Global Futures: Futurecast | Vol. 6, Spring 2024

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Global Futures: Futurecast Edition 6 | Spring 2024 TM

From our Southwest home to the ocean: pathways to a thriving future

Given the many extremes we have witnessed in 2023 — including a new global temperature record close to the 1.5 degrees Celsius mark considered by the Paris Agreement as the level that should not be exceeded — the year 2024 poses questions about what lies in the near and distant future. For those residing in the Southwestern United States, the challenges imposed by human-induced change, including climate change, are experienced daily.

Water security, for example, has become an increasingly pressing issue. In Arizona, a surge in population growth and land development has increased the demand for water while at the same time the allocations from the Colorado River, a lifeline of the Southwest, are decreasing. Major water reservoirs such as Lake Mead and Lake Powell have reached record-low levels and are approaching dead pool conditions, or conditions that won’t allow the release of water downstream. This situation requires exploration of all possible water sources including a desalination plant in Mexico that extracts salt from seawater before being piped to Phoenix.

Extreme temperatures are observed more frequently and over longer periods, thus compounding the existing challenges facing the Southwest. Take for instance the 31 consecutive days of temperatures above 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43.3 C) Maricopa County experienced last July. This extreme heat placed so much stress on the environment that some native plants, including the iconic saguaro, succumbed to it and simply tipped over. Extreme heat also heightens power demand. A power outage at the height of a heat wave would threaten the health and well-being of the city’s population, especially those already living under challenging conditions, from being unsheltered to having inadequate cooling in their homes.


We must also consider the cascading effect of extreme heat in a region susceptible to drought, dust storms and wildfires. Higher temperatures lead to higher levels of evaporation that create drier conditions and transform landscapes, such as the desertification of Utah. Like the Colorado River, the Great Salt Lake has experienced a significant drop in water levels over the past few decades. This is partly due to climate change, which has decimated mountain streams that feed into the lake, and partly due to increasing development, agriculture and industry to the region. This shrinkage not only contributes to Utah’s expanding desertification, it also threatens to upend ecosystems, including disrupting the migration and survival of 10 million birds, including ducks and geese.

While the Southwestern United States is a region susceptible to environmental extremes, it is also a place where innovative technological advancements are shaping the future of sustainability. Earlier this year, the U.S. National Science Foundation announced it had selected ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory to lead a multi-institutional project addressing critical issues of the Southwest as part of its Regional Innovation Engines Award Program. The Southwest Sustainability Innovation Engine will unite academic, community, nonprofit and industry partners across Arizona, Nevada and Utah to establish the Southwest as a leader in carbon capture, water security and renewable energy. It will also positively impact our communities by attracting high-wage industries and creating robust job markets that advance regional economies. Most importantly, this project will position the Southwest as a hub for sustainability-based innovation and create a national and international model for regional sustainability.

Given the precarity of water both in and outside of the Southwest, designing solutions that directly address this challenge remains a long-term priority. On this year’s World Water Day, March 22, the Global Futures Laboratory launched the Water Institute under the direction of Upmanu

Lall, Global Futures Professor in the School of Complex Adaptive Systems. Drawing from existing academic capacity across ASU, the Water Institute is a new center for scholarship and action designed to address global water challenges from community to national scales. Among its many projects, the Water Institute will build a Global Water Collaboratory, a U.S.-focused consortium, as well as a coalition across the Western states for learning and collective action that will be a living laboratory for higher education and workforce development in a systems context.

As we continue to develop ways of protecting our desert landscape, we are also evolving the institutions educating the next generation of innovative thinkers in coastal and marine sciences. Since humans began burning increasing amounts of fossil fuels at the end of the 19th century to mark the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the ocean has continued to protect us from the worst effects of climate change.

This is done through the absorption of about a third of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by human activities while also trapping approximately 90% of the excess heat resulting from increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases. While these services provided by the oceans are keeping global warming at lower levels, they also have significant side effects such as ocean acidification and warming of the ocean that lead to sea level rise and affect the functions of critical ecosystems. Thus, protecting our oceans and their ecosystems remains vital to the health and habitability of our planet.

The ASU Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science and the College of Global Futures’ newest school — the School of Ocean Futures — are each dedicated to addressing these issues. The School of Ocean Futures expects to begin enrolling students in academic programs focused on the future of our oceans and coastal

and marine science and management for the fall 2024 semester. Its programs will provide training in many aspects of ocean sciences and will include the social and economic aspects of ocean stewardship, ocean partnerships and Indigenous knowledge and value systems.

Introductory courses will address ocean futures, ocean communities and ocean conservation, with proposed electives offering opportunities to travel and study in Baja California, Bermuda and Hawaii as part of the curriculum’s experiential learning approach. Hands-on learning such as these prepares students to conduct work of significant impact. Arizona might be a landlocked state, but because the Global Futures Laboratory operates across our entire ocean with a focus on the North Atlantic and Hawaii, our impact is able to reach across regions, landscapes and time zones.

As we navigate the challenges facing our planet, we must remember that the decisions we make today play a significant role in designing a future where Earth’s life-supporting systems can thrive in equilibrium with all its inhabitants. From advancing water and renewable energy technologies through the Southwest Sustainability Innovation Engine to addressing local and global water challenges through the Water Institute to evolving how we teach the next generation of innovative thinkers at the School of Ocean Futures, the individual and collective actions at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory are designed to make a lasting impact, both here in the Southwestern United States and around the world.


Thermal manikin ANDI doesn’t sweat the small stuff

Following the hottest year on record, ANDI offers unique insights into heat and human health solutions

Editor’s note: Global Futures Laboratory writers requested an interview with ANDI for this story, but he was unable to comment.

A certain heat specialist at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory is just like us. He breathes, sweats and shivers just like we would. He is also a manikin — but hey, who ever said you had to be a living thing to make major strides in science?

ANDI is a unique device, but those who work with him have a feeling that this fact doesn’t go to his head. The indoor-outdoor manikin is the first of its kind and mimics the thermal functions of the

average human male’s body. Konrad Rykaczewski, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and Senior Global Future Scientist, said a small number of ANDI models do exist elsewhere in the world but are exclusively used indoors.

“Our ANDI is the only one that has undergone custom developments for ASU by Thermetrics, its manufacturer, to make it compatible with being outdoors,” said Rykaczewski, primary investigator on the project. “He gets dragged around and moved routinely, all for the sake of understanding how human bodies are impacted by extreme heat environments.”

In heat research, ANDI acts as a physical shell to simulate a human body. A program measures how heat moves in and out of the “body,” allowing researchers to measure the evolution of ANDI’s core temperature, skin temperature and hydration rate.

Using ANDI outside offers a more accurate glimpse into the relationship between human health and heat, which can vary depending on a person’s age, preexisting health conditions and even being in direct sun or shade. ANDI can reflect these variances as well: Data collected from ANDI and his inanimate friend MaRTy, an advanced mobile biometeorological station, can be used for computational simulations that reflect different BMIs, ages and medical conditions.

Ankit Joshi, an ASU research scientist leading ANDI’s modeling work, said this ability makes ANDI a groundbreaking tool for heat and health measurements.

“We are generating data that hasn’t been explored before but can be applied to just about anyone,”

Joshi said. “One of the things that makes ANDI so unique is how interdisciplinary this data can be and how many different groups we can pull together.”

