Public Health

Anticipating Possible Futures

Comprehending the present is incredibly challenging. Predicting the future is nearly impossible. Yet the current pandemic crisis means people are looking for answers, not just about what is happening today, but why we didn’t properly predict the magnitude of the virus, and how we could do a better job of predicting future pandemics.

As graduates from the School of Sustainability, one of the five core competencies you have learned is futures-thinking.  All of you know that futures-thinking is not about predicting the future, but anticipating possible and plausible futures, creating scenarios for a brighter future, and then developing strategies to achieve those futures.

In a hyper-connected world, people can travel to just about anywhere in a single day, potentially transmitting disease far and wide. On an urban planet, high-density living permits quick spread of illness (witness New York). Increasing global temperatures may give rise to new viruses and bacteria harmful to human health. Destruction of wildlife habitat will bring species into greater contact with people and increase the potential for lethal diseases that jump species. Enduring poverty will put the most vulnerable at great risk of disease, threatening communities everywhere.

In other words, the pandemic crisis is a sustainability crisis. Anticipating future crises and being ready for them will require a systems approach that integrates the social-ecological-technical factors and dynamics that you learned about in SOS.

The infrastructure that connects us can be a force for readiness and resilience. We cannot turn back the clock on globalization, on urbanization, or on the telecommunications revolution. These are powerful forces that can do harm, but they can also be harnessed to do great good. How to align these and other forces to achieve the future we want will require a great deal of care, imagination, creativity, and energy. My hope is that we have equipped you with the skills, knowledge, competencies, and—most  importantly—the mindset to anticipate not only possible futures, but desired futures that minimize suffering, maximize well-being, and take care of the environment on which we all depend.

Now more than ever, the world needs this kind of thinking and these kind of thinkers. It needs you. Congratulations Class of 2020!

Transitions: Fall 2018 Convocation Address

Sean McElroy, graduating with a degree in sustainability, stands during graduation to be recognized by University Provost Mark Searle for his exemplary scholarly performance at ASU.
Photo by Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now

The graduates sitting in front of me know that we are living in exciting and challenging times. Even though understanding the present, let alone the future, is exceedingly difficult, in SOS we share the belief that the world is on the cusp of significant change. And we need to drive that change so that it is equitable, enduring, secure, and sustainable.

History shows that positive transformation is possible. When the Millennium Development Goals challenged the global community to cut in half the number of people living in extreme poverty and suffering from hunger by 2015, many thought the goals were too ambitious and impossible to achieve—that disappointment would lead to disillusionment. Instead, the world met or exceeded those goals, reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty from 50 percent to 14 percent and the number of undernourished people from 24 to 13 percent.

Success from the Millennium Development Goals inspired people to aim even higher in creating the Sustainable Development Goals. Most of you probably know all 17 by heart. Maybe you have them on your mortarboards or as an app on your phone.

Any one of them I hope will inspire you to think about how to accelerate the transition to a desirable, sustainable future—one that celebrates clean and affordable energy (#7), sustainable cities and communities for an urbanizing planet (#11), protection and restoration of earth’s ecosystems (#15), inclusive and sustainable growth (#8), availability and sustainable management of water for all (#6).

My challenge to members of this graduating class is that you will together speed up the transition to a sustainable world, one that allows people and planet to thrive, not just survive.

I also recognize that each of you today is going through a personal transition, from student to graduate. Transitions can be incredibly exciting and joyful, but also laden with uncertainty, trepidation, and even fear. It is perfectly normal to feel both. But I ask you to draw on your inner optimist and change-agent selves, and embrace transition as an extraordinary, thrilling, and fulfilling set of opportunities. I know this focus on opportunity for positive change, rather than doom and gloom, is what inspired many of you to come to SOS in the first place. Don’t lose that fire and spirit.

Finally, remember that as you start your next chapter, you will not be alone. You are now and forever will be part of the SOS family. More than anything, we want to help you succeed. Visit us often and keep in touch.

Lean on each other. Take care of one another. Successful transitions to a better future will take teamwork, a shared vision, perseverance, and the passion each of you has inside to change the world for the better. Congratulations Class of 2018!

Build it and they will come

A couple of times a week, I cycle to work (about 15 miles roundtrip). My bike route takes me along the Western Canal. This used to be a gravel path interspersed with some beaten-up asphalt used by utility trucks. An added hazard was the adjacent golf course (think poorly hit golf balls and inattentive golf cart drivers). Last year the City of Tempe added a paved pathway with lights (and nets to protect users along the golf course). I am surprised by the increased number of people of all ages that use the path for running, strolling, and cycling. Canals in Phoenix are a far cry from those in Amsterdam, but the dedicated pathway along the canal is enough to get people to come and use them.  The City of Tempe’s efforts to make the city livable is important for the health and well-being of its citizens, and for promoting the city as a competitive, amenity-rich destination for new residents.


