with David Orr

Since the 1992 publication of his influential book Ecological Literacy, David Orr has been among the leading thinkers of the US environmental movement. His day job is working as a professor of environmental studies at Oberlin College in Ohio. But he is also known as a tireless advocate, spending many weeks on the road every year speaking to audiences about the necessity of making a transition to a more ecologically sustainable economy. He serves on the boards of the Rocky Mountain Institute, the Center for Ecoliteracy, and the Center for Respect of Life and the Environment. He also acts as an advisor to several environmental philanthropies. Orr was a major force in constructing the Adam Joseph Lewis Environmental Studies Center at Oberlin, a “green building” that the US Department of Energy recognized as one of 30 “milestone buildings” of the 20th century. We caught up with Professor Orr not long after the theatrical release of Leonardo DiCaprio’s film The 11th Hour, in which he is a featured expert.

How would you describe the environmental attitudes and beliefs of your incoming students?

I think this generation is arriving in a way that’s more interesting than any previous generation. They know more. They’ve experienced more than most past generations of students. They face huge challenges – climate being the biggest, but certainly not the only challenge on the horizon. They have more tools to work with, certainly information tools like the Internet and the whole advance of global climate change science. And I think that, on balance, students are very mixed about the world they’re coming into. They know enough to know that time is really short. I think, on the other hand, they – at least the students I see at Oberlin and similar kinds of places – are ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work to do some creative and courageous things.

You’ve written that ecological literacy is the ability to ask “What then?” When you get your students to ask that question of themselves, what do they come up with? How do they envision the future?

The students I see, the ones I’m best prepared to talk about, can be really creative about that. Typically I think that in the last 10 years they have been turned off by national politics. Although that, I believe, is starting to change. And it’s changing as a reaction to the Bush administration, Katrina, the ongoing evidence of climate change, the Iraq War. I think we’re starting to see a very different kind of mobilization. But the answer to the question is, I think, still pretty much at a local scale, a small scale. Their attention is pretty much on greening the campus, or local issues, or beginning local companies, but it isn’t yet really honed at the national scale. So questions like “What then?” – relative to nuclear power or whatever – I don’t think they’re asking those kinds of questions quite yet.

How do you encourage them to ask those questions? What do you think are the most effective ways of igniting in students a passion for ecological sustainability?

I think the best tool – there’s nothing new about this – is to get them engaged in solving problems. So I have students, for example, this semester working on the completion of a carbon-neutral plan for the college and for the town. We had them work on the design of this particular building, the Adam Joseph Lewis Center. They work continually to monitor the building and to work on the living machine that processes the wastewater and gardening around the building. I had two students this past summer work on a team that is organized around the President’s Climate Action Plan that we have put together for the next US administration. Last year, I had two students work in New Orleans with us on a project in the Ninth Ward. I think to engage students is to begin to motivate them in a very different direction. So every place we can, we try to engage them in actual problem-solving activity and real work that amounts to something.

Let’s talk about the environmental studies building at Oberlin. It’s a state-of-the-art, ecologically sensitive, multi-million dollar building. Aside from just being an end in itself, how is it useful from a pedagogical standpoint? Does the building help influence the students’ learning?

Absolutely. The whole thing was conceived kind of in the spirit of Thoreau, when he went to Walden to drive some of the “problems of living” into a corner where he could study them. A good many of the issues of sustainability are involved in this acre and a quarter. First of all, the design of the building, the criteria for the design, and the design program were set by students, working in conjunction with this incredible design team that included Bill McDonough and Amory Lovins and John Todd. And it was their decision that this building would cause no ugliness – human or ecological – somewhere else or at some later time. And that’s kind of like a template, like truth and beauty and justice – you never get there, but you have to strive for it.

What the building has become, seven years after it opened, is an incredible laboratory. It includes the John Todd-designed living machine for the study of ecological engineering. On the east side, we’ve got a restored wetland. The building is still, I think, the only entirely solar-powered building on a US college campus. We generate 15 to 30 percent more power than we need. The landscape around the building is a working landscape with gardens and orchards and so forth. The students have been involved with people from NASA who helped with the design for the second photovoltaic design and all kinds of ecological design projects. The building monitoring evolved out of some classes we did. That’s now evolved into a company out in San Francisco called Lucid Design.

So the building has spawned a whole lot of things beyond the architecture and the building itself, which is exactly what you would want it to do. Buildings are means; they are not ends. And this became a means toward some pretty amazing creativity. There are lots of classes in the buildings. But the building and the grounds function as a larger kind of laboratory.

I think this is exactly the model for every school in the country. Imagine schools powered entirely by sunlight, processing all of their own wastewater on site, growing a fair portion of the food that is served in the school cafeteria, made of materials that are non-toxic. Bright, day-lit places so that the environment in which education happens is itself educational in the right sense of the word.

