April 2008 Issue
Guru of Green Living
Oberlin professor and environmental activist David Orr shares his innovative ideas on ecological design and sustainability with students and world leaders alike.
On a chilly, fall afternoon at Oberlin College, a handful students has gathered in a lecture hall in the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, waiting for their class, Environmental Studies 101: Environment and Society, to begin. Their professor, David Orr — clad in his typical uniform of jeans, loafers, a khaki shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a blue Patagonia vest — zips into the room, dims the lights, and makes an announcement.
“I’m so sorry,” he begins, “but I need to be on a plane to Washington, D.C., in about an hour and a half. I just found out. It’s an emergency — I can’t get out of it. So I’m going to have to cancel class today.” The emergency, he divulges, is a last-minute meeting with government leaders on climate change. “Don’t beg me to have class,” he continues, eliciting laughter. He promises an evening make-up session the following week, complete with free pizza.
No one acts surprised. After all, everyone, it seems, wants a piece of David Orr’s time.
David Orr is an idea man — a self-proclaimed “idea entrepreneur.” His life’s work and passion involves coming up with ideas pertaining to the environment, ecological design and sustainability, and sharing them with whoever will listen. These days, the world is listening, and he is a very busy guy.
In the increasingly popular field of environmental studies, Orr, a Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College, is a nothing short of a rock star. He has authored five books on environmental issues, including Design on the Edge: The Making of a High Performance Building (2006), The Last Refuge: Patriotism, Politics, and the Environment (2004) and Earth in Mind (1994 and 2004). He’s completing a sixth book (on politics and climate change) that he hopes will reach bookstores by early summer 2008. He has published 150 articles in scientific journals, social science publications and popular magazines, and, in a typical year, travels to about 100 different speaking engagements around the country.
Most notably, Orr raised funds and helped bring to fruition one of Oberlin’s most influential projects to date —building the $7.2 million Adam Joseph Lewis Environmental Studies Center on campus in 2000 — which was recognized by the U.S. Department of Energy as one of 30 “milestone buildings” of the 20th century.
And, in 2007, Orr served as an advisor for, and appeared as a talking head in “The 11th Hour,” a documentary film on our relationship with our natural environment, produced and narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio. The film earned rave reviews and gave Orr’s already high profile a big boost. In a New York Times review, for instance, Manohla Dargis wrote, “ ‘The 11th Hour,’ an unnerving, surprisingly affecting documentary about our environmental calamity, is such essential viewing.”
When he isn’t making movies with A-list stars, Orr is busy working to teach leaders and others in positions of power about what they can do to help combat climate change. Recently, he helped found the Presidential Climate Action Project, an initiative of the University of Colorado School of Public Affairs, which aims to inform and educate the presidential candidates and the president-elect on global warming. As a result, rushed briefings with the likes of Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have become common occurrences for Orr during this election year.
The place Orr seems to feel most at home, however, is in the classroom.
On every college campus, there are certain professors who are so dynamic and inspiring they literally have to kick students out of the lecture hall after class. David Orr is one such professor. “We’re trying to think about the act of thinking, and that is the hardest kind of thinking you will do,” he tells his students the Monday after his impromptu trip to Washington, D.C.
After class, 10 students gather around Orr and shower him with questions, which he is more than happy to answer. “This class is frustrating for me because it blows my mind every time. And then I have to take some time and figure out why it blows my mind,” one young woman confides, with a sigh.
“Try and live with that frustration for a while,” he tells the student, with a grin. “It’s a good place to be.”
Orr’s love of the environment, he says, began in childhood. He was born in Des Moines, Iowa, and grew up, the son of a preacher, in Wilmington, Pennsylvania. His family owned a summer home on the Allegheny River with old-growth hemlock stands. Most of his days were spent immersed in nature. “I was a pre-TV kid ... The outdoors was just part of my imaginative landscape,” he says.
While working toward a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Pennsylvania, which he earned in 1973, Orr had the opportunity to study under the noted late landscape architect Ian L. McHarg, whose 1967 book, Design with Nature, broke ground with its discussion of ecological planning and design. He credits McHarg’s influence, in part, with inspiring him to pursue a career in environmental studies.
In 1990, after working for more than a decade in the nonprofit sector, Orr accepted a position at Oberlin College, known for its reputation as a friendly, progressive home to activists from all disciplines.
