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David Orr

      . . .environmental educator. With a doctorate in International Relations, Professor Orr is known for his pioneering work on environmental literacy and campus ecology. Professor Orr is Director of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College. He is currently focused on ecological design, providing the inspiration and leadership for the architecturally revolutionary Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin, considered "the most remarkable" of a new generation of college buildings. Author of Earth in Mind and Ecological Literacy, Dr. Orr serves on a number of boards. His numerous awards include a National Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation.

We’re being watched. People alive in the year 2050, in the year 2100, are judging us. How are we meeting the monumental challenges that stand between us? Will education play its key role -- foster a generation of great, joyful people with generous hearts, vision, and competence, good citizens able to live harmoniously in the biotic community? Did education equip young people with competence to understand where they are in this post-modern world, help them distinguish between wishful thinking and genuine hope, enable them to think differently?

David Orr deeply wants those future generations to say we were humankind’s finest hour. So he is an educator. He is convinced that our young people are coming in to an enormously exciting century. And an enormously dangerous time. What will they require? A profoundly different kind of thinking than what was needed in the industrial age. They must be able to stretch laterally across a range of disciplines; understand systems, not regurgitate rote learning; reason flexibly; be able to draw on unexpected sources and resources; listen to and learn from voices once silent; engage meaningfully in a dialogue with nature. Professor Orr is convinced and convincing that this way of thinking must become the rule in education, not the exception. And there’s no time to lose.

All talk? Hardly!

Humans learn best by doing, work shapes character, and action speaks louder than words, according to Professor Orr. So he put his interest in ecological design to work. David Orr believes Winston Churchill’s admonition that “We shape our buildings. Thereafter, they shape us.”  So when the Environmental Studies program Professor Orr directs outgrew its space, it was an opportunity for architecture to act as “crystallized pedagogy.”

Here, also, was a chance to replace the monologue which has passed for education for 500 years. First, David Orr opened up the design process itself by inviting conversation. Two hundred and fifty people accepted the invitation -- students, faculty, townspeople, locals and out-of-staters. Together, they carved an unknown and unknowable path. The process was not easy. Professor Orr faced (and overcame) a host of internal and external obstacles. Time and again, he embodied the Chinese character for “crisis” -- a combination of “danger” and “opportunity.” Five years later and a wealth of learning by countless active participants, the Lewis Center for Environmental Studies is now widely acclaimed as the most remarkable in a new generation of college and university buildings.

Will education help turn us away from potential catastrophe?  Call forth the best in humans?  Keep us from enslaving those who follow us on a planet permanently altered by our profligacy? Ask those yet unborn. For us and for now, the better question is:  What kind of future do we want? Then, as David Orr says, “Go for it!”

[This Program was recorded September 16, 2000, in Oberlin, Ohio, US.]



Conversation 1


David Orr describes to Paula Gordon and Bill Russell the joy of being an academic entrepreneur, working with people to solve problems. He downplays the revolutionary leadership role others attribute to him. He critiques today's academic institutions, comparing them to the complacent American auto industry in 1970s. He champions liberal education against simplistic data gathering.

Conversation 1 RealAudio7:45  

Conversation 2

Education is always revolutionary, Dr. Orr believes, and expands. He explains why it's critical to equip young people to learn in today's post-modern world -- in which and for which we cannot plan. He compares education's industrial era monologues to conversations in the (exciting and dangerous) 21st century. Dr. Orr summarizes his urgent call to think creatively, across traditional disciplines. He elaborates on the importance of societies and economies which serve human needs, concerned we are selling today's young people short. Dr. Orr maintains we need people who know how to live well, a condition he describes. He outlines how education can play a key role in meeting looming -- and daunting -- challenges.

Conversation 1 RealAudio14:19  

Conversation 3


Building on Churchill's idea that "We shape our buildings. Thereafter, they shape us," the genesis of the Lewis Environmental Center as a pedagogical process is described. Professor Orr alludes to some of the institutional constraints under which he brought his vision to light. He contrasts traditional college architecture with what he and 250 students, faculty and townspeople learned in the process of envisioning the Lewis Center. He explains how buildings teach -- architecture as crystallized pedagogy -- using a variety of Lewis Center examples.

Conversation 4


Professor Orr gives examples of how the Lewis Center itself will learn and improve. He associates the "mindless" spaces in which we now live with restlessness among young people. Professor Orr urges us to create a world in which we want to be. He suggest how our buildings can draw on the species' best values, which he enumerates. He points to direct connections between these values and America's Revolutionary heritage. Dr. Orr summarizes the world's need for an ethical revolution, offering the Lewis Center as an example of applied ethics. He equates 19th century slavery to the irreversible effects of permanently impairing the stability, integrity and beauty of the earth's biogeochemical cycles.

Conversation 5


The big issues of the 19th century are compared to those awaiting us in the 21st century, as Dr. Orr continues the comparison of types of slavery and inter-generational remote tyranny. Climate change is his example.


Dr. Orr calls on us to find joy in what we do, aligning our work with who and what we are. The Lewis Center illustrates how work and joy can be combined. Dr. Orr urges young people to "go for it," to find a calling and let careers follow. Humans, Dr. Orr contends, are sensuous creatures who like to make things and learn best by doing. He relates this biological reality to the academic setting and to work in general.

Conversation 6


Learning is a mysterious process which Dr. Orr calls us to honor. Keenly aware that today's young people have great assets and profound challenges, Dr. Orr describes the critical role he sees for dramatically updated education. He puts his faith in young people, hopeful that our culture can learn to protect and honor the conditions by which life thrives and flourishes. He calls on us to think about where we want to be in the year 2050 or 2100.


David Orr was the guiding spirit whose tenacity, commitment to the earth and openness to new ideas and people resulted in the extraordinary Joseph Adam Lewis Environmental Center at Oberlin College. We attended the Lewis Center dedication, where we recorded a series of Conversations which will be available in the coming weeks. The Office of College Relations was enormously helpful in making the programs possible. We particularly thank Vice President Al Moran, his able assistant Darla Warren and the incomparable Marci Janas.

Dr. Orr and his assistant, Bev Burgess of the Environmental Studies Program, helped at every turn. At the edge of a real wetland, planted by dedicated students and symbolizing the hope for a rebirth of natural systems, the entire weekend was a "mountain top experience." Now the work begins.

It was a particular joy to share the Dedication with a host the environmental heroes, including industrialist Ray C. Anderson, founder and visionary CEO of Interface, Inc. Mr. Anderson is among those leading what William MacDonough (lead architect for the Lewis Center) calls "The Next Industrial Revolution."

Related Links:

Our 2009 video program with Dr. Orr is available here.

You can get a sense of the magnitude of David Orr's accomplishment when you visit the new Adam Joseph Lewis Environmental Center at Oberlin College either in person or at Oberlin's website.
David Orr's book, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect, is published by Island Press, the only nonprofit organization in the United States whose principal purpose is the publication of books on environmental issues and natural resource management.

Professor Orr's book Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World is a volume in the SUNY Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought, published by State University of New York Press, David Ray Griffin, editor.

His 1992 book, The Campus and Environmental Responsibility: New Directions for Higher Education is published by Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Company.
Some of the people who’ve worked with Dr. Orr or provided ideas or support: Ray Anderson, Janine Benyus, Amory Lovins, William McDonough.

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