David Orr and the Scale of Things
by Ashton Nichols
So, David Orr has certainly got it right. All of his prescriptions are persuasive, his diagnoses direct, and his calls for action very compellingly activist and appropriate. So, bring it on down a notch. Bring it on home to home. Bring it back to the regional, the local, the immediate, the doable. That is what is so great about his analysis and his project. It can happen. It is realistic. The downtown of Oberlin, Ohio, will be a remarkable spot in ten years, in five years, in just “a few” years if David and his cohort have their way.
And we should even like his idea of islands, of small pockets of resistance, small spots of subsistence and sustainable living amid the chaos of the large, the urban, the unsustainable. These islands he says, will learn about each others’ achievements, they will share their successes, they will learn from each other, and then they will start to connect. Once connected, they will connect further and reconnect, and eventually–so it seems–they will form a spreading mat (or will it be a virus) of connected villages, and towns, and cities, until we have large small-town communities that will form large towns. Eventually, they may even rival big cities for cultural ascendancy in the future of a new nature + culture model, or, to use my own word, “urbanature.”
But, while David was talking at ATS tonight, I stared to think about the problem with his prescription, or a least the limits of his model for living. Here is what I mean. The developed world–where we live (North America and Europe for the most part)–will have to provide a certain amount of guidance to the developing world (India, Southeast Asia, much of Africa) and even the “middle world” (Russia, Greece, Brazil, North Africa, much of the Mideast) in the years to come. If the greatest minds of our culture are busy rebuilding and reimagining their Oberlins, and Carlisles, and Middleburys, and Pomonas, and Davidsons, then who will be left to offer guidance to China (one billion + people) and India (one billion + people) and Southeast Asia, and Polynesia, and other parts of the world that will need some developed world guidance.
I do not mean that the developed world is the only source of valuable guidance for the still-to-be-developed parts of the world. I do mean that a great deal of what is learned at Harvard, and Yale, and Stanford, or Dickinson, and Davidson, and Pomona, and also Shippensburg, and Lycoming, and Lebanon Valley, is going to be information that will be needed far beyond the confines of the small town in which many of these institutions exist, and even far beyond the limits of the U. S. of A. If the best minds of our coming generations devote themselves to the LEED Platinum buildings of Carlisle, then what happens to the population/food/housing equation of Jakarta, Indonesia, or Hyderabad, India. If the knowledge that David Orr’s “Project” model demands is devoted to the small towns of the U.S. as islands of hope amid a sea of hopelessness, then what about those parts of the world where millions or tens of millions of people need that same knowledge to help them with food, water, air, housing, and other “sustainability” issues.
I do not mean that some of us should not devote all of our energies in the direction that David Orr is suggesting. Nor do I mean that his “islands” model of salvation may not work for certain environments. But I do worry, lest we think that saving small college towns like Oberlin and Carlisle in valuably sustainable ways will help in all the ways that the world that is coming will need saving. Let’s save our small towns–absolutely–but let us not forget that our world, our colleges, and our knowledge, may also have something to offer to Sub-Saharan Africa, and India, and China.