tension between use-driven and theory-driven research. Researchers and academics are required to explore social-ecological systems and produce reliable results, but they cannot do so from their ivory tower. Practitioners need to address on-the-ground, contextual problems, but action without an understanding of complex nature-society interactions may lead to inappropriate responses and unintended consequences. From my disciplinary background, I have found it difficult negotiating not only what the output of my research will be, but also who will benefit from it. The ability of sustainability science to bridge knowledge creation and informed action provides members of the field the flexibility and power to address urgent human needs. Individuals must recognize, however, that as both a fundamental and an applied research, sustainability science is unlike traditional disciplines or sectors.

Nobody promised me that studying sustainability would be easy, but then again, nobody warned me of the pitfalls associated with the field, either. The field has grown exponentially over the last few decades, yet the sampling of challenges I have described here are real and may ultimately hinder the continued growth of the field. For this field to continue to progress, it is my opinion that the challenges described here that impact the exit rates of susceptible, exposed, and infectious individuals within sustainability science must be acknowledged in order to be successfully negotiated.


1. Bettencourt LMA, Kaur J (2011) Evolution and structure of sustainability science. Proc Natl Acad Sci 108:19540-19545.

2. Wiek A, Withycombe L, Redman CL (2011). Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development. Sustain Sci 6:203-218.

Contributor's Biography Colin Kunzweiler is a graduate student in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. His research explores the perceived risk and adaptation strategies of residents of Maricopa County, Arizona regarding mosquito-borne infectious diseases.

Repurpose the Street: Mission Greenbelt & Related Projects

By Amber Hasselbring In her first solo exhibition at SF Arts Commission Gallery in 2007, Hasselbring launched the Mission Greenbelt project, an ongoing public artwork inspired by the city’s Sidewalk Landscaping Permit, made available in 2006. The permit process allows residents to replace portions of sidewalk concrete with gardens. The Mission Greenbelt project’s goal was to build contiguous habitat gardens in SF’s Mission District, connecting Dolores Park (19th & Dolores) to Franklin Square Park (16th & Bryant). The interactive SFAC Gallery exhibition featured mixed media artworks (see image: mission greenbelt puzzle), bilingual sidewalk landscaping permit applications, a temporary CA native garden, as well as events including a campaign kick-off celebration, workshops, public school visits, plant sales and tours of the proposed Mission Greenbelt route.

Over the past five years, the Mission Greenbelt project has partnered with others to build gardens in SF sidewalks, backyards, park edges and parking spaces (see image: park(ing) day 2008) throughout the Mission, SOMA, Central Market, Bernal Heights and Noe Valley neighborhoods. These Mission Greenbelt gardens, with plentiful pollen and nectar resources, provide forage and habitat for pollinators and songbirds. The Mission Greenbelt project also fosters participation, from garden design, building and maintenance, to public enjoyment and the creation of new artwork in the form of signage, temporary graffiti, outdoor music, dance and performance.

In a Mission Greenbelt-related project, Seeding Lower 24th St., Hasselbring sowed wildflower seeds in tree basins along this busy commercial corridor. For the project, Hasselbring solicited businesses along Lower 24th St. to contribute five to 20 dollars to purchase soil and seed. Then, with borrowed tools and help from volunteers, she amended existing soil and planted hand-collected CA native wildflower seeds. The following spring, Hasselbring photographed the results, which numbered very few wildflower starts (see image collage: seeding lower 24th st.).

In fall 2010, Hasselbring partnered with Michael Zheng’s LiVE WORK art space to install an outdoor bee habitat garden. Hasselbring designed the garden with aggregations of flowering plants, with bloom times from April through October to attract an assortment of wild bees (see image: bumblebee gathering pollen). The garden also incorporated patches of bare soil in full sun to anticipate the arrival of ground nesting bumblebees Apidae or sweat bees Halictidae. For more information on building your own urban bee garden, visit

Most recently, Hasselbring participated in projects along SF’s Market Street corridor in partnership with the SF Arts Commission, Studio for Urban Projects, and SPUR (SF Planning + Urban Research Association). During the flight of the western tiger swallowtail butterfly Papilio rutulus, Hasselbring designed a street-level billboard illustrating the butterfly’s life cycle and relationship to the London Plane trees Platanus × acerifolia (see image: swallowtails and sycamores). These trees, when planted along both sides of Market St. after the completion of the Bay Area Rapid Transit tunnel system, produced an annual flush of large yellow and black butterflies from early July through late October. Hasselbring then worked with Lisa Lee Benjamin, Bay Natives Nursery, Natures Acres Nursery, Moose Curtis, Tim Armstrong and volunteers to Reclaim Market St. at Civic Center. This work, entitled Thin Green Line, began in the fountain where leaf and flower patterns emerged out of the algae, continued as a narrow sod lawn surrounded by CA native plants, and marched out to Market St. with moss packed into cracks in the brickwork (see image collage: reclaim market street: thin green line).

And there’s more to come:

• This spring, if you’re in SF, please join Hasselbring for a bike tour of private Pacific chorus frog Pseudacris regilla ponds followed by a frog pond building workshop (April 15, 2012). For more information, visit

• Hasselbring and Lisa Lee Benjamin are working as lead artists with a team on a project that will fill the SFMOMA windows along Minna and Natoma Streets at 3rd St. with an insect habitat. This work called Urban Hedgerow will be installed from January – July 2013. For more information and updates, visit and

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Contributor’s biography

Amber Hasselbring is a San Francisco-based artist making work about ecological relationships. Her work samples surrounding ecosystems to design public art, sidewalk gardens, backyards, and open spaces to establish contiguous habitat for pollinators and songbirds. Since moving to SF in 2005, Hasselbring has produced collaborative, project-based works that involve participation by invited and circumstantial audiences. The goal of her work is to incite curiosity in urban dwellers by helping them discover the natural world just outside their doorstep.

Worm Share

By Amy Youngs The Worm Share project encourages symbiotic relationships between humans and worms. Through experimental artworks, participatory designs, workshops and networking technologies, I facilitate the travel and propagation of composting worms into domestic spaces and encourage others to do the same. In exchange, the worm colonies provide valuable ecosystem services.

Eisenia Foetida is a species of worm suited to living in a wide variety of situations, including domestic spaces. These hearty creatures are able to efficiently turn our food and paper waste into plant fertilizer. Vermicomposting (worm composting) can happen in a very local way—in a kitchen, a basement, an office or in a bin embedded in furniture—and it can empower individuals to participate in the reduction of greenhouse gases. Landfills and organic wastes thrown in traditional composting bins decompose and emit methane, a greenhouse gas that is more potent than carbon dioxide. On the contrary, the process of vermicomposting emits no harmful gas or unpleasant odors. The byproduct of worms is a nutrient-rich material that looks and smells like soil.

