October 14, 2013
Paul Hirt is an Associate Professor in the School of Sustainability and the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies. He is also a Senior Sustainability Scholar at ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability. Hirt is a historian and writer whose work has been published by numerous academic presses and journals. His most recent book is titled “The Wired Northwest: The History of Electric Power, 1870s-1970s.” His other writings include a history of national forest management since World War II titled “A Conspiracy of Optimism,” two essay collections on Northwest history titled “Terra Pacifica” and “Northwest Lands, Northwest Peoples,” and two-dozen articles and book chapters on environmental and western history. For several years, Hirt has led students on trips to the Grand Canyon exploring the human history behind this natural wonder and national treasure. He is also involved in projects exploring nature and history in the US-Mexico borderlands and he recently joined an Institute for Humanities Research team exploring the role of the humanities in sustainability research, teaching and outreach.
1. Can you describe the first time when you became interested in history?
I started my academic career as an undergraduate majoring in philosophy fascinated by ideas about the nature and meaning of life. I was raised to embrace a moral commitment to do "good works," but it was not always clear how to determine in a complex world which works contribute to justice and welfare and which do not. For many years I sought a ground for truth and certainty in philosophical and religious systems, eventually earning a master's degree in comparative Asian religions. Finding little shelter in the storm of competing belief systems, however, I gravitated toward a pragmatic understanding that ideas and beliefs are limited human expressions shaped by time, culture, and social context. While the struggle for understanding is universal, the results are infinitely variable. I eventually came to understand that what we think matters less than what we do. That empirical focus is what brought me to history.
2. How do you combine sustainability with history?
While working on my doctorate at the University of Arizona in the 1980s, I became deeply involved in citizen efforts to influence public lands management through public participation mandated by the federal government. I was amazed that so many of the western landscapes that I loved were "public lands" owned by the American people: national forests, national parks, national wildlife refuges, etc. I extended my work on public lands recently with a public education program funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, titled "Nature, Culture, and History at Grand Canyon." A team of researchers and writers from ASU and the Grand Canyon Association spent three years developing narratives about Grand Canyon history for a website and digital audio-tour. We also developed curriculum materials for teachers.
3. How can history help inform our decisions regarding climate change and sustainability?
The historical record reveals the glorious complexity of humanity and human institutions, a complexity that embraces both the admirable and the appalling. Many things in our world need fixing: injustice, poverty, violence, pollution, environmental deterioration, etc. History offers lessons in how we as individuals and as collectives understand our world and seek to shape it to serve our needs and desires. We can see how our actions result sometimes in progress and other times in decline, how in one instance we may improve our lives and our lands while in another instance we exploit and degrade both. History, thus, serves as a guide on the path forward.
4. What is the global sustainability challenge that concerns you the most and why?
Water and energy in arid regions. Living now in one of the largest desert cities in North America, I have recently turned my attention to water supply challenges and alternative, renewable sources of energy, joining collaborative research projects with faculty and graduate students in ASU's School of Sustainability and ASU’s Decision Center for a Desert City. One result of that work is an essay titled, "The Mirage in the Valley of the Sun," published in the journal, “Environmental History.” I have given many public presentations to community groups, often on mixed panels, about the risks and realities of central Arizona's water supply. Interestingly, providing water to Metropolitan Phoenix requires a tremendous amount of electrical energy to pump groundwater from deep in the aquifer and to bring Colorado River water uphill to the valley from hundreds of miles away on the California border. Likewise, electricity consumes a tremendous amount of water for steam turbines and for cooling at power plants. Consequently, Arizona and the whole arid Southwest face an integrated water/energy supply challenge. In fact, this is a global problem. The successes and failures of our efforts here in central Arizona will be instructive to other cities and nations facing similar challenges in a warming world where many arid regions are expected to suffer more frequent and intensive droughts.
5. What is your teaching goal?
My mission, my pleasure in life, is to explore the lessons of the past to inform and engage public debates about how to create a more sustainable and just future, "a more perfect union," in the words of our founders; or, as one of my literary heroes Wallace Stegner put it, to build "a civilization to match our scenery.”
6. How will your teaching affect the future paths of ASU’s sustainability students?
Sustainability problems are complicated and require many disciplinary perspectives—humanities, sciences, and social sciences—to understand and address those problems. My courses focus in particular on the human dimensions of sustainability challenges in a wide variety of places and times. I strive to provide students with substantive grounding in historical case studies of environmental challenges and conceptual frameworks. Through readings, lectures, in-class discussions, writing assignments, group research projects, films, and guest presentations, students examine the complex social foundations of environmental problems and problem-solving, learn methods of historical and critical inquiry, and develop intellectual tools for understanding and solving contemporary sustainability challenges.
7. Finally, what does the word “sustainability” mean to you?
I like to approach this concept from its negative expression: examining that which is “unsustainable.” We can’t predict the future, but we can easily see where we as a society have made mistakes or taken a wrong turn in the way we organize our production, consumption, and social order. For example, agricultural and forestry practices that deplete soil or otherwise harm the productive capacity of the land are unsustainable. Economic practices that lead to boom-and-bust economies or that create more social poverty than social wealth are unsustainable. Sustainability to me is a moral commitment to a secure, stable, healthy, and just society that lives within the capacities of its biotic environment and that conscientiously and generously shares space and resources with the other creatures that co-habit this miraculous living planet.