By JJ Luceno
How can we turn our own individual worlds inside-out?
David Orr brought a different kind of language to the climate change movement than we are used to hearing. Facts and figures played a relatively little role in the stories he shared with us during his visit at Dickinson. He was brimming with colorful anecdotes told slowly with a hint of an accent carved out from some slower and smaller corner of our country.
After detailed descriptions of body systems- circulatory, nervous, pulmonary- one of my biology professors always says, “Now isn’t that an incredible story?!” Stories. How often are the lessons of biology, climate change and chemistry called stories? My professor’s use of the word caught my ear. It felt like a clashing of vocabulary and it appealed to me. The more I thought about it the more it felt like these lessons, whether physiology or climate change, are in fact stories. They are personal and they take on different evolutions as they are told and re-understood. After all, the most human thing we can be, to me, is a storyteller. We are all a collection of stories- some personal, some academic, part historical. What struck me about David Orr was the manner in which he embraces his inner storyteller.
In his book, Ecological Literacy, Orr writes:
The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.
Success as he puts it must come from within us. Success must come from our sense of place and interaction. Most of all, it comes from recognizing that we are deeply and intrinsically part of our communities. We need to redefine what it means to be a part of something both personal and communal in an age where despite enormous cyberconnectivity, we have forgotten about our next door neighbor.
At first I wasn’t sure if David Orr’s collective endeavour, the Oberlin Project, was hitting the right note. Upon further thinking, I’ve realized that if our communities are the closest and best things that we understand and we must start there.We must start with ourselves and how we see our role in this world, looking deep within ourselves and beginning to work outward from there. And, as we see these examples, we need to dig deeper into the wounds of power, inequity and socioeconomics that divide our towns. Movement forward isn’t a pain free self-reflection and needs to move beyond getting the “usuals” to the table.”Climate change will not be averted with one thousand or even one million Oberlin Projects, but that’s not the point. The point is we have to start by re imagining our own communities. Seeing the sources of solidarity as well as the many lines that dive us. From there, like a ripple, we will continue to move outward…one story at a time.
The Dawn of My Environmentalism: Would the climate crisis have ever happened without a global history of colonization and slavery?
By David Dean
In the summertime I direct a youth program on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana called Unity Hoops that integrates the game of basketball with a social justice-centered education. We work to build healing relationships with and among Crow Native youth, to instill within them a greater sense of control of destiny, and to empower them to create a more just and sustainable future for their people.
I began this project in the summer of 2011. In the weeks immediately prior to our arrival on the reservation massive rains hit the area and floods grew larger than they had in generations. Hundreds of homes were damaged and destroyed. Up to six feet of water was on the ground. Roads were shut down for weeks and the water supply was contaminated for months. Each day after camp we drove many students to a Red Cross shelter where they were living with their families.
The following year was the second hottest summer in the areas history. Drought was at an all time high and wildfires scorched the state. One night we saw them rising up the hills of the Little Bighorn battlefield, where General Custer took his last stand 137 years ago. Our staff stayed at a Reservation youth center in the valley below. The winds were blowing toward us and we feared that the fires would soon come with them. After anxiously spraying the property down with water, we went to bed, hoping that we wouldn’t have to evacuate. Thankfully we didn’t.
The floods of 2011 and the fires of 2012 were not just experienced by the Crow, but by citizens of the state of Montana as a whole, as well as neighboring states such as Wyoming and South Dakota. The Crow community however is incredibly underserved. They lack adequate resources to effectively cope with such intense disasters.
Our students live in a community where roughly 80% of adults are unemployed, substance abuse is rampant, and life expectancy is about 25 years less than that of the average United States citizen. I often see our students posting to facebook prayers of remembrance and mourning about good friends or relatives who have died or committed suicide as children or teenagers. Rates of suicide, domestic violence, and fatal disease are through the roof in Indian country. Most live in small, tattered trailers that are decades old. There are no banks on the reservation. Few have lines of credit, investments, or bank accounts. Infrastructure is sparse at best. The Crow Reservation is a prime example of a poor under-resourced community that gets hit far harder by the effects of climate change than more affluent ones.
