17 Mar 2010
An Interview with David Orr, author of ‘Down to the Wire’. Part One
David Orr was in the UK recently, and the two of us were part of a panel at an event organised by the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment. After the event, we retired to the bar of a rather grand London hotel, and chatted for an hour about energy, climate change, the Precautionary Principle, Transition and whether or not we are beyond talk of ‘solutions’. Part two will follow shortly.
So, how would you introduce yourself?
I’m David Orr. I teach at Oberlin College in Ohio and I also work as Senior Advisor to the President of the college on environmental issues generally, but specifically on the redevelopment of the town and the college to carbon neutrality, a 20,000 acre green belt and the revitalised downtown corridor.
You’ve just published a book, Down to the Wire: confronting climate collapse. Tell us about it.
Down to the Wire is an answer, in a way, to say that the issue of climate change as I read the signs, has gone well past the point of being an economic and technical issue. Although it is certainly those things, it’s now an issue of governance and of ethics. When bad times hit and the big storms and droughts happen, people aren’t going to call 1800 Wallmart, you’re going to call 911 and hope that somebody picks up the phone, and that’s government.
The markets aren’t going to save us. A lot of this talk about reforming markets is, I think, misplaced… to the degree that we only think of civil society as a market economy, and government, well we don’t do government. So it’s written partly as an antidote to the view that governance doesn’t matter. Governance matters hugely. In the book there are sections that describe what governments can do, and have been doing to us; they can wage illegal wars, bankrupt the country, they can get their own services that they provide, they can beef up military and security services. No matter where you are in London your face is always on camera, that’s government surveillance, so governments are important in this thing.
The second thing in the book – and this is a real conundrum which we faced in the President’s Climate Action Plan which we did for the Obama Administration – what do you tell the public? It’s the thing I don’t have an answer for. When I give talks about this I always mention Jack Nicholson in ‘A Few Good Men’, and that great line he has when he says “you can’t handle the truth”. TS Elliot once said that human beings can’t bear too much reality. But on the other side, there’s Winston Churchill, with bombs falling all over London, he’s not on the BBC saying “this is a great time for urban renewal, we can beat the Nazis at a profit”, it was blood, toil, tears and sweat. So how do you message this?
In the room today it was said by several people that you have to put a positive spin on this. Well, yes and no. I think you have to be truthful about what’s at stake and if I read the signs correctly, things are moving much faster, will be much bigger and will be much longer lived than we had thought. On the other hand you can’t drive people to despair, you’ve got to give people something to do which is why the Transition Movement is such a brilliant movement because with Peak Oil you can honestly say, look … this is where we’re headed, there’s a whole convergence of things, it isn’t just oil, it’s a whole convergence of the world coming undone. So at the end of the book I discuss the Oberlin project.
The third reason for the book is that although the journal I helped to start is called ‘Solutions’, I didn’t agree with that title, because in a real sense the climate issue, if the science is correct, has gone past the point of solutions as we conventionally understand that word, and what we’re hoping for now in this race against time and the remorseless working of big numbers, is to contain the worst of what could happen and hope that in a thousand, maybe two thousand years time, there’s still enough bio physical stability to support something called a civilisation. It isn’t solvable like you’d fix a broken car. The science says if we stop emitting carbon today, we’ve got at least a thousand years of sea level rise and warming temperatures. That’s the start of the book.
The book is my 35,000 word meditation on what it means to live in this era, because we’re effectively evicting ourselves from the only paradise we’ve ever known. Geologists call it the Holocene, but in that era, that interlude, the climate fluctuates a bit but never terribly badly. CO2 didn’t go above 280 – 290ppm, and you can probably extend that back about 1 million – 1.4 million years, and once you get beyond the ice core records you go to the paleo record and there’s another 600,000 years of data that say in that interlude, as humans were becoming whatever it was we’d become, we lived in this period of stability. So now, in Biblical terms, we’re evicting ourselves from this Garden of Eden called the Holocene.
