Enough Tupperware
by Leslie Lawrence '72

Denis 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."
As 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."
Life sciences writer Janine Benyus is the author of six books; her latest is Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.

"environmental 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."


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.

Henry 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.

The 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 environment--until now.

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," says Ford.

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.

Doug 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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