After speaking with Bill McKibben during his recent visit to Dickinson and reading things he’s written about the ways various climate crises have wreaked havoc in poor communities, I began to reflect on the connections between his message and my own life experience.
I thought of the traumatic history of the reservation and began to get emotional. The Crow have been marginalized and dominated throughout history by corporations and a militarized government intent on the maximization of profit. The relentless pursuit of economic growth that has oppressed them, and colonized peoples everywhere, has also created the climate crisis that we are in.
And so now we are here.
A situation in which the greatest victims of this climate crisis, both now and soon to come, are those who did nothing to cause it. But not only this… Their domination was its prerequisite.
This concept really got me. I thought of manifest destiny, the doctrine still glorified in grade school classrooms today that proclaims the expansion of the United States throughout this continent as inevitable and intended for by God. I ruminated on what this did to people and to the environment.
Cue verse 2 of Lupe Fiasco’s “Unforgivable Youth.” The entire track should be listened to for full effect.
Ways and means from the trade of human beings
A slave labor force provides wealth to the machine
And helps the new regime establish and expand
Using manifest destiny to siphon off the land
From native caretakers who can barely understand
How can land be owned by another man?
Warns ”One can not steal what was given as a gift
Is the sky owned by birds and the rivers owned by fish?”
But the lesson went unheeded, for the sake of what’s not needed
You kill but do not eat it
The excessive and elitists don’t repair it when they leave it
The forests’s were cleared, the factories were built
And all mistakes will be repeated by your future generations doomed to pay for your mistreatments
Foolishness and flaws, greed and needs and disagreement
And then you rush to have the most, from the day you left your boats
You’ll starve but never die in a world of hungry ghosts”
Again, give Lupe’s full song a listen. It’s worth it. If you didn’t pick it up, it’s about the ways in which the United States of America, in all its glory, was built upon genocide and slavery. It had an unforgivable youth.
How does it relate to this topic?
The industrial revolution – the force that initiated this incredible release of carbon into our atmosphere – couldn’t have happened to any comparable extremity without the genocide of indigenous peoples (to grab hold of land) and African slave-labor (to develop it). Is it possible that we would not be in this climate crisis if we did not have a global history of colonization and slavery? I believe so.
Right now I don’t have a nice conclusion about “how we can all come together to create a just and sustainable world” to wrap this up with. I’m not there yet. I’m still fuming. But I feel glad – even relieved in a sense. Relieved that I’m emerging from vast confusion about the world around me with stronger values and beliefs. I’m glad that I’m seeing connections, broadening my view of sustainability, and allowing the real importance of environmentalism to dawn on me. Bill McKibben, his presence and his work, helped with that. Thanks.
By JJ Luceno
A lot of us had expected more “fire and brimstone,” as one person put it, when Bill McKibben stepped onto our campus. What we found in our Baird classroom instead was a soft-spoken man who paused before choosing his words. Maybe a piece of us wanted to be riled up. Maybe we wanted him to make us feel something by flipping our roundtable into a soapbox for an impassioned speech. That was not the man in our classroom.
Part of me resented this man who spent his time tucked away in a little cabin in the woods describing a once pristine nature. The End of Nature painted a picture that isn’t sitting outside everyone’s kitchen window. Another part of me deeply respected someone who could galvanize interest and enthusiasm across so many borders and despite so many different languages, cultures and levels of consumption. The Baird experience has been that of a tightrope. I often find myself balancing between these competing contradictions and insights. That’s the point isn’t it?
The aim of this semester’s series of speakers is that we should end up with not just more but tougher questions. While it is easy to find the shortcomings of these leaders of the environmental movement, it has been even more challenging to confront the question of my own role in the issue. Maybe the Oberlin Project doesn’t reach far enough into pre-existing inequalities of consumption and access and maybe McKibben’s movement ignores those not already at the table because he feels the issue is too pressing to wait, but does that make them inefficient means? I don’t think so. They never asked to be templates. These are the paths that these leaders have created and we ourselves must define our own path within the multitudes of movements that surround us.
