As a teacher, Orr does more than simply inform and inspire; for many students, working with him is transformative.
It’s a beautiful fall day in Oberlin, yet David Orr spots a scene that rankles him: a tractor that is spraying pesticide and veering awfully close to the Environmental Studies Center’s Living Machine.
"Damn it," says Orr before marching across the lawn to confront the driver. Some might expect this nationally known professor and activist to take an imperious tone or to raise his voice. Not David Orr. When the sound of the tractor dies down, he greets the driver by name and with a friendly smile. He asks why pesticide is being sprayed and reminds his colleague not to spray too close to the Living Machine—the Lewis Center’s highly sensitive, on-site wastewater treatment facility. Walking back to the building, Orr stops Nathan Engstrom, Oberlin’s sustainability coordinator, and suggests they get a message to the president on the issue of spraying.
For David Orr, Oberlin’s Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics and President Marvin Krislov’s new special assistant for sustainability, environmental protection is not simply an academic matter. It’s a matter of personal passion, and Orr is doing everything he can to see that his own backyard is held to the highest standard.
When he talks about the environment—global climate change in particular—the urgency in Orr’s voice is palpable. "We have already ensured that future generations will inherit a world that is not as nice as ours," he says. "It will be hotter, drier, and more capricious. We’ve already set for ourselves certain consequences, certain outcomes for which we are not prepared, for example, the drying of the southwestern United States and hurricanes in Miami and New Orleans. We’ve been incredibly wooden-headed in dealing with it. But if we act quickly, we can possibly avoid the worst that’s been predicted."
Bringing a missionary’s zeal to his increasing number of speaking engagements, Orr is not afraid to invoke religious language to reiterate his message, as he did recently during a panel discussion on climate change. Asked by a member of the audience about "clean" coal as an alternative fuel, Orr smiled broadly and said, "Joe, we’re old friends, we go to the same church, and I’m telling you, God buried coal deep in the earth for a reason." His tone was jocular, and all assembled laughed. But through the humor everyone knew David Orr was dead serious. Having studied climate change for decades, Orr knows better than most how high the stakes really are.
Orr came to Oberlin in 1990 as the College’s first full-time professor of environmental studies. He quickly rose to superstar status, raising funds and spearheading the $7.2 million Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies —a U.S. Department of Energy-defined "milestone building."
Orr is relaxed with students; many call him by his first name. His lecture style—a blend of erudite scholar and politician on the stump—is thoughtful and engaging. In class, students are expected to wrestle with the big issues, and Orr freely quotes sources ranging from environmental activists Al Gore and Robert Kennedy Jr. to the Prophet Jeremiah. During one self-described "rant," he stormed briefly in class about the current generation’s apathy: "Your generation is the least politically active generation of the last four," he declared. "Yours is the most advertised-to generation ever. You’ve been conditioned to avoid pain. If something hurts, you take a pill. We should be outraged by the outrageous, and if we’re not, we’re in trouble."
His students don’t feel chastised; here he’s preaching to the choir.
As a teacher, Orr does more than simply inform and inspire; for many students, working with him is transformative. "David is my hero," says Andy Barnett ’08, one of many students for whom Orr arranged real-world opportunities to environmental problem-solve. Through Orr and his connections, Barnett worked on actor Brad Pitt’s green housing project in New Orleans; studied a green community in London; and even drafted a chapter of an environmental action plan intended for the next U.S. president.
"David is the most well-read, articulate, and convincing person I have ever heard speak on environmental issues," says Barnett. "His humility and ability to talk with people with opposing views are among his strengths as an environmental leader."
For Orr, who earned a doctorate in political science at the University of Pennsylvania, much of his training came on the job. After teaching stints at Agnes Scott College and the University of North Carolina, Orr—who played as a child in the hemlock forests along the Allegheny River—cofounded Meadowcreek, a 1,500-acre, nonprofit educational center in the Ozarks of northern Arkansas. There, students learned about sustainable living and construction methods, farming, and timber operations. The rule of thumb for Orr and his brother—"if it happens on our acreage, it’s part of our curriculum"—informs his current approach to using Oberlin’s campus as an environmental studies classroom.
Beyond Oberlin, Orr is an increasingly engaged figure on the national level. The author of six books and more than 150 articles, he takes part in nearly 100 lectures and panel discussions across the U.S. each year. In 2007 he made his big-screen debut in Leonardo DiCaprio’s climate change documentary, The 11th Hour; he was also among the film’s advisors.
When someone who needs to hear his message—the next president of the United States, for example—hasn’t thought to invite Orr to the table, he creates the opportunity himself: the Presidential Climate Action Project, which Orr helped found, has already advised candidates Barack Obama and John McCain about global warming issues and will offer a comprehensive action plan this fall. Orr, who offered similar guidance to President Jimmy Carter decades ago, knows that his talking points aren’t easy for the politicians to hear. "If we’d started making the necessary changes back then, we wouldn’t be in the pickle we’re in now," he muses.
In trying to raise awareness and stimulate action to mitigate climate change, Orr wrestles with the best approach: how to impart the urgency of global climate change without making it seem like an insurmountable problem. On the other hand, people who dismiss the clarion calls of environmentalists as "doom and gloom" are making a big mistake, says Orr. "If a doctor gives you a diagnosis based on scientific evidence, you don’t say, ‘I don’t want to hear that.’ If you want to get better, you ask, ‘Ok, what do we need to do?’"
The key, he says, is to find which combination of scientific realism and good salesmanship is most effective. Like many leaders, Orr has become conversant in couching his calls for action in positive, inviting terms, including touting the tremendous economic benefits of new approaches to energy and design.
"There is a revolution building, and it’s building by leaps and bounds," he says. "On the one side is all this bad news. On the other side, there’s this incredibly exciting opportunity: how do we remake our presence in the world? Five hundred years from now, people will look back at the early 21st century and say, ‘Wow, it must have been so exciting to live at the time when people were just discovering their capacity to live sustainably.’"
Sound pie in the sky? Not exactly. Orr is not exactly optimistic, but he is hopeful. The difference? "Optimism is blindly believing that things are going to turn out all right," he says. "On the other hand, hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up, an endeavor to change the odds."
Tim Tibbitts is a Cleveland area writer.