Re-establishing Ancient Agricultural Practices: Lessons from the Recent Past (Part One)

By Jennifer Huebert Editor’s Note: This article is the first of three case studies investigating ancient agricultural practices. Look for the next installment in the Winter 2012 issue.

One of today’s most pressing global issues is the need to produce food more efficiently in order to feed the growing world population (1). This issue has been addressed with solutions ranging from genetically modified food plants to mechanized large-scale monoculture cropping practices. However, modifications people make to the landscape to cultivate food create significant and often destructive changes in the environment (2). Conscious efforts must be made to sustain agroecosystems and conserve natural resources so they can function in perpetuity.

There are important reasons to look to the ancient past for possible solutions to today’s agricultural problems. The environmental and social problems humans face today are not new. In fact, humanity may have faced the very same challenges millennia ago; people developed strategies to survive, and, at other times, the choices they made led to their ultimate demise. By looking at the past, we can see that cultures that modified ecosystems in environmentally unsustainable ways did not endure (e.g. 3, 4). We must study challenges faced in the past and attempt to learn from mistakes. In doing so, we can learn how to deal effectively with today’s problems.

Forces both cultural and natural—climate fluctuations, shifting dunes, geographic exploration, wars—acting over widely varying spans of time combine to make the world an unpredictable and constantly changing place (5). Cultures must be able to adapt because the environment and the world around us are continually changing; I argue that cultures must also adopt environmentally sustainable subsistence practices to ensure their long-term survival. In order to effectively implement change, these practices must fit within the social and economic systems of the cultures that use them (6).

In the distant past, when civilizations survived hard times there was often no record of their successes. Strategies once used to survive in difficult environments may be long forgotten; adaptive strategies may have occurred as an accumulation of subtle changes over long spans of time. When faced with looking at cultural and environmental changes over the long durée, archaeology can provide a unique perspective (7). As an interdisciplinary field, it also has the ability to bring together humanist and scientific disciplines in its pursuit. All of these attributes make archaeology especially suited to help people understand the consequences of the changes they consider effecting in the modern world (2, 4).

The study of ancient agricultural practices can thus provide valuable data to modern-day farmers, crop scientists and policy makers. Some agronomists have advocated that participatory development that uses sustainable practices is the answer. These practices encourage people to be self-sufficient in their means of food production, and ensure local control over resources and techniques used to raise crops (8, 9). An added benefit is the ability to apply a uniquely local perspective to management strategies that mitigate risks (10). This review, presented in three installments, explores case studies where forgotten or fading traditional agricultural practices were revived to address modern-day agricultural challenges. Examples were chosen to compare and contrast these initiatives in different cultures and geographic regions of the world. Each example illustrates a distinct problem to solve, and has a unique history to consider. Additionally, the teams all take different approaches to planning and implementing their projects. All face significant challenges and meet with varying degrees of success.

There are several key questions that should be addressed when considering the successful revival of forgotten agricultural technologies (4, 8-10).

•          First, is the practice appropriate for current environmental conditions? A landscape that once may have been a green pasture may now be a barren desert.

•          Second, is the practice sustainable? This answer may not be easy to discern without extensive study and experimentation.

•          Third, is there a clear benefit for the cost of implementing the practice? The practice may be very labour intensive to initiate, but if the returns are significant perhaps the investment is justified.

•          Fourth, is the technology accessible and are methods to implement it appropriate for this culture? Methods that require exotic tools and equipment may not be sustainable, and techniques that are unknown may be deemed risky or met with cultural resistance.

•          Finally, the ideology of the present society must be taken into account. The social networks that structure society and the motivations and needs of groups within must be understood, both for effective learning and to continue teaching these practices to the next generation (6).

Three case studies will ultimately be presented, along with a review of how effectively each initiative addressed the foregoing concerns. The projects will also be revisited to establish where they are today, and to assess whether these resurrected agricultural practices have benefitted modern-day societies.

Case Study #1: Runoff agriculture in the Negev Desert, Israel

Despite perceptions that the desert is a barren landscape, various forms of agriculture have been utilized to make desert areas productive. Modern irrigation systems have often been seen as the only solution to solving water problems in these areas, however these systems can be economically and technologically unattainable for many people (11). The techniques of runoff agriculture can provide an alternative. These techniques involve either channeling and storing seasonal desert floodwaters, or pumping the water through a system of chained wells to irrigate fields (12).

The remains of large-scale agriculture are seen throughout the Negev Desert of southern Israel, including thousands of hectares of stone walls and farmsteads, although the tradition and techniques have largely passed from memory. These remains were the source of scholarly speculation about the effects of severe erosion and climate change for more than a century before attracting the attention of a young Israeli botanist, Michael Evenari. Evenari considered that if the desert had once been farmed, it had the potential to be productive again (12). Evenari and an interdisciplinary team of scientists including archaeologists, agronomists, geologists and hydrologists, set out to study the remains of these ancient farms in the mid-20th century. Initially, the team’s goal was to prove theories about the effectiveness of runoff agriculture, rather than to revive ancient farming practices in this region. However, the project was later expanded to include extensive study of the desert climate, rainfall patterns and plants that could thrive under arid conditions.

After defining their project, the team set up a base at one of the ancient farmsteads and began to study the desert environment (see image 2). They first had to establish that the Negev had actually been a desert in ancient times, putting to rest speculations regarding a collapsed environment caused by erosion or climate change. Using archaeological excavation and aerial reconnaissance techniques, the team mapped stone walls, mounds, channels and dams that had been used to control seasonal flood waters in the desert (12). They discovered that water was channeled to the farms and, through varying arrangements, conveyed directly onto the fields or into cisterns where it was later distributed during the growing season. Three basic types of farms were identified. One involved simple terraces of low stone walls called wadis, which resemble a series of steps (see image 1). Wadis channeled floodwaters and prevented erosion. Another type of farm consisted of terraced fields and a farmhouse or watchtower, all surrounded by a stone fence. Hillside channels directed water to the terraces, and a series of stepped channels intricately directed the flow of floodwaters and pooled it for later use. The third type of farm was larger and far more elaborate, designed to catch runoff from very large wadis and direct it through a series of canals.

What were at first thought to be simple remains of single-occupation farm settlements were actually the layered remains of numerous, subsequent occupations. Archaeological excavations assisted the team in understanding the patterning and duration of human occupation dating back more than 10,000 years. While early residents settled near water sources, later residents settled along desert trade routes. Historical records, including ancient papyri discovered during archaeological excavations (12) indicated that this area was extensively settled to protect Nabataen trade routes across the desert, and later to support Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Desert farming was intensely practiced over these time periods. Historical documents indicate that the Negev desert was intricately divided up based on water rights enforced by law. After about AD 700, the desert region was taken over by people who did not need to protect these routes. Traffic decreased, and the farms were abandoned. The area has since been home to Bedouin, a traditionally nomadic peoples who occasionally farm small plots of land.

Two ancient farms were reconstructed in the team’s initial field season. These were highly experimental projects intended to collect data about rainfall volume and to observe water runoff patterns. Water was collected from the first seasonal flood and a test planting of trees and crops took place. Crops planted included grapes, almonds, olives, fruit trees and barley. Fodder crops, legumes, fibre plants and vegetables were added in subsequent seasons. Fields were fertilized with animal dung left in the area by Bedouin animal herds, with the addition of some modern fertilizers. Bedouin residing in the area assisted with the first planting (12).

The team’s first experimental season did well despite a severe drought that followed. Evenari and his team took on a larger-scale project of 80 plots of land, planted extensive fruit tree groves the following season, and reported successful harvests. Systematic evaluation of these desert runoff collection systems indicated that over 50 percent of rainwater could be collected with these methods (13). Over the next 15 years, the team continued to cultivate, observe rainfall patterns and study desert crop plants on the reconstructed farms. In 1970, one farm became a training centre to teach others how to use these methods to cultivate crops in arid areas (12).


Did this case study satisfy the criteria outlined for a successful revival of forgotten agricultural technologies? After much research, Evenari’s project team concluded that these practices were sustainable in a desert environment. It was remarkable that even unattended for many hundreds of years, water was still being channeled to the ancient cisterns during heavy rainfall. The team concluded, after examining historical documents and archaeological investigations, that desert farming had actually been practiced extensively here for a very long time. It only became a forgotten technology when trade routes through the desert were abandoned and / or remote borders were no longer maintained.

The team performed background research and experimented for several seasons to establish that these practices were appropriate for the current environmental conditions. They concluded that these cultivation techniques were still viable and productive in the Negev.

The immense effort and skill required to initially build walls and terraces throughout the desert in ancient times is thought to have involved labour coordinated from a state centre (14). Once these cultivation structures were in place, however, no extraordinary amount of labour was needed to farm the desert. Additionally, the cultivation techniques used in these systems did not require tools or technology that was out of reach for the Israeli food producers of the region.

Evenari’s project was conducted in large part to benefit the then newly formed state of Israel, and because of this, the initiative was well-supported on many levels. It should be noted, however, that the desert is also home to Bedouin. In his concluding remarks on the Negev project, Evenari mused that it would have been ideal to turn the desert into a productive environment for the Bedouins while preserving their cultural heritage (15). While it is not clear whether this aim was achieved, the model farm is now a worldwide teaching and research centre for the study of agronomy, plant and soil sciences in arid environments. It has affected change in arid farming practices in ten different countries (16), making it by all measures a successful re-establishment.

Part Two in this series will present a case study focusing on the revival of raised-bed agriculture in the Lake Titicaca basin of Peru.


