David Orr, environmental educator and writer, answers questions
Esprit de Orr
I work at an ultra-conservative small-town paper, and I have the opportunity to discuss politics with its publisher and editor. Can you give me a few talking points summarizing the absolutely worst things President Bush has done to the environment? — Julia Smith, Floresville, Texas
Read Robert Kennedy’s very fine book, Crimes Against Nature, and give a copy to your editor. GWB is hands-down the worst imaginable president on energy/environment issues. His complete disdain for environmental science and that relating to climate change specifically will haunt us for decades to come.
In reading your responses, it is apparent your incredible disdain for conservatives. You acknowledge the need to reach out to the truck drivers. Whatever happened to reaching out and working together with everyone, liberals and conservatives alike? You can keep preaching to the choir, but you’re never going to learn a new song. — Glenda Abney, St. Louis, Mo.
Conservatives? The Bushies are anything but conservative in the true sense of the word. They are merely reckless or worse, and they have launched a culture war to divide, distort, and deceive. True conservatives, who intend to conserve something other than the rules of a game by which a few are made very, very wealthy, deserve respect. The reality is that we are living out James Madison’s nightmare: that all power would be concentrated in the hands of a single faction — a recipe, he thought, for despotism. Our job is to speak that truth and do our dead level best to move this country back toward a true democracy.
With the Adam Joseph Lewis Center behind you, what is the next level, the next frontier of campus greening you would like to see? What would be most fun? — Erin English, Santa Fe, N.M.
How about 1,000 colleges and universities agreeing to become “climate neutral” by 2020!
What advice do you give the professor teaching global environmental politics that enables him to give undergraduates an accurate picture of daunting ecological problems without depressing them into cynical inaction? How do you avoid disempowering with knowledge? — Geoff Dabelko, Greenbelt, Md.
The only antidote to despair is to engage students in thinking about issues while offering opportunities to solve real problems at a scale that is understandable. The campus greening movement is a great approach.
Other than your own works (which I have read and used in teaching), what are the most important books you have used or use in teaching about the environment and sustainability inside or outside of the classroom? — Wayne Teel, Keezletown, Va.
Hands down: A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, which is required reading in my introductory course.
It seems nice that everyone wants to save the trees and streams, but what if those same people are drinking diet Coke by the truckload and spraying pesticides for lawn perfection? How can we educate people to see the connections in their own homes to the bigger picture? — Dana Katz, Marinette, Wis.
Prioritize. The big issues relate to energy consumption. The answer is use less by becoming more efficient. I recommend that we not engage in lots of minutiae, but help folks with the big issue. Improving the fuel efficiency of what we drive is at the top of my list.
What five fundamental things would you recommend that each household do to give a foundation to a “sustainable home” and contribute to a sustainable society? — Olin Ivey, Chattanooga, Tenn.
1. Make your home energy efficient — caulking, insulation, and the like.
2. Buy energy-efficient appliances and lighting.
3. Pledge that your next car will get 45 mpg or better.
4. Eliminate waste, compost garbage and leaves.
5. Make your yard a natural area.
You mentioned that environmentalists should try and reach the “downtrodden” and those often neglected by the post-consumerism of the environmental movement. I think that is great, but do you propose any means to bridge this divide and to show another part of society the importance of protecting the environment (like health-care costs, etc.)? Do you believe this is possible, or will the reputation of environmentalists as radical and irrational inhibit this process? — Madeleine West, Washington, D.C.
It is certainly possible to make these connections. We know, for example, that a rational energy policy that encourages efficiency first and adoption of renewables (wind, solar) would improve the economy, create tens of thousands of jobs, stimulate technological creativity, improve air quality, reduce our balance of payments deficit, remove our energy interests from the politics of an unstable region, and help to minimize climate change. Is there a downside? No. Is this radical? Only in the sense that such a policy would get to the heart of what ails us.
From your interview it seemed that you are among the sound-minded who consider themselves a part of their ecosystem instead of at odds with it. That said, how do you respond to groups like the Earth Liberation Front that consider themselves simply to be the environment acting in defense of itself instead of … ahem, “eco-terrorism”? What’s your take? — Sam Bridges, Asheboro, N.C.
My take is no way, no how! Violence is self-defeating. For those willing, civil disobedience of the kind practiced by Martin Luther King Jr. makes sense. But this is about changing how people think and that seldom happens violently.
My sense of everyday people is that only a very small minority understands the critical importance of improving ecological literacy — not just improving general “concern for the environment,” but improving the everyday person’s layered and complex knowledge along the lines you outlined in your book Ecological Literacy. In what ways have you seen a dissemination and “democratization” of ecological literacy improving, and in what ways standing still? — Adam Gottschalk, Portland, Ore.
Just finished rereading George Lakoff’s Moral Politics, a very fine book. In this and a recent book titled Don’t Think of an Elephant, he explores how issues are framed. I think we need to master the art of framing issues within the context of generally accepted values and get these into the public dialogue. Big challenge!
