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March 31, 2013

Bringing Scholarship and Theory to Large-Scale Local Initiatives

Emily Eckardt, March 31, 2013

By Emily Eckardt

Here is why I was hesitant about David Orr: Despite his impressive and interdisciplinary merging of political movement strategies and missions in Down to the Wire, I was uneasy with the way he concluded, “climate destabilization will soon overshadow every other concern” (97).  For example, Orr writes how despite its complications, “slavery was a relatively simple issue compared to the complexities of sustainability” (91). On a very basic level, comparing the importance and complexity of various issues of social, political, and environmental importance is not a productive strategy in inclusive coalition building. The legacy of slavery remains strong despite the end of legal ownership of African American people and I firmly believe that marketing the sustainability movement as similar-but more complex- than the abolitionist movement is not a wise strategy for a movement that is sometimes labeled as “white-washed.”

Here is why I ended up being appreciating David Orr: When I, and a few other Baird students, questioned Orr about how the Oberlin project has worked to incorporate both an elite private college and a diverse community with 25% of individuals living in poverty, he admitted that he was not so sure. Orr acknowledged that, “we are the intruders in their place” and that his background is in political science and not urban planning. Orr made clear that being a student of Oberlin or any college is a privilege. I was pleasantly surprised by Orr’s level of self-reflexivity at least well intentioned attempts to get people to sit down together over a pot of coffee.

Further, he also extended this self-reflexivity to the field of science itself. Orr’s message resonated with me that while science is necessary to combat environmental degradation, we also must be skeptical of science. It is important to acknowledge, for example, that science has historically been instrumental in justifying higher and lower life forms and that technology is heading in the direction of creating life forms more intelligent than us. As Orr stated in class, “once you shape technology, technology shapes us.” (Take that Shellenberger…)

The primary reason why I respect Orr is because of his underlying message that substantial change must begin at home. In his book Down to the Wire, Orr writes about sustainability on a domestic and global scale. He theorizes the makeup of an efficient leader; he politicizes the environmental movement by emphasizing the importance of federal policy, and criticizes our society’s ignorance of interdependence and lack of appreciation for one another. But ultimately, Orr’s grandest mission has been on a local level. I admire Orr for pairing a theoretical, historical, scientific, and political analysis of the sustainability movement with a community-based initiative. In class, Orr said something that directly aligned with one of my favorite quotes, “you are here.” In reference to feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, he said, “what do we do? I am at Oberlin College. Most of us have to work where we are and use our tools.”  Of course, this doesn’t mean we should strive to be ignorant on what goes on beyond man-made borders of nations and difference. What I take it to mean is that we are often more efficient in places where we not only understand the context, but must also bear the consequences of our work.

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