Masters of the Art of Sustainability

By Rafael Saenz

Those who know him as "the Teacher" tell the story that, while gathering wood, Juan Quezada stumbled upon his future art and the craft that would once again give his people a means to a decent living.

He found ceramic pots crafted and painted by his predecessors in northern Mexico, who had mysteriously disappeared half a millennia ago, much like the timber industry a few decades before he was born. 

The people of Paquime were a pre-hispanic tribe who notoriously learned to thrive in the desert by mastering sustainability skills like water management and the use of immediately available resources like clay. They used clay to build their multi-story buildings, and they used it to hold their underground wells, and they used clay to move their precious water through channeling systems.

They also crafted ceramic pots for the convenience of carrying it around. These weren't mere cups built to perform a simple chore before their disposal—they were pieces of art. With intricate paintings and designs, artisans made every piece a unique creation. 

Juan Quezada has made it his mission to emulate the craft his predecessors mastered using locally available clays and natural dyes. It took him years of trial and error, but today his pots are collected all around the world and he has passed along his craft to several masters and hundreds of students. 

I hope that as a people, like those before us, we learn to thrive in a manner that can be sustained through the ages like these pots. We have so much to learn from those who preceded us that it is misguided to ignore, under any logic, the knowledge that was collected through perhaps thousands of years.

In the harsh desert, if you don't learn to stay fed and warm using the little resources at your disposal, you don't survive. It is an integral part of the equation to master the art of building things that last. And much like this clay, when they are no longer necessary, they can return to the place where they belong. 

When I moved to Arizona, I entered the Sustainability Program at ASU looking to learn about the future of human coexistence, and I developed great respect for the past. Our Wrigley speakers, like Dianna Cohen, continue to broaden my perception of what is possible and how.

I look forward to the erradication of substitutable plastic pollution and the development of alternatives with zero impact to the health of our environment moving into the future.


Rafael Saenz is a Mexican immigrant studying business, with a focus on sustainability, at Arizona State University.

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Diana Cohen Urges ASU Sustainability Students to Act Now to Fight Plastic Pollution

The ASU School of Sustainability is the first of its kind in the nation. Founded in 2006, it brings together multiple disciplines to develop practical solutions to the most pressing sustainability challenges of our age.

PPC’s CEO and co-founder, Dianna Cohen, brought the coalition’s message to ASU—reducing single-use disposable plastic—on Oct. 5, as featured speaker of the university’s Wrigley Lecture Series. The series is funded through the Global Institute of Sustainability, established by Julie Ann Wrigley (of the same family that makes chewing gum, owns the Chicago Cubs, and protects California’s Catalina Island from being overrun by tourism).

Past Wrigley speakers include environmental and civil rights activist Van Jones, three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas Friedman, Indian scholar, author, activist and PPC notable supporter Dr. Vandana Shiva, biologist, theorist and author E.O Wilson, and author and sustainability expert William McDonough.

Cohen enlivened her address with personal stories of challenges in fostering awareness, including calling out the behavior of conference attendees at a recent ocean symposium attended by global thought leaders. Wrapping up the conference which included a massive beach clean-up, she asked the audience, "How do we expect others to change their behavior if we ourselves are drinking from single-use plastic water bottles? Where is the disconnect?"

Cohen also challenged the university to be accountable to its zero-waste goals. 


Story by Sandra Curtis

Juan Quezada, known as "the Teacher." After finding this picture, I thought of the irony of the plastic bag that is seen behind his head. It just proves how much there is to advance toward the ancient tradition of sustainability. I want to see a future where that bag is replaced by one made for innumerable uses and out of naturally available resources like those made by the Tarahumara people, but that's a story for another time. — Rafael Saenz