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.”