David Orr, environmental educator and writer, answers questions
What work do you do?
I am disguised as a professor at Oberlin College, but consider myself an Educator, capital E, not an educational technician or bureaucrat, and certainly not one “in the box” of a single discipline. At its best, education means to “educe,” or draw forth, so I consider it essential not just to inform (a mechanical task) but to hone the capacity to discern while empowering, validating, and energizing (a spiritual process). When students get it, they go on to do some very incredible things of which I am very proud.
The work I do includes teaching, writing, giving 50 to 60 talks each year around the U.S. and U.K. My passion is ideas, particularly those having to do with how humans can live well on this lovely planet without destroying it. The thing I most enjoy is moving ideas from abstractions to some tangible form in the world. For example, I helped to initiate, organize, and fund the effort to design and build the Adam Joseph Lewis Center, a “zero discharge” building substantially powered by sunlight (in cloudy Ohio), which was identified as one of 30 milestone buildings in the 20th century — mostly because it aimed to redefine academic architecture as a kind of pedagogy, not just a place where education happens. At heart I am a troublemaker.
How does it relate to the environment?
I teach in the environmental studies program at Oberlin, including courses in ecological design, sustainable agriculture, environmental policy, and a general introduction to environmental studies. We often forget that all education is environmental education — by what we include or exclude, we teach the young that they are part of or apart from the natural world. An economist, for example, who fails to connect our economic life with that of ecosystems and the biosphere has taught an environmental lesson all right, but one that is dead wrong. Our goal as educators ought to be to help students understand their implicatedness in the world and to honor mystery. Or in the jargon of the time, to “connect the dots” to see systems and patterns.
On a larger scale, the disorganization of ecosystems that we see all about us reflects a prior disorder of mind and how we think about our place in the world. The crisis of global ecology is in every way a crisis of mind, which makes it central to those institutions that intend to improve minds. It is, as Wes Jackson says of agriculture, a crisis of education, not merely one in education.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
On a good day, I write, read, talk with friends, strategize, commiserate, laugh, reflect, and have a glass of good wine. On a bad day I fill out forms in triplicate and attend meetings at which the uninspiring and unimaginative tax everyone else’s mind and patience in a vain attempt to pave over the human spirit.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
That is a truly and deeply boring story. I read a lot, worked hard, and tried to learn how to recover from my own stupid mistakes, of which there were many. And that is a longer and slightly more interesting story.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
At the national level it is, hands down, Bush, Rove, and their radical con friends who aim to restore the morality of the robber barons, the sensitivity of the social Darwinists, and the vision of Calvin Coolidge as national policy. Otherwise it is the overpaid, unimaginative, pompous, humorless, stuffy, and all of those who operate by the power of superior resentment. Harrumph!
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
Lots of folks. We are generally nicer than economists and the mass purveyors of selfishness would have us believe. The best kept secret of Homo sapiens is that when not corrupted by stupid ideology of one kind or another, or bad parenting, we are sociable, caring, and capable, often, of genuine nobility. Those who profit greatly from fear, foolishness, and nonsense don’t want us to know such things.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Des Moines, Iowa, in the heartland. Oberlin, Ohio, the east side of the heartland.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?
It was a dark and stormy night, when suddenly there was a … Actually I never had a “road to Damascus” kind of event. I did have, however, lots of childhood time to marinate in the hemlock forests and fields of western Pennsylvania, to acquire a pale replica of what Rachel Carson once called “the sense of wonder.” Mine, however, was probably more a sense of home, habitat, and place that went unnamed and unexamined until I found that I understood what people like Ian McHarg (the great landscape architect), Loren Eiseley, Rene Dubos, John Muir, Carson, et al. were saying about things environmental. I had enough experience stored up in the back recesses of my memory, in other words, to understand what they were saying. What I take from this is the necessity, the right, of children to acquire and develop their inborn sense of what E. O. Wilson calls “biophilia … the affinity for life and lifelike processes.” Bugs, trees, animals, water, mountains, and such like …
What’s on your desk right now?
Lots of books and papers. To the side, within easy reach, I keep books that help to remind me of what’s important, including Aldo Leopold, Henry David Thoreau, George Orwell, the Bible …
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
Removing mountaintops in West Virginia, thereby destroying Appalachian mountain ecosystems, lives, and communities to get cheap coal which we burn to make artificially “cheap” electricity, thereby retarding energy efficiency while helping to kill, annually, some 50,000 Americans living downwind, who die of lung disease, raising CO2 levels and fostering the heat death of the earth — indifference to life magnified by cynicism, greed, shortsightedness, bad economics, bankrupt ethics, and abysmal politics.