The project began with artworks that integrated live worms into sculptures and furniture within domestic spaces. In my sculpture Digestive Table, for instance, a flow-through worm bag was built into a functional table so humans could literally share a meal with worms. People observed the composting activity of the worms on an LCD screen built into the table surface and connected to an infrared camera that monitored the worms’ activity below. I posted the building plans for this sculpture online to help popularize vermicomposting by inspiring others, who might also have desired a useful and aesthetically pleasing worm home, to reproduce the table. I soon discovered that there was far more demand for a simpler, utilitarian version of the flow-through worm bag—one without the table or the camera technology. Once I posted my simplified worm bag designs online, a community of builders developed. People I’d never met began to construct their own bags, ask me questions, post suggestions and upload photos of their finished projects—many of which, based upon a builder’s needs or the materials available, diverged widely from the original. I was impressed with the improvements and evolution of the design that spontaneously occurred just within the comments section of the instructions webpage: With more than 59,000 viewers and 160 public comments, this project has had more exposure than most of my gallery exhibitions.

Recently, Worm Share has taken on the form of workshops that encourage people to design their own creative worm bins to fit their lifestyles and the needs of the worms. Everything from custom kitchen cabinets to bike trailer bins have been imagined and some of the new designs are being field tested now. All of the workshop participants who are ready to build their bins, are encouraged to take home a pound of free starter worms, which come from my own worm colony. Worms are a never-ending, regenerative source, multiplying based on the amount of food and space available. Workshop participants also learn how they can double their efforts to reduce greenhouse gases by freely sharing their worms with friends and strangers. Worldwide worm sharing is possible through the online network,, which encourages people to identify their general location on a map and willingness to share worms with others. Free and anonymous worm sharing regularly takes place in my town via porch drop-offs. In exchange, I encourage the people receiving starter worms to "pay it forward" and become a future worm-sharing node within this community of creative design and open-source sharing.

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[/aslideshow] World map of vermicomposters (red markers identify a person willing to share):

Photos of Worm Share Workshop at Spaces Gallery in Cleveland, OH:

Digestive Table sculpture and worm bag construction plans:

Contributor’s biography Amy M. Youngs creates biological art, interactive sculptures and digital media works that explore the complex relationship between technology and our changing concept of nature and self. Obsessions include creating artificial nature experiences, spying on worms and constructing indoor, edible ecosystems. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, where she is an Associate Professor of Art and Technology at The Ohio State University. To learn more about her, please visit her website at

Photo Credits: Photo 05 is a compilation of photos that were posted to the comments page of Young's "Instructable" for building a worm bin. Photo 08 from Spaces Gallery Staff.

The Politics of Fossil Fuels: Obstacles to Wind Energy Development in Kansas

By Dr. Gary Brinker Coal and oil have always been the life-blood of the industrial economy.  Historically, these energy resources had been so plentiful that, until the latter part of the 20th century, few believed that we could exhaust their supply.  And although the chronic negative health effects from inhaling coal dust and the exhaust of burning fossil fuels were recognized early in the industrial era, the full extent of the threat to human health and survival has only recently been realized and acknowledged.  The most recent threat to the global ecology in the form of global climate change has energized a social movement to convert energy production to non-fossil sources deemed more environmentally friendly and biologically benign, such as solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal and bio-fuels.

There have been political initiatives to convert to non-fossil energy sources, especially among highly industrialized nation states with limited domestic sources.  Heavy dependence on foreign energy sources means nations must invest huge military and economic resources to secure the flow of these fuels into their industrial machines.  The costs are often hidden in the form of higher taxes, fiscal debt and human casualties of war and terrorism, but are manifest enough to drive efforts to reduce foreign dependency through higher domestic production and alternative domestic sources.  At face value, this seems a viable and attractive solution.  Yet domestic oil production remains stagnate, alternative energy remains marginally profitable and the massive importation of foreign oil continues.  The validity of widely accepted theories of global climate change, supported by the majority of research showing increasing global temperatures and concentrations of CO2, melting polar ice and rising sea levels, are being challenged and disregarded by conservative politicians.  Even though the extent to which these phenomena are causally rooted in the human consumption of fossil fuels versus naturally and historically occurring global biogeochemical cycles can be debated, there is little doubt that human activities contribute to some extent or that human technology and that intervention is the only real hope for altering these potentially disastrous climatic trends.

This paper explores the theory that the bureaucratic inertia of the fossil fuel industry explains the apparent reluctance by some to accept the conclusions of many scientists that human emission of carbon dioxide is a force in global warming and that conversion to renewable and environmentally friendly alternative energy sources is the solution to this and several other environmental problems.  It presents tests of the hypotheses that people living in geographic regions with high production of fossil fuels will express low support for alternative energy development and that there will be an inverse correlation between support for fossil fuels and support for alternative energy.  The hypotheses are tested using random sample survey data from a statewide telephone survey and secondary data on energy production collected from government and private industry sources.

Literature Review

In assessing the degree to which renewable energy sources have performed, both with respect to economic efficiency and market penetration, McVeigh et al. concluded that, "In general, renewable technologies have failed to meet expectations with respect to market penetration. They have succeeded, however, in meeting or exceeding expectations with respect to their cost" (1).  They attribute this apparent discrepancy to a "declining price in conventional generation," which tends to alter the target cost for making renewable forms competitive (1).

Anderson and Newell assessed the economic feasibility of carbon capture sequestration as a means of reducing the carbon footprint of coal powered electricity and found it too expensive to compete with other renewable sources (2).  They concluded that it would only be an economically viable option if the price of competitive alternative energy rose sharply (2).

Azar and Dowlatabadi concluded that the only way to stabilize the long-term global climate, given widely accepted models of population growth and industrialization, is through rapid conversion to non-carbon based energy sources (3).  They found that, historically, the rate of structural and economic change necessary for rapid conversion has only occurred in the wake of economic or resource crises for periods of several years or more.  Dyson reached similar conclusions, going on to speculate that the lack of a contemporary structural or economic crisis and the typical way in which humans respond to difficult, long-run problems such as AIDS—denial, avoidance, recrimination—will result in no significant behavioral change in carbon emissions in the near future (4).

There is literature referencing the cost of fossil fuels as a determinant of the profitability of wind energy (5), but little discussing the cost of wind energy as a determinant of the profitability of oil production.  One way to encourage capital investment in wind energy that has been explored is to require large utilities to offer long-term contracts to wind developers and purchase surplus electricity from companies generating electricity for their own purposes from wind turbines, as California did in 1983 (5).


