Wednesday, 28 March 2007

People I value: Prof.David Orr of Oberlin College

Ancestry and Influence: A Portrait of David Orr
By Marci Janas

SEPTEMBER 17, 1998--David Orr barnstorms the country for the environment. Every year, three or four dozen colleges and universities invite him to lecture, often as keynote speaker for conferences and symposia. Reporters covering global warming flip through their Rolodexes for his name. Several dozen journals have published his articles about biophilia, sustainability, and, as he described it to Jay Parini in the New York Times, "environmentalism [as] a question of ethical design." Two of Orr's books, Earth in Mind and Ecological Literacy, have sold more than 10,000 copies each--bestsellers, by the accounting of academic publishing.

Meanwhile, back home in the parallel universe that is Oberlin, Orr chairs the Environmental Studies Program, teaches and advises students, and oversees the Adam Joseph Lewis Environmental Studies Center's evolution from charrette to groundbreaking. He raised most of the funds for the project, too.

One might ask if the man ever sleeps. But more to the point: Who is David Orr to preach?

His predications are largely the result of ancestry.

"I come from a long line of preachers," he says laughing, tucking into a veggie burger at the Foxgrape. "My daddy was a preacher, I have uncles who are preachers, my grandfather was a preacher . . . ." His paternal grandfather, in fact, identified in Linda Lear's biography of Rachel Carson as "the famous Reverend W. W. Orr of Charlotte, North Carolina," earned a cameo appearance in the book by dint of offering the christening prayer at Carson's baptism.

Silent Spring, Carson's seminal and cautionary treatise about the proliferation of pesticides, was published the year after Orr graduated from high school. A crucial title on his formative reading list, he calls it "a lightning flash in a dark night."

Anyone inclined to dismiss the Carson anecdote as a trifle would do well to understand that for Orr, religion connects to ecology in ways far more compelling than coincidence. And his take on religion has less to do with doctrine or dogma than with the fact that "we are all meaning-seeking creatures--a small part of a much larger pattern."

"It is no accident," Orr told Parini, "that connectedness is central to the meaning of both the Greek root word for ecology, oikos, and the Latin root word for religion, religio." Orr, who wrote that "most of us do what we do as environmentalists and profess what we do as professors . . . because of an early, deep, and vivid resonance between the natural world and ourselves," puts connectedness at the hub of his philosophy. His vocation--our responsibility and relationship to the earth we've inherited and the earth we will bequeath--has an ancestry that runs as deep as any bloodline.

Like Rachel Carson, Orr grew up in Allegheny country. His first vantagepoints: a hilltop home in a western Pennsylvania college town and a summer cabin nestled in the Allegheny Mountains. His was, he concedes, an "unusual childhood, with a lot of time spent in forests and fields." Rivers and streams, hills and hemlock trees, and "rocks the size of a typical house" provided the backdrop for imaginative play. Place and landscape exist for him as interior bedrock, what he would call "mindscape."

Not everyone, not even the affluent, has the advantage to come of age in such a natural setting. Orr knows this. "Children raised in ecologically barren settings . . . are deprived of the sensory stimuli and the kind of imaginative experience that can only come from biological richness."

Out of the verdant land of Orr's youth grew an insistent love and respect for the earth. He likes to quote Stephen Jay Gould: "We will not fight to save what we do not love."

Orr believes that what he loves is at grave risk and in dire need of salvation.

He welcomes readers to Earth in Mind with a litany that includes these statistics:
  • Male sperm counts worldwide have fallen by 50 percent since 1938, and no one knows exactly why.
  • Roughly 80 percent of European forests have been damaged by acid rain.
    U.S. industry releases some 11.4 billion tons of hazardous waste to the environment each year.
  • Ultraviolet radiation reaching the ground in Toronto is now increasing at 5 percent per year.

"We are changing the chemistry of the atmosphere at a rate that is awesomely fast," he says. "We simply don't know what we are doing."

This sense of a race against time is part of what motivates him to motivate others, to "roll up our sleeves and get to work." Oberlin--its students, faculty, staff, and community members--has indeed rolled up its institutional shirtsleeves; the environmental studies center project--itself a model of collaboration--teams local talent with some of the most knowledgeable environmentalists in the country.

Orr wears his own considerable knowledge lightly; his is not a buttoned-down intellectualism. Alert to the next good laugh or congenial colleague, his easy manner belies the depth of thought, the passion and fervor with which he writes and talks about the environment; belies how seriously he takes his role as standard-bearer--the iconoclastic voice of our collective ecological conscience. What gives up the game, finally, is a gaze of lapidarian intensity.

Because he puts his faith in our proclivity for seeking out meaning, it is no surprise that 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." In an essay published in the January 30, 1998, Observer, he writes:

We have a model in the continuing effort to develop and upgrade our computer literacy. We have other models having to do with gender, sexual orientation, and racial equality that have been institutionalized in policy guidelines and administrative procedures. The planning question is how we might institutionalize the capacity to think and act across discipline boundaries as if evolution, ecology, thermodynamics, and the long-term future really mattered.

"Our goal as educators is to present a sense of hopefulness to students, and the competence to act on that hope," he says. "That's different from wishful thinking--ignoring problems or assuming that somehow technology or some mythical 'they' is going to figure it out. We will have to figure it out. A whole set of diverse disciplines, for example, came together in the building project, suggesting a very different curriculum and pedagogy."

Orr's realism, never more than a stone's throw from his idealism, yields this parting shot:

"Our job is not to depress students but to tell them the truth as best we see it. And that's always going to be through a glass, darkly."

Catching himself slip so easily into the biblical allusion, he chuckles, adding: "See? My ancestral influence."

The groundbreaking ceremony for the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies is September 25, at 4:30 on the lawn of South Hall, Elm Street.--Ed.