Among some of your younger students, do you think there are challenges in cultivating an eco-mindscape because they haven’t had many engagements with nature, with natural systems?

Yeah, that’s a really good point. I think that is a real and growing threat to our humanity – the possibility of a divorce between humankind and nature is not a small issue. We find more and more that kids are spending time watching TV or in front of the computer, or with iPods attached to their heads, in shopping malls, and suburbs. Rich Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, is in some ways a depressing book, but it’s also a hopeful book if we can find some way to turn that around. But again, I don’t think there’s much time. I think that the damage of our becoming an indoor, primarily electronic species isn’t small. And education can’t overcome all of that.

One of the things that we wanted to do here is to engage people with the building and the landscape around the building. We’ve only got an acre-and-a-quarter site, so this is a small, little, tiny fragment of a solution. But imagine the same kind of ecological design template applied to suburbs and cities, so they don’t just become places that people move through or live in, but they participate in those places. And reintegrating agriculture and forestry and fishing and all of these things into the urban environment – not just as ways to provision ourselves with food and entertainment, but as ways that are instructive as well.

I think one of the lessons that came through very strongly to me as we worked on this project is that architecture is a kind of crystallized pedagogy. It’s a form of instruction. I don’t like the name “pedagogy” because it sounds like a foot disease – but “instruction.” Architecture really is a form of instruction. And a shopping mall is the most powerful instructional device ever created, mostly because no one thinks of it as instructional, so it creeps up on your blind side. But it is instructive in how we relate to the world: that there is no problem with scarcity; if you want it, buy it; if it itches, scratch it; if it feels good, do it. It’s instructive about our use of energy: that there is plenty here to waste. It’s instructive about land use: You can pave over just hundreds of acres around a shopping mall, not a solar collector or tree in sight. And that teaches us something. So architecture and landscape design aren’t neutral in our psyche. They are either going to be positive or negative. And the end result is that we are going to be instructed that we are part of, or apart from, the natural world.

You were talking earlier about how time is running out to address these ecological crises, and I think that’s the take-away message of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, The 11th Hour. Do you worry sometimes in talking with your students that you run the risk of leaving students fearful and disempowered?

Oh yeah! I just wrote an article on that subject for Conservation Biology called “Hope in a Hotter Time.” I think there’s a false dichotomy between optimism and pessimism. I don’t think either one is very useful.

Optimism, for example. Think of a New York Yankees fan. You’ve got two outs in the bottom of the ninth, a .200 hitter at the plate with two strikes on him, and with Mariano Rivera in his prime on the mound – you’re optimistic. But optimism in that case is only a prediction that you’re going to win. The odds are in your favor.

Hope is to be a Boston Red Sox fan – two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Mariano Rivera on the mound, a runner at second, down by a run, and two strikes on the batter. But you believe that this .200 batter can rise to the occasion. You live by salvation by small percentages.

Optimism has this confident look, feet up on the table. Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.

I don’t know any reason to be optimistic now, or to predict great success for the human species. I know lots of reasons to be hopeful, and to try to change the odds of nasty climate change, or biotic extinction and loss of species and so forth. We’re faced with, I think, two general attitudes, one of which is “the public can’t handle much truth,” a view T.S. Eliot once held. That’s one view of things. You have to give people “happy talk” – screw in some compact fluorescent light bulbs, and buy a Prius, and everything will be OK.

The other view, I think, is characteristic of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln did not do happy talk in his “A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand” speech. He did not do it in his Cooper Union address right before the election. Winston Churchill sure didn’t do it in 1940 when the bombs were falling on London. He simply said, ‘Hey, I don’t have a thing to offer you but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.’ He didn’t say, ‘Hey, all of this bombing gives us a great opportunity to do urban renewal. And hey, by the way, we can beat Nazism and we can do it at a profit.’

Imagine a speech by the next president of the country that is rather like Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech after Pearl Harbor. Now, having said this, my gamble is not that the public can’t handle the truth, but that given the truth we can ask people to be genuinely heroic and rise to the occasion in a way that humans never have before. That runs counter to the view that we can just appeal to self-interest, and the profit motive, and corporations will lead us to the Promised Land. You all go down that road as far as we can go. But I don’t think at the end of that road you will find anything like sustainability, decency, and fairness.

