A Revolution in Capabilities -- David Orr's vision
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Photos: Rudy Perkins

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A Revolution in Capabilities -- David Orr's vision . . . concluded

In the classified portions of a 2007 national security estimate, Orr said, one scenario discussed a possible unstoppable collapse of the U.S. electric grid.  One Pentagon analyst said such a catastrophic grid collapse could take us “back to the 7th century,” with the grid taking some time to bring back up.  Orr quickly cataloged a variety of such potential black swan events, from energy system collapses, to nuclear incidents from the nuclear material that goes missing each year, to financial collapses such as the one that began in 2008, to the impact of greenhouse-gas-induced climate instability.   National security is no longer a matter of events from our national borders outwards, it concerns matters from our national borders inwards, said Orr.

Orr warned that we were “pushing a bow wave of debt, both financial and ecological, forward, and off-loading that on other people who can’t fight back, including future generations.”  One of the problems, he asserted, was that economists were “trying to calibrate the laws of the market that were 235 or so years old with the laws of evolution on the planet, which are four billion years old.  [Some of t]he assumptions [like the possibility of unlimited growth] just don’t work.”

Climate instability was one of the touchstone’s of Orr’s analysis.  Along with the possibility of nuclear war, Orr asserted that climate change was the challenge for our generation. 

The problem, he said, was not just the results we would face if we did not reduce CO2 emissions in the future, the problem was also what we would be facing from the greenhouse gases we have already emitted -- climate instability we were, in a real sense, “already committed to.” “We are effectively permanently changing the chemistry of the atmosphere, to our great disadvantage,” warned Orr.  Citing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the work of Susan Solomon and others, Orr asserted that “were we to stop emitting greenhouse gases tonight . . . we would still face a thousand years or longer of rising temperatures and rising sea levels.” 

Such temperature changes, Orr noted, could not occur without changing everything else on the earth.  The Russian summer of 2010 was the hottest ever recorded in that part of the world, observed Orr, adding that the hottest temperature ever recorded on earth was also recorded last summer, at 128º F in Pakistan.  “We’re also setting wind records and other [weather] records at a record-setting pace,” said Orr, with Tennessee experiencing thousand-year weather events last year, and the largest ever recorded cyclone hitting Australia in February this year. 

“Many of my friends say you can’t say this kind of thing in public because it’s quote ‘doom and gloom.’  …  It isn’t ‘doom and gloom’, it just happens to be the science,” said Orr.  “Imagine going to the doctor and the doctor says ‘You have a life-threatening illness, potentially fatal cancer.’  You don’t look at the doctor and say, ‘Well, that’s just doom and gloom.’  You may want a second opinion, but you don’t just blow that off.  When there’s a life-threatening situation, you want to know the truth.  I think the public can handle the truth on this.”

“Winston Churchill, with bombs falling on London in 1940, didn’t go on the BBC and say, ‘This is just a terrific opportunity for urban redevelopment.’ . . . It was ‘I don’t have anything to offer you but blood and toil, tears and sweat.’”  Admitting he did not know exactly how best to convey the message of climate change to the public, Orr argued, “Let’s tell the truth, first and foremost, so that later, we’re not caught in a situation where the public asks ‘Why didn’t they tell us what was coming at us?’ And within those brackets, let’s be as constructive as we possibly can be.”

Orr returned to Taleb’s analysis, added in the second edition of Black Swan, in which Taleb drew lesson’s from nature’s tendency towards the redundancies that add resilience to a system and safeguard against total collapse – like the human body’s duplicate lungs and kidneys.  Nature also doesn’t like things that are “too big,” claimed Orr.  “Nature doesn’t like a lot of connectivity and globalization.  This is a tough one for us,” said Orr, “because we now live in a connected world.  The question is how do we build firewalls between various parts of human activity.” (Such firewalls can prevent crises in one area from expanding through wider and wider areas, creating a systemic collapse.  The recent near meltdown of the global economy due to fraud and outrageously myopic profiteering in the U.S. financial sector is an object lesson in the need for such firestops.)  In short, how do we build a society that is resilient and not subject to collapse?

Orr argued that the energy efficiency and alternative energy practitioners at the NESEA conference were part of a little-recognized “revolution in capabilities.”  This revolution in capabilities was developing ways to create carbon-neutral buildings, industrial facilities that don’t emit waste and are powered by sunlight, and sustainable agriculture capable of feeding the world.

To make these general lessons concrete, Orr described the “Oberlin Project,” that he and Oberlin College are in the middle of – an effort to revitalize a small, lower income rust-belt town, Oberlin, Ohio, using principles of sustainability.  The project has four concrete goals.  First is to revitalize a key block of downtown by reshaping it into a “Green Arts District,” powering it with the sun and rehabbing the buildings to the highest environmental standards, using it as an economic driver for the renewal of a rust belt community.  The hope is to be able to not only renew the buildings as a model of what can be done, but to actually stimulate employment by discovering ways to obtain or make much of the building’s components and furnishings  – down to the tables and chairs – in the local area to be part of the emergence of a sustainable economy. 

“We want to build a model of what can be done, right dead center in the rust belt.  We want to lower unemployment, create opportunity, create a vital and exciting downtown, educational innovation, national leadership, and a bridge to the rust belt,” said Orr.

The Project’s second goal is to get the city of Oberlin to climate neutrality, including the surrounding area, out to a radius of about eight miles.  (Climate neutrality is conducting one’s affairs so that greenhouse gas emissions are, overall, not increased.  Sometimes this is done by balancing CO2-absorbing or reducing activities, such as reforestation or increasing building insulation, against CO2-releasing activities, such as using a car or airplane.)  “We want to start with energy efficiency, as Amory Lovins and many of you in this room have been saying for years . . . . It’s the cheapest, fastest, easiest thing to do, and that’s why we’re not doing it, I guess,” Orr joked.  Orr explained that they hoped to “power the whole city . . . by renewable energy.  The city utility will be about 90% of the way there within two years.”