1.         Uphoff NT (2002) Introduction. Agroecological Innovations: Increasing Food Production With Participatory Development, ed Uphoff NT (Earthscan, London), pp xv-xviii.

2.         Rogers JD (2004) The global environmental crisis: an archaeological agenda for the 21st century. The Archaeology of Global Change: The Impact of Humans on Their Environment, ed C. Redman SRJ, P.R. Fish, and J. D. Rogers (Smithsonian Books, Washington), pp 271-277.

3.         Diamond JM (2005) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, New York).

4.         Redman CL, S.R. James, P.R. Fish, and J.D. Rogers (2004) Introduction. The Archaeology of Global Change: The Impact of Humans on Their Environment, ed C. Redman SRJ, P.R. Fish, and J. D. Rogers (Smithsonian Books, Washington), pp 1-8.

5.         Barton CM, et al. (2004) Long-term socioecology and contingent landscapes. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 11(3):253-295.

6.         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.

7.         Kirch PV & Sahlins MD (1992) Anahulu: The Anthropology of History in the Kingdom of Hawaii (University of Chicago Press, Chicago).

8.         Browder JO (1989) Introduction. Fragile Lands of Latin America: Strategies for Sustainable Development, ed Browder JO (Westview Press, Boulder), pp 1-10.

9.         Uphoff NT (2002) The Agricultural Development Challenges We Face. Agroecological Innovations: Increasing Food Production With Participatory Development, ed Uphoff NT (Earthscan, London), pp 3-20.

10.       Wilken GC (1989) Transferring Traditional Technology: A Bottom-Up Approach for Fragile Lands. Fragile lands of Latin America: Strategies for Sustainable Development, ed Browder JO (Westview Press, Boulder), pp 44-60.

11.       Fernandes E, Pell A, & Uphoff N (2002) Rethinking Agriculture for New Opportunities. Agroecological Innovations: Increasing Food Production With Participatory Development, ed Uphoff NT (Earthscan, London), pp 21-30.

12.       Evenari M, Shanan L, & Tadmor N (1982) The Negev: The Challenge of a Desert (Harvard University Press, Cambridge).

13.       Evenari M (1974) Desert Farmers: Ancient and Modern. Natural History 83(7):42-49.

14.       Haiman M (2006) ADASR - Ancient Desert Agriculture Systems Revived.

15.       Evenari M, Shanan L, Tadmor N, & Aharoni Y (1961) Ancient Agriculture in the Negev. Science 133(3457):979-996.

16.       Lange OL & Schulze E-D (1989) In memoriam Michael Evenari (formerly Walter Schwarz) 1904–1989. Oecologia 81(4):433-436.

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.

Georg Gerster (Image 1)

Human Chains

By Ameret Vahle While working with cutouts and stencils of human chains in my paintings, I got the idea to put a call out asking people for cutouts of their own. Participants could make them out of many different materials such as waste paper, advertisement posters or plastics for inclusion in the installation of "The world in my backyard.’’ I received numerous cutout chains of various forms, dimensions and materials from nearly all over the world and from people of all ages and professions.

In Berlin, I installed these cutouts on the garbage cage in my backyard. The cage was illuminated from within for an event on March 12, 2011. Then, something unexpected happened as a result of the recent news of the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan: visitors began to spontaneously build human chains, reflected as shadows on the surrounding walls.

The day of the event, a young lady in the street who had never before taken part in creating art or in building human chains stated, "When we took each other by the hand, I felt a deep and touching energy of solidarity I never had before. Now I feel the power of this kind of manifestation and start to understand and will participate more." This was one of the most touching statements I received for the project.

The dialogue of the garbage cage and symbolism of human chains came to represent barriers against the use of nuclear energy in Germany before the Fukushima event, and after, in Japan. It became a sign of solidarity, even for those who had not participated before, creating discussion, reflection and engagement.

These chains symbolize democracy and real human chains, and are organized to express political opinions and demands. The feeling of taking somebody by the hand and building a real chain conveys a special experience that can make us feel related and united. Further, the making of chains cut out of paper, a form of play by children in many cultures, is a contemplative way to tap into one’s childhood roots.

The qualities of interactive performance and ephemeral installation reflect actual problems and demands, discussed in a lively way during and after the event, and encourage material, as well as mental, sustainability.

Contributor’s biography

Born in Dortmund, Germany, Ameret lives and works primarily in Berlin. She has studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf and as guest at the Académie des Beaux Arts of Paris. She has participated in, among others, the 15th International Visual Arts Symposium in Padgorica/Serbia and Cetinje/Montenegro, and was an invited artist to the Beijing Art Space. Recent works include a street project titled, "I am here," in Nice, France, and "Shadows," a street project and exposition with the people of Berlin/Spandau. To view more of her work, please visit

Jalan Jati - “Teak Road"

By The Migrant Ecologies Project (Lucy Davis & Collaborators) Jalan Jati or "Teak Road" is a visual art, science and ecology project tracing the historic, material and poetic journeys of a 1950’s teak bed, found in a Singapore karang guni junk store, back to a location in Southeast Asia where the original teak tree may have grown. Jalan Jati brings together cross-cultural natural histories, micro and macro arboreal influences and DNA timber tracking technology. The project carries a message about deforestation and the importance of consuming certified timber. The exhibition media comprises photography, woodprint collage and stop-motion animation.

The project is the latest evolution of a material-led investigation that started in 2009. The objective of the initiative was to recast the form and content of the historic 1950s to 1960s Singapore/Malayan Modern Woodcut Movement in a contemporary context of, "cutting of wood," or rainforest destruction.

Jalan Jati is situated in a macro-scale, global context of deforestation and illegal logging. The resulting works, publications and educational materials contain messages targeted at developed countries and their consumers, informing these parties of the importance of knowing where products come from and of purchasing legally certified timber.

The artistic approach to this project is on a micro-level—intimate and poetic. Jalan Jati is about multiple arborealities. It is about tracing and communicating an ecology of many-layered, contradictory, competing, aerial and subterranean networks of stories about trees, about people and their relationship to trees and to wood; of what happens when fingerprints meet wood-grain; of how plants, trees and forest materials have "used people" to migrate across continents; and of how these stories and plants have taken root in foreign soils. The project is on a micro-level communicating what one might call an "agency" of nature; it conveys what nature does to us—what trees and forest materials inspire us to do as much as what we do to nature.

This inquiry into "woodcut" and "cutting of wood" led to an investigation of artist’s materials—in this case of the wood blocks used by artists in Singapore, which are largely comprised of jelutong, a timber used extensively in pencils and art supplies and associated with deforestation. A search for more sustainable materials for a 21st century woodcut project led to an investigation into the stories of timber objects that migrate to Singapore.

The first exhibition of works from this inquiry was Together Again (Wood:Cut) I NATURAL HISTORY, which was exhibited at Post Museum Singapore in 2009. The exhibition attempted to recreate, in "humpty dumpty style," the original trees from "natural history prints" of wood objects found on the streets of Little India, Singapore.

A second exhibition, Together Again (Wood:Cut) II MAGIC exhibited at The Substation in Singapore 2010, conjured magic-realist histories of Southeast Asian forests from the grain of one particular teak bed (the same bed we have DNA tested for Jalan Jati). Research for these exhibitions grew into an Artist-in-Residency agreement between the artist, Lucy Davis, and Double Helix Tracking Technologies Pte Ltd.

As the genealogy of Jalan Jati is led by material and art-historical interests (i.e. an interest in and reverence for the Malayan modern woodcut), it subsequently privileges an organic, "wooden" aesthetic, which contrasts with the "clean" or "ethereal" aesthetic of new media or art-science initiatives. This aesthetic is also in keeping with our objective: a conceptual and material recasting of the histories and sensual knowledge at stake in woodcut and woodprints in a contest of deforestation and the illegal timber trade.

Contributor’s biography

Lucy Davis (PI Jalan Jati) is founder of the MIGRANT ECOLOGIES PROJECT. She is a visual artist, art writer and Assistant Professor at the School of Art Design and Media (ADM), Nanyang Technological University Singapore. 
Shannon Lee Castleman (Co-PI Jalan Jati)  is an Assistant Professor of Photography and Digital Imaging, at School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University.  For more information visit:

On Listening and Being Heard at Occupy Wall Street

By Allain Barnett It was a Saturday night, and I was glued to my computer screen, watching closely as a large line of police officers closed in on a group of citizens occupying a public park in Chicago. Many were sitting at the perimeter of their camp. They refused to move, but they did not fight. Instead they chanted, "We love you," as the police began pulling people from the line and arresting them. This feed was streaming live from a participant with a Wi-Fi connected laptop or smartphone. In a chat window next to the video stream, people sent supporting messages or advice like, "Don't fight back! Stay non-violent!"

A few hours before watching the drama unfold in Chicago, I was one of a group of people occupying Margeret T. Hance Park in downtown Phoenix. Protestors were taking turns suggesting how the crowd should deal with the possibility of a police arrest. The crowd listened to suggestions and responded with hand signals to indicate whether they agreed, did not agree or wished to block the suggestion and make an alteration. These hand signals seemed a little silly at first, but then I realized the importance of the process. One individual, for example, argued that passively resisting the police (which would inevitably result in arrests) could have disproportionate effects on marginalized people within the crowd, such as ethnic minorities and the disabled. I lifted my hands into the air to gesture support for this statement, and it was agreed that passive resistance by some protestors should not put marginalized people at risk.