“I live a privileged life with good people,” he says. “I work at a good institution and I have the conceit to believe that I’m a very tiny part of a very, very big movement — the most important movement in the history of mankind — this ecological enlightenment that is now, quite literally, global.”
Increasing global temperatures, rising sea levels, the lengthening of growing seasons, animal endangerment, the melting of polar ice caps — these are just a few of the effects we are now observing after 200 years of humans’ burning of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, and overall disregard for our physical environment. “We’re seeing the results of our actions 30 years ago... This is serious stuff,” Orr says. “Now, it’s dawning on a lot of people that time is not our friend.”
The environmental — or green —movement, is “an attempt to forestall disaster by changing how we make the human presence on earth,” he says.
It’s tempting to dismiss talk of future environmental catastrophes as “such doom and gloom,” Orr says, adding, “That is a way to trivialize the whole subject. You don’t say that when you go to the doctor, and the doctor tells you that you have this fatal illness, and to come in for a bypass operation. No one says to the doctor, ‘Oh, that’s just doom and gloom’...
“We’ve got to have the courage to stare down the barrel and do what we need to do to avert the worst of what lies ahead. That is not doom and gloom. That just happens to be the honest truth of the matter.”
To reverse climate change, Orr says several things have to happen, on the individual, state, national and global levels. First, we have to cut back dramatically on our use of coal. Ohio, he says, is an example of a state that “is way too dependent on coal. God put coal deep underground for a reason — he meant for us to leave it there!
“Part of the difficulty,” he adds, “is that coal has such a stranglehold on public policy. In Ohio, we have to kick the carbon habit. That means converting the economy to efficiency-based wind and solar energy.”
And then there’s the ecological design movement. “Ecological design, in the largest sense,” he says, “is, how do we provision ourselves with food, energy, materials, shelter, transport, health care, livelihood or income in a way that calibrates with the way nature works? Matching human intention with the way the world works physically, and understanding how the world works physically, to inform our intentions.” Ecological design involves engineering, architecture and, most importantly, agriculture.
“One of the goals I’ve got is to see us move toward sustainability here on campus, which means changing how we drive, what we buy, where we buy, how we build, how we use energy,” he explains.
Colleges and universities — safe, forward-thinking microcosms of larger society — are an ideal setting in which to implement these principles, and become models of ecological design. “The campus green movement has gone, in the last 20 years, from just being a few little isolated things to being a major force in higher education,” he says.
Oberlin has been a major player in that movement.
“I have a hard time separating my work and my play,” Orr says. “I have a good time with what I do, and I don’t know exactly what’s work and what’s play.”
Seated at a table in Oberlin’s Black River Café, Orr quickly attracts a crowd. Students, colleagues and even the restaurant’s owner, Joe Waltzer, a former student of Orr’s, approach the table, make some small talk, and then launch into their latest ideas about things the Oberlin community can do to help the environment. This sort of dialogue
excites Orr, and he listens intently to each and every idea, offering to help in whatever way he can.
And, of course, Orr, who lives in Oberlin with his wife, Elaine, practices what he preaches. He walks or bikes around campus whenever possible, and when he must travel by car, his choice of vehicle is, unsurprisingly, a Toyota Prius hybrid car.
“Oberlin has become one of the leading feeder schools for green architects, green engineering and green design in general,” he says with a smile.
This is no doubt due, at least in part, to the presence of the Center for Environmental Studies, a 13,600-square-foot building that was designed with a focus on sustainability. The aesthetically pleasing building relies heavily on the sun for daylight, passive heating and power, and was built using local, nontoxic, durable and energy-efficient materials.
The building also houses the Oberlin College Living Machine — an ecologically engineered system that combines elements of conventional wetland technology with the purification processes of natural wetlands to treat and recycle the building’s wastewater. Water cleaned by the Living Machine is reused in the building’s toilets and surrounding landscape.
“Instead of being just a place where classes happen, it’s a place where, to design, to build and to maintain can be education,” Orr says of the Lewis Center. Environmental studies majors learn firsthand, through active engagement with the building, about concepts like sustainability, zero-discharge and carbon-neutral living.
“By involving students in the making of a building, it’s an act of hope in that way,” he says. “We can sit here and wring our hands about how bad things are, or we can roll up our sleeves and get to work on things.”
David Orr’s message is one of hope based on action.
“Optimism is the prediction that we are going to win ... Despair is self-defeat, and a self-fulfilling prophecy,”
“I think a better choice is hope.”