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:

A tale of two neighbors: the United States’ and Canada’s distinct but intertwined paths to sustainability

By Genevieve Metson The U.S. and Canada are the largest trading partners in the world. According to the U.S. Department of State, the total trade between these two countries exceeded $610 billion in 2008. Seventy-five percent of Canada’s exports go to the U.S., and 20% of U.S. exports go to Canada. They also share the longest non-militarized border between any two nations and a vast continent with a multitude of natural resources. Their close geographic, economic and political ties make them strong partners but also leave each vulnerable to decisions across the border. As a citizen and resident of both nations, I can attest to these close ties and to the double-edged sword of such an intimate relationship.

The close relationship between these two nations intertwines their futures as well. If either nation strives for a more sustainable society, it should not expect to succeed by acting in isolation. However, their distinct histories, political systems and geographic realities mean that the path toward sustainability will be different for Canada and the U.S. These nations must coordinate their dissimilar strategies toward sustainability.

The government’s role in sustainability

The U.S.’s and Canada’s strategies toward sustainability are, and will continue to be, heavily informed by their different histories and social norms. In all likelihood, the role of the U.S. government in regulating strategies for sustainability will be limited, reflecting its colonial history, which has resulted in institutionalized governmental checks and balances, clear limitations on federal control, and core values of personal freedom. For example, carbon trading will probably be preferred over carbon taxes as it is more in line with the free-market ideals of the U.S.  On the other hand, Canadian citizens expect the government to provide services and regulate sectors of the economy, culture and research to maximize benefits to society as a whole rather than to individuals. And in terms of sustainability, the importance of natural resource extraction in Canada has led it to acknowledge that a healthy environment is essential for its citizens and economy.

The U.S.’s focus on national security dominates many of its strategies for achieving sustainability. The link between defense and sustainability is most apparent in the energy sector. Energy security and independence are the basis for most political discussions about mitigating climate change and reducing the size of the country’s ecological footprint. PricewaterhouseCoopers identifies energy security as the key motivation for the U.S. to participate in any carbon trading ("cap-and-trade" in the U.S. Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009). In contrast, Canada has taken steps toward domestic sustainable development with new government regulation and taxation. Canada has adopted a number of environmental sustainability indicators including air quality, water quality, and greenhouse gas emissions.

The case of energy

The U.S. and Canada have a symbiotic energy network, which is an important consideration for both counties’ paths toward sustainability. Not only does Canada export resources such as uranium for fuel production to the U.S. but its infrastructure and electricity grids are also linked to the U.S.’s. Canada’s exports may only account for 9% of U.S. energy consumption, but Canada is the largest supplier of oil (19%), natural gas (90%), and electricity to the U.S. This energy relationship benefits the U.S. because importing from Canada, a political ally, does not pose a substantial security threat. Canadian resources are a reliable energy source for the future, and thus U.S. investment in Canada for both physical (for example, pipelines) and political infrastructure to meet American energy needs is desirable. For Canada, continuing the exploitation of energy resources for the U.S. is beneficial because it ensures that the U.S. continues to act as the largest market for Canadian goods.


The U.S. and Canada must coordinate their efforts towards sustainability although their approaches must be different. They have successfully maintained a profitable relationship for decades and this partnership needs to be an integral part of both neighbors’ plans toward more public and private sustainable enterprise.

Canada and the U.S. can work together to solve common environmental problems. For example, after studies revealed that pollution from Canada decreased water quality downstream in the U.S., the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972 was implemented.  And after studies  revealed that acid rain resulting from emissions from U.S. east-coast cities negatively affected cities and protected ecosystems in Canada, the Air Quality Agreement of 1991 was implemented. These are two examples of successful binational efforts to reduce pollution, where the approaches to control pollution differed on both sides of the border. Although sustainability is not as well-defined a problem as these point-source pollution examples, we can still apply some of the lessons learned from solving them. Sustainability is multifaceted, and solutions are only realizable on a long timescale, but, like the examples above, sustainability must be a binational goal.

Contributor's Biography:

Genevieve Metson is a second year Master's of Science student at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. She studies sustainability issues related to biogeochemistry (especially phosphorus), food systems, and urban environments. As a Canadian citizen who moved to the United States in 2005, she has a special interest in how these two countries can collaborate on sustainable solutions.

Photosynthesis Photography

Imagine a photographic world where you don’t need heavy metals and litres of water to make photographs. Imagine a photographic world where you can discard your unwanted images as well as used and expired materials in your own backyard or compost bin.

Imagine a photographic world where your garden is your photographic supplies store.

Imagine no more. Often we point the finger at others who may not be doing enough for sustainability. However, you must ask yourself: Am I doing enough?

How does my practice contribute to environmental issues?

Is the energy used to make the work in balance with how effectively it reaches and educates the people seeing it?

By addressing positive environmental action through photography, can I provide an alternative cleaner process?

It is my responsibility to ask these questions of myself and the activities I participate in.