Quantitative analysis was performed on survey opinion data collected by the author in 2010 from a large random sample of Kansas residents (n = 1,200) and on secondary data on various forms of energy production at the state and county level collected by the Kansas Geological Survey and the American Wind Energy Association (6,7).  Qualitative data are from interviews conducted by the author with two key informants currently developing wind farms in western Kansas.  The first key informant is a community leader in a rural western Kansas county interested in local economic development and curbing population loss.  The second is the City Manager of a city located in a more urbanized county of western Kansas considering a wind farm.


Quantitative Analysis

Univariate analysis showed that most respondents think devoting resources to producing wind (62%) and solar power (49%) is "extremely important," while few were likely to say developing coal (21%) and nuclear energy (21%) is "extremely important."  Natural gas and oil fell in the middle.  Most respondents’ concerns with wind farms revolved around aesthetics and danger to wildlife.  Few (5%) felt wind farms were a threat to the local economy.  When asked specifically if the need for coal and oil energy outweighs environmental concerns, just over half agreed.

Bivariate analysis of variables measuring support for developing the various energy sources revealed that support for wind energy development was positively correlated with support for solar and bio-fuels.  Support for wind energy development was negatively correlated with support for development of coal.  Although the Pearson’s r p-significance does not quite meet the 0.05 criterion, support for wind energy development was also negatively correlated with support for oil development.

There was a moderately strong correlation indicating that respondents who felt it was not important to develop wind energy were more likely to also say that the benefits of oil (r = .286) and coal (r = .278) outweigh environmental concerns.  These results, together with high covariance between support for the fossil fuels, as well as covariance between support for the various alternative fuels, indicate a tendency of people to support one or the other, and suggests a perceived conflict of interest in supporting fossil and alternative fuels among a faction of respondents.

Correlation analysis was performed on a combination of survey data measuring support for wind energy development and aggregated county-level data on oil and gas production for each respondent’s county of residence (8).  Table 4 shows that three of the four correlations are in the hypothesized direction, but are weak and statistically insignificant.  Respondents residing in counties with high gas and oil production were slightly more likely to say wind energy development is unimportant.  Those in high oil producing counties were slightly more likely to agree that wind farms are bad for the Kansas economy.  The correlation for gas was very near zero in strength.

Another way to test the theory that wind energy development is impeded by concerns that it may be a threat to fossil fuel prices is to examine the relationship between the level of fossil fuel production and the percentage of potential wind development realized in each county.  If fossil fuel interests impede wind energy production, then one might hypothesize that the greater the amount of fossil fuel production in a county, the lower the percentage of potential wind energy will be realized.  Table 3 shows the correlation coefficients for these dependent and independent variables.  Here again, we see the evidence of weak relationships in the hypothesized direction.

Qualitative Analysis

Key informant #1 is a local investor who had been heavily involved in promoting wind farm construction in a county with high oil production, but little gas production.  Presented with the thesis of this paper, he was asked to comment based on his observations.  In his opinion, the major obstacle to the development of wind energy was not related to economic conflicts of interest, but the cultural aversion to change held by many rural Kansans.  Uncertainty about changes in the landscape and economy make many local residents reluctant to embrace a new means of generating power.

Key informant #2 is the City Manager of a city of approximately 20,000 located next to an area designated by developers for construction of a wind farm that incurred significant political opposition.  He agreed with Key Informant #1 that a reluctance to embrace change was a salient cultural characteristic of the established regional population, and that was a major force in apathy, if not opposition, towards development of wind farms.

He also believed that much of the source of opposition to wind farms came from a faction of local residents living in the rural areas surrounding the proposed location.  This faction tends to be in the upper end of the class spectrum, well educated and politically powerful.  Wind towers can be hundreds of feet high; a typical wind farm contains dozens of these towers, so their construction involves a drastic change in the landscape for residents that live up to several miles away.  The pristine prairie panorama is often a major feature that rural Kansans value in choosing residential property.  Under the proposed agreement, a majority of the economic benefits of the wind farm would go to property owners on which the wind turbines would be located, and only relatively small tax advantages are enjoyed by those residing adjacent to or near the wind farm.  Key informant #2 saw evidence that many of these politically powerful residents living near the proposed wind farm felt they would lose the aesthetic qualities of their property and would suffer a potential drop in the value of their property with the construction of the wind farm, while those few land owners fortunate enough to have the ideal locations for wind turbines enjoyed all of the economic benefits.


Analysis of survey data, fossil fuel production levels and opinions of key informants in areas where wind farms have been proposed revealed evidence to support the theory that bureaucratic inertia in the fossil fuel industry is an obstacle to timely conversion to alternative energy, but also identified other factors related to the regional culture that explain reluctance to accept construction of the required infrastructure for wind energy production and delivery.

Univariate analysis has provided evidence that only a relatively small proportion of Kansans exhibit opposition to wind energy development, and that the rationales for opposition are such that strategic location of wind farms and modest advances in biological technology could minimize these concerns.

Correlation analysis of variables measuring the importance of public support for the various forms of energy production showed that support for fossil fuel development tends to be inversely related to support for alternative fuels, especially coal.  Strong positive relationships between support for wind, solar and bio-fuels suggest that a faction of Kansans is supportive of all forms of alternative energy, while strong positive correlations between support for oil, coal and gas suggest that a second faction of Kansans is strongly committed to fossil fuel development.  So there is evidence here that many Kansans tend to support either fossil fuels or alternative fuels.  Environmental concerns explain the preference for alternative fuels, while the most obvious rationale for support of only fossil fuels would be economic interests, since fossil fuel production also harms animal life and blights the landscape, the most common reasons to oppose wind energy.

The fact that relatively few Kansans have direct investments in fossil fuels might explain weak correlations in Table 3.  The general public might not readily make the connection between the levels of fossil fuel production within their own residential regions and the overall health of their local economies, even though there may be a causal impact.  However, one may make a fair assumption that the small percentage of Kansans who do have vested interest in fossil fuels tend to be landowners, and thus have at least moderate political power and influence.

Finally, the observation that a county’s oil and gas production is negatively correlated to the percentage of potential wind energy development suggests that oil and gas interests are political obstacles to wind energy development.  The relatively weak strength of these correlations can be explained by the fact that many counties in Kansas have both high fossil fuel reserves and abundant wind, so the economic and political forces in many counties are comparable and offsetting.  This may not be the case in other geographic areas suitable for wind farms.  But there is some tendency for counties with low fossil fuel production to be more likely to fully develop their potential for wind energy.

Wind energy is likely to remain to be seen as a viable competitor to the fossil fuel industry, especially as it becomes an increasing source of electrical power and as demand for coal-based electricity declines.  As more cars become propelled by electricity, wind will increasingly usurp demand for oil.  However, wind is an unreliable, intermittent source, and most experts believe that coal-powered plants will continue to be needed.  Similarly, petroleum is used for producing many commodities other than fuel, not least of which is plastics.  The non-energy uses of fossil fuels, together with greatly increasing global demand for energy as underdeveloped countries industrialize, may result in a negligible effect on current fossil fuel demand and prices. Even with moderate growth in wind production, it may negate increasing demand and higher prices.  But as long combustion of fossil fuels declines, many of the health and environmental concerns will be addressed.

