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.]
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.
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