By Maria Bruno
In my last class of Introduction to Biological Anthropology I took the opportunity to discuss the messages of the “Living in a World With Limits” speakers in the context of roughly 50 million years of primate evolution and 6 million years of hominin evolution and the climatic changes that have shaped it. We first reviewed this figure:
which shows how the climate has cooled and become more variable throughout the Cenozoic. We then reflected upon how only a few out of dozens of ape species evolved out of the Miocene, and how, our lineage – Hominidae – dealt with cooler more variable climates of the Late Pliocene and Pleistocene with bipedalism and “culture”.
Fast forward to the present: I briefly reviewed the Holocene and the origins of agriculture (they’ll have to take Archaeology and World Prehistory to delve into those issues) and I then showed them this figure, which Jeff Niemitz kindly shared with me from an article hot of the presses of Science.
What’s “wrong” with this picture and what have our illustrious Clarke Forum speakers suggest we do about it?
We went through the list of recommendations:
Michael Shellenberger: Invent cleaner energy sources
Peter Becthel and Ruth Mkhwanazi-Becthel: Work locally to produce sustainable solutions, implement new resource extractions with caution and consideration of the people who live near them.
David Orr: Clean up and get ready locally, start the Dickinson Project.
Bill McKibben: Act globally, “protest and get arrested” (direct quotation from a student), don’t support the fossil fuel industry with your money – divest.
I run through these topics because, first, I want to thank Neil, Lindsey and the Clarke Forum for putting together a stellar and truly thought-provoking list of visitors. I, personally, learned a great deal about something I previously only superficially understood. I also think the order in which they came was perfect. At each step, we’ve had to reflect about what we should do about global warming – as individuals on a planet, as members of various disciplines, and as a college and community. Bill McKibben particularly made us think about what we should do as educators. This was particularly poignant for me (perhaps you noticed me fervently taking notes as he told us what we should do?!) because I am new at this job and still finding my way through it, not only with how I teach but why I teach it. I definitely took inspiration from McKibben’s messages and used this final class discussion to challenge my students to do something. Which leads me to the next big topic that came out of the McKibben visit – divestment.
It’s been very interesting to see the reactions to this proposal in various settings across campus from the panel organized by Reinvest Dickinson, email and individual conversations, this blog, and, of course, the Senate meeting, which Mara described. What has struck me about these conversations is this idea that somehow we should pick one or just a few strategies to take with regard to solving the issue. Does divestment have to be an alternative to something else, such as individual action or creating green buildings? I don’t think so. It seems to me that we need to do all of these things. Most skeptics of divestment seem to be worried about what would be lost if we remove our money from these companies. I ask, what could be gained? How many more students would apply to and enroll in Dickinson because of this action? What new donors who care about these issues would appear to support us? What if we could convince our whole consortium of college investors to divest together? What wonderful technologies could be developed with our re-investment? Perhaps there would be even greater motivation and pressure to make individual and local changes in fossil fuel consumption when a whole institution decides to takes its money away from people who use it to pollute our planet. Divestment is not going to solve the whole problem, but none of these small actions will, all of them count and I say the bigger the better.
By Sarah Ganong
Upon reflecting on my varying experiences with Bill McKibben over the last few years, including his recent visit to Dickinson College, a single word remains at the front of my mind: movement. My first encounter with McKibben was with 10,000 other college and university students at Powershift 2011, a national climate conference designed to create a movement of youth against climate change. Along with his organization 350.org, McKibben led off the charge as one of the opening keynote speakers. After two and half years many of the specifics of his talk have faded from my memory, but the overwhelming perception of the necessity of the creation of a speedy movement remains. McKibben acknowledged, much as he did at Dickinson a couple of weeks ago, the enormity of the problems facing humanity, but emphasized as well that there is great potential if humanity can band together and tackle climate change as a cohesive unit. McKibben’s strengths definitely fall in uniting people through powerful messages into a movement.