The study does suggest one immediate obstacle to wind energy development.  Means are needed to equalize the compensation/liability equation, so that everyone who suffers economic or aesthetic losses from the construction of a wind farm is fairly compensated.  One way this could be accomplished is through differential tax breaks, funded through revenues generated by taxing the electricity produced, to residents around a wind farm based on the distance of their property from the nearest turbines or reduction in the assessed value of the property.  Another option would be to offer residents near the wind farm reduced electricity rates.  With an equitable compensation structure, wind farms should become an attractive option for any community with enough wind to drive them.  The research of McVeigh et al. also suggests that reductions in government subsidies for fossil fuel production should be eliminated to allow renewable sources to be more competitive (1).  The research of Loiter and Norberg-Boh showed that mandates requiring large power companies, especially those owning large coal-burning plants, to purchase electricity at competitive rates from wind farms would also promote conversion to renewable energy.

Current fossil fuel subsidies and a well-developed infrastructure currently make fossil fuels a very profitable option for investors.  Building an alternative energy infrastructure will require considerable investments that may take many years to produce comparable profits.  This study suggests that if conversion to clean, renewable energy sources is to be the solution to reducing levels of CO2, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and the many other hazardous environmental pollutants resulting from production and usage of fossil fuels, regulations and tax policies must discourage future capital investment in oil, gas and coal.  Additionally, the study suggests that public resources will be needed to jump-start alternative energy production to build infrastructure that can produce and deliver abundant, clean, profitable and sustainable energy indefinitely.


1.            McVeigh JJ, Burtraw DD, Darmstadter J, & Palmer K (2000) Winner, loser, or innocent victim? Has renewable energy performed as expected? Solar Energy 68(3):237-255.

2.            Anderson S & Newell R (2004) PROSPECTS FOR CARBON CAPTURE AND STORAGE TECHNOLOGIES. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 29(1):109-142.

3.            Azar C & Dowlatabadi H (1999) A REVIEW OF TECHNICAL CHANGE IN ASSESSMENT OF CLIMATE POLICY. Annual Review of Energy and the Environment 24(1):513-544.

4.            Dyson T (2005) On Development, Demography and Climate Change: The End of the World as We Know it? Population & Environment 27(2):117-149.

5.            Loiter JM & Norberg-Bohm V (1999) Technology policy and renewable energy: public roles in the development of new energy technologies. Energy Policy 27(2):85-97.

6.            American Wind Energy Association FS (2012) Fact Sheet.

7.            Kansas Geological Society (2005) Production from Kansas Oil and Gas Leases.

8.            The Docking Institute of Public Affairs (2010) Kansas Speaks 2010 - Statewide Public Opinion Survey.  (Fort Hayes State University, Hays, KS).

Contributor's biography

Dr. Gary Brinker is the Director of the Docking Institute and a Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology and Social Work at Fort Hays State University. His teaching interests include research methods, social problems and quantitative analysis. His sponsored research projects define an eclectic research agenda.  Dr. Brinker has been the principal investigator for more than 75 applied research projects, including program evaluations, needs assessments, economic impact studies, population projections and public opinion surveys in the areas of education, substance abuse, environment, education, politics, family planning, aging, community health and marketing. He earned a Master of Arts degree in sociology in 1994 and a Doctorate Degree in Applied Sociology in 1997 at Baylor University.

Occupy Creation!: The Role of Religion and Ethics in Addressing Climate Change

By Rev. Doug Bland Standing on the steps of the Newman Catholic Student Center across the street from ASU’s campus and the Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS), Rev. Jan Olav Flaaten told the story of climate refugees in the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu.  As he recounted the story of rising sea levels, Flaaten grasped the blue shower curtain that encircled him and slowly raised it from his knees to his waist to his chest.  He finished the story with only his nose sticking above the rising cloth waves.

The "Moving Planet" march on September 24, 2011, at which this dramatic recitation occurred, was co-sponsored by GIOS and Arizona Interfaith Power & Light (a coalition of religious communities concerned about climate change). It happened because Lauren Kuby of GIOS brought sustainability students and staff together with people from the faith community.  Rev. Flaaten, Executive Director of the Arizona Ecumenical Council, was one of several religious leaders who facilitated the event.

The "Moving Planet" march united people of faith with those who claim no religious affiliation in a walk from the Newman Catholic Center to the Tempe Mosque to the Hillel Jewish Center and finally to the First United Methodist Church.  At each stop we told stories of some of the world’s environmental refugees, including the forced migration of the Bog Copper Butterfly populations, disappearing glaciers, and refugees from Ethiopia’s drought.  We honored the suffering, mourned the losses and shared confessions of our own complicity.

Religion and spirituality are some of the most significant influences on environmental values—both good and ill.  Lynn White Jr. famously argued that Western Christianity "bears a huge burden of guilt" for the contemporary environmental crisis.  He went on to explain: "What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them.  Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny—that is, by religion" (1).

Today, religious communities are increasingly providing resources and teachings to affirm and deepen environmental ethics.  Whether in the Vatican’s bid to become the world’s first carbon-neutral state, the host of environmental policy statements generated by religious denominations, the embrace of "creation care" by evangelical Christians, or the rise of faith-based environmental organizations, religious worldviews are being applied as never before to help solve environmental problems and preserve ecological integrity.

Just as healthy religion fosters healthy ecology, noxious religion fosters noxious ecology.  For the environment, the most menacing religion of them all is the Materialism and Consumerism of western civilization.  One of the reasons that our culture is so impervious to the scientific data that verify anthropogenic climate change is, at its core, religious.  As a society, regardless of our stated creeds, we are inclined to idolize the same bottom line that Exxon worships.

Frank conversation about climate change has stalled because we keep debating whether climate mitigation makes economic sense (jobs, jobs, jobs) and whether the scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change is settled.  We need to ask deeper questions: ethical questions, religious questions. Questions investigating why we have developed ethics for suicide, homicide and genocide, but not for biocide or geo-cide (2).

At the most fundamental level, climate change is not a scientific, political, economic or energy problem.  It is a moral and ethical crisis.  Our energy use and consumption threaten life as we know it.   Solutions won’t come simply by stacking up more scientific facts or technical arguments.  From civil rights to women’s suffrage, history has shown that toxic pieties, practices and policies can be overcome only when they are recognized to be morally wrong and decidedly unjust (

We need a religious and ethical revolution.  Occupy Creation!  Let the human 1 percent listen to the flora and fauna of the 99 percent.  As the writer of Job suggests, "Ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you" (Job 12:7).