How do you get around?
Walk, bike, my Ford Ranger pickup (because the Prius I ordered in February has not arrived), and too many airplanes and taxis. If you’d asked how I’d like to get around, I would have included light-rail systems and high-speed trains connecting urban areas. But you did not ask and America went off track when the oil industry and car companies derailed us a half century ago and developers forgot to make the kind of pedestrian-friendly cities and suburbs that we’d prefer.
What are you reading these days?
The Rocky Mountain Institute’s Winning the Oil Endgame, Paul Roberts’ The End of Oil, and lots of political books inspired by George Bush’s more barbarian and arrogant tendencies. By inadvertence, W. has inspired some of the best writing and thinking about politics in our history. We are in his debt in more ways than one.
What’s your favorite meal?
Eating anything with my grandchildren.
Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?
New York Times, Manchester Guardian, Washington Post, Science, Nature, truthout.org, CommonDreams.org, Lehrer on public television, Mother Jones, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, etc. — seldom the main TV news outlets that aim to make the news a form of entertainment and never Fox “News,” an oxymoron devised to bamboozle the gullible, fool the innocent, comfort the comfortable, and justify the barbarities of the radical conservatives.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
A sputtering, incoherent, and heartfelt rage at the outrageous.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Hemlock groves of the Allegheny highlands in Pennsylvania and New York.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
The permanent, total, complete separation of money from politics, which would entail the federal financing of elections to federal office. The founding fathers separated church and state for good reason and we ought to have the wit to do the same with money and politics.
Who do you think (not hope) is going to be elected president in November?
John Kerry by a landslide, because true conservatives will decide in the dark recesses of their conscience that any president who operates a Keystone Cops, bull-in-a-china-shop foreign policy, runs up more red ink than any president ever (second only to his dad), shreds the Constitution, destroys our alliances, mutilates the environment, rewards those needing no further reward, lies pathologically, and does it all with the insouciance and arrogance of Louis the 14th or perhaps Attila the Hun is no conservative at all and is in fact a throwback to an earlier stage of evolution deserving of permanent retirement in Crawford, Texas, or at further public expense as a penitent in a federal facility, also in Texas.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
I am a deep-air mammal, social by nature, political by necessity, with two grandchildren living on a planet with a biosphere. Is there anyone who is not an environmentalist, by which I mean has no interest in or affinity for clean air, healthy landscapes, pure water, ecological resilience, stable climate, and the poetry of nature? If such people exist, we ought to invite them to be the first sent into outer space to colonize other and lesser places where they will be untroubled by the niceties of a planet with a biosphere and the beauty that is earth.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
Hanging in against tough odds — a lot like the Boston Red Sox in the AL playoffs.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?
Reach the guys at the truck stop, the folks who just lost their outsourced jobs, the downtrodden of one sort or another — all of those whose anger is cynically amplified and misdirected by the radio and TV hatemeisters, spin doctors, and professional bamboozlers of which we have an abundance.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
You got to be kidding! I am a country western fan who cannot listen to classical music for five minutes without going catatonic, cannot stomach rap without losing the contents of it, and have little patience for the electronic drivel and self-absorption of what passes for current rock. I’m too old to recall the names of the bands that once thrilled my testosterone-driven mind way back when. But I confess to being taken to new heights of rapture by the music of Emmy Lou Harris and Alison Krause.
What’s your favorite TV show?
I don’t watch much TV and suggest to readers that you go to the nearest TV, pick up a large heavy object, and hurl it through the screen at considerable velocity, rush out to the street and let the world know that you’ve broken free and aim to become a thinking human being again. They, of course, will assume that you have gone stark raving mad.
Mac or PC?
What are you happy about right now?
Getting done with this endless list of questions. Otherwise, it is a beautiful fall day in Ohio and I’m looking forward to John Kerry whooping up on George Bush, his spinmeister Karl Rove, and their radcon friends. After carefully considering the alternatives, it is a great time to be alive.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
In a bipartisan spirit, encourage their radcon friends and family members to exercise their Constitutional right to vote on Nov. 3 for the barbarian of their choice. Put it on the calendar now! Nov. 3 — get there early, vote often. [Editor's note: It's a joke, people.]