The work I have produced is an ongoing answer to these questions. I use the natural process of plants – photosynthesis, the transformation of sun into energy. Chlorophyll is a light-sensitive substance, reacting to the sun or the lack of sun. I use the sun as my light source, and the negative I create interferes with overall normal photosynthesizing of the leaf. The negative makes it harder for the light to get to the leaf, so more chlorophyll is required for the plant to convert the sunlight into energy in the same way that plants growing in shaded areas tend to be darker green. As a result, some areas of the leaf retain their chlorophyll while other areas are scorched by the sun, producing enough tonal range to create a photographic image. Using this natural process, the leaf creates the image upon itself.

Using this method, I can avoid the need for photographic paper. I don’t require the chemicals to develop and fix the image on the paper, and I don’t need water to wash the image to ensure it lasts and is safe to handle. I don’t need to dispose of these chemicals once they have been exhausted, and I don’t need more chemicals and paper produced for my next prints. I don’t need a special room in which to make my images, and there are many products I no longer require, as the tools I use are multifunctional or growable. I still require technology but less than before; hence is it an ongoing answer, a progression.

I want to lead by example rather than just criticize. Pointing the finger is not enough, and it never has been. We have spent too long focusing on everything that is wrong, so we only see the problems. We need to offer solutions. I hope my work can be a part of a solution. The possibilities I discover and develop in photography are meant to encourage and inspire others to explore how they can adapt their situation to be a part of the solution.

Photography about the environment should aspire to engage with materials in its physical presentation, giving further depth to the message in the images. Marshall McLuhan explained that the message is in the medium, and this is significant when expressing ideas about the importance of sustainability. If words and actions are not saying the same thing, then the message will be lost. It is necessary for the materials and processes that I have used to create the images to work in conjunction with my concern for our lack of consideration for the environment, which I aim to show through my images. The physicality of the work is fragile, delicate and time sensitive. So are the environments we live within, but we have lost touch with our surroundings. We no longer live in our environment, instead we live off it and on it. We take so much of our surroundings for granted because we have become disconnected from our environment – we no longer consider how much we constrict, construct, and control. We pulverise and reform nature into any suitable form, thus natural ecological states and processes have become irrelevant. The fact that these natural processes, these raw materials before us, are complete functioning systems is lost on us. Where has our wonder gone? I wish for my work to help people rediscover this wonder, to reconnect with our environment, to become part of it again rather than remaining apart from it.

[aslideshow] 3 Textures on Weeds Drains to Streams on Weeds Fences Protect on Arum Lilly Fences Restrict on Broadleaf Save the Snails on Arum Lilly [/aslideshow]

Contributor's biography:

Rosemary Horn ( is a photographer primarily using alternative processes. She received her Bachelor of Design in photography from Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand in 2006. Since graduating, Rosemary has been travelling and working throughout Europe. Her work focuses on environmental issues and incorporating tactile elements in her photographic practice.

Archives of Horror and Hope

Appalachian Coal serves electric companies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.PLEASE read this writing with the lights out.....

Sometimes all day long I collect horror stories like an archivist of hopes for change this horror story is of a coal company that pumped coal slurry into an abandoned mine of a mountain town the slurry is now in the water and the land and the bodies the bodies of the people today's calls yield: barren women babies with cancer and their sons their sons have arsenic in their blood on this day they are counted in the costs of how coal keeps the lights on when the water turned the colors were many orange brown black grey

but in between it sometimes runs clear again and the smell sometimes like fuel sometimes indescribable and you think you'd never wash in it but at some point you have to wash yourself and your children and yes your babies if this is the only water you can afford at some point you have to drink it and be thankful for the Kool-Aid flavors swirling in your cup this call yields three little ones dead everyone knows it was the water we hope we can prove it some things will be easier to prove than others tumors removed ovaries removed gallbladders removed kidney stones and kidney stones and kidney stones again then there are the cysts cysts everywhere in the bones on the neck on the ovaries on the thyroid and her daughter had a cyst in her brain pretty positive it's the poison in the water don't forget the skin rashes, boils open sores, blistering skin, itching skin it comes and it goes nothing seems to stop it but it started with the poison in the water it will be harder to prove the poison took their teeth teeth rotting from the inside out teeth dying so fast it's as if they are trying to escape the poison on their own we know they will blame the soda but everyone here knows it's the poison in the water it will likely be hardest to prove the heart problems heart attacks, heart stints, half the heart is enlarged, all his arteries smaller than they should be and the blood pressure, the blood pressure, the blood pressure again

but heart attacks are pretty common in the U.S. even if everyone knows it's the poison in the water sometimes people list their illnesses throwing jokes in between laughing about how crazy that last boil was they tell their illnesses like a tall tale that happened to someone else they are survivors lovers, parents, friends, children but sometimes you can hear how sick they are the sadness seeps into the phone and we both get off quickly because the tears are coming despite all the sickness and trouble heart and otherwise the hearts here are stronger than one could imagine beating against poison and often poverty they know about fighting here fighting for your life often uncertain if the illness will take them most know today counts so they take care of each other and live and love and laugh with or without you they've got heart i'm waiting on the heart of coal to change to practice respect for the people who give their lives to it and live with it like another family member it costs one dollar more a ton for coal companies to never again create coal slurry yet still they wash the coal in our water and a host of other poisons that poison washes into the lives of the people here while distanced from the mountains people turn on the lights like electricity is magic and it is a magic in forgetting that electricity comes from somewhere everywhere you go and for that the people in the mountains often pay a very high cost sometimes they pay with their lives