For the first time I was witnessing a form of participatory democracy in action; decisions were made by consensus from nearly all of the people at the park. Not only that, I was actually participating in this process. Such participatory processes are featured heavily in literature on common property resources, vulnerability, environmental justice, resilience, political ecology and ecological economics when considering questions of sustainability, which emphasize the equity between the current generation and future generations, and between social groups within the current generation. This body of literature highlights case studies of existing successes, as well as critiques demonstrating the pervasiveness of power and hierarchy. Similarly, the process I witnessed in the park certainly wasn’t perfect. It was messy, sometimes frustrating, but when a decision was made, most people complied. Maybe this is because people are more likely to follow rules they themselves have participated in developing, or maybe it was because they believed in working together to send their message to the American public, Wall Street and Washington.

While media outlets have not given much recognition to Occupy Wall Street’s (OWS) method of imagining different democratic processes, they have criticized the lack of demands coming from OWS protestors. But the protestors are not without desire or vision: members of OWS in New York City have developed a list of grievances emphasizing the power of unregulated or under-regulated corporations to seek profit at the expensive of environmental degradation and inequality, and have encouraged American and global citizens to occupy public spaces and begin to address these problems through a truly participatory democratic process.

To some this may sound vague and, importantly, it will make it difficult to determine when and if the movement has succeeded. Yet this vagueness is vital to the success of the movement. The transformative potential of OWS is based on its recognition that there are no cure-all solutions and its devotion to a decision-making process that engages the public to participate, which can lead to a family of solutions for a wide range of problems. Since my participation in Occupy Phoenix I have been catching glimpses of what success might look like. More frequently than before October 15th, the day OWS went global, I now find myself involved in conversations with friends and strangers about our current economic, social, environmental and political problems. The continuing success of the movement depends on expanding the discussion to workplaces, universities, classrooms and public spaces, and on people from all over the political spectrum beginning to talk about the future they want and how they can achieve it. These conversations may be messy and frustrating, but they can also bring a sense of empowerment and innovation that can put more pressure on those who have been elected to represent us, and lead to outcomes that are both sustainable and fair.

While I am highly doubtful that OWS protesters would adopt sustainability as their unifying objective, I am certain that students of sustainability and occupiers have many shared visions of the future for our environment and human well-being. Of course, I am not an official spokesperson for OWS: we are the spokespeople for our future, and now is the perfect time to speak up.

Contributor’s Biography

Allain Barnett is pursuing his PhD in Environmental Social Science at Arizona State University. His research focuses on fisheries management in Nova Scotia, Canada, and the livelihoods and practices of fishing households under conditions of environmental and economic change.

Letter from the Editor

Since it was founded three years ago, The Sustainability Review’s mission has been to provide a broad readership with meaningful and accessible art, opinion, research and journalism relevant to sustainability. When the new editorial staff came together we attempted to build on this mission by defining what we meant by sustainability. This was intended to clarify what types of submissions we wanted from potential contributors. But in the pursuit of clarity, we realized that ‘defining sustainability’ is synonymous with ‘simplifying complexity’—something that years of interdisciplinary work has yet to accomplish, let alone an editorial staff of ten graduate students. I interpreted this exercise as a metaphor for sustainability dialogue in general. If one person or group tries to define it, they restrict the diversity of topics that may be discussed. For example, we attempted to list different subjects that might fit into social, economic and environmental sustainability categories and were quickly gridlocked over how to categorize "agriculture." We found that the more granular our focus, the less flexible our outcomes. But with a subject too flexible, we risked saying nothing at all. The inherent tension between focus and flexibility is a challenge faced in sustainability science and practice.

We view sustainability as a space where questions and ideas interact across scales and levels to explore a better way forward for humankind. For instance, this issue presents articles that focus on different temporal levels: some are about current happenings (Occupy movement, coral reef degradation), some are about the past (learning from ancient agriculture practices to solve today’s food problems, history of rainforest products), and some are about the future (how the world will sound if dominated by electric transportation or how future sustainability visions could transcend current social order). Also, there are articles about sustainability in general (the critique of sustainability ideology) and articles that zero in on specific areas (pros and cons of integrated water management). The breadth and depth of these topics are diverse, and we hope they will further our understanding of coupled human-environment systems.

With this issue we hope to create a unique arena in which to discuss the rich interplay among discipline- and sector-specific questions and ideas. It is difficult to discuss scale-spanning sustainability topics with any certainty or consensus in the short term. The only interim solution to this communication challenge is to keep muddling through the complexity toward shared understanding. TSR is a forum for this conversation. Keep asking questions. Keep sharing ideas. Keep learning from each other.

I encourage you to read the opinion section in this issue which presents two insightful articles about the Occupy Wall Street movement. The authors pose questions like "what are our shared visions for the future of our environment and human well-being?" and "why aren’t you and I putting these issues at center stage?" The links between the sustainability and Occupy movements are waiting to be articulated. I hope you will consider these questions and respond by commenting on these articles, on our Facebook and Twitter pages, or in your own opinion piece for our winter issue. We hope our publication will provide a space for focused but flexible dialogue about sustainability research and practice, and also serve as a jumping off point for you to respond and keep the conversation going.

Cameron Childs Editor-in-Chief The Sustainability Review

Occupy Sustainability: Is This a Special Moment?

By Charles L. Redman, PhD About a month ago I sent out an email to School of Sustainability (SOS) students and colleagues posing the question of whether key elements of the Occupy Wall Street movement share important similarities with our own quest to encourage and implement a sustainability transformation in society. I received a dozen replies that supported further dialogue. My goal here is to stimulate discussion of these issues with the hope that we can learn from what is happening and, if you choose to do so, encourage you to contribute to the success of this movement.

Some of the most frequent criticisms of the movement, especially by pundits in the media, are that a diversity of issues are being championed and that there is not a "clear message." At one level, I agree with the observation that many seemingly separate issues are being cited as reasons for joining the demonstrations. Most commonly cited is anger over the concentration of wealth and influence in a very small percentage of the population, "the 1%," and the fact that they are not adequately taxed or held accountable for their mistakes—mistakes that have been costly. These issues relate closely to unemployment, undue corporate influence, etc. However, while issues such as a public education system that is failing, a health care system that is not available to all and a natural resource stewardship regime that is lacking do not seem to be closely related to the core, for me this diversity of grievances is the strength of the movement. At a fundamental level all of these issues are related to unequal access to resources, power, education, amenities and government protection.

For me, the growing inequality of access is the central issue of our time and at the core of a sustainability transformation. I believe the Occupy Wall Street movement and the many newer Occupy movements (in Phoenix, other U.S. cities, and cities around the world) reflect an emergent process of people coming together—with different initial motivations—and finding like-minded individuals, even if their primary objectives seem disparate.

The question that is often asked is whether the movement must focus on an easy to understand, compelling set of demands in order to succeed. I am tempted to agree, but at the same time I believe that the disparate goals are not contradictory and that perhaps we are better served by maintaining a diversity of grievances. The aspect of this that troubles me is that being open to everyone’s personal views means that individuals with more radical views, such as "down with capitalism" or "do away with all corporations," become part of the scene and disproportionally attract media attention.

A second common concern raised about the effectiveness of this movement is that it seems to have no leaders. This is intentional on the part of the demonstrators, who are attempting to maintain a ‘horizontal’ organization with open and democratic mechanisms for discussion and decision making. In this situation as well I have a tendency to think having identifiable, charismatic leaders espousing a unified, clear message would help the movement; but is this an unintentional surrender on my part to the status quo?

Although the number of cities with Occupy movements continues to grow, I am worried about whether this movement will be embraced by enough people and succeed in setting society on a new course. I do believe that most of the basic complaints and demands are well-founded, that the majority of Americans are sympathetic with the message that extreme inequality in access to resources is leading America in the wrong direction, and that some moderate actions could at least set society on a better course and build momentum for further change. Nevertheless, the actual number of people involved in these demonstrations is relatively small compared to the number of people who share these beliefs. This brings me to three final questions: First, why have so few city leaders allowed demonstrators to have a place and a forum for discussing issues? Second, why have these leaders responded to what is, in virtually all cases, a peaceful and non-threatening movement with ‘overwhelming force’? Finally, why aren’t you and I and more Americans joining this movement or at least putting these issues at center stage? This final question worries me the most and I see it as symptomatic of the system we have built for ourselves: we are too busy leading over-committed lives, and are too fearful of uncharted waters.

I believe this may be a special moment for those of us who want to see a transition to sustainability. Can we afford to let it pass?

Contributor's Biography Charles L. Redman (PhD in Anthropology) is the Virginia Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment and is the founding director of the School of Sustainability, Arizona State University.  His research focuses on the integration of social and ecological perspectives, the dynamics underlying rapid urbanization, the long-term aspects of human impacts on the environment and the application of resilience theory.  He has conducted archaeological research in the Near East, North Africa, and the American Southwest as well as co-directing contemporary interdisciplinary projects in Central Arizona and working in collaboration with UNAM in Mexico.

Panacea or Platitude: Integrated Water Resource Management - Conceptually Sound But Fundamentally Flawed

By Rhett Larson Water is unique in that it is often viewed simultaneously as a fundamental human right and yet an increasingly valuable natural resource largely integrated with private real property rights. Because of this dichotomy, water policy lends itself to similar dichotomous discussions, with aspirational platitudes met with pragmatic skepticism. In recent years, this dichotomy has crystallized around the concept of "integrated water resource management" ("IWRM"). IWRM is commonly defined as, "A process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources, in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems" (1). This essay describes the objectives of IWRM, examines its limitations in the context of one hotly contested river basin—the Colorado River Basin—and offers pragmatic suggestions on how to realize the aspirations of IWRM.

