The Oberlin Project and “full-spectrum sustainability”

In this excerpt from his book “Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse,” environmental visionary David Orr talks about The Oberlin project, a joint venture with President Clinton’s  Climate Positive Development Program.

With no prospect for Federal climate legislation anytime soon, however, what’s to be done? The short answer is that, whatever the prospects, we must keep pushing on every front to: change Federal and state policies, transform the economy, improve public understanding of science, engage churches and civic organizations, reform private institutions, educate for ecological literacy, and improve our own behavior. Even without a coordinated, systematic national response, maybe enough small victories in time will suffice. Maybe.

I ended Down to the Wire on a personal note by describing the Oberlin Project, a joint effort by Oberlin College and the City of Oberlin to create “full-spectrum sustainability” in which the parts are integrated to reinforce the resilience and durability of the whole community. Typically, we’ve gone about implementing sustainability as a series of one-off projects unconnected to each other. As a result, work in sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, green buildings, economic development etc. were not designed to take advantage of the synergies that exists between the parts.

Specifically the goals of the Oberlin Project are to (1) rebuild a 13- acre block in the downtown to U.S. Green Building Platinum Standards as a driver for economic revitalization; (2) transition to carbon neutrality by a combination of radically improved efficiency and deployment of renewable energy; (3) develop a 20,000 acre greenbelt for agriculture and forestry; and (4) do all of the above as a part of an educational venture that joins the public schools, the college, a community college, and a vocational educational school that equips young people for decent and creative lives in a post-cheap-fossil fuel economy. The Project, now eighteen months old, is organized around community teams working on strategic issues such as energy, public policy, finance, community engagement, economic development, and education. In plain English “full-spectrum sustainability,” means lots of meetings between different teams and stakeholders because applied sustainability crosses virtually all of the fences and walls by which we organized the industrial world.


Like light refracted through a crystal, the Project appears different from different vantage points. For Oberlin students it means a cool 24/7 downtown. For College faculty it means better facilities. To the local merchants it means more business and higher profits. To public officials it is a model of climate neutral economic revitalization in a region devastated by de-industrialization. To architects and urban planners, it is a model of ecological design at the scale of a small city. To educators it is a model of applied pedagogy and hands-on learning for students who too often marinate in despair masquerading as indifference. In a political context it is a constructive and authentic version of democratic grass roots action that can redirect the anger and angst common to our time into the work of building resilient communities powered by sunlight. It is, finally, a model of development that will be necessary everywhere for reasons of security broadly defined. In the recent catastrophe in Japan, Tokyo Electric, GE equipment, and one Black Swan event combined to do what only a marauding army could otherwise have done. But for the victims the results were about the same.

Security””by which I mean safety and dependable access to food, water, energy, shelter, healthcare, and livelihood””was once assumed to be synonymous with our national capacity to project military power beyond our shores and borders. As such, security had little or nothing to do with how we designed, managed, and maintained the food, water, and energy infrastructure of the country or with the protection of its air, waters, soils, landscapes, biological diversity, and public health. But security in the twenty-first century will be a far more complicated and difficult challenge. In addition to traditional security challenges, we must now reckon with:

  • terrorist threats to critical infrastructure notably the electric grid;
  • food shortages, water scarcity, and expensive oil by 2030 or sooner and described by the chief science advisor to the British government, John Beddington, as a “perfect global storm;”
  • the implications of rapid climate destabilization including mass migrations estimated to reach 250 million by mid-century. The massive heat wave of 2010 in central Russia, record heat in Asia, unprecedented flooding in Pakistan, and the largest cyclone in Australian history (February, 2011) are consistent with projections by most climate scientists and likely portents of what’s ahead for all of us; and
  • increasingly frequent low or unknown probability/high global consequence events such as the financial crisis of 2008, the Fukushima disaster, similar “normal accidents,” infrastructure failures, and acts of God.