During the summer, ANDI can often be found in various places outside of the Walton Center for Planetary Health. This “fieldwork” experience allows heat experts to accurately measure factors such as intermittent wind conditions or other natural situations that cannot be replicated in a controlled environment.

Ariane Middel, an associate professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and Senior Global Futures Scientist, said ANDI is a measurement tool that could prove invaluable to changemakers seeking heat mitigation strategies.

“In the past, we haven’t always been able to answer how the human body is reacting to different conditions,” said Middel, who is also a co-principal investigator of the ANDI project. “ANDI gives us a way to answer those questions, and we can share those answers with others. If a city comes


to us and asks what would happen to the human body if they planted more trees along public walkways, we can measure that with ANDI.”

Middel said ANDI can be used for both local and personal decision-making; ANDI can also be used to test the cooling effects of hats, umbrellas and other clothing items.

“We are really in the perfect location to do this research,” Middel said. “Conditions here are sunny and hot pretty much all throughout the summer, and these are conditions that other places around the world may experience in the future. So we can test things here and then as the world is warming and other places are catching up, they can adopt our findings.”

This potential is especially important as concerns of rising planetary temperatures grow. The scorching temperatures seen in 2023 marked the hottest year on record, in part due to the warming climate pattern El Niño. Heat researchers like Joshi, Middel and Rykaczewski, in addition to fellow co-principal investigator Jenni Vanos, an

associate professor in the School of Sustainability, found their research featured heavily in a variety of scientific journals and media publications alike.

Last summer was also particularly rough on ANDI, even unrelated to the heat conditions: ANDI temporarily lost part of an arm and a foot, which has since been fixed by his manufacturer, Thermetrics.

“ANDI is a dummy, but he’s a pretty complicated dummy,” said Rykaczewski. “The way we use this technology is very new and we are learning a lot about where we can take it and how far we can go with it. We are learning a lot about heat and human health but also a lot about what it takes to keep a tool like this in use outside. It will be interesting to see how this kind of technology develops in the future.”

So far, ANDI hasn’t had any complaints.

“It’s probably a good thing he can’t talk,” Middel joked. “We don’t give him water, and he would probably ask for some sunscreen. And maybe a pair of pants.”

(From left) Associate Professor Konrad Rykaczewski, research scientist Ankit Joshi, ANDI the thermal manikin, Associate Professor Jenni Vanos and Assistant Professor Ariane Middel in the lab. Photo by Christopher Goulet/ASU

To safeguard established coral reefs, look to coral nurseries

When imagining corals, the picture that comes to mind is usually a stationary one, looking something like a garden of rock-like structures covering sections of the ocean floor. Reef conservation efforts as we recognize them today typically focus on preserving these established coral reefs, but new research suggests that these conservation efforts may be missing a crucial piece of the puzzle: coral larvae.

A study that took place near Miloli ‘ i, in the southwestern part of the island of Hawaii, shows that identifying and protecting marine ecosystems both down current and up current of coral reefs, specifically areas where coral larvae are more likely to survive and thrive, is crucial to future coral conservation and restoration efforts. This is especially true as reefs face increasing pressure from the devastating effects of climate change.

The research, completed by Arizona State University scientists and their collaborators, appears in the

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The ‘Āko‘ako‘a Reef Restoration Program, a regional effort that fuses cultural leadership, multimodal education, advanced science and government engagement, backed the research.

Rachel Carlson, an ASU affiliate scientist and the study’s first author, collaborated on the project with Greg Asner, director of ASU’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science; Larry Crowder, professor of oceans at Stanford University; and Robin Martin, associate professor with the ASU School of Ocean Futures in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory.

Carlson said this type of collaborative work — partnerships combining local, Indigenous knowledge and Western science — is crucial to mapping out a future that ensures the survival of coral populations.

Photos courtesy of Greg Asner.

“There’s a lot of Indigenous knowledge about coral spawning and fish populations in West Hawaii. In this study, we addressed an open question: How connected are coral populations between embayments along this coastline?” Carlson said. “What we essentially found is that the major factors in helping the coral keiki, known as larvae, settle down and survive are the nearshore current and the structure of the reef.”

The study shows that the larvae more often settle in and inhabit areas with large boulders and uneven surfaces, or “chunky features,” said Carlson, who is also a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Lab. Adult coral will spawn millions of larvae into the water column, and those larvae prefer to settle in places with large knolls and boulders.

This discovery is good news: These kinds of seafloor features have been mapped via ASU’s Global Airborne Observatory, a highly specialized aircraft that uses several types of remote sensing technologies to track both underwater and landbased habitats. This means that the researchers have the capability to help find and map priority reefs for conservation and restoration.

The study is an example of the collaboration made possible by ‘Āko‘ako‘a as humanity navigates future coral reef outcomes.

“This is foundational research in several important ways,” said Asner, the study’s senior author. “First, it gives us an understanding of the connectivity of different parts of reefs along our coastline and tells us the level of connectivity in the context of the birth, settlement and growth of corals miles apart. Second, our unique remote sensing capabilities can identify reef sites where coral restoration could be most viable in the future. Finally, these findings provide a critical building block for future restoration efforts by our ‘Āko‘ako‘a team and collaborators.”

The group’s goal is to preserve and restore vitality to Hawaii’s coral reefs and coastline health.

“We as lineal descendants of the Miloli ‘ i area have always relied on the reef for our ‘Ohana (families). Our reef is our sustenance and is of enormous cultural value to us,” said Ka‘ imi Kaupiko, president of the nonprofit organization Kalanihale, which manages the Miloli ‘ i Community-Based Subsistence Fishing Area where the study took place.

A colony of the native Hawaiian coral Pocillopora meandrina settles and grows on a rock along the reef of South Kona, on the island of Hawaii.

Asner said the intertwined nature of reefs along Hawaii’s coastlines is crucial to consider as humanity implements reef protection strategies. Narrowing in on one area without consideration for the reproductive corridors of corals, he said, would be akin to worrying about planting trees in a certain place and not thinking about the forest as a whole. This sentiment is echoed by Martin, who said reef connectivity is an underutilized tool in reef restoration efforts globally.

“In Hawaii and worldwide, we’re trying to figure out where we should place protections and restore areas to help reefs,” Martin said. “This study is highly technical, but it needs to be part of that conversation and part of that work, because if you aren’t protecting the upcurrent reefs, you are cutting off important reproductive areas.”

Martin said reef restoration could, for example, expand a protected area of reefs beyond just the spots that have more dense coral coverage on the ocean floor. Protection efforts would also be needed in the upcurrent path that the coral larvae traveled through before they settled in a new location.

Asner added that this research could very well help conservation efforts expand to much greater distances than have been achieved previously.

“These kinds of studies of connectivity, flow and movement are needed because the west Hawaii Island coastline is longer than the whole circumference of any other island,” Asner said. “We have a lot of degraded reefs along our coastline, so knowing where and how to help baby corals thrive is fundamental to the ‘Āko‘ako‘a restoration effort.”

“Our students participated in the coral study, and that also helped us to connect the dots between cultural knowledge and Western science,” Kaupiko said. “The study supports our [community-based subsistence fishing area] by showing that our area is ecologically connected, and thus it needs to be managed and protected as one connected reef and coastline.”

A close-up view of coral polyps, specifically the Hawaiian coral Porites compressa, growing on a reef in South Kona, Hawaii.