When you turn the lights on, think about asking your electric company if the coal plants that serve them create coal slurry, and think about asking them why. By the time the lawsuit we're working on is settled, more people will have died from the poison in the water created by coal slurry and lots more will be even sicker. Coal companies that aren't injecting slurry into the ground often are damming it up in pools in somebody else's hometown.

Coal companies have the technology to do what's called dry caking to process coal, which does not involve the same type of poisons in coal production or utilize clean water to create coal slurry. Please tell your electric company you want no part of electricity that involves slurry creation.

Contributor's biography:

Katherine Lautar is currently working as a legal assistant in the coalfields of southern West Virginia with a law firm whose principal focus is defending communities against illegal environmental practices. She recently graduated with a Masters of Science from the Audubon Expedition Institute, a unique program where students are required to live outside while studying the environment. Her other work experience includes more than 13 years as a community organizer and educator in Baltimore, Maryland. Her work is based in the belief that another world is possible.

Superstition Vistas and the Battle for Smart Growth Communities

By Martin A. Gromulat Superstition Vistas is a nearly 175,000-acre plot of land managed by the Arizona State Land Department (Department). Named for the mountain range that dominates the area, Superstition Vistas is located in the Sun Corridor, an area that stretches from Phoenix to Tucson and is predicted to grow to 15 million inhabitants by 2060. The Department's stated goal is to develop Superstition Vistas as a sustainable community – one that can be the model for future sustainable desert development.

Described on their website as an "Oasis of Opportunity," the Superstition Vistas project area spans 275 square miles of undeveloped land on the eastern edge of Phoenix. Development plans include the Williams Gateway freeway, a regional commuter rail system connecting with downtown Phoenix, single-family homes on small lots, and pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly neighborhoods within reach of stores and businesses. It is estimated that more than 1 million people could reside at Superstition Vistas.

Recent polling by Superstition Vistas Partners found that about 80 percent of those residents polled from surrounding Maricopa and Pinal Counties said that it is "very important" to consider quality of life of future generations, and about 72 percent said that the kind of planning and visioning going into Superstition Vistas is "absolutely essential" for the future of Arizona. And a report by Moving AZOne Reality Check states: "Our region would benefit from using [Superstition Vistas project area] as a demonstration project to envision, plan, and test the type of growth we desire for the future of Central Arizona." Moving AZOne Reality Check asked community leaders to articulate a common vision for growth by exploring possibilities for the region’s land use decisions. Some of their recommendations included: create more compact and diverse housing options; grow west, east, and south to strengthen the Sun Corridor mega region; and accommodate a portion of future population growth on state trust lands.

But Superstition Vistas faces challenges in moving beyond just a vision. For one, Arizona law requirements regarding the Department’s ability to auction, plan, and develop the land it manages are the most restrictive among the Western United States. If sustainable communities such as Superstition Vistas are to become a reality in Arizona, then the Department will need to be granted authority to consider long-term economic and sustainable gains over short-term economic ones. According to a Pinal County Supervisor, "Without state trust land reform, we will have sprawling, piecemeal development of Superstition Vistas, and likely a lower return to the key beneficiaries of the state land trust – Arizona schoolchildren."

Superstition Vistas also will need to gain the support of Arizona homebuilder groups and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club – organizations that remain fundamentally opposed to the project.

Facing the inherent challenges of sustainability amidst a politically conservative Arizona landscape, the Superstition Vistas project aims to be a sustainable development model for the 21st century. How they will provide the planning necessary for a large-scale development, guided by sustainability principles, hangs in the balance.

Long-term vision v. short-term interests

According to a 2009 report by Superstition Vistas, Arizona law prohibits the Department from engaging in the following actions: (1) investing funds on master planning; (2) selling land subject to development conditions; and (3) selling land at discounted rates to stimulate economic development for the surrounding area. Arizona’s Enabling Act and Constitution require that state trust lands only be sold or leased to the highest and best bidder at public auction so that land cannot be disposed of for less than the appraised value. Arizona courts have further restricted the disposition of trust lands by prohibiting exchanges of state trust land for non-trust land without public auction. In addition, competitive bidding is required for the sale or lease of trust lands.