The upshot, in Joshua Cooper Ramo’s words, is that “we must squarely face the awful fact that our security will become ever more perilous.”

We must also face the fact that no government on its own can protect its people in a black swan world from the growing impacts of climate destabilization and the turmoil likely to accompany the transition to a post-fossil fuel world. Citizens, neighborhoods, communities, towns, cities, regions, and corporations will have to do far more to ensure reliable access to food, energy, clean water, shelter, and economic development in the decades ahead. We are reaching the political, organizational, and ecological limits of large-scale enterprises whether governmental or corporate to be the sole-source security providers for a largely passive and dependent public. This is not to argue against Federal policy changes to promote sustainable development, reform the tax system, deploy clean energy, and transform transportation systems””things that can best be done (or only done) by the Federal government. But the reality is that communities will have to carry much more of the burden than heretofore. National security and local security, in other words, are now joined as parts of a larger narrative which includes considerations of security, climate policy, fairness, decency, and sustainable development.

Sustainability, in short, must be the domestic and strategic imperative for the twenty-first century. Its chief characteristic is resilience””a concept long familiar to engineers, mathematicians, ecologists, designers, and military planners””which means the capacity of the system to “absorb disturbance; to undergo change and still retain essentially the same function, structure, and feedbacks.” Or as a Marine Corps friend of mine puts it “resilience is the capacity to take a gut punch and come back swinging.” However defined, resilient systems are characterized by redundancy so that failure of any one component does not cause the entire system to crash. They consist of diverse components that are easily repairable, widely distributed, cheap, locally supplied, durable, and loosely coupled. In Joshua Ramo’s words: “studies of food webs or trade networks, electrical systems and stock markets, find that as they become more densely linked they also become less resilient; networks, after all, propagate and even amplify disturbances.” In practical terms, resilience is a design strategy that aims to reduce vulnerabilities often by shortening supply lines, improving redundancy in critical areas, bolstering local capacity, and solving for a deeper pattern of dependence and disability. The less resilient we are, the more military power is needed to protect our far-flung interests and client states hence the greater the likelihood of wars fought for oil, water, food, and materials. But resilient societies need not send their young to fight and die in far-away battlefields, nor do they need to heat themselves into oblivion.

While we have become more vulnerable to a wide range of threats, a revolution in the design of resilient systems has been quietly building momentum for nearly half a century. It includes dramatic changes in:

  • architecture, e.g. buildings and communities powered entirely by efficiency and renewable energy;
  • waste management in which all wastes are purified by natural processes;
  • agriculture that mimics natural systems;
  • renewable energy technologies;
  • advances in energy efficiency;
  • cradle to cradle and biomimetic production systems that create no waste;
  • urban planning and smart growth strategies that build ecologically coherent cities; and
  • tools for systems analysis that improve foresight, organizational learning, and policy integration.

These and other advances in science, distributed technologies, and policy are the tools for a society and world that is more secure by design hence more resilient in the face of disruptions whether by malice, rapid climate change, accidents, human error, or acts of God. They are the heart of policies that are less provocative to other nations and less likely to engender global conflicts while:

  • Reducing balance of payments deficits for imported oil aiming to;
  • Eliminating our dependence on politically unstable regions;
  • Cutting military costs associated with oil dependence;
  • Eliminating our carbon emissions;
  • Equipping the next generation for lives and livelihoods in economies and societies calibrated to work with natural systems;
  • Increasing our prosperity by creating employment and business in sustainable enterprises; and
  • Improving the capacity of communities and regions to withstand effects of climate destabilization and new threats to critical infrastructure as well as global economic turmoil.