Conversation: Bringing Indigenous knowledge into biomimicry

How can we effectively address global challenges while considering the nuances of the local communities being affected? The idea of universal knowledge and a one-size-fits-all approach to address multifaceted problems like climate change can be appealing in theory, but in practice it can neglect the different needs of different communities. Indigenous knowledge is place-based and considers these differences. Melissa K. Nelson and Sara El-Sayed discuss the importance of including Indigenous peoples and perspectives and how they can help us approach the world’s wicked problems more successfully.

Melissa K. Nelson (Turtle Mountain Chippewa)

is a professor of Indigenous sustainability in the Arizona State University School of Sustainability, housed within the College of Global Futures. Nelson is an Indigenous ecologist, writer, editor, media-maker and awardwinning scholar-activist. Prior to joining ASU in 2020, she served as a professor of American Indian studies at San Francisco State University, specializing in Indigenous environmental and Native California Indian studies. She is the editor and a contributor to two significant publications focused on Indigenous peoples’ traditional ecological knowledge.

Sara El-Sayed has a joint position as director of the Biomimicry Center and assistant research professor at the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems. Her research interests include exploring ways to create more regenerative and net-positive local food systems, and exploring the intersection between biomimicry and Indigeneity.

How do Indigenous cultures and innovators from Indigenous backgrounds view the idea or approach of biomimicry and sustainability research?

Nelson: As I always say, no one can speak for all Indigenous people. The diversity of Indigenous peoples is huge. I know people who are adamantly against the idea of biomimicry — not the principles of it, but how it’s being implemented. Then I know a lot of others, those I work with in academia, education and activism, who are super excited about the idea.

Many folks say we were the original biomimics. We knew to look to the plants, to the animals and to the ecosystems we lived in to learn how to flourish, how to grow food, how to build shelter, how to conserve energy, how to be generous like seeds. So much of our traditional Indigenous knowledge systems are rooted in these natural systems. They all give rise to these different lessons about how to live harmoniously, symbiotically, even hierarchically, because there are hierarchies in nature as well. A lot of the Indigenous peoples we’re consulting with on our collaborative projects are very excited about exploring how to bridge Indigenous knowledges, biomimicry and sustainability research.

How has this been incorporated into sustainability, biomimicry and related fields so far?

El-Sayed: From the field of biomimicry, we’re coming in as listeners, to explore and to find ways of creating synergies. The premise of the work that we’ve been doing has been rooted in three big elements. It is rooted in emulation, the one most people hear about, which lets us look to nature to become better listeners to the natural world. We can look to nature’s strategies for inspiration in creating more sustainable solutions for our future, but that’s just one piece of it. The two other elements often get ignored; they are not sexy to the media like innovation is, or like technology is.


Ethos refers to the ethics behind biomimicry, how we show up as human beings and what it means to be on this planet in relation to other organisms, the rocks and water and so forth. Indigenous communities are the masters of this, and the best teachers.

The other piece we talk about in our study of biomimicry is reconnection, this idea that over the past few hundred years, as human beings we’ve become a bit separated from the natural world. We often think of ourselves as apart from it. One of the courses I teach in biomimicry is called Principles of Life. One of the questions I ask the students is, “Are we nature, or are we not nature?” Oftentimes it’s a half-and-half split between people who think we are definitely nature, and the others who say what we’ve done to our world has separated us, that we’re not nature anymore.

So what does it look like to reconnect, to really be part of nature again? Indigenous communities, wherever they are, have those connections. It’s brought in not just from generation to generation, but through storytelling and music and dance. These are an embodiment that the sciences don’t really think about or talk about or incorporate. I think these components are crucial.

Nelson: That’s right. I think the relationship between humans and nature was completely broken down historically through colonialism and this idea that we are at the top of the pyramid. What I love about biomimicry is that these scientists are practicing humility. All science should be about humility and listening and learning from whatever you’re studying, but for some reason it got converted to expertism, scientism, thinking that there’s only one way of knowing the natural world. This basis in separation from the natural world and so-called objectivity leaves out Indigenous sciences and the other local and traditional peoples who have lived in the same home for generations and passed on those ways of growing food and harvesting food and living, rooted in participating in natural systems.

The Indigenous peoples we’re collaborating with are very excited about this because it brings together the best of both worlds to look at innovative solutions. It’s not easy because so much of biomimicry is still rooted in a Western scientific paradigm and through the English language primarily. I’m sure there are many other biomimics from around the world from different languages, where Indigenous knowledges are translated through diverse worldviews and lenses that have very unique classifications, even about plant and animal relationships. It’s a challenging thing to bring together, but that’s what makes it so exciting.

El-Sayed: Biomimicry as an academic field of study is very new. ASU is one of the first universities in the world to offer a program and degrees in biomimicry.

I think there’s an opportunity in the world of STEM education. One of the things we bring to the table is scientific rigor, that process, but we’re also doing it with humility. We try to encourage this

idea of quieting your cleverness. In our programs, we take students to different ecosystems and have them not only observe and listen to the organisms, but also hear from people who have been in close connection with these ecosystems. Part of that listening is not just listening to the science, but also listening to the stories and listening to that history and connection.

We are a young field that’s still trying to learn, and I think it’s a great time to engage in these conversations and think about what it means to create a program that is culturally relevant to Indigenous folks, especially to young Indigenous students who are trying to find avenues to exist in the world while still maintaining their own identities, cultural heritage and histories.

You have both brought up that this is more than just the traditional scientific approach — it’s also about storytelling, and the humanities come into play here. Can you share your thoughts on how these things could make the field more accessible?

El-Sayed: My whole argument is that storytelling is something that comes naturally to us as human beings. We tell stories to our children. Stories are very important and innate, like music. I think that these are things that are very accessible and understood by everyone. The question is, how do you weave these things together in a way that makes sense within this academic space as well?

Nelson: We’re focused, both in Indigenous cultures and in biomimicry, on unlearning and then relearning from the natural world. That’s not something you can do superficially.

And so how do we learn? That’s another exciting aspect of biomimicry, reinventing how we learn about the natural world. From Indigenous paradigms, there are multiple ways of learning. The mind is just one of them. The heart is another way of learning, the body is another way and then the spirit. We have this whole sense of reverence for the natural world, that the nonhuman natural world, “biodiversity,” the elements, they have a spirit and they’re not below us, beneath us or less intelligent than us.

Sara El-Sayed and participants sit in quiet contemplation to listen to the land and river and make observations on the Salt River, SRPMIC reservation. Photo by Melissa K. Nelson.

Those four different ways of learning have been really reduced and fragmented in higher education. We learn through the rational, cognitive mind, and that’s a great way to learn, but it’s just one way to learn. When you talk about singing and dancing, people think that it’s less rigorous. You get out and try to do a buffalo dance right at sunrise, on the ground, barefoot, and you’ll see how rigorous it is. Or, you go and harvest saguaro cactus fruits that are 60 feet up in the sky and sing the songs so that they fall into your hands.

There’s a different type of rigor with Indigenous knowledge. It’s about broadening the full horizons of how we learn and the type of knowledge we produce. That’s why this dialogue and this weaving together is so important. It’s because of the focus on learning new things about the natural world. In doing so, we learn new things about ourselves as humans.

El-Sayed: This university and this laboratory are really focused on the idea of complexity, and all of this just adds more nuance and more complexity. For example, something wonderful that came up in the podcast series we co-produced was listening to the conversation between Roxanne Swentzell, who is a wonderful Pueblo artist, farmer and seed saver, and Anne LaForti, a biomimic who is focused on learning about the soil.

