The TH Interview: The Preacher's Son, David Orr (Part One)


When other people shake hands, David Orr hugs. He's one of those rare intellectuals. And although he comes from a lineage of preachers, Orr's ecological conscience is not religious (he didn't even know that his grandfather presided over Rachel Carson's christening until reading Silent Spring). As the Chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin College, Orr lets his focus range from education to ecology to green building and beyond. His sagely presence is friendly and relaxed, unstained by his five books and multiple degrees. In part one of our three-part interview, David Orr paints his views of patriotism, conservatism, something he calls "happy talk," and why we can't build ourselves out of the mess we're in. Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or listen/right-click to download.TreeHugger: David, you come from a long line of preachers, if I understand that right. Your grandfather was a preacher and he was even at Rachel Carson's baptism, is that so?

David Orr: That is correct. He was a preacher at her christening. And I am going to claim that he helped her write Silent Spring. No, I am kidding about that but I'll claim it anyway.

TreeHugger: Well, you never know, there are subtle forces out there. Do you feel like there was there a connection there that you were aware of, did this have an influence on you?

David: No, no, I didn't know that at all. I was reading Linda Lear's biography of Rachel Carson and on page 15, there lo and behold, there it was. I asked her about it, she said that was your grandad.

But I am not aware of any other connection with Carson or her family. I have since been connected with Chatham College a bit as a consultant where she went to school, but that is the only other connection I am aware of.

TreeHugger: But you do come from a religious lineage; this must have been influential. Was faith a big part of your upbringing and was it part of your ecological awakening?

David: I am sure in some ways it was and is. But I think my ecological awakening had more to do with where I was raised, how I was raised, what I was exposed to, courses I took in graduate school, what I was reading. But I think that virtually everybody in this movement to save the Earth, or in any fashion do good, is expressing an inherent kind of spirituality that bubbles out of us like water out of an artisan spring.

I don't think we have a choice but to be spiritual and in some fashion oddly religious. And I think we are meaning-seeking creatures, and we're going to find meaning in whatever we do, be it baseball, shopping, or environmentalism. Whatever the ism or wasm is or was, I think that is native to us. And I don't think I was particularly exceptional in that regard from a lot of people I know that have been around the movement for the past 30 years.

TreeHugger: When you look out at the way America is engaging environmental problems, do you see a connection with people's religious belief becoming an active part of this? Is it playing in the way you'd like to see it, and does it have a place there?

I think the religious right in this country, the conservatives, need to purge themselves of their affiliation with war and violence and a lot of oppression.

David: I think it is too soon to tell. The religious right is in some turmoil about things like climate change. I think the religious right in this country, the conservatives, need to purge themselves of their affiliation with war and violence and a lot of oppression. As I understand the movement, I think people like Richard Cizik and others are trying to pull evangelical Christians into this larger sense of life and purpose. And I think the jury is still out as to whether they would be successful or not.

I am hopeful that they will be and I think that we need the churches and faith-based groups of all kinds involved in this. If there is ever a faith-based mission, it certainly has to be one to save creation from wonton destruction by human carelessness.

TreeHugger: Religion is such an enormous part of American identity, is environmentalism finding its place in patriotism and American values on the whole?

David: Well, it calls for a higher kind of patriotism, doesn't it? A patriotism that recognizes the value of land, water, biological diversity, climate stability. And patriotism, I think, in this country was too easily confused by too many people as simply waving flags and being involved in wars and violence.

In fact, I would put people like Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson at the top of the list of patriot heroes of this country, that were in fact defending the land that we live on. But I think that's in the offing—I think that the country has done something of a 10-year walkabout and is now hopefully coming to its senses. We have seen, I think, the ruination of the right wing creed, this neocon creed, that has been so destructive of virtually everything that we value.

I think a lot of people, conservatives and liberals alike, are seeing the need for something new. I noticed on a bookstand a new book on the environment by Newt Gingrich, of all people. I saw a column by David Brooks in The New York Times last week that is a really good column on genuine conservatism that goes back to Edmund Burke. So, I think there are lots of signs that things are changing, and changing very quickly.

But what you are describing is really an attempt to overcome what George Orwell described as "double speak" and the corruption of language that I think went on pretty rampantly over the past 20 years.

TreeHugger: As environmentalism and environmental consciousness are swept up by the mainstream they've been incarnated very much in the form of modernity, urbanism, architecture, fashion, green consumerism. How does this strike you? Is there something deeper there, a deeper connection possibly, that is being overlooked by the way this sort of new environmentalism is taking place?

...I think it's really important that we improve how we build. But we are not going to build our way out of this mess...there are a lot of attempts now to keep something called 'the American way of life' going without cost. My hunch is that we are in for tougher times than a lot of us have wanted to realize.

David: That's a good question. A couple of comments: I've been around the green building movement a bit, and I think it's really important that we improve how we build. But we are not going to build our way out of this mess. I think we have gone too far. And I don't want say anything against the green building movement because I am part of it, but green consumerism, green building, there are a lot of attempts now to keep something called 'the American way of life' going without cost. My hunch is that we are in for tougher times than a lot of us have wanted to realize.

We have to remake the human presence on the planet. We have to change how we provision ourselves with food, energy, water, materials, shelter, heath care, transport, and entertainment. I think it is going to mean a lot more localization of food supply, of energy systems, of material support, of livelihood and a lot less international commerce. And the reasons for that are going to be driven by the fact that we are coming out of the era of cheap, portable fossil fuels and into this era of climate change.

So we get this double whammy of having to shift the energy source at the very time that we are driving the planet to higher levels of instability. And I think a lot of that is simply in the pipeline. If you followed Jim Flannery's book, The Weather Makers, there is a 30 to 40-year lag between the emission of heat trapping gases and the behavior of the system that we see cropping up in weather headlines around the planet. So if that logic holds, then Katrina was a result of what we released in the late 1970s. Well, what is in store for us given our behavior now, say, 30 years out? So I think this is going to be a tough transition. I think we can make it but it's going to be a tough transition.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian killed by the Nazis, wrote a little book that is titled "The Cost of Discipleship." He has a phrase: "cheap grace." He says that there is no such thing as cheap grace. I think the same logic holds with the environmentalism. I think there is no such thing here as cheap solutions or end-runs around the way the world works. We are going to have to balance the carbon books, balance the nitrogen books, and build a world that is a lot fairer than what we have at present. My sense is that it is going to be a tough thing.

That raises issues: 'well what do you tell the public?' Gustave Speth, the dean of the School Forestry at Yale, refers to a lot of this stuff as "happy talk." There is a lot of happy talk out there that is premised on the belief that you can't tell the public the bad news because it'll scare them and they'll not do anything, or they will fall into despair.

That wasn't the strategy that Winston Churchill had in 1940;
Churchill told the British people that he didn't have anything to offer them but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. He didn't say, "hey this is a great opportunity for urban renewal in London and we can beat Nazism at a profit."

I think there's a requirement for leadership now in this country at the very top of the government, certainly in the next presidency, to tell the truth, to tell the American public that this in fact is a global crisis. We have to lead it. Time is short.

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