These restrictions severely limit the Department’s ability to attain their goal: creating a model for sustainable communities. In creating Superstition Vistas, the Department’s authority to consider only short-term economic gains might diminish other community values and threaten the environment. Superstition Vistas project leaders also find it necessary to enhance the ability of the Department to participate as a partner in the development of the community, reallocate land values, and participate in alternative methods of infrastructure financing. Although trust land must be disposed of at full market value, there is some flexibility in getting there. In implementing concepts of sustainability and other community values, the methods of trust management and revenue generation will need to change.

As a general principle, state trust land exists in perpetuity and must be preserved for future generations. Thus, the Department’s obligations extend not just to current beneficiaries but to future generations as well. The Department’s mission conveys both of these obligations on their website: "To manage State Trust lands and resources to enhance value and optimize economic return for the Trust beneficiaries, consistent with sound stewardship, conservation, and business management principles supporting socioeconomic goals for citizens here today and generations to come.  To manage and provide support for resource conservation programs for the well-being of the public and the State's natural environment."

In fact, Arizona’s 1998 Growing Smarter legislation requires the Department to consider various factors and public values that extend beyond the present economic interests of trust beneficiaries. Due to the perpetual nature of trust lands, the Department may need to meet not only the current financial objectives of a transaction but also to consider a variety of other values, such as sustainability principles. Regarding reform, the Department endorsed Proposition 110, which the public voted on in the Nov. 2 election. The measure failed to pass by less than 1 percent. If Proposition 110 had passed, it would have allowed voter-approved exchanges of state trust land after public notice and hearing if the exchange is related to land management purposes. Its passage would have been a step forward for Superstition Vistas.

The Department has taken the position that it already possesses some of the authority to at least initially move forward on Superstition Vistas through the use of planning permits and participation contracts. However, the Superstition Vistas Scenario Report states that additional legislation or amendments to existing legislation are necessary to give the Department the authority it needs to properly develop Superstition Vistas in a sustainable manner. For example, the Department should be vested with the authority to enter into joint venture agreements, where landowners and project developers partner. This partnership agreement allows both developer and landowner to share the risks and receive a share of the profits. This type of agreement also allows landowners to receive higher returns than they would receive if the land were simply sold outright because they can share in the significant increases in market value that occur when lands are developed and supplied with necessary infrastructure to optimize market demand. These participation contracts limit capital investments, risks, and carrying costs to developers, allowing for larger master-planned developments on state trust lands. Additionally, these large-scale, single-owner, master-planned developments can more easily integrate smart growth strategies and sustainability planning.

More challenges on the road ahead

Gaining the support of environmental groups poses another challenge for Superstition Vistas. Rather than outward growth, environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, argue that more infill projects are needed. The concept of smart growth often is viewed as just another avenue for urban sprawl.

"This is just about selling more houses. That's all. It's the same old pattern of developing sprawl," said Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, in a 2009 article in High Country News.

Biologist Ken Sweat agrees that a new development project such as Superstition Vistas in an undeveloped section of the desert is less than sustainable. "If our civilization is to ever embrace sustainability, it would seem prudent to begin now," he said. "And the best way to do so is to preserve what natural spaces are left, and plan better to use the landscapes we have transformed in the past to help meet the needs of the future."

On the other end of the spectrum, the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona also opposes the Superstition Vistas project. Despite the fact that the association says it is open to discussing reform efforts, it also states in a 2009 Legislative Report that it "will continue to oppose any measure that shortchanges the trust and unfairly burdens new growth to pay for the conservation efforts."

Local citizens and community leaders have expressed their support for the stated goals of Superstition Vistas: to create sustainable development on state trust lands. Even if a sustainable development project such as Superstition Vistas gains the support of the organizations that are currently opposed to its development, it still will require greater flexibility and a higher level of investment from the Arizona State Land Department.

About the author: Martin A. Gromulat is an attorney focusing on land conservation and sustainability policy, as well as a graduate student at Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, specializing in Environmental Planning.

TSR and Dialogue on Sustainability

By Robert Kutter This year, we want to make The Sustainability Review (TSR) more accessible and reach a wider audience. We’ve made changes to TSR’s format to help meet these goals. But before talking about these changes, I’d like to briefly explain why I think engaging a wide audience is so important in sustainability.

Sustainability’s central problem is how to make sure contemporary societies endure without damaging the next generation’s ability to do so. Because of this long-term perspective, sustainability may require solutions which affect more people in deeper ways than other applied sciences. Some paths to sustainability would require new governance arrangements, technologies, or even worldviews. As solutions have particularly far-reaching effects, an informed dialogue between academics and the public at large is central to the field of sustainability.

TSR is also intended to be a forum for conversation about sustainability. To that end, visitors can now comment on articles, and we are also considering new website capabilities that enable visitors to connect with each other and the content. In terms of content itself, we've added the new Features section. These journalistic pieces are meant to look in depth at examples of sustainability in practice. For example, we hope to publish personal experiences of implementing sustainability and explore the barriers that people confront when doing so.