In fact, I personally found McKibben’s words moving enough that I decided to choose one of his texts, The End of Nature, as the primary focus of my senior thesis to complete the English major. This book, written in 1989 before the science surrounding climate change was particularly strong, uses apocalyptic metaphor and imagery to convey the damage humanity has done to nature. McKibben argues that humanity has actually ended nature and created a new planet, in that we have irrevocably damaged the atmosphere through an increase in greenhouse gases, as well as disturbed wilderness to the extent that it can never again be natural. While this leaves open for the debate the role of humanity in nature, McKibben continues this argument in his 2006 text entitled Eaarth, the name he has given to this new planet. Though I ultimately argued in my thesis that McKibben’s use of apocalyptic metaphor has become outdated at attempting to convince those who believe in climate change to take action, The End of Nature played an indelible role in convincing the public that climate change is an important concept that must be addressed. The time has passed for that text to function in this manner, however.
Fortunately, McKibben himself presented an alternative metaphor that I found to be incredibly compelling and functional. He first mentioned this metaphor in his public address to Dickinson College on April 11th, but I found out later that day that he had used it in his newest Rolling Stone piece published on the same day. He spoke about the need to create a “farmer’s market of electrons,” a way to literally give the power to the people. McKibben envisions a future without large fossil fuel companies, where individuals spend money for energy from their neighbors, or generate and sell it themselves locally. The farmer’s market indicates movable stalls, representing small-scale power generation, that can function at any time and provide power to all people. I found this metaphor to be broadly useful for communicating an idea of an energy revolution, one that many people would be likely to buy into in the future. Additionally, this ties in well with McKibben’s main campaign focus right now, the idea of divesting from fossil fuels.
Contemporaneous with his visit to Dickinson College, McKibben and 350.org produced and released a new movie, Connect the Dots, about climate change, movements to stop climate change, and what every individual can do to join that movement. His film featured prominent speakers from a variety of fields, including Van Jones, a former advisor to President Obama. Jones echoed one of McKibben’s primary points, in that fossil fuel companies are the only industry on the planet that can pollute for free. Jones emphasized that if an average citizen were to get a twenty-five dollar fine for littering, that would be more than any fossil fuel company has ever had to pay to clean up the pollution that comes from the day-to-day operations of their industry. This idea resonated with me, as it speaks to many of the ideas we’ve been discussing in the Colloquium during the past three months. Sustainability and environmentalism comes down in the end, to me, to ideas of fairness and justice. If someone makes some sort of decision that harms someone else or the planet, they must compensate for that decision, or make a different one. This is not a radical or extreme idea, but the basic premise that children learn early in their lives. It’s just not one that the fossil fuel industry is held to, something that I agree with McKibben must change.
Neil Leary has already talked here about McKibben’s radicalism and about the very definition of the word radical. I’d like to finish by mulling over that same quote from McKibben that Neil provided: “Radicals work at oil companies. If you are willing to get up in the morning and go to work making a fortune by altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere, when science has told you what it will do, once you’ve seen by watching the melting arctic what it will do, if you are willing to do that, then you are engaged in a more radical act than any human being who has come before you.” McKibben continuously pointed out during his visit to Dickinson that humanity has fundamentally altered one of the main physical features of the Earth by nearly destroying summer sea ice in the Arctic, an act he calls here more radical than any other taken by humans. I personally found this to be an incredibly important point to consider, and have thought quite a lot about it over the weeks since his visit.
As an environmentalist, I’ve often struggled with my position, where to fit into mainstream society versus where to be more radical and stand up and stand out for what I believe in. McKibben’s arguments about the radical viewpoints and actions of the fossil fuel industry have thus resonated with me. Wanting to help create and join a movement, a protest, a divestment from the fossil fuel industry is not radical, because we’re just trying to stand up for the planet that we emerged into, and want our children and grandchildren and great great great grandchildren to be able to experience, the same way that our great great great grandparents experienced it. McKibben spoke about intergenerational accountability. My generation has been given a lot great things from the previous generations, such as the internet and computers, but we’ve also been left with a huge debt crisis and countless environmental problems, including climate change. I’m left wondering what I want to leave for my children and suddenly, taking drastic action to provide for them a better future doesn’t seem too radical after all.
