Before most people even knew what the S-word was all about, David Orr was pioneering the field of sustainability education. His groundbreaking work in the '90s led to the construction of one of the greenest buildings in North America. On this podcast, Orr discusses The Oberlin Project's mission to reduce carbon emissions and create a new, sustainable base for economic and community development. He also shares his thoughts on sustainability politics and what he calls a "dramatic shift" in our capacity to protect the environment.
Speaker 1: Define sustainability. Odds are your definition is completely different from the next person's. Appalachian State University's Director of Sustainability, Dr. Lee Ball, sits down with his guest to explore the many ways in which sustainability affects our lives. This is Find Your Sustain Ability.
Lee Ball: Welcome, everybody. I am Lee Ball, and I'm your host of Find Your Sustain Ability. Today's podcast is a conversation that I had with David Orr. David Orr is Emeritus faculty at Oberlin College. And David is one of the country's foremost leaders in sustainability education. David pioneered the field of sustainability education before most people even knew what the "S" word was even about. Because of David's insights and his deep perspective on campus sustainability and political science and the politics of sustainability, we've asked him to join us in our podcast today. And I hope you enjoy it.
Lee Ball: David Orr, thank you so much for coming back to Boone and joining me in our podcast. We call this Find Your Sustain Ability.
David Orr: Well, thanks for having me. This is a great place to be. And your work is really great. So thanks to you for doing what you're doing.
Lee Ball: Yeah. This is your eighth Appalachian Energy Summit that you've attended. And we're extremely lucky to have you to be a part of the Appalachian family. Again, thank you for taking the journey from Oberlin, Ohio down to Boone.
David Orr: Well, Lee, thank you for all the leadership and the work that you do here and the excitement and creation of alternatives within higher education. That's critically important. And you're carrying that on, so thanks to you.
Lee Ball: You're welcome. I understand you have some family in the area?
David Orr: We do. My roots of both my mother and father's family go back in North Carolina for two centuries. And mostly dirt farmers and hell raisers around Charlotte. I think they're part of the Mecklenburg crowd back in the 17 whatever it was, but yeah, North Carolinian by lineage. Yeah.
Lee Ball: Yeah. That's fantastic. So having a sense of our place is so important to the work that we do. I know that you feel the same, especially with your work in Oberlin and the Oberlin Project. I know that that place is a big part of what you focus on.
David Orr: Oberlin is interesting. Like Boone and Appalachian State, there's a legacy that builds up over the years. And in the case of Oberlin, it was the first college to accept African Americans and women and graduate them. That goes back into the 1830s. That was part of the DNA of the institution. It wasn't as wonderful as it sounds. There were real conflicts. The board votes to accept African-Americans were close calls, but it happened. And it marked the institution and it's carried that commitment into the present.
David Orr: What we tried to do in the past, in my roughly 30 years in town, most of that, 27 years on the faculty or in the administration, is to begin to broaden that sense of commitment to include environment. What good is a great college if you don't have a decent planet to put it on, to paraphrase Thoreau. That's been our attempt to see environment and climate and energy issues as flip sides of a coin that involve equity, fairness, decency and justice. That's the role. But Oberlin has been a great place to live because of that commitment.
Lee Ball: What do you think was special about Oberlin to create a space where there was tolerance and more acceptance than other places?
David Orr: Well, I think part of it is simply the legacy, the history of the place. Having African Americans and women there, they mixed in the student body and became a... You knew people. And they were friends and they were classmates and so forth. I think over the years it broke down this barrier that had begun a long time ago. Slavery and racism are separate kinds of issues as part of the darker legacy of the United States. They're not the same thing.
David Orr: Racism was a different thing than simply slavery. It was a denigration of the personhood. That breaks down in situations where you know people. They're your neighbors, they're your friends, they're your roommate down the hall. I think it was that personal contact. It's harder to be a racist if you know African Americans or Asian Americans or Native Americans. I think it was just the years of contact plus the institutional commitment to work at that level.
Lee Ball: How do you think that contributed to Oberlin being a campus that also focuses on the environment and cultivating a citizenry that cares about the environment?
David Orr: It's a great question. In the case of Oberlin, the environmental studies program that I chaired from 1990 off and on until I retired, it was started by a group of students in the January term back in 1979 or 1980, long before I got there. It was a student-led initiative that drove the program. When I went there, what I did, the college had no facilities, capital plant for environmental studies. And I got permission to build an environmental studies center. That was at the start of the green building movement was beginning.