Said differently, national security is too important to be left solely to the generals, defense contractors, and politicians in Washington. It will be necessary for neighborhoods, communities, towns, cities, and regions to improve their resilience and security by their own initiative, intelligence, and foresight. The Oberlin Project is one example, but there are many others at different scales and in different regions. It is time to join these into a larger network of sustainability sites, cities, and projects and thereby accelerate change, amplify purposes, increase local capacity, and build resilience from the bottom up. It’s not hard to imagine a global network of transition towns, and resilient cities and regions””a solar powered global renaissance of local capability, culture, independence, and security in the full sense of the word. Maybe in time we could create a world in which no child need fear violence, hunger, thirst, poverty, ignorance, homelessness, or heat and storms beyond imagining.

David Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics and Special Assistant to the President of Oberlin College and a James Marsh Professor at the University of Vermont. He is the recipient of five honorary degrees and other awards including The Millennium Leadership Award from Global Green, the Bioneers Award, the National Wildlife Federation Leadership Award, a Lyndhurst Prize acknowledging “persons of exceptional moral character, vision, and energy.”

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12 Responses to The Oberlin Project and “full-spectrum sustainability”

  1. Green Caboose says:

    Thanks for the article. I’ve been reading about the Oberlin Project for a while via alumni media, but now its good to see it start to get some wider press. This is exactly the sort of pilot project that a special place like Oberlin can undertake and make work because the locals will be sufficiently dedicated to see it through despite the normal setbacks that occur with all pilot projects. But once complete it will be a model that other places can follow.

    Note to self: increase annual contribution to Oberlin this year.

  2. Tom Taggart says:

    just a thought, I think this is wrong:

    “studies of food webs or trade networks, electrical systems and stock markets, find that as they become more densely linked they also become less resilient; networks, after all, propagate and even amplify disturbances.”

    I think the opposite is true, and that networks that are more densely linked preform much better, then networks that contain many paths with only one possible route. The statement about redundancy should lead one to favor a well connected network.

    Otherwise, this piece is brilliant.

  3. joyce says:

    #2, I found that confusing, too. Perhaps it’s just not stated well because what they are actually doing is more in line with what you are saying.

    Through redundancy and more choices they will avoid such pitfalls:

  4. Sheryl says:

    I will be visiting Oberlin next week with my daughter, a high school junior. I will be sure to ask about the Oberlin Project. A little surprised not to see transportation explicitly addressed, particularly transit and intercity service. Much more efficient and safe to get out of single occupancy vehicles and cars altogether. Are car diets a piece of the project? Are efforts to improve the local and regional transportation networks for transit, biking, walking, carsharing and vanpools considered to be pieces of the project’s puzzle to find local solutions?

  5. Adrian says:

    Brilliant interdisciplinary approach. Something similar is going on where I live–but much more urban. In some ways Oberlin has an advantage in not being a large city.

    Tom #2 and Joyce #3, I agree.

    Maybe that sentence means that networks that are simultaneously far-flung, overly complex and non-redundant with few back-up systems or multiple centers of strength are more fragile, with an increase in fragility the larger they get.

    The sort of re-localization of multiple systems with its resultant network of strong, reliant components in multiple niches Orr is discussing would be complex, yet with enough checkpoints and redundancies to avoid system-wide failure as the result of failure in one sector. It would be a network of networks.

    Sort of like polyculture instead of monoculture. Or like an ecosystem instead of a machine.

  6. ellie cohen says:

    Thanks for sharing this with us. I do find the Oberlin model a good step forward but lacking in one major respect.

    To truly ensure future sustainability, we must also prioritize ecosystem services–nature’s benefits to humanity– not just sustainable agriculture and forestry. Ecosystem conservation must become an equal priority to slashing GHGs because we are entirely dependent on nature to provide us with fresh air, clean water, flood control, carbon sequestration and much more.

    Any model of full sustainability, will necessarily need to include approaches to securing these benefits through the changes and extremes we are already beginning to experience.

    In addition, I respectfully question the use of the term “resilience.” Ecologically, resilience is often defined as the ability to return to a previous state after a perturbation. With accelerating climate change and the increasing variability that will accompany that, it will be increasingly difficult to return to a previous state.