We need to restructure the world to “live on solar income.  The amount of solar energy hitting the planet is awesome, and we harness very, very little of that,” Orr lamented.  He observed that the entire remaining reserve of fossil fuels on the planet was roughly equal to the solar energy hitting the earth every thirteen days.

In the 1990s Orr led an important effort in this direction, spearheading the construction of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center on the Oberlin campus, what may still be the only college building in the country fully powered by solar energy.  Orr noted that about 250 students were involved in the creation of the building, which served as a model of both sustainable construction and sustainability education, laying the ground work for the current Oberlin Project.  The Oberlin Project hopes to establish a green corridor through the city, including a carbon neutral school at one end, based on what was done at the Lewis Center.  The result is the start of an economic “renaissance” in downtown Oberlin, with investment coming back into the downtown, new businesses starting and property values beginning to increase.

“Our third goal,” for the Oberlin Project, Orr explained, “is to create a 20,000 acre greenbelt around the city for farms, for forestry, and carbon sequestration”, in partnership with a local land conservancy.  The hope is to re-localize the food supply.  Orr suggested that with climate change, decreasing snow pack in the Sierras, and other factors, the era of California agro-export feeding the nation would soon be over.  But in an encouraging example of the emerging revolution in capabilities, the number of farms has been increasing, for the first time in many years.

The fourth goal for the Oberlin Project “is to create a model for education, using this particular project, putting together a consortium of the college, the public schools, the [vocational] tech school and a two-year college, and have a thousand kids involved in working with credible designers, so that they leave the experience with a sense of hope, and leave with the start with a pretty good rolodex, knowing some of you would be involved with the program.  More than anything else, a sense of possibilities and the competence to act on those possibilities.”  The goal is to overcome the despair growing in our culture, said Orr, and connect more young people to a sense of hope that they can help build “a world in which we want to live.”  This initiative, Orr asserted, was about “full spectrum sustainability”, crossing through the boundaries of green building, economic development, community engagement, energy, education, sustainable agriculture and other arenas.

The context for this effort is a world in which population will hit nine billion in the lifetime of Orr’s students, a world in the middle of an epochal transition from the  age of cheap fossil fuel to the age of renewable energy, a transition “which is not going real well for us.”  On top of that, said Orr, environmental stresses are rising and there is “rapid climate destabilization, political instabilities, and one of the things that I’m worried about most, the growing gap in wealth between the richest among us and the poorest,” with a few hundred American families now holding more wealth than the poorest 50% of Americans.  The world’s high levels of connectivity serve as “multipliers” that amplify crises in any of these areas. 

Retired U.S. Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni said “it’s not hard to make the connection between climate change and instability, or climate change and terrorism,” noted Orr.  “The fact is that we are as insecure or more insecure now than we have ever been,” Orr observed.  “It’s not insecurity from armies crossing borders.  It’s insecurity from breakdown of systems, from black swan events, climate change events, things that we can’t anticipate.”  (Orr said these words just days before the massive earthquake in Japan that would risk nuclear meltdowns in Japanese nuclear plants and again rattle the global financial system.)

Our task now, Orr concluded, was to find ways to build a “resilient society.”  One of Orr’s military friends described “resilience” as “the capacity to take a gut punch and come back swinging.”  Orr reminded us that Amory and Hunter Lovins articulated this goal of resilience in the 1980s, in their book Brittle Power.  Measures to build resilience, such as those Orr is working on in the Oberlin Project, would “reduce our energy use, our carbon footprint, pollution, deficits in balance of payment, black swan risks, political friction, dollars in politics . . . . They improve our security, economy, environment, public health [and] democracy . . . and we’ve known this for a long time.”

“How do we change, at the federal level, or even at the global level, the narrative about security?” Orr asked, adding:  “Security is more than just the armed forces or tanks and aircraft carriers.  Security is about children going to bed at night well fed and safe and educated, in good shelter and so forth.  That’s real security.” 

Orr and his colleagues have taken this fundamental idea and are proposing a strategy of developing a “national security network of sustainable sites, cities and projects” across the country.  Some high level Pentagon planners Orr discussed this with said, “you’ve got to do that, and you’ve got to do one in every Congressional district in the country. . . . 435 projects, and you’ve got ten years to do it.”  Orr hopes they can have an office for the proposed network for sustainable sites, cities and projects set up in Washington later this year.

“Can we create our version of a Tea Party movement . . . one powered by sunlight?” Orr asked, “We hear about the Tea Party movement and all this anger.  Can we move some of that anger to the positive side of the ledger, and harness that to solarize communities, rebuild economies, create sustainable agriculture?  Full spectrum sustainability.”  Orr sketched out such a sustainable world, as one “powered by sunlight, with bike trails, fewer shopping malls, more high speed trains, more inner city light rail systems, more local agriculture, more pubs, more baseball leagues, more poetry.  People that don’t bowl alone.  It’s a world where people come together and build communities of the sort that we now know how to do.”

Orr reminded us of the U.S. Constitution’s explicit aim “to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity” – one of the rare uses of the word “posterity” in our public documents, he said.  The founders surely could not have meant by this phrase, to destroy the earth and destroy posterity, Orr reasoned.  “Their intent was to enlarge freedom, enlarge liberty,” Orr said, “and the greatest . . . threat to liberty will be climatic destabilization and corporate takeover. . .  Our grandchildren, and our children, have no voice in this, unless it’s our voice.”

-- Rudy Perkins

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