By Erik Love
Bill McKibben has not only succeeded as a thought leader for environmentalism over the past few decades, he has also pushed forward the leading edge of how activism happens in the 21st century. Based on our conversation with him, it seems clear that McKibben is actively looking for new ways to generate grassroots enthusiasm for action on climate change. As a leader in the recent protest campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline, McKibben has helped to organize rallies, marches, and civil disobedience efforts. While visiting Dickinson, he sparked action on the campaign to divest from fossil fuel companies – and he engaged in some one-on-one organizing with faculty and students to push them toward that effort. McKibben is one of the most dedicated activists to visit Dickinson in quite some time. One of the key questions currently confronting dedicated activists like McKibben is the extent to which activism can move onto the world wide web.
The question of using the web to motivate protest is hardly new, of course. In fact, communications technologies have always rapidly been taken up both by activists (and by the authorities) in protest campaigns. There are some reasons to think that some of the capabilities provided by the web offer unique challenges and opportunities, though, in ways that the ditto machine, the telephone, radio, and television could not. Protesters that use the web have disrupted at least two components of protest that used to be stable: risk, and physical copresence.
My University of California colleagues Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport describe in their excellent book, Digitally Enabled Social Change, how tools provided by the web give activists entirely new repertoires of protest. When anti-war activists in the 1960s and 1970s wanted to protest against Vietnam, they had to take risks – ranging from embarrassment to getting beat up or locked up. These protesters had to assemble, physically, in the same place at the same time, and this required money and other resources to enable coordination. The protest tactics of the 20th century anti-war movements were therefore expensive: they carried risks and required time and money. By contrast, the anti-war activists working against the Iraq War in the early 2000s were inexpensive. These 21st century activists could protest with much less risk and much less cost.
What implications do these innovations have for climate change activism? McKibben, through his website at 350.org, through his use of Twitter (@BillMcKibben), and in many other ways has been among the most innovative activists working to develop methods to take climate change activism online. Questions remain, however. Can protesters who “gather” online but never actually meet one another “in real life” develop the same kind of durable social connections as protesters who spend time and money to physically join together? Will the use of web technologies dilute the meaning of protests? In other words, does a rally on the National Mall with 50,000 participants have the same impact as a Twitter account with 50,000,000 followers? These questions – and many others – remain open. McKibben isn’t waiting for answers to come to him – he’s working to find the answers himself. And that’s very compelling. “See” you at the protest.
By Jeff Niemitz
One of the many things that Bill McKibben said during his recent visit to campus that resonated with me was the need to tell the truth about climate change. This notion was reinforced in positive and negative ways by Michael Shellenberger (kind of negative), David Orr (very positive), and most recently Michael Mann (from an objective scientific sense of truth). In my world and I think for the most part most peoples world telling the truth is the best action. If we were to lie to our spouse or partner, they would eventually find out and it would not go well with us. We see this all the time with philandering celebrities and politicians. But lying is a learned trait and thus must have a cause. My grandchildren are quite young and to the best of my knowledge do not lie. They don’t know how yet. I’m sure they will lie at some point and my children will catch them and discipline them accordingly. Why is it then that corporation and politicians get away with lying to the public about climate change? Do we really think they don’t know better? The answer it seems to me is that we allow them to tell us lies. They lie to us because in doing so the control and have power to do what they please without consequences. I’ve heard it said that oil companies are not in the business of finding oil, they are in the business of making money. They would say that this is of course good for everyone because we can then pay stockholders and find more oil. But when the consequences of those actions bring harm to every human on the planet there is a need to be the collective parent and “discipline” them. But can we do it? In my opinion we live in a country that applauds the individual for their accomplishments first and foremost. It is really all about us and our small sphere rather than the common good. Altruism has been subplanted by entitlement. Commitment has been made fungible if a better deal comes along. We see it throughout society in the developed world. So we will need to overcome our human nature it order to make something happen; not an easy task.
It struck me that McKibben and Mann most recently laid our very simple and well founded facts about the processes of climate change and the irrefutable evidence we now have to substantiate the changes that are occurring. The question is when are we, those who will be affected by these changes going to do something to change the status quo? When will we not allow the oil companies to lie and get help from Congress to do it?
