Faculty Spotlight: Kelli Larson


Kelli Larson’s interdisciplinary background lies in resource geography and environmental studies. Her research primarily deals with nature-society relationships and natural resource management. In the past, Dr. Larson has also investigated sustainable farming decisions and international water conflicts. Now at ASU, metro Phoenix serves as a primary laboratory for her work with the Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research and the Decision Center for a Desert City. You can learn more in Dr. Larson’s courses: Society and the Environment, Human Dimensions of Sustainability, Geographic Research Methods, and Workshops on Residential Land Management and Urban Water Governance.

1. Can you describe the first time you became interested in sustainability?

I first approached the topic of sustainability through the lens of natural resource management, specifically the fact that environmental resources on which society depends are being depleted and degraded to points at which both communities and ecosystems are suffering around the world.

2. What made you want to become a professor?

I have a passion for knowledge and learning, including a deep curiosity in understanding how and why people do what they do in relation to natural resources and the environment. This was largely sparked by my undergraduate mentors, one of whom hired me to do research in my junior and senior years. I fell in love with the research process, and my mentors encouraged and recruited me to stay on for a master’s degree. From there, I just kept moving toward the academic path of research, teaching, and service. As a professor now, I highly value the flexibility I have in continuing to pursue my own intellectual interests and problems that are important for society and the environment.

3. Why did you choose to teach and conduct research at Arizona State University?

I chose ASU for the vast opportunities offered by various programs across the university, particularly in the realm of urban ecology and sustainability. The Decision Center for a Desert City and Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research (CAP LTER) programs especially sparked my interest, as did the focus on interdisciplinary, problem-driven research and teaching. In short, when I first read my position’s description, it seemed as though the job was written specially for me.

4. How did your personal university education shape the way you teach now?

Both as a human-environment geographer and a scholar in the environmental sciences, I cannot imagine approaching sustainability without a transdisciplinary mindset. This pervades my teaching, along with a problem- and goal-centric focus. Some of my favorite teachers in the past employed a “devil’s advocate” path to critical thinking, which has also led to my inclusion of debates and attention to differing perspectives and viewpoints in my classes—be they scientific, political, cultural or otherwise.

5. What can students expect from your courses?

I encourage my students to back up their own views with knowledge and sound logic, regardless of what they think about various sustainability matters as they enter my courses. This includes questioning assumptions and preconceived ideas about the causes and consequences of particular problems. In addition to thinking critically (rather than simplistically) about sustainability, I feel strongly about the need for students to draw from credible and diverse information sources in their own research and projects. I also emphasize writing skills and professionalism, as I see these as essential tools regardless of where students’ futures lead them after their time at ASU.

6. What is one main “golden nugget” of knowledge you infuse into all of your courses?

What people think and do matters, as we ourselves are agents of change! Further, we don’t all think or act in the same manner for diverse and complex reasons that are critical in pursuing sustainability.

7. In your own words, describe your research interests.

My research lies at the intersection of human-environment relations and environmental governance, particularly water management. This primarily means I focus on what people do and why they do it, so that policies and programs can be structured to solve sustainability problems and to manage natural resources both fairly and effectively. Right now, the overarching questions guiding my ongoing research projects are: 1) How and why are residential landscapes managed in certain ways, and what are the implications for water resources, ecosystem services, and urban sustainability, and 2) How and why are community water systems vulnerable or resilient to climate changes, urbanization, and other perturbations, and how might water management and environmental planning be transformed toward a sustainable future.

8. How do your research interests help achieve a more sustainable future?

My interests help understand human behavior as well as the social acceptability and political feasibility of various natural resource management regimes. My research provides recommendations for how we might govern resources in ways that meet societal goals, while also providing insights on how to improve the well-being of diverse communities and ecosystems now and into the future.

9. What is the global sustainability challenge that concerns you the most?

I am most concerned with equitable access to water of a sufficient quality, both for people and ecosystems.

10. Finally, what does the word “sustainability” mean to you?

Simply put, sustainability means living in ways that can continue into the future. Although my own educational training was based more in the environmental sciences, I see sustainability as distinctive in that it more centrally considers not just the natural environment, but also society and the economy. Moreover, as a problem- and goal-centered field of study, and because of complex human-environment dynamics involving difficult tradeoffs, sustainability must adaptively address multiple objectives with effectiveness, efficiency, and equity as important criteria for decision-making.