Monday, May 25, 2009

Is Arizona sustainable?

Is Arizona sustainable? That question was raised by Andrew Revkin of the NY Times dotearth blog last week, in a side story to President Obama's commencement address at ASU. [right, Phoenix. Credit,]

Revkin interviewed Charles Redman, director of the ASU sustainability program. Revkin questioned whether Arizona is sustainable, given the record of megadroughts and the state's rapid growth. I was particularly taken with Redman's answer, part of which follows:

"Arizona, to many, seems eminently unsustainable, but that is an overly simplistic (linear) view… I am often asked how there can be a city in the desert, to which I reply that is exactly where virtually all of the original cities in the world were established! The interesting precedent is that Phoenix was home to what may have been the second largest “city” in prehistoric North America (the largest I think was near East St. Louis) and the largest irrigation system north of the Andes. The conditions were just as harsh then as now. The key ingredient is that people can only be successful in this type of environment if they aggregate into larger groups and organize themselves to reduce risk and maximize control and output. In a strange way Arizona has some of the most advanced and effective water management systems largely because it is obvious that if we didn’t this place would not work at all."


  1. Wow I'm quite surprised by Redman's answer. To me it seems that the past can't be a completely reliable indicator for AZ because our current population growth is unprecedented. If we continue to grow and consume at our current rate without some major changes, I can't possibly see how Phoenix could be sustainable.

  2. Anonymous1:49 PM

    Did Mr./Dr. Redman mention how many people lived in the "second largest city" in prehistoric North America? I think the town was smaller than Phoenix, but maybe I'm wrong...

  3. I didn't see any details like that, but Dr. Redman did talk about the concerted efforts by the Phoenix community to effectively manage its water resources.

    I wonder if you can make a generalization about correlating the limits of technology then and now, with the relative population sizes?