David Orr: Sim Van der Ryn's work in California and other people, John Lyle's work in Southern California. There were people beginning to ask these kinds of questions about the built environment. So we organized an effort. I had to go raise money independent of the college to fund it. It was about a roughly seven and a half million dollar project. We eventually raised over 10 for it. But the result was an initiative that was very environmental. It was the first substantially green building on a US college campus.
David Orr: It still generates, thanks in part to the App State alum, Sean Hayes. It still generates more energy than it uses by a large margin. It's 40 to 50% more every year than it actually uses from solar energy. But we made that an environmental class project. Had about 250 students work on that project along with a great design team that include Amory Lovins, and RMI, and people from NASA and The Bill McDonough Firm and Carol Franklin's landscape architecture firm.
David Orr: So we put together an incredible group of people who were thinking about design in the '90s with students. And that was one of the requirements. And so what happened was, at a scale you can get your head around, this is a 14,200 square foot building powered entirely by sunshine. No toxic materials in the building and so forth. It was a Platinum building before there was a rating system. But what that did was to give us something tangible.
David Orr: You can see it. And we're visual creatures. Something like 80% of our sensory apparatus is in our eyes. So we privilege what we see. And all of a sudden green design was you something you see. It's the, oh that building over there. And Oh by the way, it's powered entirely by sunshine. And that's in a state where sunshine is still kind of a theory. It's cloudy in terms of degree days and so forth as say the city of Seattle. But you can do it. It's a zero discharge building. There's no waste product comes in. It's drinking water in, drinking water out.
David Orr: So what we did was to take the state of the art at that time in the '90s, pulled together an incredible design team at that point. That was the A team of ecological design in the US and probably the world. We put that together and with students and it became a learning project.
David Orr: So one of the things I've always worried about is kids in this age bracket. Well actually from like five years to PhD, what they see is a world coming undone. And whether it's climate change or species extinction, ocean acidification, or soil loss or whatever, they're looking at these graphs that go up sharply or down sharply and they see their future disintegrating.
David Orr: But if you reduce the scale to something the size of a building, you can get your head around that. And you put them to work doing material safety data sheets, all this stuff about toxicity or climate or the technological possibilities. And it turned out that even in the '90s, so as we were in a process designing this building, yeah, you could design entirely solar-powered buildings in a place where sunshine was a theory. Dark, cloudy places a good bit at the time.
David Orr: So the last project before I retired in November of 2017 was a solar-powered hotel. The college has a 105,000 square foot hotel conference center with commercial space and a jazz club and so forth entirely powered by sunshine. It's an off-site array about a quarter of a mile distant. But it is rated as a USGBC Platinum building.
David Orr: And so what we did was to make what is possible visible. In both cases. The hotel project is lacking only the final touch, Maya Lin, a great designer, is doing the landscape design as one of three projects in the hotel and around the hotel. So I think making these things as you've done here, I mean what you do at Appalachian State, you galvanized a lot of this throughout the state at other institutions in this state's system. And making these things visible, it's the normal thing to do and it's the easy thing to do. That's the challenge.
David Orr: So that takes your real quickly into politics. You have to change the regulations, you have to get a lot of stuff out of the way to make what is the right thing to do and the economically smart thing to do and the ethically just thing to do. You have to make that easy to do.
Lee Ball: Well, we really appreciate your leadership with those projects. I mean, you were so ahead of your time in the '90s. And we, I mean really many of us were struggling to do these very things today. And another thing that impresses me is the fact that in in the '90s, you imagined a building that was beyond net zero. As net positive. And so it's a generous building. And that's how we need to be thinking today. I know it wasn't easy and it took a lot of brain power. But we like to say it's not rocket science, it's building science. We had the tools, it just took some leadership to get it done, on your part and the institution's part, and I'm sure you're board.
David Orr: Truth be told, this was really a collective collaborative project. We had an incredible design team. We had 22 different firms and organizations working on the design. We had a group of great students. What you're doing, or what we were doing in that, what you do here, is it's partly internal education. So the buildings are educational that you do. They're designed to be pedagogical instruments, to use that awkward word. But as teaching tools. They're designed to stretch kids sense of what is possible. Their are ecological imagination and possibilities that extend past the the current generation.
