Sagehen: A Proving Ground

Funded by the Annenberg Foundation

At present, the Harrison Studio, the Nevada Museum of Art, and the 9,000-acre University of California Sagehen Creek Research Station are engaged in and committed to a 50-year long research project (“Sagehen: A Proving Ground”). It is a work of art, a work of science, a work of bio-regional planning, and a work that calls for policy change. 

The Project is designed to field test, in a formal research setting, core concepts which the Harrison Studio has been working with. This is, in brief, testing the value to ecosystems of assisting the migration of species. The project will be designed to answer, on the ground, the question posed earlier: Are there ecologically available responses that will, in part, replace the value provided by disappearing glaciers to river systems and the human cultures they support?

The Experimental Design 

  1. The concepts expressed so far were presented to the Metabolic Studio. We requested $220,000 dollars to enact the Sagehen experiment which is described below. These monies were granted.
  2. The first serious expenditures from the grant were hiring on the scientific director Brett Hall, who was simultaneously the director of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and hiring Elizabeth Thompson, a person of broad accomplishment, to manage the center for the “Study of the Force Majeure” and to oversee its development.
  3. After approval by various authorities that would permit us to proceed, we began a search for scientists, particularly botanists, who knew the area and could select both seeds and cuttings from a large section of the plant community of the Sagehen Watershed to test the viability to move upward.
  4. The sites were chosen for their commonality of earth type. Each site is approximately 150 meters above the prior one. Their placement spans a little over 750 meters of altitude from close to the lower portion to Carpenters Ridge, which is at the top of the Sagehen Drain Basin.
  5. The sites were chosen by ourselves and the senior scientist on the project, Brett Hall. A committee of three other botanists who know the area were chosen to add breadth and diversity to the process of selecting species that would be most appropriate in this field test.
  6. The experiment itself will take the form of three 20x40 fenced areas that will act as controls for each other on each of the five sites. Each fenced area is 800 square feet. Each fenced area will be somewhat over-planted with the same species and will have approximately 800 species at the beginning of the experiment. That is one plant per square foot.
  7. There will be, therefore, 15 fenced areas in total, 3 per site, on the 5 sites selected. The first species grouping will be selected for having capacities described earlier. With particular emphasis for their ability to adapt to drought, hold water in the grounds to enhance the sponge effect, be fire tolerant, and function well collectively from a biodiverse perspective.
  8. Each fenced area will have an 8’ fence that is removable in the winter but otherwise protects new growth from the encroachment of the deer population.
  9. Each fenced area will have a mounted camera, 15 cameras in total, that will take pictures on a daily basis and systematically archived. These images will then be used for comparative review from a scientific perspective and as visual feedback of organization into a narrative that will carry the aesthetic power and meaning of the experiment and the experience to a non-scientific audience, both in the Nevada Museum of Art and in the field station itself.
  10. We cannot predict, at the moment, which species will survive and do well at all altitudes. The first year or two of experiments is to determine this. The second and third year is to re-plant those that had survived at all altitudes. The process will be recorded not only by camera, but also by field observation. 

The Bays at San Francisco

The Bays at San Francisco become a 400,000-acre estuarial lagoon when the oceans rise about 3 meters.

As ocean waters rise and storm surges happen, the probability is that, prior to stabilization, storm surges will force the waters from the Bays out into the desert toward Stockton to the West, and Sacramento to the East. The probability is that the waters from the storm surges will remain in place, forming saline lakes, sometimes as deep as 4 or 5 meters. For the purposes of this investigation and work of Art, we pose a limit to the ocean rise of about 3 meters, which generates the vast estuarial lagoon this proposal suggests. 

We choose the 3-meter mark somewhat arbitrarily. The lowest prediction of water rise over the next 100 years is approximately 1m, the largest, approximately 5m. We choose the 3-meter mark as the most probable. We also note that climatological research suggests a 6-7 degree F. temperature rise in that region.