Gus Speth, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and the Environment said, "Thirty years ago, I thought that with enough good science, we would be able to solve the environmental crisis.  I was wrong.  I used to think the greatest problems threatening the planet were pollution, bio-diversity loss and climate change.  I was wrong there, too.  I now believe that the greatest problems are pride, apathy and greed."  Speth called for "a cultural and spiritual transformation" and admitted "we in the scientific community don’t know how to do that" but religious teachers do (3).

As a religious leader in our community it is my intention to be part of the sustainability dialogue that GIOS helps to foster.  Learning to live sustainably is not just the work of the "The Great American University"; it is "The Great Work" (4) for all of us, and it is Holy.


1. White, L (1967) The Historical Roots of the Environmental Crisis. Science 155: 1203-1207.

2. Rasmussen, L (2010) An Earth-Honoring Faith. Sojourners. June 2010.

3. Richard, C (2009) "What If?" in  Love God Heal Earth, ed. Bingham, SG (St Lynn's Press, Pittsburgh, PA), pp 9.

4. Berry, T (2000) The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. (Harmony Books, New York).

Contributor’s biography

Doug Bland is Pastor of the Tempe Community Christian Church.  He serves as Executive Director for Arizona Interfaith Power & Light and teaches storytelling classes at South Mountain Community College.

Great Divide

2010 -- cotton, wire / ~13 x 3 x 3 feet This work utilizes 100 pounds of raw cotton, grown, sourced and discarded near my former studio on the U.S.-Mexico border. Since the passage of NAFTA, more than a million Mexican farmers have lost their land due to the market saturation of U.S. cotton and other crops, driving prices for these goods below the cost of production. Unable to compete, small farmers have been forced out of business.

In addition to being highly subsidized, cotton might be the most toxic crop in the world. Cotton uses more than 25% of all the insecticides in the world and 12% of all the pesticides. Also, 75% of the cotton and cottonseed in the U.S. is genetically modified. These external and intrinsic chemicals have polluted habitats and residents wherever the crop is grown.

It's also said that in the U.S. we ingest more cotton products than we wear. Cotton fiber accounts for around 30% of a harvest, whereas cottonseed and gin trash make up the rest. Most of the cottonseed and almost all the gin trash are fed to cows, thereby entering the human food supply. The remainder of the cottonseed winds up in many different junk foods with the same end result.

Another layer of the work reflects current issues of supply and demand. A recent forecast by the National Cotton Council of America indicates that the fiber will remain in short supply this year while demand increases. Cotton prices have risen 24% since the beginning of 2011, mirroring trends of other natural resources as global population and market production needs continue to grow.

While working on this piece, my studio was a renovated cotton gin in southern New Mexico. There, like in many other parts of the country, agricultural land is giving way to housing development, and while one set of windows looked out over planted fields, the porch faced a growing tract of New Tuscan homes.  This summer’s disastrous oil spill in the Gulf, news of which hummed on in the background, also highlighted the precarious balance between preserving resources and fulfilling lifestyle needs.

When first introduced to cotton, medieval Europeans noticed that it resembled wool, a familiar material. Told that it came from a plant, a prevalent belief held that its stalks bore diminutive sheep at each end. In contemporary life, we similarly attempt to draw on the familiar to make sense of things we don’t know. And as an artist, I wonder where our blind spots are – that is to say – what do we now take as a fact that may later seem like a lamb emerging from a bloom?

Contributor's Biography:

Susannah Mira completed her master's degree in Environmental Art at the University of Art and Design Helsinki (now Aalto University) in 2008.  Born in San Francisco and raised in a non-descript Philadelphia suburb, she champions a highly itinerant artistic practice based out of an updated station wagon.

Peak phosphorus: the crunch time for humanity?

by Dana Cordell, Stuart White and Tom Lindström The element phosphorus underpins our ability to produce food. Yet only recently has a vigorous debate emerged regarding the longevity of the world’s main source of phosphorus – phosphate rock.

Like oil, the world’s economy is totally dependent on phosphate rock. But our dependence on the latter differs: while oil can theoretically be replaced with solar, wind or biomass energy, there is no substitute for phosphorus in crop growth and hence food production. A scarcity of phosphate rock is therefore likely to threaten the world’s ability to produce food in the future if concerted efforts are not soon taken by policy makers, scientists, industry and the global community. While the critical point in time for phosphorus scarcity is highly uncertain and contested, all agree that demand for phosphorus is growing, and remaining phosphate rock is becoming increasingly scarce and expensive.

Global Phosphate Reserves

Surprisingly, the most recent estimates of longevity of phosphate rock reserves take a simplistic approach that divides the reserve (in million metric tonnes, Mt) by current consumption rates (approximately 160 to 170 Mt per year -- or 176 million to 187 million regular tons) to yield the lifetime of the reserves in years (1). The recent study by the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC) used this approach to yield an estimated 300 to 400 years lifetime for global reserves (see Figure 1, Scenario B). However, assuming that 100% of the reserve will be accessible and that consumption will not increase is inappropriate. Global phosphorus demand will increase to meet the food demand of the one billion people who are currently hungry plus the additional demand created by an expected two to three billion new mouths by 2050 (2). Additionally, phosphate demand will rise to satisfy increasing preferences for more meat and dairy products, to fertilize currently phosphorus-deficient soils (especially in Sub-Saharan Africa) and to grow biofuel crops and other non-food products that require phosphorus. Due to the non-homogeneity (or "patchiness") of phosphate rock and most other non-renewable resources, the easier to reach and high-grade reserves are typically mined first. There is consensus that the world’s remaining phosphate reserves are declining in phosphorus concentration, increasing in impurities and becoming harder to physically access. Meanwhile, phosphate extraction increasingly generates more pollution and waste, requires more energy per nutrient value and costs more to mine and to process.

While the element phosphorus is not scarce in the earth’s upper crust, the amount that can be accessed for productive use in food production is orders of magnitude smaller due to a wide range of bottlenecks including physical, economic, technical, geopolitical, legal, ecological and environmental constraints. From a food security and sustainability perspective, the most important quantity is not the total amount of phosphate rock in the ground but the fraction that is available to be accessed by farmers and applied to agricultural fields for food production. This fraction depends on a range of factors including the concentration of the phosphate deposit, levels of contamination, the cost of energy as well as the potential for new discoveries and technological advances. The exact fraction is therefore uncertain and will change over time depending on the influence of these factors.