Finally, we have changed the pace of publication to promote an ongoing conversation among our readers. We increased the number of issues from two per year to five and moved to a rolling publication schedule. With a rolling publication schedule, pieces from each issue are published over the course of a month to a month and a half. We hope these changes will enhance TSR as a place where people can find and contribute to the latest ideas about sustainability.

I look forward to a year of thoughtful dialogue with our readers.

Contributor'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. He has a master's degree in sustainable technology from The Royal Institute of Technology (Stockholm, Sweden) and a bachelor's degree in environmental engineering from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

Rapid response: Sustainability demands more speed and agility from universities

By R.F. "Rick" Shangraw, Jr. If you’ve ever wondered why sustainability is so difficult to achieve, consider the Thanksgiving dinner. Each year in homes across our nation, many hours of preparation go into making a big meal that is consumed in a fraction of that time, followed by a lengthy cleanup effort and several days of leftovers. While overly simplistic, it’s an example of the inherent difficulties in balancing production and consumption while also managing their byproducts of waste and surplus.

Whether the goal is wise use of natural resources or economic stability, achieving stasis—the state of optimal balance—is a highly dynamic process that requires timely intervention to keep systems in check. Many experts agree that a variety of factors, including exponential population growth, are increasing the frequency and severity of change in many previously "stable" ecosystems.

As a result, there is an urgent need for more rapid innovation in response to changes in our natural and societal ecosystems in order to sustain or improve living standards and protect our planet. Research universities can play an important role in catalyzing this innovation, but only if they learn to accelerate the pace of discovery and improve the mechanisms for quickly driving these discoveries into the marketplace. In particular, we desperately need innovations that enable society to identify and correct imbalances earlier to prevent cascading effects.

Following are several concepts being applied at Arizona State University (ASU) that help ensure educational and research programs emphasize rapid responsiveness to globally important needs.

Improving our ability to "see" the best option: Sometimes, action is hampered by too many potential solutions. Technology that increases the ability to predict the impacts of various options before they’re pursued provides the clarity necessary for consensus. ASU’s Decision Theater uses advanced visualization, simulation and decision system tools to do this. For example, it is used by local water resource planners to project the impact of new development on water tables.  Being able "see" the long-term outcomes of decisions helps identify the best approach for sustainable development. Generally, these tools also accelerate the decision process when multiple stakeholders are involved.

Sharing information: Information technologies have created new channels for sharing information, but they can also lead to information overload. Getting the right information to the right people at the right time is an area of need that is ripe for innovation. The emerging field of sustainability informatics is developing tools that integrate information across the complete decision life cycle. More importantly, sophisticated systems are explicitly addressing the uncertainty, credibility, timeliness and relevancy of data, especially as it is aggregated into information and knowledge.

Nurturing and identifying market-ready research: Strategically aligning existing strengths with urgent societal priorities is key to delivering timely solutions. This requires realistic assessment of an organization’s differentiated capabilities, which can be difficult in large, multifaceted research universities. We employ mapping software to spot new research cluster opportunities in national priority areas like alternative energy and then assemble the strongest possible interdisciplinary teams. We assign well-trained project managers to large, complex efforts to help with integration and ensure all milestones are met.

Consolidating efforts: At many universities, entrepreneurial programs are isolated in business programs with few links to science and technology efforts. There is often poor integration between research, entrepreneurial and educational functions. This can result in a gap between great discoveries and the great entrepreneurs who are able to drive them forward to impact urgent problems. Also, students are too often given theoretical problems to solve, when they could contribute greatly by engaging real-world problems through university research programs. For these reasons, we nurture strong linkages between the Global Institute of Sustainability, the School of Sustainability, and other ASU programs. We offer numerous entrepreneur development programs and engage students in use-inspired research.

Engaging with decision makers and industry: Rather than relying on traditional lobbying, more attention should focus on understanding national priorities and the existing barriers to commercializing potential solutions. With this insight, we can then tune our research efforts to address or avoid these barriers. We have developed a "solutions" group within the Global Institute of Sustainability to connect more directly with decision makers and industry.

These efforts have required the passionate commitment of faculty, students, administrators and supporters of ASU, and they are producing results. Some positive indicators are the fact that ASU ranks first among peers in the number of invention disclosures it produces for every $10 million spent on research and ranks third in terms of patents issued.

The impressionist artist Henri Matisse said, "What I dream of is an art of balance." Sustainability requires we bring this dream to fruition with ingenuity and speed.

Contributor's Biography:

Dr. Shangraw is the director of the Global Institute of Sustainability, and he is ASU’s senior vice president for Knowledge Enterprise Development.

Drugs in Water: A San Francisco Bay Case Study

by Morgan Levy, UC Berkeley, Energy & Resources Group This is one part of a joint Art & Research entry. See the corresponding art piece here.