During that conversation, what came up was this in-depth understanding of the importance of microbes and different types of nematodes, and how the soil is a living ecosystem that we kind of ignore. We’re not being good stewards of it. Anne mentioned how one of her Indigenous friends talked about the microbes as water spirits. Adding these elements, even just in conversations, makes it richer. We can understand microbes not so much as something people dislike and want to avoid; a water spirit is a very different way of

From left to right, Jacob Moore, vice president and special advisor to the president on American Indian Affairs, ASU; Melissa K Nelson, professor of Indigenous Sustainability, ASU; Sara El-Sayed, director of the Biomimicry Center; Jacob Butler, Tribal Council member, Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community; and Kelly Washington, director of Cultural Resources Department, Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, pose for a group photo.

thinking about it. It makes you have an affinity to it just by using words that are different.

An important element that Indigenous communities bring is a strong connection to language, even if it’s translated. Because you are raised with such a strong connection to language, it enables everything to have more nuance and complexity. I think it’s just richer.

Nelson: Absolutely. It makes me think of this one Ojibwe word I love. It’s “mashkiki,” which is generally interpreted to mean medicine. When we think of medicine, we may think of going to a pharmacy and getting pills. Mashkiki, literally the etymology of the word, is “strength of the earth.” All medicines come from the earth, right, the strength of the earth? To me, that’s biomimicry.

How do we make sure that Indigenous knowledge is included to assist with solving these knowledge gaps?

El-Sayed: Something that has come up a lot with my students, and with myself as well, in the field of sustainability is how often people feel like they are looking for a North Star. Where’s our ethos? I wouldn’t say there are knowledge gaps as much as there are gaps in what allows us to act differently on this planet. If we think of it as just knowledge, and not an embodied experience in bringing the heart and body into it, then what we’re really doing is greenwashing. What Indigenous knowledge teaches us is how you can bring these pieces together.

Nelson: There are knowledge gaps because there are learning gaps. You asked how to respectfully include this other information? Listen, be respectful, do things differently.

I’ve been fortunate to know some of the leaders of the biomimicry field for several years. It’s no surprise to me that it’s led largely by women who really want to bring back reverence for the natural world and listen in a more humble way to gain new insights and collaborate with

Indigenous peoples and other land-based peoples who have been living it for centuries.

An issue I always have with this field is there’s such urgency, the problems are great, the issues are so pressing. Climate change as an example, what are we going to do? We’re going to move faster, faster, faster — I think it should be the opposite. I think we actually have to slow down. We’re part of the slow food movement, which is a global movement that tries to reimagine our relationship with food.

It’s an interesting dilemma with time, because things are urgent. The house is on fire. We do have to make radical change, social change, scientific innovation, but not at the expense of relationships and consent and trust. Consent and trust take a long time to build when they’ve been broken repeatedly throughout history. How do we rebuild that? Historical justice is not generally part of public discourse in America, unless you’re in American Indian studies, or ethnic studies or justice studies maybe. And it is rarely discussed in the sciences.

El-Sayed: It’s a problem that affects the whole world. I come from the Middle East, and we have struggles right now. It’s also politics, right? It’s not just a matter of willingness, but it is a complicated situation.

Nelson: And some conflicts may be insurmountable, but we have to try, especially as educators working with young people who are bright and excited and want to make changes, because the world is in a very dire situation right now.

El-Sayed: I think it requires a little bit of discomfort. Something a lot of people don’t sit well with is questioning their own self, their own beliefs and assumptions, and then trying to have these conversations within their discomfort areas. If you don’t actually think about things and look at them head-on, then you’re not able to find ways forward.


For example, one of the things that we need to reconcile in the world of biomimicry is the tendency to bring natural objects into our workshops. People get so excited to look at them and understand the different functions behind them, whether it’s a feather or a cholla skeleton or something along those lines, but that’s not acceptable in many Indigenous communities. There’s reverence and respect and a story that goes with it. Trying to navigate this, we have no answers.

Right now, we are going to explore it and see what it looks like, but this is in direct contradiction to our different ways of doing things. Part of what we’re going to explore is what this could look like in our future. We’re not going to shy away, we’re going to find ways to solve it.

Within fields like biomimicry and sustainability, there are so many different people impacted by these changes. How do we seek answers in a way that causes the least amount of harm and ensure we are being mindful and respectful?

Nelson: Even though we really do need solutions, we often jump to solutions very quickly, without sitting with the not knowing and the discomfort. Maybe we try to come up with bottom-up solutions rather than top-down solutions, then meet halfway. Experts do have a lot of knowledge and experience and we need to learn from that, but it can’t be at the expense of communities on the ground.

El-Sayed: I was thinking recently about a Lancet article talking about how the Mediterranean diet is the diet we should be proposing to the rest of the world. The Mediterranean diet has a lot of advantages in the composition of the foods, but it is very place-based. This has created a lot of unintended consequences. These topdown approaches become problematic when they haven’t been really thought of in relation to place. With the solutions coming bottom-up, there might be something in between. In this case, there might be some Mediterraneanlike principles that can inspire a solution.

Nelson: This is the idea of universal knowledge. Universalizing knowledge is a very Eurocentric idea of Western science, and maybe some other things like Western religions. Indigenous knowledges would never say what’s good for a Pomo in Northern California is good for an Akimel O’odham in the Salt River, or good for Chumash in Southern California or Quechua in Peru. That would just never come up. This is a huge mindset change that we’re grappling with. Like you said, maybe some general principles you can bring in, but there are very big differences in different places.

El-Sayed: On the topic of principles, in biomimicry we use a set of principles that have been extrapolated from how nature functions. They are very big and overarching. For example, being locally attuned and responsive is a principle. All organisms are locally attuned and responsive to their environments, and they adapt to them. Organisms that live in the Sonoran Desert are perfectly adapted to the monsoons and heat, and they have evolved over centuries to do an entirely different type of photosynthesis called CAM photosynthesis.

I know that scientists want to do this too, have these big overarching principles, but then they have to become localized. They have to be grounded in truth with local communities. There are ways of bringing these two worlds together, but you need to be a good listener. You need to make sure that we engage in those conversations, and see if it works because maybe these principles don’t actually work everywhere.

Nelson: It’s hard work. We’re grappling with a lot of conundrums. There are no simple answers, and yet we need answers. We have to act urgently, but we can’t build relationships and experiment and repair relationships urgently. It has to be done over time with care.

ASU summit calls for continued collaboration, innovations in atmospheric water harvesting technology

As questions about water resources and access continue to build in the Southwest, some experts are turning to an unlikely place for solutions: our atmosphere. Atmospheric water harvesting, a method of water collection that draws water from humidity in the air, offers a new pathway for water security.

Experts in areas including engineering, hydrology, materials science and thermodynamics gathered at Arizona State University in February for the Atmospheric Water Harvesting Summit — the first summit of its kind dedicated entirely to atmospheric water harvesting.

Paul Westerhoff, Regents Professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment at ASU, the Fulton Chair of Environmental Engineering and director of Global Center for Water Technology, moderated the event. He said that while atmospheric water harvesting technology has gathered interest from industries like health care, home appliances, semiconductor manufacturing, the military and data centers, it is an underutilized area for progress.