In an estuarial lagoon, it is the mixing of fresh and salt waters that creates the particular and productive ecosystem that evolves and has tolerance to waters of varying salinity. We therefore propose a planning group that will first analyze the terrain and then begin to come to an understanding of the species that would move there from warmer parts of the Pacific if they could. Also such a group would be tasked with the design and framing of the planning and research necessary to do this work. Particularly important is to come to an understanding of whether and how to assist the migration of species that would permit a future healthy, vibrant and productive estuarial lagoon to come into being. This work would require serious paleo-ecological research to find out which species lived there when the salt waters were present in the central valley and when the temperatures were, on average and as predicted, 7 degrees F. higher. This form of research is of great value in shedding light on what a new ecosystem might both look and behave like. 

Moreover, it is our intention to locate, on the Pacific shores, possibly in Mexico or below, what we have come to think of as a “Mother Lagoon.” That is, an estuarial lagoon that has a presence in a desert, fed by mountain streams at temperatures as high or higher than the Central Valley. We believe studying the ecology that exists in such a lagoon will, like studying the Eemian, shed light on how we might assist Nature in bringing forth a viable estuarine ecosystem in the Central Valley. 

For instance, from an economic perspective, a 400,000-acre estuarial lagoon will produce approximately 2,000 pounds per acre when it becomes a low-intensity aquasystem. In this case we are looking at a production of 800 million pounds, wet weight, yearly. The requirement here is that those that harvest the system maintain the system, thus the top predetor and the top conservator are one. 

The likelihood is that carbon in the atmosphere will reach much higher levels, perhaps over 600 parts per million, and the global temperature will rise above the 2 degrees C. that signal ecological danger. Therefore, this work argues that conceiving and planning for adaptation at scale is a virtual efficiency that needs to be enacted in the now. The virtual efficiency we suggest would be in initiating the coping processes, well prior to extreme future need.

Peninsula Europe  

Imagine the research is right

drought moves across Europe
the temperature continues to rise
glacial melt continues accelerating
river flow becomes intermittent
flooding increases from sudden rains
the half-million sq km
of mostly monocultural high ground forest
succumbs in the main to drought and disease

How will the twenty republics

six kingdoms and one duchy
that are the European Union
surrender enough autonomy
surrender closely held powers
to create collectively
the new form of governance
that is able to meet
a force majeure of this magnitude?

This prediction of drought has the following associated consequences: 

  1. One third of 2.3 million sq km of farming becomes minimally productive. 
  2. 1/3 of 340 thousand sq km of meadowlands become minimally productive. 
  3. Most of the 560,000 sq km of high ground forest succumbs to insects, disease, drought and fire. 
  4. The outcome to civil society if business as usual practice continues is unfortunate in the extreme. We predict food rationing at best. At the worst, perturbation and collapse of society as we know it. 

The decision is taken to reject the Alpine treeline definition of the high ground, instead locating where rivers begin to define the high ground, discovering that rivers begin mostly at 1200 feet and above. Lifting the shape off of the map, we discover an area of 1.46 million sq. km at the 1200 feet level that if rehabilitated according to the concept of the upward movement of species, will dramatically reduce the impact of the predicted tempera ture rise, flood and drought. 

We suggested a water tax to the E.U. representative who posed the money question of “ how much will it cost and where will money be found?” We suggested that rehabilitating 1.4 million sq. km. would cost well over a trillion dollars to be spent over 50 years. It appears that if water is generated and saved then valued at one euro per cubic meter, then hundreds of millions of cubic meters created would be an economic generator. This would more than cover these costs over a 50-year period. Thereafter the cost would go down and the profit would go up, and a virtuous cycle would be put in place by the processes of rehabilitation.

Tibet is The High Ground

The research of Chinese glaciologists and glaciologist from India appears to be right: 80% of glaciers in Tibet and surrounding areas can disappear in the next 35 years, profoundly affecting the Salween, MeKong, Huang-Ho, Brahmaputra, Yangtze, Ganges and Indus River systems that traverse inner Mongolia, China, Tibet, Autonomous-Zone, India, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, South Vietnam, Bangladesh, Kashmir and Pakistan. 