I recently read the article in Grist about how Rev. Hugh Montefiore had to resign from Friends of the Earth because he wanted to write about his view on nuclear energy and global warming. I believe that a big part of being a practical environmentalist is having an open mind and looking at problems from many different perspectives. I was wondering if you agree that FoE made the right decision by letting this man go, and if you think there is any substance to his argument that nuclear energy is a viable way to stop the effects of global warming. — Amanda Hollingsworth, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Nuclear power is a very expensive way to boil water. On a level economic playing field, it cannot compete with energy efficiency and with full-cost pricing, it cannot compete with wind and distributed technologies. I suggest you read Small Is Profitable by Amory Lovins, et al., from the Rocky Mountain Institute.
How would you go about separating money and politics, and what would be the immediate and long-term effects? — Judy Rhodes, Hernando, Miss.
Just say no! A federal law making it a crime to use private money to pay for campaigns for the House, Senate, and presidency. Cold turkey!
We met at Solfest 2003 in Hopland, where I heard you speak. At the time I suggested that you go into politics and really help effect change for the environment on a practical level. I believe you brushed the idea off as “not me.” I have wondered over the last year if you’ve heard this same comment from others and if you might reconsider running for some governmental position of power, so that you can really make the kind of changes that we need to extend our quality of life on this planet? Would having a Kerry administration make it more appealing to you? — Tricia Watts, Founder/Curator, ecoartspace, Topanga, Calif.
You tryin’ to get me killed?! I’d certainly be open to some public service, but running for office just now is not in the cards. But thanks for asking!
I’m working at a research center and just received my masters in environmental science and policy. My problem is that I can’t focus on one thing — I want to be involved in the science, ethics, policy, and economics of environmental issues. What would your suggestions be for someone in my position? — Thad Miller, New York, N.Y.
Don’t focus on abstractions, but actual problems and issues needing solution. The rest will take care of itself.
Several years ago you inspired me when you were trying to put together a movement to get all colleges and universities with architectural programs to promote zero-energy-consumption campuses. Where are you with your plans for this? I am still ready to take it to the administrations of both my alma maters, Lehigh University and Washington University. — Roy Taylor, Canton, Ga.
Oberlin has agreed to an environmental policy that includes the goal of becoming climate neutral. There are lots of other institutions moving toward the same goal. This is quickly becoming a national movement.
You state that “all education is environmental education.” How can colleges and universities — even those without formal environmental studies programs — incorporate the teaching of good environmental stewardship into their curricula? –Name Not Provided
Thanks for asking. Offering courses across the division of social sciences, sciences, and humanities is one obvious thing. Another is to begin to shift campus operations toward ecologically designed alternatives. A third is to integrate the standard curriculum with operations giving students a chance to solve real problems.
How do we convince the general public that global climate change is something they should care about, if not for themselves, then for their children and grandchildren? How do we motivate their demand for U.S. government action? — Marty Rosen, West Windsor, N.J.
For the moral side, you said it: What kind of world do we want to leave behind for our grandchildren and theirs? On the economic side, this is about building prosperity on better technologies that have none of the problems associated with fossil fuels.
I am proudly teaching your book Earth in Mind in my environmental education course at NYU, and consider its breadth and resonance unparalleled. But a few sections disturbed me due to their uncritically nostalgic tone, especially the apparent romanticization of the Amish people’s lack of reading, and uncritical support of land-based cultures. Surely there is a lot that cultures rooted in a previous era cannot teach us, and surely urban ecosystems are at least as important for a sustainable future as rural ones. Said differently, we can’t all be farmers or non-readers, nor should we be.
I’m left up in the air about how to approach new problems that aren’t place-based or solved by place-based thinking, like global warming, while ensuring progress for women and various ethnic and racial groups. How can we learn to both reflect on the true consequences of our actions, and find a moral solution that might not exist somewhere in our past? I don’t see the answer to this in biophilia, the rural life, or adopting traditions — where do I look for a more concrete ethic? — Christopher Schlottmann, New York, N.Y.
Thanks for the comments. First, regarding the Amish: They are the best example that we have of a sustainable lifestyle. We ought to be humble enough to learn some things from them. Second, urban ecosystems are certainly important … so too rural ecosystems. Such things should not be regarded to be mutually exclusive, but parts of a larger national tapestry. While we cannot all be farmers, we are all eaters and ought to know the terms and conditions by which we are fed.
On your comments on virtue … I have a short fuse for merely talking about such things. My strategy here and elsewhere is to help use education as a way to combine thinking, talking, writing, and doing aimed to solve real problems. My students, for example, were engaged in the design of the Lewis Center and subsequently in most of its operations. From this they learn the applied virtue of making one building operate sustainably and all of the troubles and joys pertaining thereunto. They learn, in short, to roll up their sleeves and get down to work.