About Around the Square March 23, 2010

David Orr
Paul Sears Professor of Environmental Studies and Special Assistant to the President


Interview by Yvonne Gay Fowler, Photo by Tanya Rosen-Jones ’97


How long have you been in Oberlin?
20 years

What are you most proud of about your career?
I don’t think of it quite as a career—quite honestly, it’s a way of life. I never set out to do what I’ve done.

What do you like about your job?
What isn’t exciting?

Why are you so green?
Who knows? There was this blinding light ... with a voice (laughs).

You see the needs around you—the rising population, climate changes—and you do what you do because it’s necessary. It’s what I enjoy.

What makes you angry?
There’s a quality in the United States [government] now that’s kind of mean spirited, denial of everything. … This is not the America I’m proud of. What makes me happy? When we’re successful with the Oberlin Project it will become something at the city scale like what we did with this building (Adam Joseph Lewis Environmental Center) back in the mid-’90s. People didn’t think we could make it work. It’s not perfect, but we did it.

We’re one of the smaller cities to be asked to join the Climate Positive Development Program.
Oh yeah, we’re microscopically small compared to other places that have joined, like London.

How will this partnership benefit the college and town?
It puts us on the map in a way that we’re not otherwise. I think the Clinton Climate Initiative is interested in us because we’re big enough to be significant and small enough to be presumably agile. We can get things done, and the college and city collaboration on the Oberlin Project is going to be the most exciting part of it.

Everything that’s ever been spoken about sustainability is in the Oberlin Project. It will revitalize a 13-acre block near the city center that will include the development or renovation of a dozen buildings. The investment in construction, renovation, and energy technology is intended to stimulate the expansion of existing businesses and create new enterprises. It’s really exciting. It involves everything I’ve done for the past 40 years. It’s urban renewal. It’s renewable energy systems. It’s working with people. It’s economic development, agriculture, forestry, green jobs, green building. … Everything.

I think we have a really good chance to do something no one else really has done. The goal here is to link up all the parts. Furniture (smacks the desk). Why don’t we make it here locally? In Berea College in Kentucky, for example, they have an active wood products business that comes to the forestland around the school and teaches the students woodworking skills.

A lot of students come here because of you, because you’re considered a superstar in the environmental sciences. How do you process that?
I wish I had more time for students. I travel a lot—that’s a downside and an upside. Last week was London; tomorrow is Chicago; next week is Washington, the White House. It’s all good stuff. It’s necessary to build a network of contacts that allows us to do the things we do here. Still, I wish I had more time for students. [Since being appointed special assistant to the president] I teach one class a year.

If you were giving a commencement speech, and the students who came to Oberlin because of you were in the audience, what would you say to them?
(Long pause) It’s trickier now. It’s harder to give a commencement speech than it once was, and I’ve done it several times in the last few years. I did a baccalaureate here three years ago. It’s harder to know what to say to them. Kids are coming into a planet that’s not the same planet we grew up in. That’s just the science of it. If you tell them a feel good story, you’re lying to them. But if you tell them only gloom and doom, you leave them no way out. So you have to get to that sweet spot that doesn’t allow them to get off the hook, but you can’t let them go to despair. You have to lock them into hope. If you’re hopeful, it requires you to actually have to act. There are 10,000 ways to give that message.

Do you ever feel alone in your push for the environment?
No, no, no. Not at all.

How do you feel about what the new administration is doing for the environment?
I think [President Obama] is trying to do on the global and national scale what we’re trying to do in the microcosm. That’s hard to do because it’s rethinking energy uses. …The jury is still out [on Obama and the environment]. … I hope he’s successful.

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