I. The Colorado River Basin—Why IWRM is Conceptually Sound

The Colorado River represents a classic example of a failure to incorporate IWRM principles in resource management. The river basin is shared by two countries, several states and many indigenous communities in an arid region that has a growing population, agricultural and mineral resources, and threatened ecosystems (2). The law of the Colorado River (commonly called "The Law of the River") is composed of legislation, court decisions and agreements, including the Colorado River Compact and the Mexican Water Treaty in particular, which set forth the rights of the river’s stakeholders and the relationships between riparian jurisdictions, including upper basin jurisdictions (like Colorado and Utah) and lower basin jurisdictions (like Arizona, California, and Mexico) (3,4,5). The compact was negotiated in 1922 and the treaty in 1944, each with limited input from many stakeholder groups, inadequate and inaccurate hydrologic and climatologic data, poor foresight on population growth and climate change, and virtually no consideration of ecological issues (6).

Upper basin jurisdictions often make development and management decisions independent of lower basin users who bear the heaviest burden of mismanagement by upstream riparian states. For example, dams in Nevada and Arizona, the operation of a desalinization plant along the Arizona/Mexico border and diversionary irrigation projects in northern Mexico and southern Arizona threaten the ecological balance of the Colorado River Delta, including the ancestral homeland of the Cocopah people and the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher. Each jurisdiction rationally seeks to satisfy its constituents without regard for externalities (7).

Had The Law of the River included a more flexible approach, allowing diversion rights to respond to changing flow conditions, and had development of The Law of the River integrated public participation (in particular from indigenous communities) and different disciplines (including ecology and climatology), much of the current crises related to the Colorado River might have been mitigated. But the development of The Law of the River is not just an example of failure to incorporate IWRM in treaty negotiation and development, it is a cautionary tale of the pitfalls for implementation of IWRM.

II. The Colorado River Basin—Why IWRM is Fundamentally Flawed

IWRM is fundamentally flawed in several ways demonstrated by challenges in the Colorado River Basin. Primarily, the concept of collaborative governance inherent in IWRM seldom works in practice (8). Stakeholder interests and cultures in most contested river basins are simply too diverse and their differences too divisive. For example, it is difficult to harmonize the disparate interests of casino developers on the Las Vegas strip with fishermen in the Colorado River delta (9). The challenge is all the more acute given the unanimity principle inherent in the concept of collaborative governance—e.g. IWRM (8). Unanimity amongst so diverse, and so competitive, a group of stakeholders hedges in IWRM efforts dependent upon collaboration.

Indeed, diversity is a central challenge to implementation of IWRM, and not just economic, cultural and political diversity. The geological, ecological, and hydrological conditions of large contested rivers are typically too diverse to lend themselves to centralized IWRM. The Colorado River Basin encompasses highly varied geological and ecological conditions, from perennial mountain streams in the Rockies to ephemeral arroyos in the Sonoran Desert (6,7). The technical challenge of developing nuanced standards over so diverse a watershed poses an obstacle to successful IWRM implementation.

Furthermore, existing legal institutions may be inconsistent with IWRM objectives. For example, Arizona maintains a bifurcated water rights system in which groundwater and surface water are treated as distinct, disconnected resources (10). This bifurcation is a legal fiction, as surface water and groundwater resources frequently interact as part of the hydrologic cycle and rarely lend themselves to bright-line distinctions. This legal fiction has resulted in significant litigation amongst Arizona users, and would serve only to further muddy the legal miasma of integrating multiple jurisdictions’ water law (11). In order to take an integrated approach to water management, IWRM proponents would have to integrate regulation of surface and groundwater in Arizona, thereby overcoming the rigid expectations of Arizona groundwater rights holders based on more than a century of law treating groundwater and surface water as distinct resources.

Entrenched expectations and rigid legal rights can frustrate IWRM success. The U.S. federal government holds in trust reserved water rights for all tribes within the basin (12). These reserved water rights represent a critical assumption underlying the treaties establishing tribal reservations upon which indigenous peoples rely both economically and culturally. Impinging upon these federally reserved rights to more effectively allocate water resources across the entire watershed would be viewed by many tribes as an assault on their sovereignty, a blatant violation of long-established treaty rights, an unconstitutional exercise of eminent domain on tribal property and a dereliction of a fiduciary duty held in trust by the federal government for the benefit of the tribe. IWRM comes to the scene too late at a point when resources have become so scarce and reliance on contractual and historical practices so entrenched as to practically preclude the effort to integrate other management approaches.

III. How To Advance IWRM While Mitigating Its Flaws

While IWRM principles address the most fundament challenges of water basin management, the practical implementation of IWRM would prove too unwieldy a tool in the face of the types of obstacles illustrated in the Colorado River Basin. The following four prescriptions would mitigate the weaknesses of IWRM while still upholding its values.

First, IWRM should provide overarching guidance to promote consistency in a series of management plans, "Starting at the sub-basin level and be progressively integrated into a multinational planning and management regime for the entire river basin" (13). This ensures that the institutions and regulatory framework developed by IWRM are sufficiently nuanced to the peculiar hydrogeological, ecological, cultural and economic issues in each sub-basin.

Second, IWRM must incorporate adaptive management principles. Adaptive management is, "A decision process that promotes flexible decision making that can be adjusted in the face of uncertainties as outcomes from management actions and other events become better understood…It is not a ‘trial by error’ process, but rather emphasizes learning while doing" (14). Adaptive management principles prevent decisions made in the IWRM process from becoming stale and static in contrast to the dynamic variables of watershed management.

Third, the shared benefits model used in the 1961 Columbia River Treaty between the United States and Canada allows downstream users to share in the benefits of upstream allocations, including dams for reservoirs or hydroelectric power. In that treaty, Canada agreed to forego certain development and diversion opportunities within the watershed, and offered flood control measures to the United States, in exchange for payment from the United States of revenues derived from electricity sales and water storage for Canadian users. The concept of "shared benefits" is derived from welfare economics, which posits that water is simply a valuable, scarce commodity with multiple possible alternative uses (15, 16).

Fourth, transferable private water rights (including tribal reserved water rights) must be viewed as consistent with IWRM objectives. "Private rights in water are fully transparent in every state water rights system. They are inclusive in the sense that potential water users may acquire water rights, although both the riparian and appropriation systems do place limits on type and place of use. Private rights in water provide accountability except to the extent that costs and benefits cannot be fully internalized. Finally, market exchanges of private water rights assure efficient allocation of the water resources, again assuming costs and benefits are internalized" (8).

IV. Conclusion

The objectives of IWRM are directed at problems that have always plagued watershed management, including lack of transparency, inclusivity and coordination. However, its implementation is hampered by the technical difficulties in regulating varied ecological and climatic conditions over large areas, collaboration between diverse stakeholders with competing and entrenched interests, and distinct jurisdictions sharing the watershed, each with legal institutions which may be inconsistent with one another and with the objectives of IWRM. The flaws can be mitigated through sub-basin planning, adaptive management, shared benefits and application of market forces on transferable water rights.


(1) Global Water Partnership (2000) Integrated Water Resources Management. in TAC Background Papers No. 4 (GWP Secretariat, Stockholm).

(2) Adler RW (2002) Restoring Colorado River Ecosystems:  A Troubled Sense of Immensity (Island Press, Washington, D.C.).

(3) Wilber RL & Ely N (1948) The Hoover Dam Documents (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C.)

(4) Nathanson MN (1980) Updating the Hoover Dam documents, 1978 (U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation).

(5) Treaty Between the United States of America and Mexico Respecting Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande (1944) 59 Stat. 1219, 1237.

(6) Pulwarty RS, Jacobs KL, & Dole RM (2005) The Hardest Working River: Drought and Critical Water Problems in the Colorado River Basin. Drought and Water Crises, ed Wilhite DA (CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida), pp 249-280.

(7) Glennon RJ & Culp PW (2002) The Last Green Lagoon: How and Why the Bush Administration Should Save the Colorado River Delta. Ecology Law Quarterly 28(4):902-992.

(8) James L. Huffman, "Comprehensive River Basin Management: The Limits of Collaborative, Stakeholder-Based, Water Governance," 49 Nat. Resources J. 117, 144 (2009).

(9) Fradkin PL (1996) A River No More:  The Colorado River and the West (University of California Press, Berkeley).

(10)  Evans A (2010) The Groundwater/Surface Water Dilemma in Arizona: A Look Back and a Look Ahead Toward Conjunctive Management Reform. Phoenix Law Review 3:269-291.

(11) In re General Adjudication of All Rights to Use Water in the Gila River System and Source (989 P.2d 739, 749 (Ariz. 1999).

(12) Winters v. United States (1908) 297 U.S. 564.

(13) Tarlock AD (Changing Currents: Perspectives on the State of Water Law and Policy in the 21st Century. Tulane Environmental Law Journal 23(2):369.

(14) U.S. Dept. of the Interior (2009) Adaptive Management Technical Guide 4, available at Management/TechGuide.pdf.

(15) Tarlock AD & Wouters P (2002) Are Shared Benefits of International Waters an Equitable Apportionment? Colorado Journal of International Environmental Law and Policy 18(3).

(16) Sadoff CW & Grey D (2002) Beyond the river: the benefits of cooperation on international rivers. Water Policy 4(5):389-403.

Contributor’s Biography

Rhett Larson's research and teaching interests are in administrative law and environmental and natural resource law, in particular, domestic and international water law and policy. Larson graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, where he was a Mohlman and S.K. Yee Scholar, and received his Master of Science in Water Science, Policy, and Management from Oxford University, where he was a Weidenfeld Scholar. Larson is a visiting assistant professor of law at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University.

Coral Reefs in Crisis: Finding Nemo May Become a lot Tougher

By Tara Haelle If your food sources vanished tomorrow, how long would it take you to starve to death?