“This has been the first international atmospheric harvesting summit — at the very least the first one of this scale — and this is an area that could really benefit from dedicated attention,” said Westerhoff, who is also a Senior Global Futures

Scientist at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory. “Water is a human right. The question is: How can we get water in the right place at the right time, with the right quality? This is where atmospheric water capture technology can really shine.”

The summit, which took place from Feb. 8—9, was hosted by the Arizona Water Innovation Initiative, a statewide project led by the Global Futures Laboratory in collaboration with Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. The initiative targets ASU’s industrial, municipal, agricultural, tribal and international partners to deploy new water conservation and efficiency technologies. The summit was organized by the Global Center for Water Technology, which is part of the Arizona Water Innovation Initiative.

The summit gathered water researchers, startups, larger companies and other participants in atmospheric water harvesting. This diverse range of experts discussed the broad range of uses for this technology, from drinking water to industrial applications.

“It has been recognized for some time now that the southwestern region of the United States will have an increasing water problem,” said Peter Schlosser, vice president and vice provost of Global Futures at ASU. “The gap between demand and supply is increasing. If you want to ensure thriving futures and economies in the Southwest and other areas around the globe, the need for innovative water technologies is becoming more urgent.”

The summit featured experts in materials science and processing, as well as in-practice methods of atmospheric water harvesting. Participants included representatives from Intel, PepsiCo, international universities and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The summit concluded with a wrap up of action items and the promise of continued conversations. Westerhoff said the summit was a move in the right direction toward a more sustainable water future.

“There is immense opportunity for atmospheric water capture across all sectors,” Westerhoff said.

“As we continue to navigate water scarcity issues in Arizona, the greater Southwest and then around the world, more conversations will need to happen. This gathering has been an important start.”

Schlosser echoed the need for collaboration in the solutions space. He pointed to the Arizona Water Innovation Initiative as one example of positive change happening from within ASU, with another example being the recently announced NSF Engines: Southwest Sustainability Innovation Engine, a National Science Foundation-funded, multi-institutional enterprise led by ASU. These efforts amplify ASU’s dedication to water, engineering and sustainability solutions, and they are strengthened by continued collaboration and teamwork.

“Look at everyone who has assembled here,” Schlosser said in his opening remarks at the summit. “We need all kinds of expertise to properly address the greatest challenges of our time. We must form these kinds of networks and work together.”


Biodiversity: Experts discuss the challenges and joys of preserving a thriving future for all

As the sun sets in a park, a small group of bugs cast golden light as they float through the air. A dog bursts through a patch of grass in hunt of a ball. Across the globe, a group of fish weave through coral reef structures while small sea anemones sway with the current. All of these creatures may be vastly different in appearance, but they share one crucial thing: their home.

Our planet is home to countless life forms, each of which participates in Earth’s life-supporting systems. These lives range from a single bacterium all the way up to the largest known animal in existence, the blue whale. This variance is commonly referred to as biodiversity. In this conversation, Sharon Jae Hall, Leah Gerber and Nico Franz Leah Gerber discuss some of the most pressing threats to biodiversity, how to empower future changemakers and how they remain hopeful at a time of increasing extinction rates.


Sharon Jae Hall is a President’s Professor and the associate dean of Arizona State University’s College of Global Futures. She is a conservation scientist who explores the ecology of native and managed ecosystems that sustain people and other organisms within the community of life. To achieve these goals, Hall and her research team focus on understanding and improving the interwoven feedback between people and nature.

Leah Gerber is a professor of conservation science in the School of Life Sciences and founding director of the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes at ASU. Gerber’s research, teaching and leadership advance the integration of science in decision processes to achieve sustainable biodiversity outcomes.

Nico Franz is a Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Ecology and principal investigator of the NEON Biorepository and the iDigBio Symbiota Support Hub, which sustains more than 2,000 collections and 90 million global occurrence records. He serves as curator of insects and directs the ASU Biocollections and Biodiversity Knowledge Integration Center.

What does biodiversity mean?

Gerber: Biodiversity is the variety of living species on Earth – plants, animals and microorganisms –and the ecosystems they form. An ecosystem is the name given to all species that live together in a stable community, interacting with one another and their physical environment. Biodiversity includes the diversity within species and between different species within terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems. Ecosystems need a balanced and diverse number of species to thrive.

Why is it important to study biodiversity and what do you hope to accomplish?

Hall: I think about biodiversity as supporting the services that nature provides for people, but also species and ecosystems are important and have value in their own right. In other words, nonhuman species have intrinsic value, irrespective of humanity. The priorities of my research and professional life are to protect nature’s diversity and improve the relationship that people have

with nature so they can see how it benefits all of us. My goal is to acknowledge and expand people’s perception about the intrinsic value of ecosystems, even outside of the human sphere.

Gerber: One thing that I think is really important in contemplating biodiversity is that the interactions and processes are equally important as the individual entities like genes and species, so it’s sort of like a puzzle. Biodiversity is important because if you remove one piece of the puzzle, we risk system collapse.

I also think what Sharon just highlighted is really important. My professional training is in conservation science, and the discipline itself is a goal oriented discipline to protect biodiversity. We’ve been talking a lot about the extent to which the discipline has succeeded in achieving the goal. And, you know, some might argue that we haven’t been very successful. The extinction rate has never been higher. And so I think Sharon’s insights regarding changing our mindset and engaging people in this goal are crucial.

At the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, part of our goal is “mainstreaming” biodiversity. This includes bringing data, metrics and tools on biodiversity into the business sector and working with governments and thinking about protecting biodiversity as sort of an essential solution, not a problem.

Franz: I’ll also add that the problems we see come up that relate to biodiversity are not primarily “in the forest.” They have to do with economics. When environmental or biodiversity concerns and issues and aspirations are not foregrounded, it’s because there are other very, very strong economic interests that take precedence. Natural resources are also a commodity. I think the more biologically focused sectors of academia are evolving and training ourselves in order to hopefully be more effective in our own work to connect with others who are working within that “commodity” mindset.


Gerber: And that’s the tricky part, I think. Biodiversity is like art: It makes our lives better, but commodifying it is incredibly difficult. It’s hard to put a dollar sign on nature, but we see it all the time. Trying to solve the biodiversity crisis by putting a price on nature is addressing the problem based on the very root cause of the problem. In other words, we need a transformation in our social and economic systems that properly mainstreams biodiversity. These ways of commodifying it will never work because they are the things that have led to a decline of nature.

Why is biodiversity in crisis right now?

Hall: On the topic of a decline of nature and biodiversity, climate change and warming often come up in these kinds of conversations. Obviously these things are enormous threats that affect the entire planet and conditions under which humanity has thrived over the last many millennia. But for much of the biodiversity crisis, it’s important to understand that climate has always shifted through time, and species have, in a lot of cases, adapted and moved.

The reason we are in such a biodiversity crisis situation now is primarily because human-led land cover and land use change has degraded — and in many cases consumed — the homes of Earth’s sensitive species. Now, a changing climate poses a bigger threat, not only to species on land but also in the oceans, lakes and rivers.

The changes we are seeing now are happening much more rapidly than they have in the past, and humanity has narrowed where native species can thrive to a set of fragmented places. There’s a reason why sensitive species are in decline; it’s because we’ve really restricted the places where they can live and function.

Gerber: The data shows there are five major threats to biodiversity: pollution, habitat loss, overexploitation of species, invasive species and climate change. Recent data suggest that land use change (primarily agriculture) represents the largest driver to biodiversity loss. My PhD research focused on marine mammal conservation, so lately I’ve been joking — “How on Earth did I get from whales to agriculture?” The answer is that my research focus has shifted to focus on the most pressing challenges to addressing the extinction crisis.