Hormones, antidepressants, antibiotics, and chemicals from personal care products have been founds in waterways nationwide (1). Most wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to filter pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) from treated wastewater and existing treatment processes do so with varying levels of success (2). Thus contaminants not removed during treatment can enter water systems such as freshwater streams and rivers, canals, lakes and reservoirs, groundwater aquifers, estuaries, and oceans (2, 3). Active pharmaceutical compounds are robust and persist in the environment. Pharmaceuticals are specifically made to withstand digestion processes in human (and animal) bodies, and some drug compounds will leave sewage plants at concentrations that are just as strong as when the water entered the sewer system (4, 5). Two studies from the South San Francisco Bay ("South Bay") in northern California demonstrate a geographically specific, yet nationally representative example of how PPCP contaminants enter and persist in our linked natural and human environment.

Where Pharmaceuticals in Water Come From:
  • People: The U.S. represents the largest single national market for pharmaceuticals. Forty-four percent of all Americans take at least one prescription drug, and almost a fifth take three or more (6). Human urinary excretion of intact pharmaceutical compounds can range from the three percent of original intake for a drug like the antiepileptic carbamazepine, to the 90 percent excretion for the beta-blocker atenolol (7). Additionally, medical facilities such as hospitals, nursing homes and dental offices, and institutional facilities like schools, public housing, and correctional facilities release concentrated sources of PPCP compounds into water systems (2).
  • Agriculture: Animals, and especially factory farming operations, introduce PPCPs into water systems. In agriculture, antibiotics are used to treat infections and to promote growth as feed additives (2). Forty percent of U.S.-produced antibiotics are fed to livestock as growth enhancers; livestock manure and un-absorbed antibiotic compounds (often concentrated in massive waste lagoons) eventually wash into surface water or percolate into groundwater (8, 9, 10, 11).
  • Industry: Pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities contaminate water by dumping excess drug compounds. Water from two New York streams that receive discharge from drug manufacturing facilities were found to have concentrations of pharmaceuticals 10 to 1000 times higher than non-receiving water (12).

While many different classes of pharmaceuticals are detectable in water, they are often found at concentrations so low that quantifying their concentrations accurately in samples can be difficult (8, 13). However, the impacts of what even trace amounts of pharmaceuticals can have on both aquatic ecosystems and humans are only beginning to be explored and are little understood (2). Pharmaceuticals have nevertheless been labeled "legacy pollutants of tomorrow" due to their persistence in environments and their ability to build up within the tissues of organisms (14). PPCPs can, like mercury (a more well-understood persistent contaminant), bio-accumulate and move up food chains (4).

  • Environmental Concerns: Pharmaceutical contaminants can cause ecological impacts. USGS scientists found that antidepressants discharged to streams by wastewater treatment plants are taken up into the bodies of fish living downstream of sewage plants (15, 16). Researchers in the UK found that shrimp exposed to the antidepressant fluoxetine (Prozac) radically alter their behavior, endangering their own survival (17). Exposure to pharmaceutical compounds containing hormones has been linked to sex mutations. For instance, in one study, female fish developed male genital organs, sex ratios were skewed in some aquatic populations, and bass produced cells for both sperm and eggs (3). Other documented effects of pharmaceutical exposure include kidney failure in vultures, impaired reproduction in mussels, and inhibited growth in algae (3).
  • Human Health Concerns: In 2008, an Associated Press investigation revealed that pharmaceuticals had been detected in the drinking water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas serving 46 million Americans; all supplies received water from rivers and reservoirs that contained previously treated wastewater (18, 19). These drinking water supplies contained antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones (20). Scientists and health professionals don’t fully understand the risks from persistent low-level exposure to pharmaceuticals through our drinking water (and potentially our food supply). Experimental research has found that exposure to small amounts of medication affect human embryonic kidney cells, causing them to grow slowly; that human blood cells show biological activity associated with inflammation; and that trace medications can cause human breast cancer cells to proliferate more quickly (21). In studies of soil fertilized with sludge product from wastewater treatment plants, researchers found that earthworms and vegetables had absorbed pharmaceutical compounds, thus posing a potential threat to food chains (3). Studies to date suggest that most found concentrations of pharmaceutical compounds in water systems today (not in lab environments where higher concentrations can be tested) have little known impact to most aquatic species or to humans (22, 23). Nevertheless, preliminary findings such as those above concern some scientists and water treatment experts (13, 23).

Case Study of the South San Francisco Bay

California’s San Francisco Bay and Delta, located at the terminus of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers, is the largest estuary on the west coast and drains almost half the land area of California. PPCPs have been found throughout the Bay’s sediments, plankton, invertebrates, fish, birds, and even marine mammals like seals (24). Both San Jose (25) and Santa Clara (26) are large urban cities that get most of their drinking water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the east of the San Francisco Bay -- water that comes primarily from the Sacramento River (26). The Sacramento River originates over 400 miles to the northeast of the Bay in California’s Sierra Nevada Foothills and winds through many small towns and cities (and their treatment facilities) on its journey to the coast (27). Once in the Silicon Valley (South Bay), the water is mixed with local supplies, treated once more, and piped to residents as drinking water (27). While both San Jose and Santa Clara reported that they had not tested for pharmaceuticals in their drinking water (18), PPCPs were found in the larger watersheds of both cities (28).