What if your diet until this sudden starvation already lacked the nutrients to keep your bones strong and healthy? What if you were already suffering from the flu, or a more serious disease? It's impossible to say definitively how long your starving, weakened, diseased body would hold out, but death would be knocking.

Such is the state of our coral reefs today. The triple threat of coral bleaching (which causes starvation), higher prevalence of disease and more acid in the ocean (inhibiting corals' skeletal growth) calls into question how long our reefs can continue to survive. Or, at least how long they’ll look as we envision them in our Jacques Cousteau-inspired imaginations: gorgeous orange and yellow fans waving beside barrels of purple and bowls of blue, with Nemo and friends darting throughout the nooks and crannies that house the crustaceans we order at Red Lobster.

We must remember the brooding fact that this ecosystem’s decline contributes to ours as well—unless we act. The public needs better media reporting and guidance to address the problem; we lack both at the moment, but both can be remedied.

Thousands of miles of coral reefs are starving; many will recover, but in their weakened state, they’ll become more susceptible to the diseases proliferating as sea surface temperatures rise. Since coral is, literally, the bedrock of marine ecosystems, this situation signals trouble for oceanic life and people.

Coral reef degradation is the proverbial canary in the coalmine. Not because reefs themselves will vanish one day but because the ways global warming, pollution and habitat destruction are affecting the reefs forewarn of the changes that will eventually reach our backyards—literally. Yet the complexity of these problems makes it a struggle for scientists to pinpoint what will happen first, when, where and how. It's like playing Whack-a-Mole on a football field littered with land mines.

"As you remove certain portions of the coral reef environment, the rippling effect starts occurring and before long some species, whether we like them on our dinner table or in our aquarium, will start disappearing," said Billy Causey, Southeast Regional Director of NOAA Office of Marine Sanctuaries. "In 50 years, we're going to be in serious trouble if we don't make some changes. We're going to see losses in coastal and marine environments, perhaps, even failures in fisheries stocks and so on."

Those losses translate into economic casualties as well. Ross Hill, a marine biologist at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, quoted one study that puts the number of people worldwide directly or indirectly relying on coral reefs at 500 million. That's half a billion people who could lose their livelihoods. While dying coral reefs might feel remote in the dead of a Minnesota winter, the worldwide financial collapse of 2007 painfully revealed how interconnected the economies of our world now are. The ripple effects of an economic crisis in a nation like Fiji—surrounded by coral reefs—matter to us in the U.S.

"You don't want the millions of people who live in low-lying areas of the tropics to end up as ecological refugees as the coral reefs die and the income from tourism and their food disappears," said Judy Lang, the Scientific Coordinator of the Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment Project.

Yet potentially irrevocable changes in coral reefs could lead to these consequences if we don't address the causes of coral bleaching, disease and ocean acidification. With the situation so dire, why isn't the message getting across? And what can we, many of us far from a coastline much less a reef, do about it?

The first answer is twofold: one, the media does a poor job of explaining what's really going on and what to do about it; two, it's hard to motivate people about issues so seemingly remote, in both miles and years. Reporters must clearly explain what's causing the degradation of our coral reefs and why it matters.

Let's start with causes: 99 percent of marine and climate scientists agree the number one cause of all three attacks on coral reefs is climate change from increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But as Ray Hayes, a member of the Global Coral Reef Alliance Executive Board and Professor Emeritus of Howard University College of Medicine, points out, "To look at elevated temperature as a sole causative agent [of bleaching] would be a mistake." Additional stresses on coral include land-based sources of pollution, habitat loss and overfishing.

Meanwhile, the ocean has been absorbing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converting it into carbonic acid, weakening the ability of corals, crustaceans and mollusks to build their skeletons and shells. The cumulative effect on the reef resembles our own bodies' reaction to excessive stress: "The corals are overly stressed and diseases start breaking out," Causey explained. Indeed, diseases have proliferated in the past forty years, according to Lang.

"Bleaching," so named because the coral turns bright white, occurs when stressed coral expels the food-producing algae that contribute to its vibrant colors. Increased water temperature can trigger bleaching: coral-algae symbiosis flourishes in 78 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit; even a few degrees higher can spark a bleaching event. Sustained bleaching is essentially starvation, during which coral halts all inessential biological processes, including reproduction and skeleton-building, to conserve energy. Too often, bleached coral dies, and within hours brown, green and red algae grow over its skeleton, potentially preventing coral re-growth and, irrevocably, altering the reef environment.

"Coral reefs are nurseries for a number of economically significant seafood sources, such as lobsters and crabs and shrimp," Hayes said. "All those organisms we think of as being nutritionally supportive to a human population could be at risk as the reefs change."

In 1998, during the worst worldwide bleaching event on record, sixteen percent of the world's shallow-water reefs died. During another bad bleaching event in 2005, 80 percent of Caribbean coral bleached and as much as 40 percent died in the eastern Caribbean. According to Tom Goreau, president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, 2010 was the hottest year in history—and one of the worst coral bleaching years ever. Goreau said he watched almost all the corals in Thailand die over the course of a few weeks.

Again, where are the screaming headlines to wake people up?

First, it's hard to personalize something like bleaching that’s only visible underwater at certain times of the year. Ocean acidification, Causey points out, presents a tougher hurdle: "We're not going to see ocean chemistry changes; we're just going to see the results after it's almost too late."

Kris Wilson, an environmental journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said reporters must "transcend the journalism of proximity," a major factor in what gets reported. "A journalist has to take something abstract and bring it to a level to feel it's a part of their readers' lives," he said.

For example, telling readers about drugs like Ziconotide—a cone shell product recently approved as a non-addictive painkiller and used to treat Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and epilepsy—emphasizes the value of oceanic ecosystems. "A whole heap of medicines come out of animals that live on reefs," said Hill.

Yet, said Lang, we exacerbate the hazards reefs face with our high-energy consumption and with waste ranging from pharmaceuticals and fertilizers to household products and caffeine.

Another flaw in coral reef reportage arises from fundamental differences between scientific thinking and journalistic storytelling. The scientific method requires scientists to accept uncertainty in much of what they do; even gravity is still a theory.

"Science is long-term, incremental, always evolving," Wilson said. "Scientists are very cautious about their findings." But reporters and readers often want certainty and immediacy—rarely compatible with an issue like climate change. "We have to become comfortable with a certain level of uncertainty and still be willing to act," Wilson said.

According to Causey, this culture clash even affects how scientists talk to reporters. "It makes them reluctant sometimes because they think it's going to taint their scientific credentials if they go beyond what is or is not certain," he said. "We can't remain in stalemate because people are afraid of speaking beyond what they're certain of."

Most regrettably, however, reporters often leave readers feeling powerless: artificial he-said-she-said stories belie scientific consensus on the issue, or reporters sound doomsday trumpets without informing readers how to take action.

A reliance on "objectivity" over "balance" can distort how readers understand an issue. "Objectivity," the classic "he-said-and-she-disagreed" model Wilson describes, only presents two opposing points of view on a topic. "Balance" puts those views in context, quantifying and qualifying the voices on both sides.

Wilson adds that context is essential. "If a person is an outlier," he said, "you're obligated to tell readers the weight of his opinions." Wilson points out that prominent global warming skeptic Patrick Michaels receives funding from Western Fuels Association—this doesn't invalidate his opinions but it's essential to disclose.

"The more information people have, the more they realize these stories impact them, the more they'll hopefully become involved," he said. "Good environmental reporting has the potential to improve public policy and get people to understand their role in the environment and that they can really make a difference."

Of course, people must want to make a difference. "Most people are very myopic," Hayes said. "They see what's right in front of them and respond to the immediate situation and not to something that might be in the distance or somebody else's problem as they see it."

But time for them to notice is running out.

"What's happening to coral reefs is a preview of what's going to happen on a much larger scale," said Causey. "People need to recognize that although this may be happening in the tropics right now, it's not long before it's going to happen here. The coral reefs are symptomatic of the bigger climate change problems."

Hill adds that we must understand our place in the world. "We need to realize that humans are part of the global ecosystem, not above it and not immune to the effects we have on it," he said. He quoted Jacques Cousteau: "For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it."

Contributor’s Biography Tara Haelle is a photojournalism graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin and a high school journalism teacher at Texas Virtual Academy. A freelance writer and photographer in over two dozen publications, she primarily reports on health and environmental issues. As an avid scuba diver, she has a special place in her heart for sharks and coral reefs.

Traffic Movement

By Steve Jones and Sally Rodgers Traffic Movement is an imagined environment which transforms a recognizable street scene into a sonorous tone-poem. In this future soundscape, intelligent traffic lights speak their minds, the hum notes and partials of Electric Vehicles (EVs) ascend and descend, birds can be heard in the distant trees and footsteps echo on the city streets.

As governments worldwide begin to deal with environmental pressures by providing strategic economic stimulus to green energy start up programs, EVs are finally becoming a viable solution to many environmental concerns, for example air pollution. Loans and grants are available for infrastructure and the development of pollutant free fuel cells such as the energy dense lithium-ion battery. As the technology becomes more accessible, electric and hybrid-electric cars and scooters will begin to replace traditional combustion powered vehicles.

But there are still problems to address.

Since EVs are not powered by combustion, they produce almost no engine noise. There is growing concern that this absence of sound poses a risk to pedestrians and other road users. Because human beings are reliant on sound to confirm an action is taking place, EVs present very real safety issues for children, the elderly, the blind and the partially sighted. Early scientific research has concluded that a conventional vehicle can be heard at over 30 feet away, while an EV can only be identified at a distance of 7 feet (1). In response, governments are considering introducing legislation to regulate a minimum sound emission (2). Likewise, manufacturers are looking for solutions ahead of legislation to forestall the negative impact of product liability litigation and help ensure positive PR (3).

