Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics,  Oberlin College

David W. Orr’s career as a scholar, teacher, writer, speaker, and entrepreneur spans fields as diverse as environment and politics, environmental education, campus greening, green building, ecological design, and climate change. He is the author of six books and co-editor of three others. Ecological Literacy (SUNY, 1992), described as a “true classic” by Garrett Hardin, is widely read and used in hundreds of colleges and universities. A second book, Earth in Mind (1994/2004) is praised by people as diverse as biologist E. O. Wilson and writer, poet, and farmer, Wendell Berry.

Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics and Special Assistant to the President of Oberlin College and a James Marsh Professor at the University of Vermont. He is the recipient of five honorary degrees and other awards including The Millennium Leadership Award from Global Green, the Bioneers Award, the National Wildlife Federation Leadership Award, a Lyndhurst Prize acknowledging “persons of exceptional moral character, vision, and energy.” He has lectured at hundreds of colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and Europe.

Orr helped to launch the green campus movement in 1987, when he organized studies of energy, water, and material use on several college campuses. In 1996 he organized the effort to design the first substantially green building on a U.S. college campus. Oberlin’s Adam Joseph Lewis Center was later named by the U.S. Department of Energy as “One of Thirty Milestone Buildings in the 20th Century,” and by The New York Times as the most interesting of a new generation of college and university buildings. The Lewis Center purifies all of its wastewater and is the first college building in the U.S. powered entirely by sunlight. But most important, it became a laboratory in sustainability that is training some of the nation’s brightest and most dedicated students for careers in solving environmental problems. The story of that building is told in two books, The Nature of Design (Oxford, 2002) and Design on the Edge (MIT, 2006).

In an influential article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Orr proposed the goal of carbon neutrality for colleges and universities and subsequently organized and funded an effort to define a carbon neutral plan for his own campus at Oberlin. Nine years later hundreds of colleges and universities, including Oberlin, have made that pledge. He is the author of the newly released book, Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse (Oxford University Press, 2009). 

Do you use the term sustainability? If so, how do you define it?

Sustainability is a contested word, and I don’t think anyone really knows exactly what it means or what, as a goal, it will require us to do. It implies, however, two big things. One is longevity and durability. The second is a systems concept, by which I mean seeing the relationship between lots of different parts. So a sustainable world or culture is one in which we’ve integrated food systems, energy systems and the means by which we provision ourselves with materials and water and waste cycling into coherent patterns that work the way natural systems work.

The big question, it seems to me, is whether we can build sustainability within the same culture that became radically unsustainable, or whether we will have to go through a much more profound cultural shift to become sustainable. Somebody once put it that our choice is between “a long, but dull career or a brief, but exciting career” as a species. I think that captures some of the uncertainty about the word “sustainable.”

Is there an ideal, sustainable university? If so, what does it look like – physically, socially and programmatically?

It depends how large the accounting boundary is. There is no sustainable campus, nor any even close, if you look at all the environmental impacts associated with the campus, its activities, and transportation to and from the campus. There are many colleges and universities moving toward things like energy efficiency, building greener buildings, things like recycling and local food purchases – all of which are good, but none of which adds up to sustainability in the purest sense of the word. But I don’t think they have to. We’re in the business of developing and honing capacity to think and analyze and act in the world, so I don’t believe it’s necessary to become sustainable in the purest sense of the word. There has been a great deal of progress in analyzing campus resource flows, the way materials are sourced, energy systems, building better buildings, etc. The larger impact has been the effect those activities have had on the students who have often driven them and those who have been party to this transformation of campus operations.

Your book Earth in Mind was originally published in 1994 and reissued 2004. I recently read an excerpt – the essay “The Dangers of Education” which appeared in a 2005 issue of Independent School. In that essay you express your concern/frustration about efforts at that time to reform education. You write: “The great fear is that we will not be able to produce as many automobiles, DVD players, digital TVs, or supercomputers as the Japanese or Europeans. In contrast, I worry that we will compete all too effectively on an earth already seriously overstressed by the production of things economists count and too little production of things that are not easily countable, such as well-loved children, good cities, healthy forests, stable climate, healthy rural communities, sustainable family farms, and a diversity of all sorts.”

We are now, obviously, in very different economic times. How do you view the collapse of the economy in terms of its effect on the sustainability movement?