How can we mitigate these issues?

Gerber: Looking to the future, we need to gear solutions toward finding ways that allow

biodiversity to persist while also ensuring food security through sustainable agriculture. Identifying economic alternatives for local communities is essential. For example, in the agriculture sector, we’re working in Latin America to find alternatives to deforestation to have revenue from the timber products. Agroforestry is a very viable solution in that case, because it allows biodiversity to thrive.

Franz: And that ties in to the question that we naturally ask ourselves. What role can we play as academics? We don’t control land use or resource use at the kind of scale that other segments of society do. So I think part of the work and part of the mandate for Global Futures at ASU is to become more knowledgeable and effective in these non-academic sectors of the economy and of society and of policymaking, where things actually get moved.

Gerber: I think we do have a unique position in terms of thought leadership and bringing methods and tools and best available data to these discussions. For example, a company might

hire a consultant to do an analysis, but it may not be the most rigorous way of approaching a problem. I think there’s a role for academia in setting the standard of what is rigorous and defensible. This credibility is also relevant in governmental and non-governmental sectors.

Hall: In the academic space, we are also helping to grow the next generation of independent and critical thinkers, and Earth’s stewards. We can help students learn about the life-supporting role of biodiversity, but also influence the next generation to act on their civic responsibilities and empower them to shape outcomes. We need to be out there giving the best available science and data to decision-makers, yes, but we also have to talk to everyday people about what’s happening to biodiversity and ecosystems both within and beyond their towns and cities. We shouldn’t only talk to conservation students, but younger people and other lifelong learners. The biodiversity crisis is urgent, but course-correcting is also totally doable by shifting human behaviors and activity.


I know that lots of folks talk about hope — and it can seem kind of abstract, but I think we’re in a time where there’s a lot of anxiety about what is happening in the future. Talking about the future in terms of what each of us can do gives the learners some tools, some pathways and some models of how this can work. I think that’ll go a long way to changing things faster than what’s been possible in my generation. We’ve been making incremental progress towards protecting native ecosystems and biodiversity — thank goodness — but it’s still incremental. We need a sea change, and it needs to happen faster and bigger than it has before.

I’m hoping this is where the Global Futures Laboratory is uniquely positioned to provide a model for other colleges and universities.

On the topic of hope and sharing that hope with future changemakers, how do you stay hopeful in this space?

Hall: When I read the news, I see a lot of negative stories out there. But there are so many positive things happening too, if you are looking. There are some really amazing success stories in ecosystem restoration and biodiversity protection, but a lot of times the positive stories just don’t get as much attention. For every story that gives me some anxiety about the future, there is another one I find that gives me hope.

I’ve been inspired by communities around the world where people are devoting their

lives to saving and improving the livelihoods of the ecosystems that are around them — sometimes just for its own intrinsic value. Some of these communities that have prioritized this work have fewer resources than we can imagine in this country. But they are doing the work. That is just extraordinarily humbling.

ASU has a platform to shine a light on the incredible work that people are doing and show them that they’re connected to each other. There’s a whole global community of people who are fighting to protect and restore forests and rivers and grasslands and oceans. I think our students don’t see this as often as they should because there are so many negative stories out there about the future. I promise that if you look for the positive, you can find it.

Franz: I think of nature as a very connecting thing. That gives me a sense of hope. We are all connected in some way — regardless of our backgrounds or belief systems or spirituality — connected through nature. That motivates people. People of very different backgrounds or even positions in their society do feel a desire to do their part to honor the connection that we have with nature.

Gerber: I think what gives me the hope to continue working on averting the biodiversity crisis is the students who are so full of determination, drive, passion and enthusiasm. These future leaders are really

doing embedded work around the world. I am inspired by the collective energy and commitment that this community of scholars brings to addressing conservation challenges around the world. Collectively, we are taking steps toward achieving transformative change.

What would you tell the current and incoming students who are interested in being part of that work?

Franz: I can say that personally, I think my work is fun. And ideally, it should be. I find that keeping a good sense of humor is important. It is a really good way to find common ground with people. Conversations about biodiversity and barriers to conservation sometimes end up being a conflict that is centered around power and who has the power to control resources. When used correctly, humor can be a great way to navigate difficult conversations about power. It can bring in people who might not have been interested otherwise.

Gerber: I would tell them to approach conservation from a perspective of being very humble and open to listening and learning. I think one of the problems we see is a very Western society-minded, “we know the answer” approach to local problem-solving. That is really a misguided notion; I think we have much to learn from local communities around the world. I think those insights can really help inform a more successful future. We could do a better job being humble and listening to a diverse set of actors in this area.

I would add that it is important to get deep expertise in all ranges of disciplines within conservation, but we also need to be able to communicate that expertise broadly. I’ve invested a lot in communication and leadership training because I think that being a good scientist is a start, but that alone is just not enough. Taking a solution from science to action is crucial, and that’s where that extra training comes in.

Hall: I think that conservation science can be a job, but for many of us, it’s also a passion. It’s a lifelong passion. We as a group need to keep our batteries full, because we can’t inspire change in others if we aren’t inspired ourselves. Many of us — and I hear this from students as well — are the only ones in our families who feel as passionately about the “nonhuman world” as we do. That can feel isolating. I think it’s important for students to know that they aren’t alone; there is a whole community of likeminded people who also value the preservation of the wild and the creatures that live there.

The last thing that I say to students is: go explore the world. Get out of your comfort zone and go see the color and the places and the complexity of our planet. Keep that sense of awe, because the world we live in is mind-blowing. It is so incredible and inspiring to see the diversity of people and their cultures and the ecosystems that sustain them. I think once we get out there and see that, it puts everything into perspective and keeps those batteries full for the long run.


Seeking inspiration to change the future? Consider the past

In October 2023, Arizona State University President’s Professor Amber Wutich was named a 2023 MacArthur Fellow. The highly coveted fellowship, sometimes referred to as a “genius grant,” is awarded to talented individuals who have shown exceptional originality in and dedication to their creative pursuits.

Wutich, who serves on the executive committee of the Arizona Water Innovation Initiative at ASU, said she plans to use the MacArthur stipend to strengthen her work in new water policy, infrastructure and innovations. In an article for ASU News, she said she has recently turned to an unlikely place for inspiration: the past.

“My work really is dedicated to understanding some of the darkest parts of the human experience,” Wutich said in the article. “More recently, I have

started to go back in history and look at how humans have faced moments of extreme climate distress. There is suffering, yes. There is death. But it’s also true that humans have historically faced these challenges with enormous innovation and transformations in our society. I’m hopeful that if we really do invest in social infrastructure, which is what gives rise to human innovation and ingenuity, great things could happen for humanity.”

Wutich recently co-wrote an anthropology textbook, “The Human Story,” alongside other ASU experts Kelly Knudson, Christopher Stojanowski, Alexandra Brewis and Cindi SturtzSreetharan.

In this discussion, Wutich, Knudson and Stojanowski share what we can learn from the past as we navigate a changing climate today.

Amber Wutich is an Arizona State University President’s Professor, director of the Center for Global Health and 2023 MacArthur Fellow. An expert on water insecurity, Wutich directs the Global Ethnohydrology Study, a cross-cultural study of water knowledge and management in more than 20 countries. Her two decades of community-based fieldwork explore how people respond, individually and collectively, to extremely water-scarce conditions.

