On Sept. 22 in the Villard Room, renowned environmentalist, author and Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College David Orr gave a lecture entitled “Higher Education in a Hotter Time: rambling thoughts about how we got in this mess and what we can do about it.”
After brief introductions by faculty members and President Catharine Hill, Orr began the lecture on a sobering note. He stated, “There’s not a person in this room who doesn’t have a carbon footprint, we’re all implicated in this. So there are no real good guys and bad guys…we’re all part of this. Now we have to think our way out of it. Evolution hasn’t wired us necessarily to do this.”
Orr soon after delved into the connection between environmental issues and social justice issues, linking the two by critiquing American culture and government. Using stark visual aids, Orr stressed the wildly disproportionate effect that the United States has in particular. “The American dream is a carbon-intensive dream,” he lamented. “This is a problem for which there is no known solution.”
Referencing his experience and success with integrating sustainability, Orr went on to describe the Oberlin Project, a cooperative sustainability initiative between Oberlin College and the surrounding community that he spearheaded in the Ohio college town. The project’s goals included constructing ecologically conscious buildings like a sustainable hotel that will replace the old Oberlin Inn, as well as the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies on the college’s campus. “In our case what was important was a renewable facility,” Orr remarked. “[The hotel] will be, as far as I know, the first entirely renewably-powered hotel in the world.” The Lewis Center, already well established since its completion in 2001, is not only energy efficient but also a net energy exporter, sharing its excess with the larger community.
Drawing on the similarities between Vassar and Oberlin, Orr urged students to think of sustainability in a more inclusive way. He and Vassar students alike want a sustainable future to be possible for all. DivestVC Coordinator Elise Ferguson ’17 posited, “Sustainable communities are for everyone, not just the privileged.” When speaking about the Oberlin Project, Orr made sure to emphasize the importance of accessibility. One project in the community sector has been construction of entirely solar-powered houses. “The question for us,” he said, “was could we do this at a rate of cost affordable to somebody below the poverty line?” As it turned out, the answer was yes, as high performance and solar powered homes are being built in Oberlin and made available to people of all financial means.
Students involved in social justice and environmental groups on campus, however, will testify to the difficulty of making spaces green in a way that is inclusive and accessible to all. Ferguson commented, “If Vassar were to do [something like the Oberlin Project], we would have to work very carefully with the community in a way that empowers them and involves them. There has to be a background structure of laws and regulations that deters gentrification, because the environmental movement is increasingly trendy.” She and Vassar Greens President Gabrielle Pollack ’17 concurred that gentrification, loss of resources and displacement can too easily occur when a city is made more environmentally conscious.
When asked about the connection between social and environmental justice issues, Pollack put it in plain terms. She explained, “[W]e can’t have social justice if we’re not having the environment. If you don’t have a place to live, there’s going to be no platform to have any social justice.”
Orr stressed not only accessibility for environmental movements, but also a change in the politics surrounding them. He argued, “It doesn’t really matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, I want to argue that this is something that is genuinely bipartisan.” Positing that many misunderstand what a sustainable economy could and should be, he remarked at his support for the integration of sustainable practices into existing economic and social structures rather than advocating for mass political reform.
True to the title of his talk, Orr made sure to discuss the importance of greater integration of environmental issues across the board in higher education. He insisted, “We can do it in higher education: it’s your brainpower, it’s your money, it’s your investment. But it means we need to rethink how we operate schools.” The sentiment is echoed by many students, who hope that professors and students will not shy away from talking about environmental issues when and wherever they are relevant, and who hope that they will begin to hear new voices at such discussions. Ferguson said, “The lecture was pretty well attended, but I feel like most people were people who I recognized from environmental classes…We need to talk about [the environment] in classrooms.”
Despite feeling discouraged by a general lack of drive at Vassar to replicate the success of sustainability movements at peer institutions like Oberlin, many students reported having been reassured by Orr’s words. Pollack said, “Sometimes you feel like, ‘I’m in my own world with these environmental issues and the only people that care are also people that are my age, so what can we do to make a change?’ Then when someone who’s a very known environmentalist [says], ‘Yeah, you’re right,’ that’s a very affirming kind of point.”
Despite the gravity of the issues at hand, Orr urged his audience to remain active in the movement and hopeful for a brighter future. He advised, “If you’re pessimistic you won’t do anything, if you’re optimistic you won’t do anything, but if you’re hopeful you have to do something.”