Google Earth image of San Francisco Bay

South San Francisco Bay’s largest wastewater treatment plant, the San Jose/Santa Clara Water Pollution Control Plant (WPCP), rests on 2,600 acres on the southernmost banks of the San Francisco Bay (29). Of the three wastewater treatment plants that discharge into the lower South Bay, the San Jose/Santa Clara plant serves the largest population and discharges the most wastewater (30). Wastewater travels to the plant from a 300-square mile area and from eight cities in the Santa Clara Valley. The plant treats the sewage water of 1.4 million people and 16,000 businesses (31). Sixty-two percent of the sewage comes from residential sources, 7 percent is industrial, and 31 percent is from commercial businesses (30). Through 2,200 miles of sewer pipes, the plant receives on average 100 million gallons of raw sewage per day (most wastewater treatment plants receive around 10 million) (31, 32).

Drugs From The Plant:

In July, 2010, the San Jose/Santa Clara WPCP published results from a study that tested wastewater for 166 different compounds, including PPCPs, steroids, hormones, pesticides, flame retardants, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) (13, 32). Plant and city government staff collected samples of wastewater influent, effluent, and waste solids, and analyzed the samples using U.S. EPA analytical methods to achieve trace-level quantification of contaminant compounds (32). For compounds with a sufficient number of quantified concentrations at more than one sampling point, staff calculated a removal efficiency and mass balance estimate (32). Few studies compare pharmaceutical contamination from an individual plant’s influent (untreated raw sewage) to contamination found in the plant’s effluent (treated wastewater), and this research is unique even internationally according to its authors (13).

Google Earth Image of South San Francisco Bay and Research Sites

Results from the study show that some compounds are reduced significantly by the plant’s current treatment processes (such as 99 percent of ibuprofen), while others are unaffected or even increased (such as fluoxitine – commonly known as Prozac) (32). Many compounds were significantly reduced in the treatment process (between 88 percent to 100 percent reduction in final effluent) (32). Ninety-five of the total 166 contaminants tested were detected in at least some effluent samples; 53 of the detectable 95 were measured at quantifiable levels, and the rest were detected but not quantified (concentrations were too small to be accurately measured) (32). Ten of the quantifiable compounds showed less than 75 percent removal, and for three, the treatment process appeared to have no impact whatsoever (32). Pharmaceutical contaminants that showed what plant operators and study authors qualified as "poor to no reduction" through current treatment processes included those listed below in Table 1.


Drug Type

Influent (ng/L)



% Reduced


Bronchodilator (lung diseases and asthma medication)















Anticonvulsant and mood stabilizer



















Table 1: Table adapted from Dunlavey et. al., 2010, Table 3: "Removal Efficiency and Mass Balance Estimate for Conservative Constituents." Ng/L = nano-gram per liter; a nanogram is one billionth (1/1,000,000,000) of a gram.

Drugs In The Bay:

The South Bay is relatively stagnant; during dry months, the lower South Bay can receive nearly all of its freshwater inflow from the three wastewater treatment plants located along its shores (30). In 2006, the San Francisco Estuary Institute’s "Regional Monitoring Program" sampled and tested for PPCPs in the lower San Francisco Bay (30). This study tested influent and effluent samples from the San Jose/Santa Clara WPCP and another smaller local plant (serving Palo Alto) as well as ambient surface water at multiple points in the lower South Bay at low tide (30) This study also followed the same U.S. EPA methods employed in the San Jose/Santa Clara plant study (30). PPCP concentrations in Bay waters decreased with increased distance into the Bay (and away from the plant); salinity measurements collected along with Bay samples indicated this was the result of dilution through mixing with saline Bay waters (29). The San Francisco Estuary Institute study (published in 2009) evaluated 39 compounds from fourteen different classes of use. Researchers found (similar to the San Jose/Santa Clara Plant’s study) that while some PPCP compounds were not detected or not able to be quantified, several were present in measurable quantities, including those listed in Table 2 below (30).


Drug Type





Bay (ng/L)

EcoToxicity Thresholds



Pain relief medication
















No information provided


Opiate, pain relief medication




No information provided


Psychoactive stimulant




No information provided


Blood pressure medication


















Cholesterol regulation medication
















No information provided

Table 2: Table adapted from Harrold et al. 2009, Table 8: "Average concentrations of PPCPs in influent, effluent, and Bay water samples from Lower South San Francisco Bay…" Ng/L = nano-gram per liter; a nanogram is one billionth (1/1,000,000,000) of a gram.

