Interview With David W. Orr

Yesterday, I published my review of David W. Orr's new book, a compilation of essays from the past three decades. As a follow up, here's a Q&A; that I did with professor Orr, who was gracious enough to answer all my questions.

TreeHugger: It has now been about 15 years since you worked on the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, one of the greenest buildings in the world at the time, and probably still today. Looking back, what would you have done differently? Do you think that the designing and construction of green buildings in the U.S. and around the world is progressing fast enough?

David W. Orr: Work on the Lewis Center was begun in 1995 just as the green building movement was taking off. Were I to do it all over again I would aim for tighter integration between the architects and engineers. I would also want to make a closer connection between the College administration, trustees, and designers to amplify institutional learning around the built environment, energy, and resource use. . . . Thanks to the U.S. Green Building Council, the American Institute of Architects and heroic work by many architects and engineers there has been rapid progress here and elsewhere on reducing the ecological footprint of a growing percentage of new buildings. But the fact is that the remorseless working out of the big numbers, by which I mean the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere and the nearly simultaneous arrival of peak oil extraction, give us little time to make far more sweeping changes. So, dramatic improvement in building efficiency is an important part of a much larger transition that must include equivalent gains in transportation, agriculture, urban design, and manufacturing.

Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, a project of David W. Orr. Photo: Public domain.
TreeHugger: You've said that most environmental problems result from poor design ("factories that produce more waste than product; buildings that squander energy; farms that bleed soil; cities designed to sprawl, etc"). Do you believe that we can get to good, ecological design just by changing incentives - like making pollutants more expensive than clean alternatives - or is it an educational challenge. Is it mostly about teaching what good design is to the people who create product, services, cities, etc?

David W. Orr: Incentives to design for whole systems that work over the long term would help a great deal. These can take a variety of forms and can be introduced at different scales in different ways. Improved building codes mostly administered at state and local levels, for example, would be useful to raise the bar in construction and renovation. At the Federal level, steady increases in energy taxes would be useful for internalizing the full costs of energy extraction and emissions and would correct the major flaw in markets for virtually everything. Higher resulting prices, presumably, would result in greater efficiency and reduce unnecessary consumption. But people will have to understand what's at risk before they will agree to pay higher energy taxes. And they will have to see themselves as responsible agents in a larger civic commons. The latter two are clearly educational and political challenges.

TreeHugger: In 1992, you wrote a very intriguing essay about the place that love should have in the practice of science and environmentalism. You quote the late Stephen J. Gould: "...we will not fight to save what we do not love." What I'd like to know is how your love of nature started. Was there an epiphanic moment or do you feel like it was always with you? And as a follow up, for those who don't have that strong sense of biophilia, what do you think is the best way to plant the seed?

David W. Orr: I had no epiphany but I did spend a lot of time out-of-doors, playing in the woods, and hemlock groves in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, and along the streams and rivers of the area. I later learned that there were names for what I'd experienced. E. O. Wilson calls it "biophilia," Albert Schweitzer called it "reverence," Rachel Carson called it "a sense of wonder." But by any name it is the sense of belonging in nature and particularly in one's place. I think everyone has that feeling to one degree or another. But it requires opportunity and the right circumstances to flourish, very much as described by Richard Louv's book, Last Child in the Woods. And it begins early in life in the experience of nature mediated by perceptive and caring adults to validate the child's fascination with bugs, animals, trees, rocks, plants, water, seasons, and landscapes.

TreeHugger: You've said you want people to be more active participants in the world, rather than only peek at life as it passes by. This is something that environmentalists have been saying for a long time with mixed results. What do you think are the necessary conditions for a mass-awakening that would lead people to caring enough to do something?

David W. Orr: Great question for which I have no good answer. I do believe that most people really do care but see relatively few opportunities to express that feeling in tangible ways. The care people lavish on pets, their lawns and gardens, and their children however, suggests untapped reservoirs of devotion and commitment to nature and the future that we've failed to fully tap. But a "mass-awakening" will require a transition from passivity to the feeling that one can and must make a difference. At one level that is a cultural shift, rather like the anti-smoking movement. At another level it is a political movement that aims to renew the idea of citizenship appropriate to a global civilization that depends on a common biosphere. When it happens it will be a rebellion against unaccountable and concentrated power, money, and manipulation in all of its various forms.