So what can be done and what might the future sound like?

It would be retrogressive to simply mimic the sound of a combustion engine, so perhaps we might look to the world of art for inspiration. Karlheinz Stockhausen observed that rhythmic pulses from an impulse generator would transform into a tone when their speed reached around 600 bpm. This same tone would rise in pitch as the speed increased: the rhythm now perceived as musical timbre. If we imagine this principle as adapted to function in conjunction with the acceleration and deceleration of an EV via onboard sound synthesis software, we might begin to hear the future of traffic noise.

Sound designers Steve Jones and Sally Rodgers are currently developing real-time software to make this concept a reality.

(1) "Hybrid Cars are Harder to Hear." University of California, Riverside Newsroom, April 28, 2008. Accessed November 7, 2011.

(2) "President Signs Pedestrian Safety Act." National Federation for the Blind. January 5, 2011. Accessed November 7, 2011.

(3) "Adding Sounds to the Silence of the Electric Car." PRI’s The World. June 27, 2011. Accessed November 7, 2011.

Contributors' Biographies

Steve Jones has an MSc in Sound Design from the University of Edinburgh and Sally Rodgers has an M.Litt from the University of St. Andrews, where she continues to conduct doctoral research into the historical impact of technology on modern poetics. Their enduring collaboration includes many licensed works and recordings, under the artist name A Man Called Adam, which are popular with electronic music fans around the world.

As sound designers they have a reputation for delivering high quality compositions and gallery-enabling sound for a diverse range of clients including The British Museum, Johnson Banks, The Burns Group, Clay Interactive and The BME. Recent commissions include a series of musical identifications for the National Science Museum and the sound for short films from award-winning biomimetic architects Tonkin and Liu. Their A/V work ‘Maud,’ based on Tennyson’s monodrama, will be exhibited this December as part of the Engine Room Festival celebrating the work of Cornelius Cardew at Morley College, London.

In performance they are currently experimenting with a concept using installation technology, which they loosely describe as ‘talking with spaces,’ in which they improvise with the sounds of the space they are in to generate a new sound. From recitation to the hidden sounds of obsolete technologies, they use real-time processing to create a unique audible discourse.

For more information about their work go to:


Moving to Atlanta from Detroit in 2006, I was immediately struck by the pace of growth in the area. I knew I had to make work that addressed this issue, but I also wanted to avoid rehashing the architectural imagery of new home construction that often defines urban sprawl. Instead, the images in this series were created using motion sensor cameras placed in two cities lying approximately 20 miles northeast of Atlanta: Suwanee, which has seen its population nearly double from 8,725 to 15,355 in the last ten years (1) and Buford, now home to the largest shopping mall in Georgia and the 14th largest in the United States. It is an area very much on the frontlines of urban sprawl in America (2). Recently, I have focused the work on a 44-acre property in Suwanee that has been put up for sale. I was in shock when the property first went up for sale because I knew it to be a dense ecosystem of Georgia wildlife and also one of the last sizable chunks of land in the area. After receiving permission from the owner, I started placing two to three cameras in the forest at a time to document the animals living there before the property sells. The placement of the cameras was entirely intuitive. While I originally paid great attention to tracks in the forest, hoping to get quicker results, I now place the cameras randomly, paying more attention to the aesthetics of the scene. I often feel as though I am setting the stage for an event that I will not be present to see.

The cameras themselves are essentially camouflaged, waterproof casings with a motion sensor and a 35mm instamatic film camera inside. The images they produce, although sharp, are distinct from more advanced systems used by wildlife photographers to capture rare and endangered animals. This difference is important because, aside from liking the snapshot quality of the images they produce, I am also employing the same tools that hunters use to survey areas for game. Like the hunter, the camera functions as an intruder in the forest. The flash illuminates the night, revealing the creatures we know are there but rarely see. In this way, the photographs allow the viewer to form a relationship with the animals with which we share our own backyards and give an identity to the real victims of urban sprawl.


(1) "City of Suwanee Facts & Figures," accessed June 10, 2011,

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

Contributor's Biography

Matthew Moore received an MFA degree in 2009 from Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia where he was awarded the Ernest G. Welch Graduate Photography Award in 2007 and the Chandler Award in 2006. He received a BFA degree in 2000 from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan. After completing his BFA Matthew moved to the Czech Republic for two years. Since that time, he has returned there frequently to exhibit work and lecture, most recently at Prague College and Univerzita J. E. Purkyne. In 2002, Matthew became a regular contributor to Hour Detroit Magazine, and his 2004 documentary "A Tale of Two Cities" won a silver medal for Best Photo Essay from the City and Regional Magazine Association. Other editorial clients include Detroit Home Magazine, XXL and Mass Appeal. In addition to his editorial work, Matthew has also taught photography at several institutions and universities including Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Michigan and Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. He currently lives in Baltimore where he is an instructor of photography and coordinator of the photography program at Anne Arundel Community College. For more of his work, please visit

Simulsuck and Womble Tumble Slide

My process involves the collection and reassembly of discarded materials. A recurring theme thatunites my work is reassigned (or voided) utility through a new context, and I work in several media—sculpture, video, drawing and performance. I scavenge large plastic appliances or electronics lying in the street or in garbage bins. By harnessing discarded materials, I utilize waste rather than produce it. Amidst the detritus that is continuously thrown away in a consumerist society, I search for connections and relationships between materials and concepts.

Lately, my work has taken a new direction: a mash-up of video, performance, sculptural assemblage and custom electronics. One example of this approach is a project entitled Simulsuck. This piece utilizes a custom video controller composed of discarded vacuum cleaners. The controller houses interactive electronic meters and dials that feed information such as volume and rate into the computer program Max/MSP/Jitter. The program then outputs the video while altering it according to the incoming data. For the video component, I gathered television commercials for cleaning products, such as mops, sprays, sponges and, of course, vacuum cleaners. The result is a rhythm-based, improvisational musical performance.

Another piece, Wobble Tumble Slide, also combines video, performance and sculpture, and it relies entirely on audience interaction. Rather than involving one performer and one controller, this new installation consists of three controllers, three video channels and multiple performers. When viewers enter the installation, the video screen shows a silent instructional loop. By picking up the sculptures and manipulating them by shaking, rocking and otherwise interacting with the moving parts, participants alter and edit the sound and appearance of the projected video clips. Like Simulsuck, Wobble Tumble Slide is a performance, but a performance that requires the participation of the viewer. The audience member is simultaneously the viewer and performer.

Click on the image to advance to the one. Point the mouse at the bottom of the image to see additional controls.

[aslideshow play=false playframe=false width=640 height=480 nextclick=true controls_hide=true imgresize=true]


Simulsuck, found video clips, discarded vacuum cleaners, custom electronics and software, dimensions variable, 2009, (3 minutes):

Wobble Tumble, Slide, found video clips, discarded plastic, custom electronics and software, dimensions variable, 2010, (2 minutes):

Swimming in Place, discarded plastic, stop-motion animation loop. (1 minute):

Contributor's Biography:

After calling the Detroit, Michigan area home for a number of years, Mike Richison relocated to New Jersey in 2007. He is currently a professor at Monmouth University where he teaches Motion Graphics, History of Graphic Design and Typography. He is a multimedia artist who utilizes a variety of media and approaches including graphic design, video, sculpture, printmaking, drawing and installation. He has exhibited and performed at several venues in the New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Detroit areas. To view more of his work, please visit

Creating a Sustainable Desert Metropolis

Artists have long appreciated the desert for its otherworldly landscape. Painter Georgia O'Keefe devoted much of her late career to capturing the distinct elements of the American Southwest, and architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright felt a strong connection to the desert – a place, he said, which inspired its own singular style of architecture. Environmental artist Joan Baron is no different in her appreciation of the desert's unique attributes and the creative opportunities they present. Such opportunities are the subject of Baron's ongoing urban landscape installation, The Edible Landscape Project – a unique rental property for those who crave the hands-on approach to their food source.

The Homeowner

In 1980, Baron bought and renovated a house on the same street as her property with the goal of creating a functional desert living space far different than your typical track house. The rental home offers her tenants a completely edible landscape and the opportunity to collaborate with her art and environmental sensibilities in a garden setting.

Baron bounces ideas off her tenants to try to answer the question that drives her art: what is it that sustains us?

"Respecting the land and what it can provide for us, living in purpose, growing one’s food and spending time outdoors with nature all contribute to best practices for sustained happiness and well-being," Baron says. "This is the making of a sustainable desert metropolis."

The Tenants

Midwest transplants, Melissa and Ben Beresford left their native Chicago to begin their respective graduate programs in Tempe. Disappointed by the sterile apartment landscape of the Phoenix metro area, they took a chance on a less traditional rental agreement when they found Baron’s project.

"We liked the emphasis on sustainability, and we both come from a family of gardeners, so it was perfect," says Melissa, who added that she and Ben had limited knowledge of how to garden in a climate with six growing seasons. Shortly after moving in, they started reaping the benefits.

Both successful harvests and failed attempts have taught them a great deal.

The Lessons

Baron and her tenants have learned the importance of strategically planning and planting for the best sun orientation. Fruit trees can handle more sun exposure, so south-side planting tends to work best. Plants that need a bit more shade can still be planted on the south side as long as some shading is provided.

They have learned that raised plant beds allow for companion planting—spatial relationships that are mutually beneficial—such as tomatoes with pole beans and kale, broccoli and cauliflower with garlic and dill.