Estimating Peak Phosphorus

The peak phosphorus curve provides a more realistic picture of this important estimate. That is, the peak phosphorus curve identifies the point in time when the production of high-quality and relatively inexpensive phosphate rock reaches a peak due to economic and energy constraints despite growing global demand (Figure 1). Predicting the exact year of peak phosphorus production is nearly impossible due to unpredictable factors (such as new agricultural policies, global financial booms and crises, geopolitical instability or market distortions), and, indeed, the peak is more likely to be a lumpy plateau as with peak oil. However, the peak phosphorus analysis tells us that the critical point in time for phosphorus scarcity will occur far sooner than when 100% of the resource is depleted. In 2007, Dery and Anderson arrived at a peak production year of 1988 (3). This analysis was inaccurate because they did not presume a total reserve value and only used historical production data until 2006. Fixing the area under the production curve to an assumed reserve value plus cumulative historical production is key to estimating a future peak. Otherwise, the estimated peak will be highly unreliable due to the variance of phosphate production data from year to year. In 2009, Cordell, Drangert and White published a peak phosphorus curve based on the latest USGS 2009 phosphate reserve data (4). This analysis resulted in a peak year around 2035. The study cautioned that while the exact timeline may vary, the fundamental problem of phosphorus scarcity would not change. More recently, the new IFDC study suggests: "there is no indication there is going to be a ‘peak phosphorus’ event within the next 20-25 years" because reserves have been re-estimated at 60,000 Mt, up from 16,000 Mt. However, no peak phosphorus analysis was actually undertaken to support such a claim.

If the 60,000 Mt IFDC reserve estimates are indeed correct, policy-makers, farmers, industry, scientists and the general community should be clear on what the IFDC report changes and what it does not change. While the timing of the peak would change, the threat of peak phosphorus this century remains. A revised peak phosphorus analysis by Lindstrom, Cordell and White (5) using Bayesian statistical methods takes into account both the Cordell et al. (2009) results and the IFDC reserve figures of 60,000 Mt. This analysis indicates a probable peak between 2051 and 2092 with a mean of 2070. At best, the new reserve estimate "buys time" until more substantial changes to our use of phosphorus become necessary.

Phosphorus and Sustainability

Despite the debate on the critical point in time when demand will exceed supply, what is clear is that our current phosphorus use patterns constitute an unsustainable situation of global proportions. First, access to phosphorus is already inequitable: many of the one billion currently hungry people are poor farmers working with phosphorus-deficient soils who cannot access fertilizer markets. Second, the unequal distribution of phosphate reserves means that a single country, Morocco, controls a major proportion of the world’s remaining high-quality phosphate reserves. Third, cheap fertilizers will become a thing of the past as cheap and high-quality reserves are depleted. Fourth, price spikes of phosphate commodities (like the 800% price spike in 2008) can be expected more frequently, making importers in places like India, Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and the European Union more vulnerable. Fifth, an inefficient and "leaky" food production and consumption system means that only a fifth of the mined phosphorus reaches the food on our dinner plates. Finally, current human use of phosphorus for food production has led to a global epidemic of freshwater eutrophication and marine "dead zones," which threaten many of the world’s potable water supplies and endangers aquatic biodiversity.

These six chronic problems alone should be enough to warrant the attention of our political leaders and cause them to secure local and global phosphorus to feed the world. Achieving phosphorus security is by no means simple. However, it is possible: there are huge efficiency gains to be made not only in agriculture but also "upstream" in the mining and fertilizer sectors and "downstream" in food processing, retail and consumption. Further, unlike oil, phosphorus is not lost to the atmosphere once used. Hence, if we’re smart, we can recover used phosphorus from our excreta, food waste, manure and even fertilizer and mine waste.

References Cited:

(1) IFDC (2010), World Phosphate Reserves and Resources, International Fertilizer Development Center, Washington D.C.

(2) FAO, More people than ever are victims of hunger, 2009, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Press Release, June 2009.

(3) Dery, P. & Anderson, B. (2007), Peak phosphorus. Energy Bulletin.

(4) Cordell, D., Drangert, J-O. and White, S. (2009), The story of phosphorus: Global food security and food for thought. Journal of Global Environmental Change, 19(2): p. 292-305

(5) Lindström, T., Cordell, D. & White, S. Improved peak phosphorus estimations: determining the real crunch time for food security, forthcoming article.

Other Supporting References:

Cordell, D. & White, S. (2011), Peak Phosphorus: clarifying the key issues of a vigorous debate about long-term phosphorus security. Sustainability, 1 (2011), ISSN 2071-1050. (in press).

GPRI (2010), GPRI Statement on Global Phosphorus Scarcity, Global Phosphorus Research Initiative, 26th September, 2010.

Gilbert, N. (2009), The Disappearing Nutrient. Nature, 461, 8 October 2009, pp.716-718.

Jasinski, S. M., "Phosphate Rock," Mineral Commodity Summaries 2011, US Geological Survey, January 2011.

Contributors' Biographies:

Dana Cordell is a Research Principal at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney where she undertakes and leads research projects on sustainable resource futures. She co-founded the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative (GPRI).

Stuart White is Director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney where he leads a team of researchers who create change towards sustainable futures through independent, project-based research. He co-founded the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative (GPRI).

Tom Lindström is a theoretical ecologist, working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biology (IFM) at Linköping University in Sweden. Currently, he is currently a Visiting Fellow at the School of Mathematics and Statistics, Faculty of Science, at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Youth, Sustainability and Art: The Barrett Summer Scholars Program

Youth involvement in the sustainability movement is absolutely critical, for they will inherit and craft the future of our planet. They have the opportunity to learn to see the world as a system from day one. They can avoid the bad habits and shortsighted thinking that have plagued the generations that precede them.  And they are ready and waiting to learn what needs to be done.

Nineteen 8th- and 9th-grade students from around Arizona took a three-week sustainability intensive at Arizona State University last summer as part of the Barrett Summer Scholars Program.  There they learned that living sustainably is much more than just "being green." Each week the students tackled one of three sustainability topics: food, water, and energy. They examined each from a systems perspective and traced the connections between people and their environments at local, regional and global levels.

Their instructor, School of Sustainability PhD candidate Tamara Lawless, emphasized different learning styles during the three-hour classes. Her students didn’t just listen to her talk about supply chains, they got on the floor and put magic markers to paper: mapping the journey of every day items from raw material to disposal. They watched documentaries on environmental injustice, kept food diaries, used digital cameras to photograph campus water use and journaled their thoughts every step of the way.  Art was encouraged as a way for the students to process their role in a sustainable future. The following pieces are a small selection from the amazing work the young sustainability warriors produced.

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Contributor's Biography:

Tamara Lawless is a passionate educator from Madison, Wisconsin. While earning her Master’s degree in Environmental Education she spent three semesters traveling around the United States on an old school bus, sleeping under the stars every night, backpacking and honing her skills as an educator. Tamara is working on her PhD in Sustainability from the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University.

