Sustainability Leadership and David Orr’s Fierce Urgency of Hope

David Orr spoke on sustainability leadership at Friday's Hinckley Forum.

David Orr spoke on sustainability leadership at Friday’s Hinckley Forum.

By Shaun Daniel, Sustainability Resource Center

“We will pay for sustainability and a balanced climate whether we get it or not,” observed David W. Orr during his visit to the University of Utah last Friday, March 6.

The occasion was a Hinckley Forum, for which Orr gave the keynote on the subject of sustainability leadership – something he sees as imperative for tackling the issues of our times.

Earlier in the day, he participated in conversations with graduate and undergraduate students and discussed sustainability curricula integration with faculty members involved with the Wasatch Experience.

Orr opened his keynote with a story about a student he had advised – a young man who expressed interest in being a doctor while consistently turning in such terrible grades that he would never get into medical school. When the student’s parents – each also in the medical field – came to confront Orr, the real issue became clear. The young man confessed that being a doctor seemed like the practical path, but, secretly, he wanted to work with wolves. Orr then connected the student with a friend who works with wolves in Montana and the young man embarked on a path he found more fulfilling.

“It’s your life and you need to find out what you’re on the planet for,” Orr encouraged the audience. “You can find a career inside of a calling, but the reverse is not necessarily true.”

Youcan Feng received the Campus as a Living Lab Award for his work on green roofs.

Youcan Feng was recognized with the Campus as a Living Lab Award.

Citing the work of Thomas Berry, on the calling for those living today to confront the incredible challenges of environmental crisis, Orr remarked, “Our great work starts with imagination. Can you imagine a world better than we have now? Can you create a world better than we have now?” The issue, he said, is one of leadership.

Sustainability Leadership

Four exemplary leaders were honored at Friday’s event as Amy Wildermuth, chief sustainability officer at the University of Utah, announced the recipients of the inaugural Alta Sustainability Leadership Awards.

Julia Corbett received the Sustainability Education Integration Award.

Julia Corbett received the Sustainability Education Integration Award.

Youcan Feng was recognized for his work in quantifying water and energy budgets for green roofs, putting into practice the idea of campus as a living lab. Rob Kent was awarded for sustainability community partnership due to his efforts to use behavior change science to improve the Clean Air Challenge. Julia Corbett was honored for her work in sustainability education, including founding the University’s first environmental communications course 18 years ago and more recently a class on communicating climate change. And, finally, Barbara Brown was lauded for her research on healthy communities, neighborhood revitalization, and public transit.

Onno Wieringa of the Alta Environmental Center congratulated all the award winners.

Onno Wieringa of the Alta Environmental Center congratulated all the award winners.

Onno Wieringa of the Alta Environmental Center, which sponsored the awards, commented on how happy they were to be working with the U and to see sustainability being incorporated across disciplines.

This theme of connection ran through Orr’s remarks as well. He called for a new politics to transcend Left and Right; a new economy that is “equitable, fair, durable, resilient”; a new legal regime that recognizes the rights of future generations and other species; a new systems-oriented worldview rather than a Cartesian one; and even a new theology that includes the earth and transcends all faith traditions.

In his conversations with students earlier in the day, Orr talked about the benefit of providing visible examples – “making things manifest and real.” The group discussed how in starting at a small scale we can begin building the world we want to see, and in so doing provide the tangible examples that inspire others to act.

Barbara Brown received the Sustainability Research Award.

Barbara Brown was honored with the Sustainability Research Award.

An author and educator, Orr is also no stranger to bringing ideas to physical fruition. In the 1980s, he and his brother created an environmental demonstration center in the Ozark Mountains, complete with sawmill, farm, and conference center. After joining Oberlin College’s environmental studies faculty in the 1990s, he undertook a project to create a new building for the program, in which he involved dozens of students in the process. “The hardest thing wasn’t their participation,” he said, “but overcoming the disbelief that we could actually do something.”

Those efforts paid off and the resulting Adam Joseph Lewis Center – built to LEED Platinum before there even was a LEED system – has been called one of the most important buildings of the last several decades by both the U.S. Department of Energy and Architect Magazine. The center produces no wastewater; takes advantage of natural light, heat and ventilation; and runs entirely on solar energy (in a state where sunshine is more or less a theory, as Orr likes to say).

But what Orr is most proud of is the effect the design process had on students. It gave them a chance to learn diverse concepts and skills and put them into service for their community. He says that 10 companies spun out of the effort.

When Orr scaled the design approach up to the level of the city, some of those students stuck around. The Oberlin Project, as the effort is called, is now on track to establish the first entirely solar-powered hotel and conference center in the country, if not the world.

Orr’s latest project is in working with colleagues to take things to the next level, with a goal to engage 10,000 to 100,000 students and community leaders at the regional scale through an innovation cluster around the “Lake Erie Crescent” (e.g. Flint, Detroit, Oberlin, Cleveland, Youngstown). He spoke, too, of connecting with similar innovation clusters across the country, including on the Front Range of the Rockies.

The Fierce Urgency of Hope 

Admiring the surrounding mountains and sunshine, Orr suggested to the intimate gathering of students in the morning, there is no reason the University could not be entirely solar-powered. Further still, he argued, “There is no good reason to keep putting money into fossil fuels.”

Before long, Orr foresees tobacco-style liability lawsuits and therefore suggested the importance of the international divestment movement centered in universities and colleges, including the University of Utah. As evidence, he cited a recent Bank of England report on the risk of investment in fossil fuels.

While at the University of Utah, David Orr touched on climate change, the role of higher education, and the importance of action driven by hope.

While at the University of Utah, David Orr touched on climate change, the role of higher education, and the importance of action and hope.

“How do we galvanize higher education to do what it should have been doing 20 years ago?” Orr asked. Part of the answer he clearly sees in fostering greater connection and leadership on campus and beyond. In the Lake Erie Crescent effort, for example, he said the aim is to first harness higher education as the point of the spear.

The question Orr would like to pose to University administrators is, “What would you risk the future of your institution for?”

Multiple times during his visit to the University of Utah, Orr remarked on hope as the space between naïve optimism and the paralyzing sin of despair. “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up,” he said, referring also to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 remarks on the “fierce urgency of now.”

Given the damage humans have already caused to the planet, the ongoing and terrifying rate of species extinction, and the prospect of outright human annihilation from catastrophic climate change, Orr did not mince words in relaying how urgent things are: “We’ve been passing off-ramps for much better places, and now we’re down to the last few ramps.”

In this, Orr holds that the proper response is not despair, but action. Individuals, he said, can make a difference; even more so if we band together.

“The grounds we have for hope are that the system is changing,” Orr offered. “If you’re hopeful, you have to do something; you have to act.”

Shaun Daniel is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities and a graduate assistant in the Sustainability Resource Center.

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