David Orr: And then internally what you're also doing here and what we were doing there and on every campus is trying to educate a board and administration. Here is the right way to do this, these kinds of things. And it's sometimes hard for them because they have fiscal responsibilities that are tough. They've got to make sure the payroll is met every month and so forth. And the endowment is sound and the number of students come in. Colleges and universities are not easy places to run. And in places like you ... People like you and me come in and say, "Hey, well you could do this a little bit better," and so forth, it takes a bit to get open minded administrators willing to risk a little bit of their career.
David Orr: But the right thing to do here is also the smart thing, economically, to do. I mean that's been one of the gifts that Amory Lovins has given us to understand that this is not only something you should do, but it's also something that is the smart thing to do. So there's this historic convergence of these two things that humans have to reckon with. What's the short-term smart and long-term smart and so forth.
David Orr: And one of the things that came through in our building, which I think was very useful, was to say we want to design so well and so artfully that we cause no injustice upstream, both human and ecological, or downstream. And so you're talking about a different kind of building. If we're just seeing the building in this larger context of the flow of materials and energy from source to eventual consequence. But that was educational for the board. And it was interesting. The Lewis Center was occupied January of 2000. When it came time to do the hotel project, the board just assumed, oh, it would have a living machine. And they just assumed it would be solar powered. So the the needle had moved in terms of board aspirations and what they thought was possible to do.
Lee Ball: Right. So in a sense what you've done with the Environmental Center has created another faculty member, a colleague in the building that you've been able to have on staff for all these years. And you continue to learn from and the students and everyone that's researching that space will be learning from that built environment until it's not there anymore.
David Orr: That's a great way to put it. I hadn't thought of it in that term, but that's a great way to put it. And one that can't go on strike or cause trouble unless you maintain it. Yeah.
Lee Ball: Exactly. I'd like to ask you a personal question, David. What's your earliest memory of the natural environment?
David Orr: Oh wow. Well I was born in Des Moines, Iowa. So my earliest memories are as a kid up to age five, were snow storms and Iowa heat and so forth. I think the earliest memories I have pertinent to this conversation are growing up in Western Pennsylvania. My dad was president of a college in a town called New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. A beautiful rolling country, Amish country, rolling hills. And then he had a place up on the Allegheny River, about a mile back from the river in a deep hemlock forest. And beautiful rock formations. And it had been occupied and cut over in part, but this was still a virgin portion of that forest. Never been cut.
David Orr: And so long before I could articulate anything environmental, there was this kind of biophilic sense growing. And the smells of the hemlock forest and the mosses and the waters and so forth. That became embedded pretty quickly. So for me, when we were there, which was a good bit of the summer times, and actually a good bit of the year all around, the day was out in the woods playing. And that play time was really critically important. And so trying to take that forward, I think that's an important part of this whole movement of ecological design. To build contact points between young people, all people, but certainly at the younger ages, and the natural world. Whether it's city parks or river walks or whatever.
David Orr: And I think one of the great inspiring things for me is the rise of biophilic cities where this becomes part of the way cities are designed. And then again, there's this convergence of what's the right thing to do, which is to associate young people with nature in the world in which they grew up. And then the smart thing to do because you find that property values go up where there are trees and green spaces and so forth.
David Orr: So this, I think the environment represents this historic convergence of two things that humans always wrestled with. What's the smart thing to do and what's the right thing to do? It turns out in this case they're often the same thing. But for me, that started early in in life at ages five, six, seven, eight and never went away. And later when I read, when I went to graduate school and I read people like Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold and folks like that. You had this sense that I though that, but I never said that. And the sense of being part of the natural world, not apart from it, but part of the natural world.
Lee Ball: That's what I love about biophilic design. It really kind of thrusts us together with the natural world. I mean, we're natural beings and many of us have been disconnected in urban environments and even suburban environments. And when you design with nature in mind, there really is no disconnect. And we crave as human beings, as animals, we crave our connection back to nature. And I feel fortunate like you to have grown up in the woods and have been surrounded by the natural world. I feel very lucky in it.
Lee Ball: I'm always curious about people like us, why did we come to this work? And so that's another question I have for you is was there a time that you realized that you wanted to dedicate your career towards helping make the world a better place?
David Orr: I think I was part of the Vietnam generation and was in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in the Political Science Department. But Ian McHarg, great landscape architect who wrote Design with Nature, came out first in 1969. And we just had a 50th anniversary of the publication of that book at the University of Pennsylvania. And McHarg was one of these larger than life people who changed the way we see our methods of inhabiting the land.