I think the fact of the matter revealed in the downturn is that we were never as wealthy as we thought ourselves to be. There was a great deal of dishonest bookkeeping and fraudulent numbers. But there is another, deeper accounting issue that concerns the drawdown of natural capital – soils, forests, wildlife, ecological resilience, climate stability – that was never priced and still isn’t.

The trick now is to recover from this recession, but do it in a way that doesn’t compound this larger debt that we owe to the natural world. So money spent, for example, to build more highways for more gasoline powered cars, instead of money spent to, say, increase the number of bike trails or high-speed rail systems, only compounds that second deficit.

Right now, we’re running two deficits. One is simply a fiscal deficit. The other is an ecological deficit. So I don’t think anything has necessarily changed, except we should be able to see more clearly than we’ve ever seen how important it is to keep honest books – both in the fiscal sense and in that zone where economics meets ecology.

Do you think we are still in an age that “regards economic growth as the highest goal?”

I don’t think anything has changed. I only know of one government, the government of Bhutan, that has shifted its standards for accounting from monetary accounting to, in their case, national happiness. But I don’t think any politician in this country would run for higher office based on, let’s say, principals of natural capitalism. I don’t think the paradigm has quite shifted, but more people than ever before are now questioning what wealth really means.

Are you seeing that questioning in the world of higher education? Are schools equipped to teach a new way to rebuild and sustain the economy in a just and fair way?

Yes. I think the sustainability movement has had a progressively stronger impact, year by year, on the thinking of faculty and certainly students.

A profile of you in a 1998 issue of Oberlin On-line, reads: “…he views education as the door out of the maze. But he wants to take the door off its hinges and re-frame it. Institutional reform is perhaps his greatest cause–he advocates nothing less than a new paradigm for higher education–if, that is, we are brave enough to take the “long-term human future seriously.”

How far have we come in terms of institutional reform in the last 10 plus years? Have we made strides since that profile appeared?

I think so. The list of colleges and universities that have created environmental studies programs or have active sustainability coordinators or have committed to reduce carbon emissions is really quite long. Relative to the size of the challenge, we haven’t gotten there yet, though. We haven’t really reformed curriculum. There was a study done last year by the National Wildlife Federation that looked at campus sustainability efforts relative to operations and curriculum. They determined that, in terms of curriculum, we’ve actually gone backwards. Fewer people were graduating with awareness of environmental issues than perhaps ten years before. I think it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

It’s easier to reform campus operations, I think, than it is to reform curriculum. In curriculum, you’ve got to confront professional associations and lots of other factors and forces.

Your book Design on the Edge: The Making of a High-Performance Building tells the story of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, which is heralded as the first substantially green building to be built on a college campus. How has it performed since it opened?

You have to define what you mean by “performed.” The building is coming up on its tenth anniversary next year. The energy use in the building, the wastewater system and all of the building’s systems perform remarkably well.

If you ask, in an academic sense, if it is living up to its potential to change the way young people think about design, I think it’s off the charts. I think it’s the best laboratory for sustainability on any college campus in the country. The building itself became a driver in the curriculum. This is an ideal place for students wanting to learn ecological engineering. For students wanting to learn building monitoring, horticulture, ecological design, solar systems, this has been a laboratory without peer.

If you ask what else is happening in the world because of the Lewis Center, I think it is now moving off the charts. We’re taking this building, which is essentially a 1.25-acre site, and using this as the template for what we’re doing in downtown Oberlin with a project that is 25 times the scale of this building. Beyond Oberlin, by the last count I took five years ago, several hundred campuses were using this building as a model for their own projects. That goes from schools in California all the way to the East Coast. So the building, as a pedagogical device, a driver for larger change in the academy and as a local template for sustainable development, exceeded any expectations we could have legitimately had in the late 1990s.

The Lewis Center was planned and designed before the US Green Building Council had established the LEED rating system, right?

Yes. Effectively, it was a Platinum building before there was a LEED rating system.

The College, the City and the School District are planning a College and Community Green Arts District, which will be a mixed use community spanning an entire city block and built to the highest environmental standards. Are there lessons learned from the planning, design, construction, maintenance and operation of the AJLC that will be incorporated into this new project? If so, what are they?

