David Orr (Co-founder of the Oberlin Project)

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INTERVIEW WITH David Orr   
(Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics, co-founder of the Oberlin Project)

“CLIMATE CHANGE, A SYMPTOM OF DEEPER SOCIAL, ECONOMIC, AND POLITICAL PROBLEMS"

We know that ecological sustainability alone is not effective and will not achieve its aims as long as we do not take into account economic and social matters. But we also know that the most important factor in a long term view is ‘Nature:’ without it Human survival is perhaps impossible (or at least not so much enjoyable). So how can ecological, societal and economic sustainability be realized? How to revitalize the local economy, eliminate carbon emissions, restore local agriculture, food supply and forestry, and create a new, sustainable base for economic and community development? David Orr, Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics has great experience on this matter.  His full-spectrum sustainability theory has been the inspiration of the Oberlin College, an all-encompassing joint venture by the town and College to create a thriving, sustainable and environmentally friendly community. Colleges and campus are very important in David’s vision.  In an influential article in the Chronicle of Higher Education 2000, Orr proposed the goal of carbon neutrality for colleges and universities.

What is exactly the Oberlin project about? Does sustainability depend on young communities and in education? How can this project be applied to Italy and other countries? Is sustainability a goal we can still pursue? What’s the role of economy?  Prof. David Orr answered to these and other questions.

  

http://www.oberlinproject.org/index.html 

 

INTERVIEW - (February 2018)
This interview was made and published in February 2018 on www.lteconomy.org  
Subject: Full-spectrum sustainability and the Oberlin project
 
By Dario Ruggiero, Founder of Long Term Economy 
 
 
Acknowledgements
Thanks go to Ennio Baratella Gruber,  Grazia Giordano (writer and co-editor at Long Term Economy), Geetha Plackal (Long Term Economy collaborator; GGA India) and Stephen Saunders (Long Term Economy collaborator).
 
 

Highlights 

  • I don’t think that we know yet what the calibration or harmonization of human actions with the limits of the ecosphere will require of us in terms of population, consumption, and technology.
  • …But climate change is a symptom of deeper social, economic, and political problems, notably inequity and massive dereliction and moral abdication by political leaders almost everywhere.
  • The Lewis Center was the first entirely solar-powered, zero-discharge building on a College or university campus… …its most important feature was the engagement with students who participated in the design of the building and in its subsequent evolution over nearly twenty years.
  • The Oberlin Project was a 4-8 year effort—not a permanent organization—to catalyze sustainable development in a small town of ~9,000 people. It is a grassroots initiative in the heart of the U.S. “rustbelt” showing that sustainable development, renewable energy, local foods, and economic renewal are possible and that organized citizens can lead the way.
  • It’s important that young people acquire the skills and aptitudes to improve the world through ecological design, regenerative agriculture, urban planning, and the transition to a solar-powered world. Imagine all schools powered by sunlight, emitting no waste products, and growing a portion of their food on school grounds!
  • I can’t say exactly how you might learn from our experience, but I do know that Italy has much to offer in the transition to a sustainable, fair, and beautiful world.

 

 Some believe that we can create advanced technology that will meet human demands without sacrifice. Others think that we will have to learn to live within limits.
 
 
1. Question: Dear prof. David Orr, thank you for being with us. You are a well-known environmentalist with a wide experience in ecological matters. The first thing we would like you told us is ‘how much sustainable do you think our current society is?’

The U.S. record on the many aspects of sustainability was moderately good until the current administration came into office. We had signed the Paris Accord on climate and were making the transition to renewable energy and efficiency. Our public lands policy was progressive and farsighted. The Environmental Protection Agency that administers a range of Federal statutes was competent and dedicated. Much, but not all, of this is being reversed. Some things will probably stay on track because they’re driven by market trends. In other cases the damage will be longlasting.

Sustainability, however, is a complex and multi-faceted thing. I don’t think that we know yet what the calibration or harmonization of human actions with the limits of the ecosphere will require of us in terms of population, consumption, and technology. Some believe that we can create advanced technology that will meet human demands without sacrifice. Others think that we will have to learn to live within limits. Time will tell.


2. Question: Thank you for your answer. But among the many current ecological crisis (climate change, biodiversity loss, water pollution, unsustainable fishing and so on), what is in your opinion the most important one? In your view how should a really sustainable economic system be?
 
Rapid climate change is the most important issue we face because the consequences are global, longterm, irreversible, and drive each of the other problems you list above. Climate de-stabilization will also increase the likelihood of international conflicts as scarcities of water, food, and resources grow. But climate change is a symptom of deeper social, economic, and political problems, notably inequity and massive dereliction and moral abdication by political leaders almost everywhere. Their commitment to economic growth rather than to quality of life, justice, and peace is a very large part of the problem.
 
