Hayes, president of the Bullitt Foundation, a $120 million
environmental philanthropy, was international chairman of
Earth Day 2000.
"There is a broad sense that what we have in this country
is not sustainable. People are hungering for something different."
chair and CEO of Interface, Ray Anderson has helped
revolutionize the carpet and floor-covering industry.
"I see the Lewis Center as a tree in a barren land, illustrating
a new kind of forest. I think this idea will spread."
sciences writer Janine Benyus is the author of six
books; her latest is Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by
reality is setting in, pushing us to find saner and more sustainable
ways to live on Earth. Equally important is what is pulling
us towards biomimicry; that is, our deepening knowledge of
how the natural world works."
LEADING BY EXAMPLE
If corporate America isn't inspired by Oberlin's model of environmental
efficiency, an industry giant of its own may do the trick. The Ford
Motor Company has earmarked $2 billion to redesign its flagship
River Rouge Plant outside of Detroit, with McDonough + Partners
taking the lead.
Ford worked for more than a decade to create River Rouge, which combined
nearly every aspect of car building into one gigantic, efficient factory.
By the late 1920s, two square miles of suburban Detroit farms were
converted into an industrial colossus. Ford-owned freighters carried
raw material from Ford-owned mines up the newly dredged Rouge River
into the plant's man-made harbor. Inside its gates, River Rouge boasted
the world's largest foundry, a power plant big enough to supply the
domestic needs of a major city, a steel mill, a glass plant, coke
ovens, a paper mill, an engine factory, a body stamping operation,
and an automobile assembly line. In just 28 hours,100,000 people turned
virgin materials into finished automobiles.
world's manufacturers flocked to River Rouge to see what Ford
had done. "It was copied by government; it was copied by companies.
It really stood for industrial America in the 20th century,"
said Ford chairman William Clay Ford Jr. Over time, Ford's ideas
took hold throughout the industrial world, and, in a single
sweeping vision, the company brought the first industrial revolution
to its zenith. But River Rouge lacked a similar vision for the
Over the next two decades, Ford expects to improve productivity
and restore what was destroyed by industrialization. Unused
factory buildings will disappear. Public docking areas will
reappear. Landscaping and green space will multiply. Progress
will be measured not only by industrial productivity, but also
by the yardsticks of ecologists-- earthworms per cubic foot,
insect diversity, and the number of fish and waterfowl that
use the river. "If we do this right, we really will do
nothing less than transform the icon of 20th-century manufacturing
into the icon of 21st-century sustainable manufacturing,"
But to get a glimpse of the future, engineers don't have to
wait for Ford Motor. For the moment, Oberlin has grabbed the
spotlight. "Because of this building, people all over the
country are calling us," says Kevin Burke, McDonough's
architect in charge of the Lewis Center.
Thus, Oberlin again is helping to inspire a new world order,
just as it did by removing barriers based on sex and race in
the 19th century. No single college building or reborn industrial
complex will save the planet, but with luck, Oberlin, Ford,
and the other pioneers of ecological design will have millions
of imitators. That will require a worldwide commitment, and
it's a tall order. But as Stephen Hawking might say, it sure
beats the alternative.
McInnis is a freelance science writer.
His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Popular Science,
New Scientist, and other publications.
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