The biggest challenge for design isn’t the specific components. It’s the integration across components – engineering, landscape design, architecture, specializations in water, energy, materials and lighting. It’s the integration across different professions, disciplines and professional jargons. I think the design professions are getting very good at that.

What we’re doing in the Green Arts block is to raise the ante. We’ve answered the question, can you design great buildings powered by sunlight with zero discharge. The answer is yes. Now we ask, can we raise that to a whole city block and do a city block as a Platinum-rated endeavor?

Then, we’ve added one more challenge to that: can you do not just a Platinum-rated block, but can you also make that a driver for a green economy? So, we’ve raised the ante to the community scale, to the block scale, and now we’re asking that that process be configured so as to be an economic driver in the emergence of a green and presumably sustainable economy.

I imagine a lot of eyes will be on that project. When do you think it will all be realized?

We are in the second of three phases of planning. We would hope to break ground progressively starting on parts of the block in 2010 and really in earnest in 2011. The buildout will be hopefully not more than five years. But there are a lot of moving parts in this. The whole plan includes a 20,000-acre green belt, lots of work on renewable energy systems, as well as the Green Arts block and the economy and educational programs. With this project, we have essentially taken all the strands of sustainability and brought them together into one single project in a circle with a radius of about seven miles.

This is something whose time has come. We’ve been collecting intellectual and operational capital in the sustainability movement for a long, long time. I think we’re ready to Main Street.

Are there examples of projects like the Green Arts District that you’ve looked to as models?

There are lots of projects that we’ll draw inspiration and instruction from. For example the Transition Towns movement that originated in Britain. We’re going to be beggars, borrowers and stealers of ideas from lots of people. I think the uniqueness of this is the intent to bring all of these things – green development, green economy, green education, green building, sustainable agriculture, sustainable forestry and carbon neutrality – together and make this the most exciting educational project in the country. We want students involved from vocational schools, public schools, the college, two-year colleges.

How have students been involved in that project to date?

Not a whole lot. I’ve had one class. We’re just at the very inception of this. It wasn’t really until this summer that we finished conceptualizing a good many of its components. As with [the Lewis Center], where we had hundreds of students involved over the years in the design of the building and eventually its operation and maintenance, in this project, over the next ten years, there will be hundreds of hundreds of students involved. That way they understand the issues of sustainability, but they also get to roll up their sleeves and make it work.

Paul Rowland,  the Executive Director of AASHE, believes that the short-term nature of most institutions’ funding mechanisms is actually the greatest challenge to that institution’s movement toward sustainability. LuAnne Greene, an architect involved in campus master planning, cited the compartmentalization of funding as a challenge. What do you see as the greatest challenge institutions of higher education face in moving toward sustainability?

Imagination. This goes back to your earlier question about economics. The scale of an institution or corporation will have to be much more creative and imaginative in a more constrained world that demands complete honesty and transparency about true cost and long-term cost.

One of the keys to sustainability at the campus level, the corporate level, and at the level of human communities and cities, is to understand that as we become more efficient and make the transition to renewable energy, we’re creating long-term value that we can discount back to net present value and borrow against. So as we make the transition to sustainability, we’re eliminating a whole lot of costs that typically are dispersed widely through an institution or through a society or offloaded on future generations. These costs have to do with health, security, long-term employment. As we improve sustainability, we’re eliminating costs and also creating future value.

Let me give you an illustration. We are getting ready to put together, in a very financially constrained time, a package of solar development for the city. In doing that, we are putting together numbers that explain why this particular investment is a good investment. It buys electricity made from sunlight at a cost that will be stable. So we’ve eliminated the uncertainty cost and also the short-term supply interruptions. We’ve created local employment and local business. We’ve also eliminated the need to have to go into capital markets and rent money very expensively to participate in, say, coal fired power plant projects or nuclear projects, where the money simply leaves the town. We’ve created a local pool of wealth that stays in the community. We’ve avoided situations where wealth has to leave the community in order to keep the lights on.

What’s the impact of all of this on university budgets? The thing most in shortage is the imagination to see clever, smart, honest ways to finance what we have to do anyway for lots of other reasons.

Let’s talk for a minute about K-12. Do you believe students are coming into college fully prepared to tackle the challenge of sustainability?