Kelly Knudson is a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and the director of the Center for Bioarchaeological Research and the Archaeological Chemistry Laboratory at ASU, where she and her research team apply biogeochemistry to anthropological research questions. One of her archaeological research projects focuses on how people living in the Andes one thousand years ago responded to climate changes.

Christopher Stojanowski is a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and a bioarchaeologist who uses information from ancient sites to reconstruct the lives of past peoples, focusing on the Holocene skeletal record of the New World and Africa. He has written on community organization and ethnogenesis in the colonial Southeast, Archaic period mortuary rituals in North America, and Early and Middle Holocene lifestyles in the Sahara Desert.

How does looking into the past help us chart out the future, especially as it relates to operating during times of climate change?

Wutich: It’s important to look back and see examples of what humanity has done in the past and how people emerged from those times of change. For example, when humans became Homo sapiens as we know them, this was done at a moment of climate shift. Another major milestone in human development was the advent of agriculture, which was facilitated by and a response to a major climate shift. These enormous touch points in history have helped organize my thinking because we see patterns at a smaller scale and in individual societies that have been studied. My thinking has really been informed by conversations with archaeologists like Kelly and Chris.

Knudson: What’s really exciting to me about working with this particular group, and just thinking about archaeological approaches more generally, is that when we think about impacts and adaptations to climate changes, we usually think in terms of years or maybe a few generations. But, when you start to look at the archaeological record, you have this really deep time depth throughout the history of our species. I think it is really important to think about how humans have been impacted by climate and how they responded, because that can help guide how we respond to climate change in the future. Looking at our history gives us a really full picture and provides helpful examples of problems that have come back around and we face today.

Stojanowski: I would just add that once we start getting into the Homo sapiens record, it’s also useful to see challenges as being met in ways that may not necessarily be archaeologically visible. There are some instances in history that may appear as population “extinctions” — and I’m seeing this with the work I’m doing in the Sahara — where


there are specific archaeological sequences that have gaps that suggest that the people who were once in an area are not there anymore. This could be seen as a population extinction but, in fact, it probably reflects people responding to a situation by moving away, rather than just staying put and slowly suffering until that way of life isn’t possible anymore. Instead, they adapted.

Wutich: I think looking back is also an important tool because it gives us context for timescales. There are quite strong arguments that the ways that we have lived for the past 50 years or even the past 150 years and the consumption patterns we’ve established will not be able to continue in the same way they have in the recent past. I think there is a very strong argument that our consumption patterns and lifestyles will have to end. The idea that we are going to go through periods of great difficulty is well supported. I think we can look to human history and see similar situations. Where I find looking at the human record quite inspiring is that

it directs us to the things that create meaning for humans and allows us to think more broadly and radically about what it is to live a good life. What is it to live a meaningful life, and how can we embrace those things in the context of times with extreme disruption? How have people protected those things while navigating times of change?

Knudson: I love that emphasis on what it is to lead a meaningful life and a good life. I think that’s a very positive lens. And it’s sometimes hard to get out of the archaeological past because of course, we can’t talk to people who lived thousands of years ago about what gave them meaning. But I do think — and I tend to be a more optimistic person anyway — that when we look at the past, even if we can’t always understand what was bringing people joy and meaning, we can get a good sense of how people overcame these challenges in a lot of different ways.

An example I would use that feels especially appropriate today is climate-driven migration. I finished a project in northern Chile and we

looked at this massive drought that occurred about a thousand years ago that spanned at least three generations. We had hypothesized that people had moved away and left the areas that were most impacted for areas that were less impacted. But we didn’t see that at all. We found that people stayed in place. I can’t help but wonder if part of what was giving the people a sense of meaning was living in these areas. The place itself had value and had a sense of home, and so they figured out different ways to live in a drier environment rather than moving to a place where they could continue the same farming strategies that had previously worked.

How might that idea of climate-driven migration, or lack thereof, apply to today’s issues in the Southwest?

Knudson: The Southwest is a beautiful place to live, and I think we can very easily see that same emphasis on the value of a place that I saw in Chile.

Wutich: I think Arizona specifically is a good example of this past-educating-future approach. People may not physically migrate, but they can offset some of their risks by changing their exchange patterns. And that is something we’ve seen successfully done historically in the Southwest at certain times. We know it’s possible because it’s been done before.

But I’ll also note that we are currently seeing an attempt in Arizona to bring a lot more population here, with the idea that it would grow the economy and shift exchange patterns in ways that would be advantageous to people that live here. That’s quite an interesting and somewhat unique approach to climate change related pressures. Kelly and Chris, are there any analogs that you can think of in the archaeological record?

Knudson: What’s interesting to me is I actually see the opposite. And some of the places I’ve worked were, pre-drought, more cosmopolitan. There are these massive trade networks where people were using llama caravans that would take maybe 40 or 50 days to go from one site to another and connect these really disparate areas where people were speaking different languages, wearing different clothes, using different kinds of objects and eating different foods, but they were all connected through these massive caravan networks.

But then after the drought, we see the emphasis change. It is not on this big cosmopolitan network bringing in resources from all over, but rather on that one particular place where everyone is focusing on the area directly around them.

I think that’s a lot different from what Amber was talking about in Arizona, but it also seems to be a valuable approach. I think that’s one of the lessons from the past we can apply to the future: There are lots of different things that work. There’s no one path forward.


Stojanowski: On that note of different things working and having multiple options, I’ll bring up social groups and changing dynamics. These also contribute to people’s actions, and we see that today and in our history. I’ll bring up timescales: Sometimes the timescale for change is more than an individual lifespan. If the timeframes of change are more than one person’s lifespan, then why would someone make difficult decisions that require present sacrifices for future benefits?

Wutich: I love that you mention this and I think this is where ideology is so important. People frequently make consumption or economic decisions that are outside of their immediate self interest for a range of reasons, sometimes for the well-being of future generations, but we also see people seeking prestige over other economic outcomes. People will be compelled to do the things that help them accrue prestige — like buying a diamond ring — whether or not they’re rationally advantageous in the short term, right? This is one of the most important mechanisms, alongside in-group and out-group dynamics, that humans have to produce collective action that moves humanity along a new path.

How have things like policy and societal will helped with moving humanity forward? And what happens when those two things aren’t aligned?

Wutich: We see that misalignment all the time in our history. I would argue, as a cultural anthropologist, that getting people to engage in collective action in ways that accumulate prestige has been a regrettably neglected strategy for environmental activists and sustainability advocates. For my reading of human history, there is nothing that compels human action more reliably than prestige.

Knudson: What I think is really interesting is how prestige over time changes. And that’s what we’re getting back to, the idea that you

Assistant Research Professor and Sustainability scientist Clint Penick leads a bio-inspired design session during a session at The Biomimicry Center. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

could change the world in a way that brings high prestige. What is advantageous to you as an individual in terms of your status and your prestige will also benefit future generations.

Getting back to the case I talked about earlier in northern Chile, what was prestigious during a time when the environment was very stable and relatively wet was a large exchange network and lots of interaction with people in lots of different places. We see people bringing in high prestige goods like gold artifacts or lapis lazuli from a particular mine or feathers from the Amazon. Those were the high prestige goods that were important at that time. But then, after the drought and as the climate was changing, what seems to have been important was not access to these high prestige goods.