In the prophetic words of that wise man Yogi Berra, “it’s deja vu all over again”. Forty plus years ago when I was in college we staged a protest about the Vietnam War (Pause for Peace Coalition protesting the Cambodian Invasion); a war we all deeply thought was immoral and untenable despite what the Government said to us. Protests in those halcyon days turned the tide. We are in the same situation now. It is just that, in a much more profound way, the consequences to come involve the survival of the planet and not just for us but for our decendents. I suggest that McKibben is right. Civil disobedience may be the answer. Waiting for another and greater catastrophic climate event to change hearts and minds will not happen soon enough. Power to the Climate People!!!
By Courtney Blinkhorn
Bill McKibben had a much more soft-spoken disposition than I would have anticipated based on his powerful presence speaking at larger venues, such as the Climate change rally in DC. It was powerful to see him in many different settings, first in the classroom setting, then at ALLARM and finally in a speech in a larger venue. He brought a different demeanor and perspective to each of these settings. Although he spoke quietly in the setting of the class and he answered questions in a thoughtful way, I may have appreciated a bit more of a conversation as it seemed more like a Q&A. He didn’t seem to ask as many questions to us as David Orr had.
His views were mostly in keeping with mine, other than one interesting point. When asked how to get underrepresented members of the community to be included in the movement, he responded that it isn’t important to get everyone to be part of a movement. He emphasized getting people who more easily would be convinced to become a part of the larger climate change issue, because not everyone is ever involved in these types of movements. Maybe this is the more practical answer, but I think for all of us in the room it isn’t satisfactory. What people in these social and environmental movements are asking for is a systematic change that has the potential to satisfy address many different underrepresented communities. It’s not however that McKibben thinks that these communities aren’t or shouldn’t be a part of the movement. He said many times that most of the people he worked with were poor and not white, because most of the world fits these descriptors and 350.org is a global organization.
This desire for a two-way conversation was satisfied when he visited ALLARM. McKibben was asking questions about the organization and it was empowering to hear him describe ALLARM as the one of the leading models for community-based volunteer monitoring. He expressed that he appreciated all of the work we have done. He had great insights of his personal experiences and a strong curiosity about ours, which made for a really fun conversation.
I felt that his address to the larger Dickinson and Carlisle community was overall inspiring, especially to those who aren’t already as involved with the movement. His pictures from around the world of people supporting the 350.org movement were the most inspirational and something that I could see really sticking with people. A critique that I heard multiple times was regarding a picture that he stopped on of children in Haiti (I believe) holding signs something along the lines “what you do affects me”. The main critique of this was that the children were possibly completely unaware of what the signs said or any other context of the movement. Although this is a valid point, I couldn’t help but think that doesn’t matter. The fact that they may not have the resources to be aware of how they will be disproportionately affected by climate change doesn’t make it less true. The reason for the image is for it to be powerful to those who are the root of the problem and it is a powerful image that may encourage action by those populations.
It was a real pleasure to have such an iconic member of the climate change movement on campus.
By Courtney Blinkhorn
David Orr brought a calming and comforting presence to the classroom setting. It was interesting to hear about the Oberlin project since Carlisle will be trying to follow a similar model. I was hesitant about the Oberlin project itself, and still am, due to its top-down model of sustainability. It makes me question how to incorporate generally underrepresented groups from the community into this model and Orr didn’t have a very convincing answer to this, other than making sure it’s open to everyone. This is one of the most difficult things to address in the development of a more sustainable community. Furthermore, social and environmental issues need to be addressed simultaneously in order to enact the amount of change necessary since the issues are so intertwined.
I appreciated Orr’s point that after the development was up and running, the school should get out of the process. It may be helpful to have the structure of the institution to make it happen in the first place, but then he entire community must structure how things go from there. In order to enact change, it’s important to gain the trust of a community. It seems that this should include the planning portions of development rather than hoping the all demographics will find their place in it after. This reminds me of the failure of seemingly harmless community gardens in areas that weren’t consulted early on about their development. These larger structural adjustment are even more likely to fail in this way, but also have more potential for change if done well.