    To build our climate protection efforts around “resilience” can create false hopes for the future, in any sector. I suggest using “responsiveness” or some similar term that conveys our need to continually adapt to change and extremes for generations to come. If we are prepared to be flexible and to respond to the new norm of continually changing conditions, we have a shot at securing a future for life as we know it.

    Thanks, as always, Joe!

  7. Steve H says:

    I very much appreciate the focus on security. I see this as one of those things that is too often unappreciated in sustainability studies. For instance, a city would be wise to periodically evaluate worst-case scenarios that are something other than terrorist attacks. What will happen if gasoline becomes too expensive or short in supply? In this case, how much housing stock would we need to absorb migrants from rural communities? How would food get into the city? Knowing what could be the worst that can happen plays a pivotal role in assuring that communities can properly plan for sustainability. So much of the sustainability movement has come to focus on ultimately trivial things, such as the location of your lumber’s timber source. We need to be concerned with assuring that we use these sources judiciously in manner that fits into an overall sustainability plan, not just that we use them.

    To answer #2 above, a high density of links in the food web, which I am assuming means more steps from earth to plate, the more dependent the system becomes on outside factors, such as oil. If you take away cheap oil, cheap food goes away along with food processing, imports of tropical fruits, and so on. While there is some truth that dense linkages make systems more resilient to some things, they are also more at risk when a common weakness is present. Take, for example, the NYSE sell-off a while ago, which had no other discernible cause other than computers reacting to each others over reaction.

  8. Adrian says:

    Ellie, excellent, important point about ecosystem services, one we should never forget.

    Regarding terms, in humans, resilience is also the ability to recover from or adapt to misfortune or change–so maybe the term is still appropriate, though your point is well taken. A person or culture might be resilient enough to respond in a productive manner to unfortunate circumstances.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The only type of society that is sustainable in the long term is one based on as great a degree of egalitarianism as possible, as great a degree of fraternal amity, within society and between societies, as possible, and as much liberty for the individual as possible, always constrained by the prohibition on that freedom impinging on that of others. There might be a type of democracy, at a local level, where it is meaningful, and it must extend to the economic sphere as well as the social, but in larger groups it is inherently self-contradictory. Not only does democracy fall victim to the money-power, becoming a thinly disguised plutocracy, but it increasingly attracts those enticed by power, not by the prospect of serving the common good. I think politics is best practised within a single party, that any may join, and rise through the ranks. Multi-party polities seem to have an inevitable tendency to devolve into ‘winner-takes-all’ extremity and bitter oppositionalism and sabotage in order to wrest power from the enemy. We need a politics of rational co-operation, of informed discussion and debate, of expert advice heeded, and not one as we have now where the loudest, most insistent voices, even when they are braying imbecilities and lies, inevitably prevail. When we have a rational system, that attracts the best, then we will have some hope of creating a long-lasting and morally decent human society, but we’d better get on with it.

  10. Roger says:

    What Mulga so well said.

  11. spacermase says:

    @9 Mulga

    While in theory I see your point re multi-party vs single party, I think in practice a single party isn’t necessarily going to result in less corruption or less factionalism- in fact, factionalism could potentially be worse, since each faction could claim to be have the true interests of the party/the people, and that everyone else is trying to corrupt the party.

    Personally, if it were possible, I’d prefer to abolish parties altogether, and just have leaders elected or selected based on their individual merits. However, given that it seems human nature is very much oriented towards forming groups and organizations, this may be easier said than done.

  12. Mark says:

    Thank you for providing this piece describing the motivation and philosophy behind the Oberlin Project. Outstanding! Now I’d like to hear more about the actual implementation. Success stories and lessons learned. If we are to create a robust and resilient society, we need to learn from those leading the way.

    We’re starting a similar, but so far much more limited project in our town, focused on enhancing our sustainability and resilience and would love to hear more.