TreeHugger: Environmental problems are political problems, according to many of your essays. How would you rate the record of the Obama administration so far, and if you could get them to do one thing differently, what would it be?

David W. Orr: A fair appraisal of the Obama record must begin by noting the quite remarkable and consistent opposition of the Republican leadership to fact, data, logic, and science. They have blocked action on climate destabilization, fair taxation (the price we pay for civilization as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it), and virtually all decent social programs. Still, I wish President Obama had led quickly, clearly, and forcefully on climate/energy policy. I wish he had taken a more vigorous approach to multiple malfeasances of Wall Street and the banking industry early on and thereby preempted much of the Tea Party movement. I wish he had taken more forceful action during the BP oiling of the Gulf of Mexico. I wish he would get out of wars that we cannot win at prices we cannot afford. And I wish he would redirect the money thereby saved to rebuild his own country that is falling apart at the seams and behind in global competition.

TreeHugger: I'm curious to know if you've found any place on Earth - a country, a city, a small village... - that looks like what you think a sustainable human civilization should look like in the future?

David W. Orr: No, but there are bits and pieces of sustainability in many places. We don't lack for good examples. New Urbanist communities, urban restoration projects underway in virtually every large city, location efficient mortgages in Chicago, the movement to build sustainable cities, the Amish countryside of central Ohio, the zero-discharge factories of good companies like Interface, Inc., buildings that are entirely powered by sunlight, new wind and solar farms, the green school movement . . . a civilizational shift is underway virtually everywhere. The challenges will be to (1) tie the pieces together so that the parts reinforce the resilience and prosperity of the whole and (2) accelerate change before we cross some unknown threshold of disaster.

TreeHugger: Do you have a favorite essay in Hope is An Imperative? If so, could you please give an overview of what it's about for those of our readers that haven't read it yet?

David W. Orr: Not really, but I am kind of partial to "Loving Children: a Design Problem" that Thomas Berry once said was the best essay he'd ever read. The point is that we profess to love our children, but for many reasons, including ignorance, we do things that harm them to the core. No civilization that really loved its children competently would build so many shopping malls and highways, nor would it saturate their bodies with hundreds of carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and mutagenic chemicals. Babies arrive "pre polluted" in the words of the President's Cancer Panel. Such things are not acts of love, but of ignorance perhaps or ignorance driven by greed. Whatever the cause, the solutions all have to do with designing the human presence in the world to include fewer malls but more parks, more poetry and fewer advertisements, more windmills and fewer smoke stacks, more bike trails and fewer freeways, more schools and fewer military bases, more childcare and fewer tax breaks for the Koch Brothers, more solar collectors and no nuclear plants . . . the point is that any decent civilization that intended to hang around for a while would put its children first, just like we say we do.

TreeHugger: Could you share with our readers what you've been working on lately? Any big projects or ideas?

David W. Orr The Oberlin Project has become my day job. It is a partnership between the city of Oberlin and Oberlin College to: (1) create a sustainable economy driven, first, by the redevelopment of a 13 acre Green Arts District to USGBC platinumnd standards; (2) achieve climate neutrality; (3) create a 20,000 acre greenbelt for a revived local farm economy; (4) create an educational collaborative including the College, public schools, a Vo-Tech School, and a Two year College to prepare young people for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century; and (5) replicate our experience through a network of similar efforts at varying scales and circumstances nationwide. We've organized the community around ten teams including energy, economic development, education, policy, finance . . . the point is to do sustainable development as an integrated system ("full spectrum"), not as a series of one-off projects, so that the parts reinforce the prosperity and resilience of the whole community.

TreeHugger: Anything else you'd like to add?

David W. Orr Nothing more than thank you!

You can read my review of Hope is an Imperative: The Essential David Orr.

To get the book at a 30% discount, visit Island Press via this link and use the coupon code 2HUG.

Then, join David Orr for a live chat on May 24 at 3pm Eastern.

Future BookHugger titles will feature the latest releases from Island Press as well as highlight their catalog spanning 27 years of the best ideas the environmental community has to offer.

Find more great environmental book suggestions in TreeHugger's book reviews.

Photo on top: John Seyfried, used with permission.

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