Skip to main content

Building a sustainable world through history

ASU professor's work in environmental history is working to build a cleaner, more sustainable tomorrow

Glen Canyon

Glen Canyon during the day. Courtesy:

September 20, 2019

Professor Paul Hirt wears many hats at Arizona State University as well as in the community: active public speaker, lecturer and facilitator.

At ASU, he is a professor of environmental history in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, an instructor for the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a scholar for the School of Sustainability and an associate for the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the Melikian Center: Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies.

Hirt is involved with many public engagement programs including the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street traveling exhibit Water/Ways, an administrative history of the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program, renewable energy development for the Navajo Nation and many more. He holds an elected position on the board of directors of the Salt River Project as well.

This past year, Hirt was on sabbatical and continued to pursue his current projects, as well as take on a few new ones. He got involved with Just Transition, a project from the Climate Justice Alliance to help communities affected by the closure of coal mines and coal-powered plants as the country moves to clean and renewable energy.

“Most of my work and advocacy has focused on the Navajo Nation, which will suffer a significant loss of jobs and tribal revenue when the Navajo generating station closes at the end of 2019,” Hirt said. “I advocate for economic transition assistance through both my position as a professor at ASU and my position on the board of directors of Salt River project, which manages the Navajo generating station.”

Working on Just Transition ended up becoming one of the most memorable moments of his sabbatical year, Hirt says. He co-organized and co-hosted a workshop for the project in May with four other professors from ASU: Gary Dirks, senior director of Global Futures Laboratory and LightWorks;  Kris Mayes, professor of practice in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society; Clark Miller, associate director for the School for the Future of Innovation in Society; and Maren Mahoney, strategic initiatives coordinator in the School for the Future of Innovation.

“This workshop we organized on May 28 was designed to bring together many of the people who are most active in energy transition research and advocacy in the Southwest to begin a coordinated, regional conversation, and eventually a national conversation, about how to advance energy transition in the most sustainable and just manner possible,” Hirt said.

According to Miller, “the discussions were extremely helpful in framing the nature of one of the biggest challenges we face in the energy transition, namely, the ways in which the transition will bring different benefits and challenges to diverse groups of people.” 

Part of the conversation in transitioning to renewable energy that Hirt had in the workshop includes the acknowledgment that communities will be affected in both good and bad ways.

“As we address climate change and continue the rapid transformation of our energy grid toward clean energy and away from fossil fuels, there will be winners and losers in the energy transition,” Hirt said. “A responsible democracy will do what it can to make that transition smooth rather than wrenching to facilitate a ‘just transition’ for affected communities rather than simply turning our backs on the lives and local economies that are dependent on fossil fuel energy.”

Paul Hirt

Professor Paul Hirt

Aside from the workshop and involvement in Just Transitions, Hirt continued serving as the state scholar for Water/Ways and advancing his project on the history of Glen Canyon Dam. But another highlight of his year came with his remaining participation with an initiative to commemorate the sesquicentennial of John Wesley Powell’s original exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers.

For the initiative, Hirt contributed an essay about Powell’s legacy to an anthology; organized a symposium on the past, present and future of the Colorado River; and joined two segments of the commemorative river trip that recapitulated Powell’s 1869 journey.

“I rafted with the Scree team through Desolation and Gray canyons on the Green River and through Grand Canyon on the Colorado River,” Hirt said.  

He spent a total of nine days on the Green River in June and a total of 18 days on the Colorado River in July.

“Obviously, the 18-day whitewater rafting trip through Grand Canyon was the highlight of my year,” Hirt said. “Happily, I can refer to it as both work and play. Not only was it an adventure of a lifetime, but the Scree journey involved a remarkable cast of scholars and researchers and journalists who are all focused on the responsible, sustainable management of water and natural resources in the Colorado river basin. Almost every evening we would have a recorded discussion about the history of the basin, challenges we face, flaws and opportunities in the region’s water laws and policies, potential solutions, how to reach and educate the public.”

There will be many ways Hirt and the rest of the team will be making their research available to the public. Over the next year, there will be blog posts, a conference, presentations, published essays, an art exhibit and a film.

Hirt has continued to be an influential force in the field of studying environmental history. He sees the relationship between nature and culture as something we should always pay attention to.

“Nature is our home, despite the fact that many of us live in constructed artificial environments,” Hirt said. “How we behave in that larger diverse living home on which we depend, whether we abuse it or nurture it, impacts us as individuals, as communities, as nations and as a species.

“History happens in places and those places shape historical development in profound ways. The lack of water shapes the societies that evolve in arid regions like the American Southwest, just as the abundance of ice shapes societies in northern climates or the abundance of rain shapes societies in wet tropical environments. Everything exists in the context of place and time.”

Hirt is back on campus for the upcoming year where he will wrap up many of his projects. Water/Ways will conclude in April 2020, the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program History Project will be completed in September 2020 and he will continue to promote Just Transitions as the Navajo generating station is closed this winter and decommissioned over the next several years.

To cap all of this off, in May 2020, Hirt will be retiring from ASU and plans to begin a slow trip around the Southern hemisphere with his wife, Linda, to “mark the transition to a new phase of life.”

More Science and technology


Graphic depiction of a membrane ion channel.

Chilling discovery: Cold-sensing protein may pave the way for safer pain relief

For millions of people worldwide who live with chronic pain, the only treatments currently available often rely on opioids, which…

June 21, 2024
Person in a white lab coat and blue gloves handling lab equipment to research stem cell technology.

Harnessing benefits of stem cells for heart regeneration

Mehdi Nikkhah, an associate professor of biomedical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State…

June 21, 2024
Students seated at desks in a classroom listen to an unseen speaker.

Newly accredited ASU summer program opens up STEM opportunities for underrepresented students

It was Monday afternoon. Spotify was playing pop music in the background and the instructor stood behind a lectern wearing a…

June 20, 2024