"Mint and chives help to repel bugs and aphids, while spinach provides a living mulch for garlic," Baron says. "Marigold and oregano provide overall protection."

Raised beds also offer an element of flexibility. They can be custom designed to fit a space, and in the summer months if the raised beds need more shading, shade screen tents can be added. The beds also make it practical to use locally produced mulch and soil as well as fish oil and other nutrients.

"The beds allow me to provide my own soil mix rather than rely on the hard-dirt soil found on most properties," Baron says.

Finally, they have learned to focus their gardening energy on lesser known foods rather than the ubiquitous types of produce they can get cheaply from their local grocer.

"I encourage people to try different varieties of greens, such as microgreens or different varieties of basils or mints," Baron says. "When you go into a grocery store you will find one basic choice for your basil."

The Edible Landscape currently produces three varieties of plums, Anna apples, Desert Gold peaches, figs, pomegranates, Valencia oranges, Meyer lemons, Mexican limes, kumquats, blood oranges, Swiss chard, kale, arugula, society garlic, six varieties of peppers, artichokes, Armenian cucumbers, rosemary, oregano, sage, fennel, dill, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, okra, lavender, thyme, mint and lettuces.

"Joan taught us about some of the native medicinal plants of the desert," Ben says. "We have creosote growing along with senna, agaves, aloe, globe mallow calendula and Navajo tea." Cresote, a prevalent desert shrub, helps cure sore throats and congestion, while senna, in small quantities, can help treat digestive problems.

Re-imagining Desert Space

Growing food makes up only half of the equation, Baron says. The other half is how to use space and materials efficiently—a key idea to developing a sustainable desert metropolis.

"The Edible Landscape Project is a look at a different kind of system," Baron says.

For example, Baron collects the desert's most precious resource with a rain gutter that guides rainwater into a 400-gallon cistern she created from a section of metal culvert. She also stripped the driveway of concrete to reduce heat island and improve water absorption. She created more opportunities for natural cooling by planting five mesquite trees that are now fully grown and provide up to 40 feet of shade in the front garden. Using limbs of the native ocotillo, Baron constructed a living fence to help create a communal space for the tenants in the front garden as opposed to the back. Baron sees the frequent non-use of homes’ front space as a lost opportunity.

"We live in a backyard culture, and often the front spaces are dismissed and not considered as viable active areas," Baron says. "The ocotillo provides a lovely sculptural element to the landscape of the front space. It’s private yet welcoming."

Baron also planted a row of hollyhocks and sunflowers in the back alleyway of her studio. The gardening tactic has community implications as well: to make a shared space, solely reserved for the discarding of trash, more welcoming to the community that shares it.

If the focus of the Edible Landscape Project is how to live more sustainably in the desert, then its underlying theme is community stewardship. Baron and her tenants break the mold of the traditional owner-renter relationship, in that they must work together to care for the property and make the project grow—literally. The sense of community the project cultivates is what ultimately leads to further success.

When it comes to creating a sustainable desert metropolis, Baron reminds us that we’re all stewards, and we can all share in the bounties of nature.

Contributor's Biography:

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

The Problem with "Sustainability"

By Robert Kutter

It might seem like a strange message from the soon-to-be former editor-in-chief of a publication on sustainability, but I don’t like the word "sustainability." It hides the truly admirable part of what my classmates are trying to do: solve difficult problems with new approaches for the benefit of people and the environment. Actually, sustainability connotes keeping things the same, which is the opposite of what my classmates are trying to do: change things for the better.

The literature my classmates and I read in our coursework mostly talks about how to keep things the same. Usually, authors are concerned about the environment or quality of life. But the intention to keep things the same leads to different outcomes than the intention to help.

Trying to keep things the same is selfish because it springs from a desire to control for one’s own benefit. Parents who try to keep their kids a certain way or to over-control their lives end up harming them. Good parents nurture their children and—even though letting go is difficult—relinquish control as their children become more able to care for themselves. Only when we forget ourselves can we genuinely help others.

The word "sustainability" doesn’t do justice to practitioners’ work and doesn’t communicate a clear idea to the public. Sustainability of what? It’s hard to inspire people when the goal is unclear—especially when the means to achieve the goal are personal sacrifices, like giving up meat, or challenging tasks, like making solar energy affordable. Most authors don’t clearly define "sustainability" when they write about it, and that makes sustainability especially difficult for the public to understand. Even more concerning is that some authors want to leave it undefined to get more people involved in sustainability. Leaving sustainability undefined to get people to participate is like organizing a race and not telling runners how long or even where the course is. Before firing the starting gun, the race organizers might vaguely point to the horizon and say, "The finish line is somewhere in that general direction …" Bang!

People are inspired by positive visions for change, so we either need a new word for "sustainability" that conveys a clear, positive vision, or people working on sustainability need to agree on what "sustainability" means and communicate it to the public.

Contibutor's biography

Robert Kutter is editor-in-chief of The Sustainability Review and a doctoral student in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University.

Radishes for Adoption: A Network of Ad-Hoc Food Producers

Motivated to build relationships around local food production and self-sufficiency, "Radishes for Adoption" brought about the playful transition of verandas, rooftops and unused space into tiny, food production areas in Kyoto, Japan. In spring 2009, artist Markuz Wernli Saito encountered people in front of a supermarket and asked them to "adopt" five radish seeds each. Radishes are edible within just a few weeks. The artist claimed (truthfully) that there wasn’t sufficient sun and space for growing veggies at his house. Eventually, 30 adopters agreed and signed up to grow the radishes at their homes and meet with the artist once a week for the well-being of the plants. This project brought diverse people into a networked food-growing venture, regardless of their gardening experience or lifestyle. After seven weeks of mutual learning and encouragement, the radishes were made into vinegar pickles and exhibited in an installation of illuminated jars. The project concluded with a radish-tasting party where the participants came together for the first time to share their experience while nibbling on homegrown produce.

Over the project’s two-month duration, the artist made 182 home visits with the radish growers and spent about 80 hours providing gardening advice and encouragement. To reach the adopters, the artist biked about 850 miles. The radish growers spent approximately 400 hours (fifteen minutes per day) to raise a total of 200 plants. During the course of the project, four seeds allegedly ended up in the stomach of a bird. When the roots were pickled, most of the insecticide-free radish leaves became part of the food chain for lice, slugs, or bell maggots. Two radish growers happened to move and took their adopted crops with them.

Radishes for Adoption was an attempt to engage people who didn't know each other in something that was not only bigger than themselves but also playful. It seemed unlikely to get strangers to work together on a project like this, but they did so enthusiastically. Online documentation on this progression of growing food, relationships and commitment is available here:

Click on the image to advance to the one. Point the mouse at the bottom of the image to see additional controls.

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Contributor's Biography

Markuz Wernli Saito
 is an interdisciplinary artist who playfully directs—rather than restricts—the engagement of audience and project participants. The creation of unusual encounters and collaborative situations in everyday life becomes his work. Employing communication strategies in food culture, personal habits and everyday actions, he completed projects like "Thank You Notes to the Garbage Men" (Kyoto, 2007), "130 Tea Moments" (San Francisco, 2008), "The Taste of Hands, Circulating Kimchi" (Seoul, 2010), "Dancing Cooks, The No-Menu Restaurant" (Anyang, 2010) and "Growing Fence, Vertical Garden For Rent" (Kyoto, 2011). Markuz works as independent artist, creative problem-solver and educational advisor for art institutions in Asia and beyond. Visit his website at to learn more.

Building Businesses through Cleaner Cooking Fuels in Ghana

by Edward Burgess, Research Editor for The Sustainability Review For this interview, we spoke with Dr. Mark Henderson, Director of the Global Resolve project at Arizona State University. We discussed some of his latest research efforts in Ghana, Africa where he and his colleagues are working with local villages to design technologies and businesses that could improve the health and well-being of the local people and their environment.

The Sustainability Review: Dr. Henderson, you direct the Global Resolve program at Arizona State University. Can you tell us about it?

Dr. Mark Henderson: The purpose of Global Resolve is to help start sustainable economic development projects in the developing world. The way our process works is that we first visit communities in the developing world to conduct interviews and really immerse ourselves there. We want to find out what the community needs and help solve the actual problems they face, usually through the development of some technology. Ultimately, we also want to convert that technology into a business venture for the community. The hope is that the community could benefit from these ventures in several ways. First, they could get employment. Second, it could solve a problem they face. Third, they could sell the products and get income. And finally, they could be a role model for other communities and spread the business.

TSR: What projects are you currently working on?smoky cooking fuel pull-quote

MH: The two latest examples we have are the "gel fuel" and the "twig light" projects. I’ll talk about gel fuel first. In a nutshell, this idea grew out of a UN development project to use ethanol as a smokeless cooking fuel and reduce the incidence of respiratory disease by replacing wood and charcoal. The main problem with liquid ethanol is that if it spills it can spread a fire throughout the whole house. In order to make it safer and a better product, we gel it—or make it like a jelly. Have you heard of Sterno?

TSR: You mean the little cans for keeping food warm?

MH: Yes it’s similar to those but using ethanol instead of methanol. Part of the reason we want to provide a new fuel source is that smoky cooking fuel is a leading cause of death among children worldwide. If we can remove the smoke from the fuel then hopefully we can save some lives. And perhaps we can also create some businesses around producing the fuel. Right now, many villages create charcoal fuel to sell by pruning branches from trees and smoldering them. But it’s very smoky and it’s also deforesting the jungle, so it’s not a sustainable solution.