David Orr: And it was biophilic long before there was, E.O. Wilson had coined that word and made it popular. I think that's really where it started. But I was at this point where I would go around a campus and find the best teachers around at Penn. And there were a lot of them at the University of Pennsylvania. Renny Deuvose from Rockefeller University was a regular lecturer and Lauren [Isley 00:17:38] was on the campus at that time.
David Orr: I would sit in on lectures of some of these people. And it began to galvanize a sense of what I wanted to do in the world like putting a compass on the table. It told me which way was magnetic north, but it wasn't an itinerary. It wasn't a map. I didn't have a career plan. I had a career direction.
David Orr: And the other part of this was in a politics department at Penn. I began to read people like William Ophuls' writings and Herman Daly, the economist, and so forth. And began to see that everything environmental really is political. If you go into the politics department ask what is political? They say it has to do with who gets what, when, and how. And if the what involves air and water and land and fossil fuels and wildlife diversity and so forth, then you begin to see this is really all political. Which just for me is a segue into current work in democracy. And we're witnessing the decay of democratic institutions and rapid collapse of these in Europe and Hungary and Poland and possibly Germany and France and England and now in the United States.
David Orr: We thought that would never happen, but it is happening. And so one of the fundamental challenges going forward is to understand ... And this is not an argument for conservatism or liberalism, it's simply to say that these are political issues. And if we value the role of democracy, the public engagement in the public business, then we have to begin to understand the ways in which environment plays out politically.
David Orr: And this has a lot of nuts and bolts issues to moral issues. And the nuts and bolts level, the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, was created in 1969 out of a hodgepodge of other federal agencies that didn't fit very well together. But there was no, what was called an organic statue. A law that said this is what the agency does and anchored it to a specific set of purposes. And so the EPA blows in a winds, the political winds, so a hardcore left-wing person comes in and does this and Trump comes in and does this.
David Orr: We're witnessing a shift in our capacity to protect the environment that is dramatic. The pull back from Paris Accords was probably the most visible thing that the Trump administration has done. But this gets into politics. It need not be conservative or liberal because you can be either one and be a very good environmentalist. Back in our history, Teddy Roosevelt and people like Nat Reed in the Interior Department were staunch Republicans but really good on environment.
David Orr: And so you can use the market, you can use political instruments, but the market always exists within a political context. So what happens in our politics affects a good bit of what happens in the market. Markets are where we say I, me, and mine, but politics are we say we, and us, and ours. And that pronoun works out a decidedly different way to do things. But again, they're not opposing things. They're flip sides of the same coin.
David Orr: So back on the question, what I began to see was how do we adjudicate the human role in the natural world? And the sense that we ought to is the biophilic sense. The sense of how do we do this involves politics and markets and ethics and so forth. And so the current work we're involved in is the democracy initiative. We have a book that comes out early 2020 from the New Press. It's called The Democracy Unchained. I've got 32 contributors to the book that include people like Bill McKibben and Jessica Tuchman Mathews. But it's a full spectrum of issues that pertain to human survival or capacity to get through this particular era.
David Orr: And the good news in the book in a way is that good many of the market things have already happened. We're not suffering from lack of technology as Amory has pointed out for decades. If we used off-the-shelf technology, we'd use a fraction of the energy we now use. And that takes a lot of the heat, no pun intended, off our political systems and so forth. That's the good news in this. And the bad news is we haven't yet put this all together as a systematic climate energy policy that is transparent and fair, works for future generations, and all those larger things.
David Orr: So the goal is to begin in this whole project with the book and then the 14 events we're planning around the country. And starting with one at the national cathedral in Washington on the spiritual foundations of democracy. To events in Boston, Washington, New York, San Francisco, Denver, Los Angeles, and so forth, 14 in total. And the goal is to start a broad-based conversation. And that conversation was implicit in early years at Penn. As I was taking classes over in the politics department and wandering around the campus and taking in Ian McHarg's classes and so forth. There's this larger dialogue about how humans make their place in the world in a way that's decent, fair, and durable, or sustainable in the language.
Lee Ball: So that intrigued me because I felt like we were making a lot of headway, even when you were in school. Fast forward to the '70s and '80s and even the mid-'90s, and then here we are today. I'm sitting with, you're one of the founders of the sustainability education movement. You started this work before we even had the word sustainability in the lexicon. And then you've written about it for many, many years. But here we are in 2019 and those of us who are sustainability educators are struggling more than ever to really get people to care. And we feel like we've used every tool in our toolbox and every trick that we can imagine to try to get people to care and to connect. And so where do you think we're failing? Or what opportunities you know still exist?