3. Question: Let’s now talk about some of the several interesting projects you have carried on. One of these was made in 1989 and concerned the effects of impending climate change on the banking industry. Could you explain to us the results of this study and if they are still true now?

In 1989 then Governor Bill Clinton and I organized a two-day conference for bankers and climate scientists. The idea, originally from Amory Lovins, was to explore the relationship between the stability and profitability of bank lending and customers’ adoption of energy efficiency and renewable energy. That event was twenty-five years ahead of its time in noting that lending to customers paying exorbitant costs for energy reduced their ability to repay their loans and hence a higher likelihood of default. The idea was valid then and even more so now as energy efficiency has steadily improved and costs of solar electricity and wind power have fallen. We’ve entered a new energy era of sunlight, superior technology, and better design. The message, alas, has not entirely penetrated the darker fossil-fuel realms.
 
 
4. Question: Another issue you have worked on is ‘Green Building.’ In 1996 you contributed to design the first substantially green building on a U.S. college campus. The Adam Joseph Lewis Center was later named by the U.S. Department of Energy as ‘One of Thirty Milestone Buildings in the 20th Century.’ Could you explain to us the meaning of such an expression?

The Lewis Center was the first entirely solar-powered, zero-discharge building on a College or university campus. Designed and built in the 1990’s it remains a landmark of design, generating 130-140% of its annual energy use from sunlight and purifying all of its wastewater on site in a John Todd designed “living machine.” But its most important feature was the engagement with students who participated in the design of the building and in its subsequent evolution over nearly twenty years. Ecological design became part of the curriculum and the heart of a pedagogy of applied hope at a comprehensible scale.
 
 
 
Sustainable development, renewable energy, local foods, and economic renewal are possible and that organized citizens can lead the way
 
 
5. Question: Let’s now move to one of the most important projects you have contributed to: ‘The Oberlin Project.’ Can you tell us more about this project (its purposes, the people and the means involved, its results)? It is said to have been formed out of your vision of full-spectrum sustainability. What is this vision about?

The Oberlin Project was an Oberlin College initiative in collaboration with the City and community. It was intended to be a 4-8 year effort—not a permanent organization—to catalyze sustainable development in a small town of ~9,000 people. Our goals included speeding the transition to renewable energy, growing the local foods economy, introducing sustainability into the curriculum of the local schools, and local economic development. We met or exceeded each of these. The accomplishments included adoption of a City Climate policy, elimination of ~85% of the CO2 emissions from the local utility, construction of an 11 acre solar array, a community-wide dashboards reporting on energy and water use, construction of a model affordable solar house built closely to Passiv Haus standards, an expanded local foods market, a new solar-powered hotel & Conference Center; and ~$100 million investment in downtown redevelopment centered on a Green Arts District. It is a grassroots initiative in the heart of the U.S. “rustbelt” showing that sustainable development, renewable energy, local foods, and economic renewal are possible and that organized citizens can lead the way.
 
 
It’s important that young people understand ecology and its economic, political, social, and moral implications
 
 
6. Question: So much of your effort has focused on making ‘campus greener.’ Why? How do you think the Education system and young communities can help achieve sustainability?

The ecological disorder all around us reflects a prior disorder in the way we think. That makes the environment the issue in education. And by what we include or exclude in education we teach young people that they are part of or apart from the natural world. That said, it’s important that young people understand ecology and its economic, political, social, and moral implications. It is equally important that they acquire the skills and aptitudes to improve the world and the human prospect through ecological design, regenerative agriculture, urban planning, and the transition to a solar-powered world. Imagine all schools powered by sunlight, emitting no waste products, and growing a portion of their food on school grounds!
 
 
7. Question: What do you think about Italy? What are the main factors to consider on the matter of sustainability in Italy and how can we take advantage of your studies?

The conversation about sustainability began in Italy with Roman engineering, the moral grounding of St. Benedict and St. Francis, the design intelligence of Leonardo and Michelangelo, the architecture of Brunelleschi, Palladio, Alberti, and the dawn of modern science of Galileo. It is embodied in the management of land and the timeless beauty of the Tuscany hills and the lessons of water management in evolution of Venice. As a student of politics, I think Machiavelli also has a great deal to say about the competent conduct of our public (and global affairs) in a more constrained world. I can’t say exactly how you might learn from our experience, but I do know that Italy has much to offer in the transition to a sustainable, fair, and beautiful world.
 
 
8. Question: Finally, you have done a great job in many aspects of sustainability. There are several other people and projects working on sustainability. Aren’t they too much isolated? Has it come the time of creating a unique universal model/brand of sustainability which would inspire the entire political, economic and societal system? Now it could be effective…Tomorrow could be too late…What do you think about it?

Indeed! That time has come and I would welcome an opportunity to talk about that effort and how it might become a reality.
 
 
 
 

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