The gel fuel actually is a sustainable solution if we can use biomass that can be converted to ethanol. Corn is one example that is used in the U.S., but you can also use sugarcane and many other plants. And if we can make the process of converting cellulose more affordable then we can use any cellulosic plant—maybe grass or bamboo, which grows very fast, like a weed. Using cellulose removes the competition between food and fuel.

TSR: So the technology is not quite there yet for cellulosic ethanol?

MH: You can do it, but it’s expensive because of the special enzymes needed. We’ve just concentrated on using starchy and sugary biomass like sugarcane or corn.

TSR: In terms of sustainable harvesting, are there implications for land use if this takes off?

MH: Sure, those are definitely issues we need to consider. And there are also issues to consider for social sustainability, too. If you start creating this gel fuel, you might create unintended consequences that disturb the cultural activities in the community, and we want to avoid that. For example, women often spend several hours a day gathering wood. If we try to implement gel fuel, we have now taken that social time away from the women. That time spent gathering wood is like their "coffee klatch." Interfering with this social time would be an unintended consequence of the technology and may be a bad thing.

TSR: Are there any other unintended problems with the gel fuel technology?

MH: Another problem is that if you remove smoke from houses, the incidence of malaria increases. The smoke drives away the mosquitoes that transmit the disease and they come back if you take it away. So how do we balance this? Just think—in the U.S., how do we drive away mosquitoes from your patio?

TSR: (laughing) Well, we build a whole screen around it!

MH: Yes we do! But what else might we do?

TSR: Well, maybe we could use one of those scented candles.

MH: Right, maybe we could add something like Citronella in the gel fuel. Right now, we’re not sure if that would be toxic since the fuel is used for cooking. I always assumed it was safe, but those are things we need to find out when we think about how to minimize the disruption in the community.efficient stove pull-quote

In addition to simply producing the fuel, we have to make sure it’s an affordable solution. Nobody is going to buy it if it’s more expensive than what they already have. Right now, harvesting wood is free, which is a hard price to beat. So instead we want to see if the village could actually sell the gel fuel to the nearest larger city where people have to pay for wood and charcoal. We’re trying to arrive at economic parity with those other fuels. There is a stove being built in South Africa that is about 15% efficient, but that wasn’t quite good enough, and the gel fuel was too expensive. To help bring the price of the fuel down, we designed and built a stove that’s more than twice as efficient as the existing South African stoves. Brad Rogers, another professor in Global Resolve was in charge of this. He’s the one who really understands the thermodynamics of the gel fuel process.

TSR: Do you have any trips planned for the near future?

MH: We’re going to the village of Domeabra in Ghana in a few weeks with the new stove design. Our plan is to find out if we can produce the stoves there. We’re also going to try to ratchet up the production of gel fuel in the village and hopefully help them start a business. We are bringing a great team including myself Brad, John Takamura in design and Dan O’Neill in technological entrepreneurship and eight students and two teaching assistants. We also have five MBA students from Thunderbird School of Global Management who are staying longer to help develop a business plan.

TSR: So are they connecting the villagers with the market in the city?

MH: Yes, eventually. Right now, we’re supplying fuel to a school that we’ve partnered with in Kumasi, Ghana. The School Director works with other schools in the area, so if we can start with her, I think the village could start using the schools to create a larger business that would be successful.

TSR: How did you get started on this type of research?

MH: Well the first step was deciding to do it. I’m an engineering faculty, and so is Brad, and we had another faculty member in Global Studies (David Jacobson) and another in Business (Rajiv Sinha). We all had coffee at Starbucks one day in 2005 and asked ourselves how we could match our interests together.  We soon realized we’d all been having similar ideas about helping sustainable development in the "base of the pyramid" countries. Once we realized we’d been thinking the same thing, we began to build upon that to create a program that would not only help the countries but could also bring in other faculty and students.

TSR: Were there any breakthroughs in technology that helped Global Resolve projects?

MH: Yes—a year ago a grad student at our Polytech campus developed the concept for the "twig light" that I mentioned earlier. It’s a device that generates electricity from heat without a battery. You don’t need the sun either. All you need is heat. In many places, a household might be cooking with charcoal as the sun is going down, and there’s a need for a light source. With the twig light, all you need to do is put a few hot coals in the top, put the bottom in water as a cooling source and in the middle there is a "thermoelectric generator." It produces enough voltage to power LED lights or a cell phone. This is different from solar devices, which can be quite expensive and which have a battery that wears out. And of course, you can’t recharge a solar device at night.

TSR: What’s the reception to having visitors? Is there any negative reaction along the lines of: "Who are these Americans that think they know all the answers to our problems?"

MH: Well, the truth is that we honestly don’t know the answers to their problems. Only they know what they need, so they help us come up with solutions, and we offer what we can by trying to help out. We enter the community as learners. It’s very important to make that distinction because we don’t have the answers, and they truly are the experts in their lives and needs.

One exercise we’ve used in the past to help convey this notion is Rural Village Appraisal, which includes a collaboration exercise to have the community help us draw a map of their village. We might use charcoal or colored paper or sometimes just twigs and leaves to have them show us where the chief’s house is, where the toilets are, the church or mosques, the water sources, the rivers, roads, etc. Through this exercise they show us something about themselves and their needs. We show that we’re there to learn, and hopefully we can become trusted partners. That’s the key—to have trust on both sides. But in general the community members are welcoming and excited about the possibilities of improving their lives.

TSR: What are the biggest challenges the projects face now?

MH: Right now, our big challenge is starting the businesses. The way people in Ghana do business is not necessarily the way we do it. Even after testing out the solutions, we still have to really see how business practices work and see if there is a way to help. Often, it can be very difficult for someone in Ghana to start a business. If someone there is living on a dollar a day, on the brink of starvation, they don’t have time to spend 24/7 starting a new business. We have to help the communities understand how to create a business at a low risk. There are ways to do that: one option is micro-finance through groups like Grameen Bank.

Also, we can’t just go and then come back and ignore the project. There has to be continued partnership with the community. We have set up a partnership with the Center for Energy the Environment and Sustainable Development (CEESD) in Ghana. It’s run by two faculty members at Kumasi Polytechnic University who did graduate fellowships with Global Resolve. It’s a great partnership because we need local partners for this to work and they can receive some funding from Global Resolve.

TSR: Where do you think this might be in five to ten years?

MH: There are so many problems in the developing world. In the past, there has been over a trillion dollars put forth to solve these problems, mostly through government aid and philanthropy. But what you often find is that this results in a lot of abandoned technology. Maybe a tractor was donated, but it stopped working, and there was no plan or funding set aside for maintenance. People have no choice but to just leave it to rust in the jungle. It could be a result of how the aid is administered. Sometimes the way aid filters down through the governments to the people doesn’t address what people need. It may never actually "trickle down" if there is corruption.

There are a few books I use to illustrate the problem to students. One is Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty, which suggests a top-down aid approach. Another is Creating a World Without Poverty by Mohammed Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank. He supports a more bottom-up approach through micro-loans. There is also William Easterly’s White Man’s Burden, which advocates for more village-level interaction, which is primarily what we try to follow. It’s slower because you’re dealing with one community at a time, but if it’s successful, the solutions should propagate out and spread. Additionally, we’re more certain the aid gets to the people who need it. And if we’re smart, we can sit back and listen to the community's needs directly, not force our solutions onto someone else. If we get this gel fuel business off and running, we hope there would be other gel fuel businesses popping up around it.

TSR: How has your thinking about sustainability problems shifted through the course of this research?

MH: For a long time, I thought sustainability meant only environmental sustainability. But now we talk about other aspects like cultural and social sustainability. And economic sustainability—it can’t be a flash in the pan that has big success and then dies. It has to grow rationally and reasonably over a period time. We also want to have sustainability in other areas like education—giving people the opportunity to educate themselves about the business, the technology, the supply chain and so on.

TSR: So you’re really talking about building capacity here.

MH: That’s right—we’re trying to build capacity in the villages. And sometimes building capacity means doing something like providing clean water. The community won’t be able to produce gel fuel, for example, if they are primarily worried about their health. To help bring up the capacity of the village we just had donations from Desert Cross Lutheran Church in Tempe provide about 700 water filters and by holding a benefit concert to collect funds to bring electricity to the village. Sometimes, you have to provide some basic needs before people can start to think about building a business.

TSR: Are there any important skills that are helpful this type of work?

MH: We love diversity. We can’t do this with just engineering or business or sustainability students. We need English majors, film and video, nursing, global health, you name it! Anthropology is especially important since we do a lot of ethnographic work. There are no prerequisites.

TSR: Are there any memorable stories to share from one of your trips to Ghana?

MH: Probably the most memorable time was the first trip I took to Ghana. I went by myself to a small village of 500, called Fawomanye. It was somewhat intimidating since it was my first visit to Africa. When I got there, the villagers held a meeting under the large fig tree near the chief’s house.  When I talked to the chief, it was actually through a "linguist" who then communicated to the chief. I started simply by saying, "I am here from Arizona State and Global Resolve." I told the village that I was there to understand their problems and hopefully provide solutions. They said, "We need two things: clean water and lights at night. We don’t want to have to go to bed when the sun goes down. We want a social life like the rest of the world. And we want our kids to be able to do homework at night." It was an extraordinary experience just being able to connect immediately like that without going through a government or university; we just went straight to the village. That experience helped guide the approach we take now.

Contributor Information:

Mark Henderson is a professor of Engineering at Arizona State University at the Polytechnic campus. He founded the ASU Global Engineering Design Team and also is co-founder of GlobalResolve ( His research has led to over 60 papers and a textbook in computer-aided design and global engineering.