The Bus Project

"The Bus Project" focuses on the social impact of the public bus system in Phoenix, a city with a strong car culture. The idea was born out of the frustration that I felt trying to move through the valley without a car, using a system whose dysfunction and idiosyncrasies seem endemic to most urban areas in the American Southwest. This ongoing project attempts to give a face to the urban landscape through dialogue with and portraits of the people who move through it.

Transportation infrastructures have a role in the creation of "the public." They make it visible, give it form and locate it in predictable and controllable spaces. They also channel it, authorizing paths of movement through otherwise disorderly environments. The concept of "the public" is usually so faceless, normative and bland that we often lose sight of the people who are a part of it.

Riders of buses are not mere "users" with interchangeable values and needs. There is nothing "mere" about them. They have faces, feelings and voices, personal histories and social networks, job obligations and family needs. Understanding how riders interact with the urban landscape cannot be reduced to: "People use buses."

Using the bus means actively and critically engaging with an array of material and abstract entities: Boarding a vehicle, paying a fare, reading a schedule, scrutinizing a map, following a route (or two or three), tracking time, seeking shelter from the sun or the rain, and speaking to or avoiding other passengers.

These small, continuous interlocking events are what keeps the city and its public alive and in motion.
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Contributor's Biography:
Born in Madrid, Spain, Teresa Miro Martin received her BA In Fine Arts ("Arts of the Image") from the Complutense University of Madrid and her advanced Specialist Certification in Artistic Photography at the Fine Arts School nº10, Madrid. Afterward, she travelled and studied abroad, spending a full academic year at the Lisbon School of Fine Arts in Portugal and another year at the Basque Country School of Fine Arts in Bilbao, Spain. She is currently a MFA Intermedia candidate at the Herberger College of Design and the Arts at Arizona State University.

Phosphorus and food security: Framing a global sustainability challenge through art

By Laura Turnbull The role of art in science has gained precedence as a means to engage non-scientific communities in key science-related issues. ASU’s Sustainable Phosphorus Summit explored how art can serve as a universal language by which to communicate critical sustainability challenges – with colorful results.

Phosphorus, and its link to food security, represents a multifaceted global sustainability challenge. Phosphorus (P) is a limited natural resource that is essential for life, with experts predicting the exhaustion of known mineral reserves of P within 100 years.

As a critical element in fertilizer, P is essential to the production of food and, thus, plays a key role in global food security. In the last 50 to 75 years, increased agricultural intensity, heavily reliant on fertilizer to maximize yields, has dramatically boosted dependence on mineral P and increased P runoff. Due to runoff and erosion, vast quantities of phosphorus are lost from farmland and pollute aquatic ecosystems.

Globally, farmers, scientists, engineers and decision makers need to facilitate more efficient use of existing phosphorus and reclaim phosphorus into closed loop cycles. Recycling wastewater, implementing new technologies and creating new practices would help to limit waste and bolster food security for future generations. These challenges require creative solution-building, and one prerequisite is effective communication with non-scientific audiences.

ASU's Sustainable Phosphorus Summit – which brought experts from all over the world to Arizona State University, Feb. 3-5, to discuss phosphorus sustainability – sought to address the communication gap between sustainability science and the public in an uncommon way: by launching an art exhibition. The art exhibition, "Phosphorus, Food and Our Future," partnered more than 20 artists with scientists.

How can sustainability inspire art and improve links between the public, policymakers, industry, farmers, scientists and general understanding about sustainability and phosphorus? The resulting works of art, video, sculpture, dance, music, painting and multimedia helped reveal that while commonly viewed as opposing camps in the creative enterprise, the partnership of artists and scientists can be powerful.

Collaborating with artists forced scientists to think about the ways that key messages about phosphorus can be communicated to a non-scientific audience. The show also was a valuable opportunity for scientists to get a glimpse into how non-scientists view their work and its importance.

Nathaniel Springer, a doctoral student from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who attended the Sustainable P Summit, said, "Artist-scientist collaborations are a great way to stimulate conversations about critical issues and evoke an emotional response." Artist Sarah Kriehn, who collaborated with ASU scientist Lara Reichmann, said she felt their collaboration was "enlightening." She also valued the affirmation of the scientific integrity of the artwork they created.

One of the four judges of the art show, Dennita Sewell, a curator with Phoenix Art Museum, drew excitement from being involved in an event that brought together a diverse array of people to address important concepts and raise awareness of the phosphorus sustainability challenge.

Of the members of the public who attended the exhibition, many noted that communication of the phosphorus sustainability challenge through artwork raised their awareness. Most knew little or nothing about phosphorus scarcity prior to attending the art show. One show-goer, Vic Lopez, noted that "visualizing the different facets of the phosphorus sustainability problem through art really helped him to engage with the key issues, and place each of the different facets within the context of the overall problem." For another attendee, the art work served as a catalyst – one that made him take out his smartphone to more deeply explore some of the issues of phosphorus.

United Kingdom scientist Dr. Phil Haygarth was excited by the potential for the artwork to engage young children in science. "Young children are the future and are thus the people who really need to understand these important issues," Haygarth said.

Art is a medium through which messages can be communicated to people across the world, regardless of the language they speak. While the artwork did not necessarily communicate all of the issues pertaining to phosphorus sustainability, art can reach people in ways of which they are not even aware.

Members of the public at the summit acknowledged that without a pre-existing interest in art, they would have had little interest in attending an exhibit about sustainable phosphorus. The show’s success can be measured in how it stimulated discussions, generated curiosity and evoked emotional response – all ingredients essential to addressing sustainability challenges.

Contributor's Biography

Laura Turnbull is a post-doctoral scholar in the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. She would like to acknowledge sponsors of the Sustainable P Summit, Margaret Coulombe, Dan Childers and Barry Sparkman.

Feeding our cities: Why genetic engineering is our friend

By Britt Lewis Recent concerns about phosphorous sustainability are fueled by the persistent overuse of phosphorous in fertilizers to increase crop yields. On the one hand, the United States has increased food production to both feed a growing population and produce biofuels. On the other hand, using phosphorus-laden fertilizers has imbalanced crop cycles and polluted surface water, even killing off an area the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico.

Phosphorus mine reserves are quickly diminishing, which has led to scarcity predictions worldwide. With phosphorus as vital to agriculture as water, food security hangs in the balance.

The following is a Q&A conversation with Dr. Roberto Gaxiola, an assistant professor at Arizona State University, whose research explores the role that transgenic crops might play in sustaining agriculture under limited phosphorus conditions.

(Editor’s Note: The terms "phosphorus" and "phosphate" are used throughout the article. Phosphate is a compound containing phosphorus, and plants can use phosphate as a nutrient.)

Recent efforts in the science community have been focused on bringing attention to the issue of phosphorus sustainability, which has been called "the biggest problem you never heard of." Why is this a major problem and why has it largely been ignored?