Giving Voice to Children

A "photovoice" participant. Credit: J. Sandlin
A "photovoice" participant. Credit: J. Sandlin

The excellent and moving “photovoice” exhibit that examines neighborhood characteristics through children’s annotated photography has come to ASU’s Anthropology museum. If you have the opportunity, I encourage you to visit the exhibit (free admission, open until March 12, 2010).  This is a unique opportunity to hear children’s stories about health, the built environment, advertising, and social relations in some of Phoenix’s Latino neighborhoods. The exhibit gives voice to neighborhoods and members of society who are often ignored but have plenty of important stories to tell. More information is available here:

Obesity and Lessons from Tobacco

A recent report from the Urban Institute suggests that we can learn a lot from the battle against tobacco to fight obesity. Obesity and tobacco seem (or seemed) entrenched in modern American society, but the strategies employed against tobacco have resulted in a cultural shift that, for example, disdains smoking in public places. Both have high public costs. The Urban Institute calculates that obesity increases health care costs by $200 billion a year. The American public pays for these costs through higher insurance premiums or taxes. Obese individuals pay an extra $26 billion in insurance premiums as well.

What comes to mind with any tax are the equity implications. A 10 percent tax on food of little nutritional value, as suggested in the report, is predicted to affect behavior, along with more information on calories and nutrition on packages and in restaurants. But 10 percent to a high-income person is of little consequence. Poverty is strongly correlated with obesity, in part because junk food is often cheap and indeed subsidized. The authors of this report suggest, wisely and prudently in my opinion, to use the revenues to subsidize fruits and vegetables and increase the availability of food stamps.

All of this makes eminent sense. The political battles, however, will be enormous, just as they were with tobacco companies.

Stray dogs and obesity

Last month a story came out on NPR about obesity in the Central Valley of California (  One of the interesting findings is that stray dogs are a deterrent to people walking, especially children. Other studies have found similar results. This points to the need to take into account the multiple on-the-ground factors that make some areas more attractive for walking than others. A good example of “stree-level” walkabaility assessments is the Global Walkability Index project.   Marc Schlossburg at the University of Oregon has also developed a number of tools for measuring walkability. Last year, I worked with graduate and undergraduate students to develop a PDA-based walkablility assessment tool. We used the tool to assess walkability in two neighborhoods in Phoenix.  Creation of the popular website,, suggests that walkablity is a major concern for people and an important determinant of quality of life in cities.

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Community Health through Kids' Eyes

photovoiceObesity rates are particularly pronouned in ethnic minority communities.  Rising obesity rates are especially alarming in younger populations. The causes of obesity are multi-facted, but include the built environment. Easy access to cheap, high energy food of marginal nutritional value (junk food) and  inhospitable or univiting environments for physical activity can result in too many calories consumed and not enough expended.

Two weeks ago, a group of children under the supervision of Drs. Sandlin and Szkupinski-Quiroga at Arizona State University, presented the results of their “photovoice” interpretation of their community in South Phoenix. The photovoice method provides people with cameras to take images of what concerns them, then combines the images with text about what they saw.

The exhibtion, which will travel to various locations in Metropolitan Phoenix, is an opportunity to view community health through the eyes of children. Images of junk food advertisements and trash-strewn streets, along with festivals with families and images of everyday life, offer a moving portrait of life for kids in South Phoenix.

Humane City

Alternative is mainstream in Copenhagen
Alternative is mainstream in Copenhagen

I just returned from the World Congress on Environmental History in Copenhagen, Denmark. Anyone who visits there remarks on the extensive use of bicycles. Dedicated bicycle lanes, high cost of car ownership, an urban morphology built before the extensive use of cars, and a critical mass of cyclists make this a very bicycle-friendly city. Pedestrians, at the same time, are vaulted to the top of the priority list rather than two tons of glass, plastic, and steel. Plenty of studies* have demonstrated that these accommodations for people and pedal power are linked to more physical activity and lower rates of obesity. Is it any accident that Danes are the happiest people on the planet? Are the Danes simply lucky because of when most of Copenhagen was built? Are we stuck with our car culture or is there anything we can do about it? I think we can do a lot with the urban landscapes we inherited to make cities more humane. Watch this post for ideas and thoughts.

* for example, see Pucher, John, and Lewis Dijkstra. 2003. Promoting safe walking and cycling to improve public health: Lessons from the Netherlands and Germany. American Journal of Public Health 93: 1509-1516.

"Fat tax"

Catherine Rampell discusses the implications of a “fat tax” — such as a surcharge on sugary drinks — in the New York Times:

Given the strength of the sugar lobby in the United States, this seems unlikely. Of course, similar statements were made about invincible tobacco, so attitudes and popular sentiments can change. Removing sugary drinks from schools is one positive step in tackling the energy balance. Finding ways for kids to be active is equally critical. Watch this page for ideas on walkability, physical activity, recreation, access to parks, and other built environment factors.