This is really about a quadratic equation. Because I think you could have a hyperefficient, solar-powered, sustainable, corporate-dominated, fascist society. And so it isn’t just about getting to sustainability, and balancing the carbon books and the nitrogen books, and all these things that we environmental people worry about. It’s doing that also in a way that honors every life on the planet – ours and other species’ – and also our posterity. And I think that if you take the word “posterity” out of the preamble to the US Constitution, and you say, ‘Well, does posterity have rights as we have rights?’ In other words, if our behavior infringes on their life, liberty, and property – words taken right out of the Constitution – should they have legal standing, or some voice in our decisions? And the answer for me is absolutely ‘yes.’ The trickier question is, ‘OK, how would that be done? How would you give them voice?’ Well, you would give them voice in the same way you give it to minors and other people not able to represent themselves – you assign court trustees to speak on their behalf. But if we don’t speak on their behalf, they have no voice.

So it brings me back to your question: If you tell people too much of the truth, do you simply turn them off and send them home depressed? If the answer comes back ‘yes,’ then you just soft pedal things. And then I think you actually compound the chances that we will never summon the kind of heroic behavior that is now called for.

What’s the parting advice you give your students when they’re graduating and heading out into the world after you, as an educator, have given them the skills to understand the truth?

You know [laughs], I got a really good shot at that this last year when the students asked me to give the baccalaureate address here at the graduation. My parting advice to them was to be grateful. So at the end of the address I asked everybody in the audience to stand up, find someone to whom they owed an unacknowledged debt, and go say “thank you” to them. And at the end of it, there was quite an emotional reaction from a lot of people.

Why do you feel that gratitude is important in this larger heroic effort?

Because I think it is ingratitude toward life and this wonderfully fecund planet that has driven us to the point of where we are now. It was this belief somehow that this thing was imperfect that we received as a gift, and that we could perfect it if we were just clever enough and smart enough. So we placed no restraints on ourselves. We plunged ahead, we tapped into these, as Wes Jackson puts it, these “vast pools of carbon,” the last of which is oil. But progressively we’ve tapped into the carbon-rich soils of the Middle
East and the carbon-rich forests of Europe, then there was coal, and now there is oil, and all somehow driven by the belief that we could improve on the gift we were given.

Now that doesn’t mean we head back to the caves. But it does mean that the start of the healing process is to admit gratitude for an incredible world. Imagine if every day started in Congress and the White House with just saying “thank you.” I think it would change the valence of the thing. Kind of like putting salt into stew – it’s just sort of changes the nature of the thing, even though it’s not a large part of the volume of the stew.

And it raises another issue. There is an old Islamic tale called “The Tale of the Jinn” that imagines a courtroom in which the animals are in the jury, and they have been given sentience and voice. And so the lions and tigers and creepy-crawlers are there, and the birds and the fish. Imagine, I tell my students, yourself as the attorney representing humankind. And the charge on the docket is that humans have got to be eliminated because they are too destructive. So the question is: What case could you make for human survival, for sustainability of the human condition? It isn’t just an interesting issue; it’s an important issue. I think if we could understand why we deserve to be sustained, I think we would better know how to go about sustaining ourselves.

Now, I think the case can be made. My students will typically say that there is no case to be made for such an evil, nasty, rapacious bunch, that we deserve to be flushed down the drain of history. But on reflection, they come back with a more sober, and more realistic, and frankly more inspiring answer – that humankind at its very best has a kind of nobility. Whatever the answer, I think it’s important that the question be posed. Because we’re not much better than our conception of ourselves, we don’t rise much higher than that. I think that we can do this. And I think the sustainability challenge is one to the entire human species. What are we? Why are we? What can we grow into? That’s why the arts and humanities are so important to thinking about sustainability. What can we learn from our past? What does our art and our culture tell us about human potential? I think it tells us a great deal.

Just because it highlights the “better angels of our nature”?

Yeah, well put.

Well, I think I stole that from Lincoln.

He’s eminently quotable. … The sustainability challenge – it’s so easy to whittle this thing down to a series of technical issues. But I don’t think technology will save us if we don’t have the heart. This is why I think a real education – getting back to the question of education – is so important. It’s easy to turn out students who are technically adept, but you’ve equipped them to think rationally without giving them heart. And it’s rational thought and emotion combined that I think makes us human. Rational thought without heart takes us to Auschwitz and Dachau and Buchenwald and some awfully nasty parts of human history. Heart and emotion without rationality are just ineffective. We have emotions for good reasons, in the same way that we have rational thought for good reasons.

I think the trick of education is to combine the two of those in the same way that Pascal refers to “the heart having reasons that reason knows nothing about.” The conversation about sustainability is the biggest conversation humankind will ever have, because it’s about how we can be sustained on a limited planet in ways that honor all life forms and our posterity. And there are no easy answers on that. But the idea is to equip young people to engage in that conversation. And there is really no other conversation to be part of – that is the ultimate conversation.


David Orr Discusses Ecological Instruction in the 21st Century

Courtesy of David Orr


The US Department of Energy calls Oberlin’s Environmental Studies Center one of 30 “milestone” buildings of the last century.

courtesy of David Orr

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