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Celebrating female pioneers in sustainability

March 22, 2013

In honor of Women's History Month, Arizona State University recognizes several female pioneers of sustainability: Rachel Carson and ASU's own Elinor Ostrom and Nancy Selover.

The scholarly contributions of these women not only have advanced our knowledge of climate, biology and ecosystems, they have inspired environmental stewardship and influenced positive change.  

Rachel Carson

"Man's endeavors to control nature by his powers to alter and to destroy would inevitably evolve into a war against himself, a war he would lose unless he came to terms with nature.”

When people think of female pioneers of the environment, very few forget to mention Rachel Carson. As a marine biologist and writer, Carson communicated the sustainability concept before “sustainability” was even a word.

Carson graduated with a master’s in zoology from John Hopkins University in 1929. After graduation, she followed her passion for writing and biology by becoming the editor-in-chief and a marine biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Carson’s first book, "Under the Sea-Wind," was published in 1941, followed by the New York Times best-seller "The Sea Around Us" in 1951. As an author and science communicator, Carson explained scientific terms in everyday language that made the reader interested in the natural world – something sustainability scientists still grapple with today.

Carson was well aware of the economic, social and environmental aspects of sustainability. She fought hard to bring awareness to the health implications, monetary cost and environmental degradation caused by pesticides in her acclaimed book "Silent Spring." After the book’s release, Carson received backlash from the pesticide industry. Eventually, DDT was banned in agricultural use after Carson’s congressional testimony and exhaustive research. Some say because of "Silent Spring," Carson launched the contemporary environmental movement.

After a long battle with breast cancer, Carson passed away in 1964 – two years after the release of "Silent Spring" – at the age of 57.

Special thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Rachel Carson Refuge and Linda Lear of

Elinor Ostrom

We have to think through how to choose a meaningful life where we’re helping one another in ways that really help the Earth.”

Educated and trained in political science, Elinor Ostrom studied and taught how people manage and conserve natural resources like fish and trees without a government system. In 2009, Ostrom was the first woman to receive the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science – a surprise to many, considering Ostrom was not a traditional economist.

As an ASU researcher and professor, Ostrom was not afraid to jump around between disciplines. She used economics, politics and environmental sciences to study neighborhood policing, groundwater resource usage and fisheries. She is perhaps most well-known for her book, "Governing the Commons," which “challenged the conventional wisdom of resource management” by outlining how people divide, distribute and manage common resources. Ostrom carried that same framework into her climate change research.

Ostrom was born in Los Angeles and graduated with her doctorate in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1965 – a rarity during the time. She moved with her political theorist husband, Vincent Ostrom, to Indiana and obtained a professorship at Indiana University, where she stayed throughout her long career. There, the Ostroms co-founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, a center where professors and researchers can engage in interdisciplinary thought and practice.

Ostrom was the founding director of Arizona State University’s Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity, a distinguished sustainability scientist at ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability, and a research professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

In 2012, Ostrom was one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people. That same year, Ostrom died of pancreatic cancer at 78. Even during her treatment, she finished authoring several academic papers and talked about future projects. Read more about Elinor Ostrom.

Special thanks to Daniel Cole, The Guardian.

Nancy Selover

I would be happy if what I’ve accomplished is making people think for themselves. Go find the information, learn it, and make your own choices. Don’t look to someone to tell you what to do.”

The likes of Rachel Carson and Elinor Ostrom inspire female scientists today, including ASU’s own Nancy Selover. In 2007, Selover became Arizona’s first state climatologist, after eight years as the assistant state climatologist.

“Being the first female Arizona state climatologist gives me the opportunity to present the idea that women can be scientists,” says Selover. “Part of my responsibility is providing outreach to schools and to the public. There are a lot of little girls out there interested in weather and climate, but they don’t get a lot of encouragement. I hope I can help inspire them.”

But Selover wasn’t always on the climate science path. After getting her bachelor's degree in technical theater and learning about engineering from her co-workers, Selover first thought she’d become an engineer.

“In my engineering course, where we learned what could make an airplane fail – the answer was air,” she says. “That air could make structural steel fail just seemed a little strange to me. So I became fascinated by the atmosphere’s power that was strong enough to destroy an airplane.”

From there, Selover made the switch got her doctorate in geography from ASU, which eventually led her to become Arizona’s state climatologist.

For Selover, studying Arizona’s climate is all in a day’s work. In addition to her climatologist role, Selover bridges the gap between science and policy at the Global Institute of Sustainability’s Center for Integrated Solutions to Climate Challenges. There, she breaks down exhaustive research into usable information for policymakers to help people adapt to a constantly changing climate.

But Selover’s main passion is water.

“As a member of a drought task force, I not only see drought conditions advance and retreat, but I also see the dramatic impacts of floods,” Selover says. “Whether we have too little or too much, water holds the power to affect our food security, health, transportation, energy, and economies. For this reason, managing our water supplies will remain a top sustainability challenge.”

Learn more about Nancy Selover.