Instead, it was staying in a much smaller area and focusing on your agricultural systems, your community, your village. You could argue that what was prestigious changed.

That gives me hope that we could change systems today in terms of what is considered high value, rather than something that’s coming on a cargo ship from many thousands of miles away as being a high-value good to something that is produced locally in a way that’s environmentally sustainable. I think we see that in smaller situations, but not on the grand scale that we would perhaps like to see now.

Wutich: This is where I see social infrastructure as an investment opportunity to move us to a more sustainable society.

What is social infrastructure, and how can investing in social infrastructure help us shape our futures?

Wutich: When I talk about social infrastructure, I mean social networks, cultural norms and informal economic mechanisms. Moving to a more sustainable society requires changes in the way that we value and assign prestige, more pro-social and cooperative behavior. Those are things that are largely governed by our social infrastructure, like the social networks we cooperate in, and the cultural norms that assign prestige and value and the economic behaviors that enable us to survive under climate stress.

That is why I think paying more attention to social infrastructure is an underexplored way to help propel us down a pathway towards sustainability. We can shift the ways that we find meaning and value in our lives in ways that are better aligned with sustainable futures. But looking back at our history to see if this is a viable plan that has worked for humanity — archaeologists, are you buying that argument?

Knudson: I buy that argument. I think humans are really, really good at solving problems and figuring out new solutions and working together to solve those problems. And we see that over and over again in the past, especially when we start to move away from models of societal collapse. More commonly, they’re innovating. They’re doing things differently. It’s not that people are just magically all disappearing and poof, going away. They’re just changing. And so when I think about it in those terms, I think, yes, absolutely. Humans have a remarkable capacity to figure these solutions out, especially if we think really broadly and very flexibly about what we can do in various situations and that there’s no one size fits all solution for any of these problems in the present or in the past.

Stojanowski: On that note, I’m trying to think of when we have suffered through climate crises before, but the most recent global extinction event for humans is probably around


70,000 years ago. The theory is that 70,000 years ago there was a volcanic eruption that was a near-extinction-level event for humans. So, it’s not like the entirety of the Holocene in the last 11,000 years has been one of near extinction for humans. And that is in spite of there being major climatic events that have happened. So we know there are local responses to those climatic events. I think the long-term view really does make you more optimistic.

Knudson: I was just going to say that sometimes when I talk about the past it feels really distant to people. How could we possibly live without computers, electricity and artificial intelligence? I think what’s helpful for me is to remember that our brains really haven’t changed. People have been experiencing innovation and technological change for millennia. The details are different, but the idea that humans as a species are innovating and changing things and learning how to do things is nothing new.

Wutich: The really important thing I would love people to get from hearing this conversation is the more you know about human history, the more continuity you see and the more hopeful you are forced to feel. And I am a person who regularly thinks that my job is putting my catastrophic thinking in service of humanity. But I’m also a scientist and a person who is trained to look at evidence, and when I look at the archaeological record and think about what the future holds for humanity, the evidence just relentlessly guides me to think about the promise of technological change and the human capacity for cooperative and pro-social problem solving. We have faced catastrophic moments in our species’ history and we have overcome them. That’s just a fact.

Kelly and Christopher, as archaeologists, you spend a lot of time thinking about the past. How do you feel about the future?

Knudson: One of the things that is helpful for me when I feel overwhelmed about the future and what will happen is to think about the situations, including extreme drought and climate change, that we have already overcome. For the people who lived through it, it probably felt like their world was changing. Some people lived in a time when the entire world as they knew it — or hundreds of hundreds of miles in any direction — was drier than it was in their grandparents’ time. People have been where we are now, albeit on a smaller scale. The scale may be larger now, as we are seeing things like warming on a global scale, but what I feel is important is that we are not alone. People have felt what we are feeling now. I find that a reason for hope as well, that the challenges people have gone through in the past have probably felt just as terrifying as some of the challenges we’re facing today.

Stojanowski: It’s kind of like parenting, in a way. When you have a little kid you worry about little things like diaper rash. And then when you have a teenager, you still worry but you worry about different things, usually bigger things. The scale of the problems are increasing. And so I think that’s the way it is with the human species. As we create problems, we also have more people to be able to find solutions to them. As people who also teach this material, we often think about learning outcomes and goals in our teaching. One of the high level ones for me is trying to create that connection to the past, because everyone is born into a world that’s already existed for hundreds of thousands of years, with no real understanding of that. And it’s surprising to me how often you encounter others, who aren’t always working in the past, that don’t really think about history, or have a very incomplete understanding of it. And so trying to flesh out that understanding creates more nuanced thinkers that are more connected in multiple ways.

Ocean sciences central to designing thriving global futures

Earth’s ocean is its single largest biome. It is home to more than half of the world’s species and produces as much as half of the world’s oxygen supply. The ocean is essential for life on Earth. It is also a leading indicator of our planet’s wellness. Now, ASU has harnessed more than 120 years of ocean science expertise to lay out a new pathway to understanding this immense habitat.

In 1903, a cohort of marine scientists from Harvard and New York University connected with the Bermuda Natural History Society. The group came together to establish the Bermuda Biological Station for Research, which went on to become globally known as the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences. In 2021, the institute joined the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University, bringing nearly 120 years of marine science to the nation’s top university for innovation, global impact and sustainability.


In 1995, the NOAA Climate Adaptation Partnership established the Pacific Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments program in Honolulu, Hawaii to position scientists to better understand and respond to climate change at the regional scale throughout the Pacific Rim. In 2021, the program, now known as Pacific RISA, collaborated with ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation to renew their NOAA funding, joining the Global Futures Laboratory.

Greg Asner, an ecologist recognized for his exploratory and applied research on ecosystems and climate change, launched a new airborne laboratory at Carnegie University in 2006. This laboratory would be used to collect ecological data that would be integrated with satellite sensors and computer modeling to better understand the health of our planet’s forests, coasts and coral reefs. In 2019, Asner moved his Heinz Awardrecognized Global Airborne Observatory team to ASU to establish a new Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, based jointly at the Walton Center for Planetary Health on ASU’s Tempe campus and at the ASU Pacific Ridge-to-Reef Program facility in Hilo, Hawaii.

The Global Futures Laboratory leveraged the expertise and resources of these and other diverse research programs to establish a new School of Ocean Futures in 2023, the fourth school based within the College of Global Futures. Ocean Futures graduate students have begun research projects, and undergraduate and graduate degree programs are on target to begin enrolling for fall 2024.

At the Global Futures Laboratory, our scientists and scholars understand that, as the planet’s largest biome, the ocean is a central component of protecting our planet’s health and the general wellness of our world’s complex network of systems. To honor this commitment, the ASU Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences and faculty and researchers across the Global Futures Laboratory will be celebrating the more than 120 years of navigating ocean sciences during World Oceans Month in June 2024. The occasion will be marked by a weekend of events including a research symposium and public ocean sciences day at the ASU BIOS campus. Please check our website for more details as June approaches.

Our ocean

Absorbs a third of the planet’s carbon

Produces half of our oxygen supply

Is home to more than half Earth’s species

Supports 40 million jobs

Sustains 1 billion people

Combining 120 years of ocean research with the #1 U.S. institution in innovation, impact and sustainability.
TM global futures
The Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory™ is a unit of ASU Knowledge Enterprise Produced by ASU Knowledge Enterprise. © 2024 Arizona Board of Regents. All rights reserved. 03/2024 FPO POFP
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