David Orr Gives Campus Solutions to Climate Change

Professor David Orr of Oberlin College gave a lecture in LPAC yesterday on facing the challenge of global sustainability through reform in higher education. The lecture, part of the Cooper series, was followed by a panel discussion between Orr and representatives of the University of California, Middlebury, Williams, Haverford, and Bryn Mawr.

Orr began the talk by reviewing contemporary issues of sustainability, focusing heavily on global warming. Human activities, he said, have already raised the global temperature about 8/5 of a degree centigrade and the emissions humans have already made into the atmosphere will inevitably raise the temperature another half degree. “The point of safety is now said to be roughly two degrees centigrade. According to James Hanson, two years ago we had roughly ten years to begin the deflection downward [of greenhouse gas emissions]” Orr said that climate change is becoming increasingly nonlinear; that is, it is spiraling out of control, so time to control it is running out.

The result of global warming, according to Orr, will be “planetary destabilitization.” This means rising sea levels, more severe storms, and more numerous droughts and heat waves. It also means ecosystem destruction like the loss of coral reefs, and increased disease and famine. Orr said that the emissions-driven climate “caused Katrina or amplified Katrina from a Class 1 storm to a Class 5 storm.”

In the face of these alarming consequences, Orr turned to a variety of philosophical approaches to understanding warming. He brought up the idea that we live in an age of paradox, in which, he said, “our knowledge has never been greater, but our purposes seem shallower than ever before. Our control of nature has never been more extensive…but our situation is less sustainable than it ever has been before.” He touched on educational theorist Howard Gardener’s theory of multiple intelligences to advocate for greater focus on naturalist intelligence. He discussed the confounding effect of advertisement imagery, flashing a racy Dolce and Gabanna ad on the PowerPoint screen.

With these indirect causes of warming in mind, he considered how climate change might be mitigated through changes in higher education. He advocated, half-jokingly, for a ban on publishing for young faculty members to help stop the torrent of misinformation that he believes is confounding and paralyzing society. He suggested interdisciplinary learning as a way to achieve meaningful rigor to avoid teaching students to specialize too narrowly and learn “everything about nothing.” For an interdisciplinary curriculum, he proposed a systems dynamics approach centered on earth systems as a center. He briefly discussed a few ways for schools to reduce their environmental footprint, like using alternative power sources.

After the lecture, about half of the audience of 200 stayed for the panel discussion. Each panelist discussed the sustainability initiatives at his or her school. All the panelists noted that the impetus for pro-environmental change at their schools came from the students, often from groups that pressured the administration to make policy changes and then partnered with administrators to develop an implementation plan. Most of the panelists advocated making sustainability a core part of their colleges, both in formal mission statements and in grassroots education of staff and students. Greenhouse gas emission reduction seemed to be on everyone’s’ minds; almost all of the panelists talked about transitioning from #6 heating oil to less greenhouse-gas emitting fuels. A few schools had sustainability staff positions (which Swarthmore lacks). Middlebury, alone of the schools represented, had opted to go carbon-neutral by 2016, after deciding that the maximum cost per year of neutrality, $200,000, was acceptable. (Again, Swarthmore has no such plans.)

A short discussion followed the presentations by the panel members. It was centered around a fact presented by Orr; if all the institutions of higher education in the US were to go carbon neutral, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would only be as much as if four medium-sized coal power plants shut down. The panelists agreed that while reforms at colleges will not have a big direct effect on global climate, those reforms teach students, the leaders of tomorrow, to value sustainability.

After the panel discussion, moderator Carr Everbach invited the panelists and audience to Sharples for the Sharples Farm to Table dinner, and conversation continued over free-range chicken and apple crisp.

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