I would be imprecise if I tried to cover all of the different areas that make P [phosphorus] sustainability a major problem, so let's focus on the area my group is working with, namely agriculture. After the green revolution, we developed plants that were selected to produce higher yields at the expense of excess use of fertilizers and water. These plants generated a big boom of production. It's also relevant to say that only people and countries that had the economic capacity to buy the fertilizers benefitted. The enhanced food production was impressive, but now we are paying the consequences of that boom as the plants that we selected for this kind of response are plants that, in a sense, "got lazy" and did not develop root systems capable of scavenging nutrients and water from the soil. In other words, we are bringing them a lot of food, so they don't need to go and get their food. That resulted in plants that have a reduced nutrient uptake capacity – phosphate and nitrate uptake capacity. Farmers know that insufficient P fertilizer reduces crop yields, so they continually add P to their fields. Global consumption of P is increasing about 3 percent annually, and about 60 percent of the world’s P comes from one country (Morocco). Concerns have begun to arise about the long-term prospects of the global P supply and its geopolitical implications.

Another problem is the pollution that excessive P fertilization generates.  The P that plants do not use is either fixed by the soil or washed into the water bodies generating a problem called eutrophication.  Eutrophication results from an excess of P in the diet of algae that enhances their growth in water, which could be seawater or freshwater. The algae eventually will die and sink to the bottom, and the bacteria that decompose them consume a lot of oxygen generating huge areas that lack oxygen and cause mortality of the other members of the ecosystem.

Are you referring to coastal dead zones?

Yes, exactly – like the dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.

When did you first become aware of concerns in the science community about phosphorus scarcity?

My initial interest in agriculture was salinity of the soils – especially the soils in arid and semi-arid regions of the planet – which are the most productive areas of the world due to longer days and higher temperatures ideal for photosynthesis. Those areas were used by the green revolution, and those areas were receiving a lot of fertilizers and water. Fertilizers are presented as different kinds of salts, and one of the results of this massive fertilization was the accumulation of salts on the top soil. Well those salts, mainly NaCl (sodium chloride or table salt), are toxic for plants. The crops we actually consume, like corn, cannot tolerate above 50 mM of sodium chloride. (For example, the ocean contains 400 mM of salt. A corn plant will die with 50 mM; they are very sensitive.) My initial idea was to learn how plants adapt to this salty environment because in nature we have plants that actually grow in the presence of high salt (more than 1000 mM), like mangroves. So I started studying that and looked at the players involved in sodium detoxification. By doing so, we identified some key plant genes, and then we were able to generate transgenic plants that were salt tolerant.  Interestingly, these salt tolerant plants were also very large plants with enormous root systems, and their characterization has revealed that they have an enhanced nutrient (phosphate, nitrate and potassium) uptake capacity.

That's a good thing, right?

Yes. One important thing that we have to emphasize is that plants in nature don't grow to produce food for us – their only goal is to reproduce. So the plants that we have domesticated have been altered, so now they produce more food for us, but that's not the normal goal of a plant. So when people talk about eating natural plants, they are imprecise. Nobody really eats any natural plants. Mostly, we have domesticated the plants that we consume. We have used different means for domestication. Now, we are using more sophisticated technology, like genetic engineering. We have tweaked them in many different ways, and now we have precision tools to actually go and manipulate one specific unit of genetic information (gene) and get a result. So when we saw these plants that have enhanced root systems, the first question was: How do they behave under limited phosphorus conditions? Well, these genetically modified salt tolerant plants are very efficient [at] taking up phosphate, especially in alkaline soils (like those of Africa). These plants develop root systems with very long root hairs, specialized in taking up nutrients, and they use those modified root systems to scavenge phosphorus via acidification.

Does this work in other kinds of plants?

It works in other plants too. It is a very natural phenomenon; I emphasize this because genetic engineering has been demonized.

Yes, and that touches on a question I had about genetic engineering: What is the origin of this negative stigma surrounding genetic engineering that is reflected in rhetoric of popular culture?

I do not know. In general, history shows that people are resistant to changes. We have a potential geopolitical problem regarding P availability. The situation is that we have one country in possession of about 60 percent of the phosphorus of the world, and that country is Morocco. And we have countries like India where there is no availability of so-called "cheap" phosphorus for fertilizers. The United States has phosphorus mines for relatively cheap phosphorus, but the extraction of phosphorus is getting more and more expensive because the easy phosphorus has been taken. So now they have to go and get deeper phosphorus, which is more expensive. This shift already has been reflected a little bit in price of phosphorus. So another strategy will need to address optimizing extraction processes. How we address phosphorus sustainability will have to be a multidisciplinary and concerted effort, and one aspect is making these processes to extract phosphorus more profitable and more efficient. That will be a technical challenge for engineers.

From the agriculture side, we need to make crops more efficient. One important thing to emphasize is the fact that there is a lot of phosphorus bound to the soil that crops normally can't acquire because they lost their capacity to scavenge, or their capacity is toned down. So GMO plants with an enhanced P scavenging capacity, with other approaches, can help to optimize P sustainability.

I think that genetic engineering is going to play an important role – not the only one – but in order to overcome public concerns, a well-designed information campaign is necessary.

What about the organic food movement – will it play a role?

The organic story is about reducing the use of pesticides. It's a very nice and romantic story, but it's not a practical one. Organic agriculture will not be able to generate food to feed the huge cities we have generated. Civilization has developed as it has – whether it is right or wrong is another question. You cannot feed a city like Phoenix with organics. It's impossible. I don't see another option; organics, at least, do not provide that option. If you are rich enough to pay the prices for organics, then that's okay. But I'm more concerned about the people who cannot eat. A lot of the unrest that we are seeing in the Middle East is coming from food security. People can be abused – and they have been abused for a while – but their food supply was still sufficient. Scarcity is starting to hit. When food scarcity hits, it's a major problem.

In the timeline of genetically modified plants, where are we now?

We are ready, and China is taking the lead. China is already growing genetically modified plants that already have been approved by the Chinese department of agriculture. Here in the United States, you can grow genetically modified plants after passing all the challenges. If the challenges weren't so dramatically high, ASU could promote the growth of the plants I'm generating – but the price is so high that only a big company can do it. So one of the main dangers is that we might have in the near future a monopoly of agricultural goods. I think that is dangerous for the whole world.

In 20 years from now, what is your hope for Earth in relation to phosphorus scarcity?

I think we will be in a good place. There is enough technology at different fronts that will actually help to address the problem. Morocco remains ... a question mark, but again, the research and the technologies hold a lot of promise. It's just a matter of using them.

Contributor's Biography:

Britt Lewis is a graduate student in the Department of English at Arizona State University, where she is studying ecocriticism.