I spoke with a student that goes to Oberlin who is rather conscious, and is likely to see what’s going on. He explained, “I can’t really speak to much about the non-college community, because unless one really puts in effort to be integrated with it, the bubble keeps things really separated”. This is of course an issue in every college I’ve ever come across, that there is a strong resistance against merging the two. It seems one of these projects could be an avenue to counter this sentiment if tackled in the right way, it’s just figure out how to bring everyone to the table and get buy in due to good experiences with these interactions.
By Sarah Ganong
I’ve been reflecting a lot on David Orr over the last couple of weeks, and the positives and negatives of his work that I’ve seen the Dickinson community responding to in the wake of his visit. While I definitely agree with many of the shortcomings of Orr that have been discussed so far on this blog, in my admittedly brief interactions with him, I found that Orr and I think in similar ways. For me, the main broad sustainable-related concept that I’ve taken away from the other participants in the Colloquium this semester is an increased awareness to the social justice issues associated with sustainability. Before the Colloquium, I certainly would have considered social issues when thinking about sustainability, but in a less nuanced way than I think that I consider them now. In many ways, I found this to be similar to how Orr discusses the Oberlin Project.
In brief, the Oberlin Project aims to create a model sustainable community in the college town of Oberlin, Ohio. According to their website, Oberlinproject.org, they intend to create a climate positive city through use of renewable energy sources, improved efficiency, and reducing carbon emissions, with the hope that this will improve their economy as well. Additionally, Oberlin wants to meet 70% of city food consumption needs through local foods and conserve at least 20,000 acres of green space. Finally, they intend to create an education alliance within the community, as well as a Green Arts District. Carlisle, PA, with the central location of Dickinson College and three privately owned brownfield sites, is currently in the very early planning stages of projects that could potentially have similar goals and outcomes as Oberlin.
When talking about the Oberlin Project, Orr focuses on the big picture, rather than many of the smaller details. He has a vision that’s growing all the time, one he seems sure of implementing despite potential obstacles such as low community investment. Orr’s bold ideas for a future that’s environmentally sustainable, but does not always acknowledge difficulties with social sustainability now, speaks to me as a visionary, but less than it would have done a semester ago. Orr absolutely acknowledges the necessity of creating, as quickly as possible, a model for environmentally sustainable future communities, something that I would argue he’s well on his way to accomplishing in Oberlin, and the entire Rust Belt region around the Great Lakes. He’s imagining and creating a future that’s sustainable for all people in all ways because he seems to assume that is what the people in the future will want. Where he may go wrong, however, is in ignoring what the current people say that they want and need today. Orr speaks, for instance, of the massive elementary school project associated with the Oberlin Project, estimated to cost upwards of $30 million dollars. What’s unclear is precisely how much community involvement came in with this project, rather than a simply reckoning that this school project will be what Oberlin needs, now and in the future.
One of the things that I think Orr does get entirely right, however, is his mentality of fun that he requires in sustainability (though he did point out that he’s not a big partier himself!). While I do not believe that it is possible to ever reach a point of being “sustainable,” where we could stop striving for something better, the journey absolutely must be an enjoyable one. In terms of energy, for instance, transitioning to a clean energy economy based on renewable rather than fossil fuels will be one of the hardest things humanity has ever done. However, great opportunities for joy exist within the hardships. Being able to produce electricity via solar panels, rather than relying on coal-fired power plants, can provide an immense source of satisfaction and personal pride. Eating food grown in a local, urban garden rather than produced and driven for hundreds of miles, food grown with your own two hands in composted dirt, is one of the biggest thrills I can imagine. Getting to know your neighbors because you wait together at the bus stop or carpool to work, cooking local food together, working to clean up a stream or a neighborhood park, and countless more examples all fall into the category of sustainable and, I would argue, the category of fun activities as well.
So I guess the main point that I gathered from Orr is to consider the bigger picture, but don’t forget the countless little pictures and individuals that are making up that bigger one. If everyone out in the community, and ultimately, in the world, doesn’t buy into sustainability or the fun benefits that it can have, then I wouldn’t define what we’re all aiming for to be sustainable at all.