It varies widely. I met a 15 year old young man from California named Alec Loorz. At the age of 12, he began to organize his peers to stop climate change. Alec is now 15. He’s prepared to be an amazing leader on this issue. But I think for every Alec Loorz, you will find lots of kids who aren’t prepared and who have come out of school experiences that have not equipped them to think very deeply about these kinds of issues. So it is a mixed bag. But I think overall, the generation coming behind us is one that understands more clearly than any before, that it’s all on the line and we’re going right down to the wire on this.

Who do you view as innovators in the area of campus sustainability? Who inspires you?

You don’t have time for that list! The best part of that is that it’s a list that keeps growing. There are more and more people that are stepping up to do amazing and creative things on their campuses. Let me mention just a few of the pioneers in this field.

Bob Koester at Ball State University has been the driver in their ecology and campus sustainability conferences for a decade. Ball State has made tremendous strides to become one of the great leaders.

Bruce Hannon at the University of Illinois is one of the great lights in computer science, but has been an amazingly creative pioneer at the Champaign-Urbana campus for sustainability and, in particular, landscapes that are natural and unmanaged.

Nan Jenks-Jay at Middlebury College has been a real beacon of campus planning and sustainability coordination on their campus.

Walter Simpson at State University of New York at Buffalo is the exemplar of great energy planning. Walter has saved them millions of dollars over the years because of some very adroit energy planning.

Rocky Rohwedder at Sonoma State in California has led that campus’ sustainability efforts, culminating in a campus building much like the Lewis Center.

There are lots of heroes.

We see a lot of attention being paid to energy, but vey little attention paid to biodiversity and sustainability of the landscape. What are your thoughts on that?

Energy is kind of the lynchpin that connects lots of issues, including landscape and biodiversity. Too much energy in a region tends to degrade biodiversity very quickly. It’s a matter of the speed with which we move through landscapes. That’s really unfortunate. Not only are buildings instructive devices, but landscapes are as well. To engage students imaginatively with their surroundings where they learn about the interactions between native plant and animal species and human settlement patterns is crucially important. That is disappointing to me. I believe that you’re right and that is mostly characteristic of these efforts.

Do you see that changing?

Not quickly. Part of the difficulty has been what Richard Louv defined in his book, Last Child in the Woods as “nature deficit disorder.” I think we have a generation of kids coming in who are electronically adept and, to an increasing degree, ecologically incompetent.

This is not a generation that grew up on farms and has a routine understanding of plants, animals and soils. They spent way too much time indoors, and I think we’re paying a significant price for that. So I don’t see it changing quickly. I see some intriguing efforts by Richard Louv and others to organize cities and states and developers around open space and creating more incentive for young people to get outdoors and engage in the natural world. I think it’s one of the prices we’ve paid for being so electronically adept at television, computer building, iPods and cell phones. We’ve now created a world that is very distracting, alluring and tempting for young people.

Are your graduates furthering the movement toward sustainability?

Yes. There are many examples. I’ll give you two. Three blocks from my office, three students who graduated around 2002 have launched a $15 billion dollar project building a three-story building that will be LEED rated as part of the economic renewal of the Oberlin downtown. They stayed in town and began a development company, Sustainable Community Associates, and it’s a remarkable achievement.

Several of the students who had worked on the development of a high-performance building monitoring system for the Lewis Center took what they learned and formed a company called Lucid Design Group. The company has been very successful. They’ve done a number of projects all over the country developing high-performance building monitoring systems.

There are many more examples. That’s one of the most powerful things that we in teaching can experience – to see students take ideas, make them work in the world, and cross the chasm between theory and reality.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a reader that should come out next year, which is a collection of essays written over the last 25 years. But my day job is the Oberlin renaissance project. (The Green Arts Block, green belt around town, carbon neutrality effort, etc.)

Any final words of advice to Leaf Litter readers on how to help further the sustainability movement on college and university campuses?

The beauty of this is to begin to see campuses and their landscapes as instructional devices and models of sustainability. What we’d like to see outside the world ought to be mirrored inside that campus. I’d love to see campuses become celebrations of sustainability. What does it mean to live in harmony with earth and earth systems? So the work of landscape architects, architects and campus planners, there’s a harmony of systems of ideas and life forms that is the goal. We have made huge strides. We ought not to despair. Now virtually every campus, what we’re talking about in this interview is part of the background conversation that is going on virtually everywhere.

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