“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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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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