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EarthLight is a magazine published quarterly by the Unity with Nature Committee
of the Pacific Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends [Quakers]

Color Line

David Orr and the Greening of Education

by Kurt de Boer

Oberlin College Environmental Studies professor David Orr is someone who has dedicated his career to making the vision of a sustainable future a reality. As such, he is no stranger to the considerable barriers denial can erect within his own world of higher education.
What Orr has termed the closure of the purely academic mind to ecological issues is reflected in the failure of the modern academic community to respond appropriately to an ever more ailing biosphere. One element of denial, to Orr, is that we are still caught up in the belief that money and technology hold the answers when, in actuality, the environmental crisis is "not a crisis of technology, but one of mind, will, and spirit."
In the Shumacher College Lecture Series in October of 1994, Orr warned: "Colleges and universities continue to equip the young for short-term success in the extractive economy, not for long-term success in a society of sustainable and resilient communities. The hard truth is that the planetary emergency now upon us is not the fault of the uneducated, but of the well-educated, sporting degrees from our proudest educational institutions."
Denial is not limited to design of the liberal arts curriculum, but extends throughout modern campuses, including how they are administered and the way buildings and the physical landscape are designed. Universities, supposedly committed to global responsibility, instead teach hypocrisy and despair to the young by spending and investing their endowments irresponsibly.
As an example, Orr points to the announced sale of 440 acres of forest, including 50 acres of old-growth redwoods, by The University of California at Santa Cruz. Justification of the sale by one administrator was, "the University is an educational institution, not a biodiversity organization." Land that might better be used to encourage a sense of wonder in the young about forests.
"With only pathetic remnants of once majestic forests, "he writes, "how will we instill the idea of 'decent' forests in the places of wildness and ecstasy, mystery and renewal, as well as the knowledge of their importance for human survival." (Earth in Mind)
These ideas are not simply the idle reflections of an academic isolated behind ivy-covered walls. Orr has been out from behind those walls at least since the 1980's when he founded, with his wife Elaine and others, the Meadowcreek Project in a remote and wild valley in Northern Arkansas. The purpose was to build a sustainable community based on the principles of natural systems. Students learned through immersion in the natural world-in the life of a river, a forest, a farm, or a moor, not in the lecture hall, which Orr says breeds passivity and the illusion that learning takes place apart from the "real world."
In 1991, Orr took the post at Oberlin College. The Meadowcreek Project had convinced him that all education is environmental education and that direct contact with the natural world must be at its core. His work at Oberlin led to the conceptualization, with students in his Ecological Architecture course, of an Environmental Studies Center which would be entirely sustainable, participatory in its design, and a practical learning process for students, instructors, and administrators, right up to Oberlin President Nancy Dye.
In June of 1995, the Center moved well beyond the conceptual stage when Dye, who has made Environmental Studies a high priority for the college, authorized Orr to begin raising funds for the project. Not willing to wait in line for years for funding from traditional sources, Orr personally raised over $1 million from individuals and organizations. Construction of the 10,000 square-foot, $2.5 million Center will begin in 1997.
Orr's advisory team for the project is a who's who of ecological design, including Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Sim Van der Ryn, Director of the California Office of Appropriate Technology, and John Todd, President of Ocean Arks, International. The lead architect, William McDonough, recently won an award for sustainable design from President Clinton.
Returning to Oberlin this May for a class reunion, graduate Jean Barker and her husband, Earthlight Editor Paul Burks, had the opportunity to visit with Orr. His clarity, commitment, and enthusiasm were clear, both in the visit and in the presentation to alums. At 9:00 a.m. on a Sunday, Orr and two interns gave a powerful audio-visual interpretation of the environmental crisis, changes needed in the human-earth relationship, and the role of education in bringing about those changes. That evening, three distinguished graduates spoke of their work, each excited at the application of intellectual skills to serious societal problems. All three presenters were engaged in careers seeking a better community, nation, and world.
What struck Jean and Paul, and seemed to illustrate the situation of denial in which we find ourselves, was that the environmental crisis addressed so compellingly that morning by David Orr was not mentioned once by the three evening speakers - not even in the questions they received and answered!
To Orr, denial is one of two major obstacles to achieving what E.O. Wilson has termed biophilia, "the love of life" required to turn things around. The second obstacle is imagination.
Orr believes that biophilia must become a conscious part of what we do and how we educate people to think, for as he quotes Stephen Jay Gould: "We will not fight to save what we do not love." David Orr, in his labor of love, is showing us a way through denial to a place where we can begin to imagine ourselves in a biophilia-centered world. That he is doing so while creating concrete results toward a sustainable future, can only give us hope.

Color Line


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Page last updated on 2/25/97 by Tom Farley of Spontaneous Combustion