David Orr Speaks on Environmental Policy

David Orr, chair of Oberlin College's Environmental Studies program, spoke to a crowded Red Pit on November 7. His talk was titled "Educational Possibilities in the Age of Terror", and was part of the 2003-2004 Levitt Center Speakers Series, "The Environment: Public Policy and Social Responsibility." The lecture focused on the environmental issues which our world must address and the complications that politics and terrorism add to these problems, as well as educational and public policy solutions to them.

Throughout his lecture, Orr stressed that one does not have to be right or left wing in order to be an environmentalist. In fact, he said, the main conflict in environmental issues is not between "right" and "left" but between thinking in the present and thinking towards the future. Orr began by saying that ever since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring predicted the effects that chemicals would have on the environment and on humans, environmentalism has consistantly been correct in its forecasts. Today, environmental experts forecast that declining supplies of fossil fuels will require us to cut our consumption of these fuels in half by 2050, finding more efficient sources of energy even as our world population continues to grow. The world around us is "vulnerable and brittle," said Orr, and this is shown particularly in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the Northeast blackout on August 15, 2003.

Looking forward into the 21st century, Orr said that he says "opportunity and danger interwoven around crisis." We are at a critical point in environmentalism, as well as in world politics, and the transition to a better world does not have to be painful so long as we act quickly. Orr explained that we already know a lot of the things we should be doing, but something has been holding us back from doing them. For example, technology is able to create very fuel efficient cars such as hybrids, but overall auto efficiency in the U.S. is at an all time low with the popularity of gas-guzzling SUVs. Scientists also know how to create high performance buildings, such as the Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin. At the same time, most Americans identify themselves as environmentalists, or at least as interested in protecting and preserving the environment. So what's holding us back? According to Orr, there is a disconnect between public opinion and public policy, and a general political unwillingness to move in new directions.

Orr suggested several solutions to these problems. For one, he said that people must reclaim the integrity of certain words and ideas that have been changed over time. He described an SUV with a "God Bless America" sticker driving to the mall, and pointed out the incongruity of calling this "patriotic" when patriotism has traditionally meant sacrifice, instead of conspicuous consumption. Orr also talked about institutions of higher learning setting examples for good environmental behavior, as Oberlin has done with it's high-efficiency, environmentally friendly Center for Environmental Studies. In response to an audience member's question, Orr also talked about whether the government or the free market is the more efficient tool for effecting environmental change. Orr came down on the side of government, though he agreed that the market is an important factor to consider.

David Orr's most recent book is The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human Intention, in which he discusses ways to integrate environmental concerns into technological progress through better design. Orr held a book signing after the lecture.

-Caroline O'Shea '07

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