A force majeure has come into being in the form of global warming that will work to the disadvantage of about 1.2 billion people who live in the 7 drain Basins that comprise 2,404,820 square miles of continental Asia. It is not clear that countries can overcome their differences in order to create a counter force at virtually continental scale. Thus, we make an unlikely proposal.

Clearly industry can play a mediating role in this highly stressed probable future by generating first the funding that will enable bioregional and paleobotanical research to locate forest and savannah ecosystems that existed in the millennia past, when temperatures were similar to those which are in the process of happening in our now, and thereafter to locate the local similar or equivalent ecosystems that exist in our now. And then to begin designing, as well as in part creating, by assisting the migration of species that might be able to replace or restate those now coming under extreme stress, to make new species palettes, which in conjunction with new forest and grassland might, in good part, be able to replace the water holding properties of glaciers to normalize river systems. This would also be an adaptation at sufficient scale able to sequester 6 gigatons of carbon every decade. 

With ice melt and snow melt and temperature rise of 10 degrees F, the 2.4 million square km. of the Tibetan Plateau will suffer stress to such a degree that the seven rivers that flow from it, nurturing much of Asia, will be subject to flood and drought. A Force Majeure is at work. 

The Center poses the following questions and seeks an answer. Is there a whole systems ecological response, a systemic adaptation at the 2 million-km. scale? We think yes. Nature has done this before but not, at least according to recent research, in the past 65 million years. The core of the question proposed by the Center is, “Can the assisted migration of these species and the assisted development of succession ecosystems be done in a hundred-year time-frame, thus mediating ecological and human stress by developing what amounts to be a vast water-holding, carbon-sequestering, food-producing ecosystem at this scale?” Somebody said, “How much will an adaptation at this scale cost?” After a brief study we came up with the tentative amount of 1.3 trillion dollars for a million sq. km. over a 50-year period, or 2.6 trillion dollars for the 2 million sq. km. that is the Tibetan Plain. That is to say, not much more than the recent wars, maybe even less, when all costs are calculated. In fact, unlike the destructive remnants of war, a constructive cycle will come into being where over time this emmerging system will produce more value than it consumes. 

The research, although by no means complete yet, suggests a trillion dollar, ecologically based commercial enterprise is needed to respond to the Force Majeure at scale.

Force Majeure Documents:

 FM Presentation PDF

FM Presentation

 Sagehen Presentation PDF

Sagehen Presentation

 FM Manifesto PDF

FM Manifesto



A new force has become apparent
We reframe a legal meaning ecologically
And name it the Force Majeure 

We, of the Harrison Studio assert
As do others somewhat differently
That the Force Majeure, framed ecologically
Enacts in physical terms outcomes on the ground



A new force has become apparent
We reframe a legal meaning ecologically
And name it the Force Majeure 

We, of the Harrison Studio assert
As do others somewhat differently
That the Force Majeure, framed ecologically
Enacts in physical terms outcomes on the ground



which lays out the basic reasoning, outlining the need for the experiement at the scales proposed and in the ways proposed:


We, of the Harrison Studio, believe

 As do others, although differently 

That a series of events have come into being 

Beginning in the time of Gilgamesh and before 

Beginning with agriculture and the first genetic manipulation 

Beginning with culture of animals and ongoing genetic manipulation 

Beginning with globalization six thousand years ago with the Salt Route 

A little later, the Silk Route 

And later and later… 

Especially with science informed by Descartes’ clock 

And with modernity recreating the cultural landscape 

And deconstructing nature thereby 

From the Industrial Revolution to the present 

Until all at once a new force has become apparent 

We reframe a legal meaning ecologically 

And name it the Force Majeure 


We, of the Harrison Studio assert

 As do others somewhat differently 

That the Force Majeure, framed ecologically 

Enacts in physical terms outcomes on the ground 

Everything we have created in the global landscape 

Bringing together the conditions that have accelerated global warming 

Acting in concert 

With the massive industrial processes of extraction, production and consumption 

That have subtracted forests and depleted top soil 

Profoundly reduced ocean productivity 

While creating a vast chemical outpouring into the atmosphere 

Onto the lands and within the waters 

That altogether comprise this Force Majeure 

We, of the Harrison studio, are grateful 

For the opportunity to join in this perilous conversation 

Where the discourse in general 

Is about time, money, power, justice, sex, politics 

Personal well-being and survival 

In many combinations and re-combinations 

Attending somewhat to social injustice 

And somewhat less to ecosystems’ injustice 

This discourse points to human consciousness 

Every day continuously attending to itself 

With little attention paid to that which is not itself 

Leading to intrinsic value switched for extrinsic value 

With human creativity generating technologies 

That appear not to like that which are not themselves 

Sometimes becoming the reverse of their original intention 

There is modest conversation drifting toward green 

As industry and people think about doing well by doing good 

Good being green roofs green cars 

Green manufacturing processes 

Green transformation of material 

Green production of all kinds 

expanding green markets 

Green in everyday life 

in the frame of sustainability 


We, of the Harrison Studio, assert 

As do others, as yet, not many 

That in the face of multiple tipping points 

Passed and near passed 

From CO2/methane to nitrates/nitrites 

And more and more 

All of these efforts and all of this work 

Altruistic from the best of people 

Greedy and mean spirited from the worst of people 

Is better to be doing than not to be doing 

But on balance, insufficient 

Endlessly insufficient 

The Force Majeure, so obvious, even in the now 

Is generating ocean rise 

Forcing the ocean’s food chains to simplify 

Compelling glaciers and snow pack to melt 

Creating flood and drought at continental scale 

Which is the outcome for rivers 

As they flow down through Asia from the Tibetan Plateau 

And true for many parts of the Americas 

The outcomes for the Peninsula of Europe are unfortunate 

The numbers have been crunched 

Revealing the trajectory of drought predicted to proceed 

From Portugal to the southern parts of Germany and beyond 

Reducing 2.4 million square kilometers of farmland 

That now feeds over 450 million Europeans by almost a third within 50 years 

The population will grow the food supply will shrink 

The waters will rise 

People will need to move upward 

The rich will continue to do well 

Not true for the middle class 

And devastating for the poor

We, of the Harrison Studio conclude

That a counter force is available 

But unless put in place well within the next fifty years 

Civil society in many places will experience perturbation then collapse 

Keeping company with the ecosystems 

experiencing perturbation and simplification 

A counterforce that is comprised of understandings 

Waiting to be internalized and then enacted 

They are:  


First understanding 
Nature’s economic system stores the energy that it does not immediately need 
mostly in carbon formations 

Second understanding
Nature does not charge a profit as do culture’s economic systems 

Third understanding 
All natural systems are dissipative structures with individuals that form them living,
reproducing then dying with indeterminacy as a norm 

Fourth understanding 
All natural systems have learned to nest within each other, and, within a context of 
symbiosis contribute to collective systems survival, sometimes with abundance 

Fifth understanding 
Human constructed artifacts particularly legal, political, economic as well as 
production and consumption systems seek constancy but are often in violation of the 

laws of conservation of energy pointing toward systems entropy

When the first four understandings are internalized and integrated into all parts of the fifth understating, a 

transformation can happen that will open pathways for human created systems to yield autonomy and accept 

limitations. An acceptance that will permit the formation of processes of nesting within nesting that will enable 

nature’s ways of invention and human ways of invention presently so oppositional to co-join. 

The counterforce we envision will permit 

A culturally generated acceleration of adaptation behaviors at great scale 

Operating at a parallel rate to the climate forcing generated by human activity 

setting the stage for adapting strategies that will assist the migration of our own species 

And those who are not ourselves 

Who are co-equally endangered by the threat of mass extinction 

Into zones of greater safety 

Tuning to and over time in concert with the Force Majeure