David Orr: I'm not sure that we're failing. I've come to this, and this is an opinion and it's off the cuff and I haven't prepared specific thoughts about this. But if I look at public opinion poll data across a whole sampling of issues, and by different pollsters, Gallup on an up or down, the public is with us. I think to a great extent we won. And it's hard to go anywhere without having somebody, anybody. You go down to the local truck stop, you can go to the local ADA meeting, and people care about the environment. They'll say it differently, but nobody wants to breathe dirty air, drink foul water, and so forth and so on.
David Orr: People want their kids out there on their hunting grounds or fishing, they want them in parks and so forth. So they, if you look at their aspirations for the next generation, it's a lot about environment. And so I think that in many ways we won the battle for people's hearts and minds. No political candidate anywhere can come out as a barbarian and win very long or stay in office very long for the most part across the country. There are a few exceptions.
David Orr: But what happened was, if you think about this as two sides of the Grand Canyon, on one side you had public opinion. And it was I think largely with us. On the other side you had the laws, rules, regulations, and so forth that we got. The policies that we actually got. And the bridge that connects those two got broken or better yet turned into kind of a toll bridge. So you had to have a lot of money to get across. And so every, from the political science profession, when you study people's role in governance, you find out very quickly it doesn't matter what the people down at the truck stop think or the people in the local school think or the people on main street think. It's what lobbyists want.
David Orr: We just had a House bill, got a lot publicity around the country in Ohio, House Bill Six. Dave Roberts at Vox described it as the worst piece of environment energy legislation he had seen in the 21st century, maybe ever. And what they did, what the Ohio legislature did, with a lot of dark money came into this, and a lot of big corporate money came in. It was a giveaway to First Energy. And it revived or subsidize two nuclear plants and a couple of coal-fired power plants. And the rate payers pay. It's an awful bill. And even the business community was against it, but it passed.
David Orr: So what happened in between was a lot of what Jane Mayer, the writer for New Yorker, calls dark money came in. Unaccountable money. Which is according to Supreme court legal. And so this is a way of saying I think we won the battle for the most part, for hearts and minds. Not everywhere, not always any one place. But I think by and large we won it.
David Orr: And so where did we fail? I think we failed politically. So while we were, to put it this way, while we were holding great meetings and writing great books and doing great research and so forth, they were taking over school boards and city councils and state legislatures and governors offices in 36 States and the House of Representatives until the last election, the Senate, the court system, and the presidency.
David Orr: So they were doing politics, we were doing environmental stuff. And we didn't do the work we should have been doing at extending our message, which was right. I think in most cases, as you know from the summit, you can measure results of the summit last night at dinner, you're on track to save a billion dollars that would otherwise have been wasted in 10 years. That is incredible.
David Orr: So while you're doing those things that they're measurable, for the most part, we missed the boat on defending our collective capacity to defend our collective environment. And that is political. We got outspent by a lot of money. But that's a long winded answer to say I think maybe we won, but we lost in the political arena.
Lee Ball: So I've got one more question for you. What is giving you hope these days?
David Orr: Well, I'll tell you. Hope takes some defining. But in short, I've said that hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. And hope comes from actually being engaged in the world. But it also comes from hanging out with people like you and people that will be at the summit today and tomorrow and so forth. And people actually doing stuff in the world. People that just will not be beaten. They're going to be there. And they're there for their kids and their future generations. They're there because they love their colleagues. They're there partly because it's fun to do this stuff.
David Orr: And we're setting out a major challenge. It's kind of a moonshot for us and for our generation. But can you make a sustainable, just, fair, decent, and prosperous, a shared prosperous world? And I think the answer is yes. I take my hope from just the work that we all do. And the doing of the work is what generates hope.
Lee Ball: Well, David Orr, thank you very much for joining me today on Find Your Sustain Ability. We're so thrilled to have you on campus again and look forward to many more summits with you.
David Orr: Well, Lee, thank you. Thank you for the good work you're doing.
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About Appalachian State University
As the premier public undergraduate institution in the state of North Carolina, Appalachian State University prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The Appalachian Experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and to embrace diversity and difference. Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Appalachian is one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina System. Appalachian enrolls more than 20,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.