Test results from a testing station at the outlet of the Artesian Slough (the waterway that channels wastewater directly from the treatment plant to the Bay) show concentrations of pharmaceuticals that were typically higher than those found further out into the Bay. Thus due to location, the presence of these compounds at the outlet of the Artesian Slough can be primarily attributed to effluent coming from the San Jose/Santa Clara plant.

Ecological Impacts

Overall, the San Francisco Estuary Institute study found that pharmaceutical concentrations generally decrease with distance from the treatment plant and that concentrations were generally at levels below accepted toxicity values; however toxicity thresholds for many of the measured compounds are not established (30).  The antibiotic sulfamethoxazole appeared in concentrations two to forty times higher than one known threshold of concern; concentrations of between 44.8 to 1,060 ng/L were observed relative to a 27 ng/L toxicity threshold derived from acute toxicity tests on blue-green algae, an often-used indicator species for toxicity impacts (30). At the same time, sulfamethoxazole concentration levels came in well under the threshold established by another test wherein 30,000 ng/L was found to impact the growth of duckweed (another aquatic plant used regularly used in toxicity studies) (33).

Many PPCPs present in the Bay have been tested for ecological impacts at much higher concentrations than those actually found in the Bay. Through these tests, some compounds were found to have harmful effects. For example, gemfibrozil reduced testosterone in fish, and erythromycin-H2O inhibited the population growth of green algae (30). In other cases, little effect was demonstrated. For instance, extended multi-generational exposure of a freshwater amphipod (a tiny shrimp-like crustacean) to acetaminophen, gemfibrozil, and ibuprofen did not impact survival, mating, body size, or reproduction—common evaluation factors in toxicity studies that demonstrate environmental impact (30).


Available evidence suggests that for most found concentrations of pharmaceutical compounds in water systems today (not in lab environments where higher concentrations can be tested), there is little to no threat to most aquatic species or humans (22, 23). Nevertheless, the increasing number of U.S. government agency efforts to address this topic (see USGS Toxic Substances Hydrology Program "emerging contaminants" project [34], and U.S. EPA’s "PPCP Research Areas" [35]) suggest that scientists are concerned. Undeniably, the increasing manufacture and use of PPCPs has resulted in the introduction of diverse and novel contaminants into water systems in the U.S., and worldwide (36). The prevalence of drugs in waterways begs the question: Are we permanently altering the composition and health of local, regional, and even global water systems? We’ve already seen industrial-era contaminants like mercury do precisely this.


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About the author: Morgan Levy is a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Energy & Resources Group, researching interdisciplinary water resources issues particular to California and the American West. She recently returned from a Fulbright Fellowship in Environmental Studies – Water Management in The Netherlands, where she interviewed farmers about agricultural water use.


This is one part of a joint Art & Research entry. See the corresponding research piece here. In the spirit of cure-alls and tonics of a less-regulated medical era, Alviso’s Medicinal All-Salt harvests the bounty of a unique yet-unregulated pharmaceutical disposal industry, combining two popular commodities, sea salt and recycled pharmaceuticals, to produce a mock-medicinal salt product: "All-Salt." There are no laws that require industry or government to test, monitor, or control the levels of pharmaceutical content in water, or understand impacts on humans and the environment.

The Alviso’s Medicinal All-Salt project involved rigorous research and synthesis of available environmental water quality and wastewater treatment information, and then humorous presentation of that material so as to engage a general audience on water quality/wastewater issues. It was completed in September, 2010 in San Jose California as a part of the Zer01 San Jose new media arts festival; it involved construction of model salt-evaporation ponds, salt product samples, tours of the San Francisco Bay ‘harvesting waters’ and old industrial salt ponds, and production of a formal report on the drugs found in the South San Francisco Bay.

The project spurred dialogue and debate, especially after receiving press coverage by a wide range of interests: local news, environmental, scientific and technical, and arts and crafts community publications and online forums. The level and diversity of public engagement was significant, granted the notoriously un-sexy target: sewage. Feedback on the project, both direct to the artists and through various online forums, ranged from shock and disbelief to inspired political testimonials and even outrage. It proved to be a unique experiment and case study in creative non-traditional forms of environmental communications and for inspiring engagement on important environmental and human health issues through absurdity, humor, and DIY fun. Find out more at and video at

[aslideshow] Promotional Shot 1 Promotional Shot 2 The Expedition Begins Sample Collection 1 Sample Collection 2 Wastewater Treatment Evaporation [/aslideshow]


Contributors' Biographies:

Morgan Levy is a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Energy & Resources Group, researching interdisciplinary water resources issues particular to California and the American West. She recently returned from a Fulbright Fellowship in Environmental Studies – Water Management in The Netherlands, where she interviewed farmers about agricultural water use.

Jon Cohrs is a recording engineer and visual artist based in Brooklyn, NY. Often employing humor and absurdity, his work uses public engagement and site-specific interventions to address global issues. Currently, he is a fellow at Eyebeam Art + Technology Center, and also teaches at Parson, The New School for Design.