At 15,000 feet for me is the President’s Climate Action Plan, we put about $1.2 million into it, we brought in around 250 people to work on all different parts of it, a who’s who of the climate group. The Oberlin Project, which is my version of Transition Town, is ground level. That’s grounding what we’re talking about. How do we build carbon neutrality with prosperity at a local level? What does that mean? So these three levels are what I do.
Back to the book a minute, I think we have to go deeper than the debate so far. So far, on our side of this, its a debate about Cap-and-Trade or taxation, parts per million, parts per billion, and we get lost in this thicket and you can see the public face glaze over. I think we have to reckon with harder things, so there’s a part of the book that goes into the basis for hope as opposed to despair and optimism. Hope, as I say in the book, is “a verb with its sleeves rolled up”. In contrast to despair or optimism, which require you to do nothing, hope requires that you act. The Transition movement is the ultimate act of hopefulness, it’s “let’s start where we are”. So your sleeves are rolled up, you’re looking at how you get the pieces rearranged, of this thing called Totnes or Transition Town wherever.
But we also have to develop something, and I think it’s easier in Europe and Britain, what the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno called “the Tragic Sense of Life” – it’s the awareness that humans are a badly flawed species. We’re basically an upright chimpanzee with a big brain! Kurt Vonnegut says in one of his novels that next time around, whoever organises evolution we’ll have no brain!
The tragic sense of life says that things don’t always work well. That’s easier to grasp in a place like England or Europe where you get land littered with ruins that are testimony to our fallibility. We just don’t always get it right. John Gray is a conservative political philosopher who understands climate and environment and sometimes the tragic sense of life just tempers things. It isn’t long-faced and gloomy but it does mean that you have to reckon with something deeper than this fluffy thought up here.
My complaint about the sustainability and climate dialogue up to this point is that it operates at the superficial level, it’s like the veneer on this little table. Until we can get deeper, we’re probably not going to make it. We have to understand what we are as a species. This is why the work of people like Robert Wright who are delving into our evolutionary past, a lot of neuro-science is so important, because it is giving us a rather more accurate picture of who we are and it isn’t all bad! Yes, humans can do some nasty things, but we also have a bent for compassion, and community building. At the end of the day, what I’m doing in Oberlin and what you’re doing in the Transition movement depends a lot on people’s sense of generosity which I think is there in abundance, but that’s not good for the global economy of course, because if people were charitable, they’d be lousy consumers. If people had to do for themselves as competent individuals and neighbours, there’s a whole lot that they wouldn’t be buying at the shopping mall.
So the last couple of chapters offer a deeper perspective, and a tragic perspective. I think that the recognition of tragedy has the honest recognition of what we are, who we are, and what we can be, but aren’t yet. I think this opens us to genuine nobility, not just affluence, not just power, not just domination of the world, but genuine nobility. I think that’s that this movement is about. I think the Transition movement is a hinge movement in this larger ecological Enlightment which I believe is underway. Central to it is the fact that we’re related. It’s a systems view of everything, and a long-term view that says we have to think in terms of ten thousand year interludes and that, to me, is really cool. That is the human species starting to stretch into a fuller stature. We’re not there yet, but that, to me, is what is really powerful about this movement.
If I talk like this to a public audience, nobody understands it. If I talk about food issues, plumbing, housing, economics and jobs, people get that, and sooner or later they’ll get the larger agenda behind it…
How do you see things in terms of Peak Oil and the different scenarios that Richard Heinberg has set out of what that looks like in practise? Are you a Collapse person, or Powerdown person, or a Building Lifeboats person? How do you see that playing out? Which one should we be preparing for?
Richard is a friend and I’m a Post Carbon Institute Fellow like him. The book ends with a rational debate; at one end you’ve got Amory Lovins, who basically says there’s no such thing as peak oil, that if we apply ourselves we could be much more efficient and just sip energy and then there’s no real crisis. Even if that were true, in the best of all possible worlds you have to ask, is that a reasonable prediction of what we’re going to do? The answer therefore for me is that the jury is still out, the jury members are coming back into the courtroom one by one and it doesn’t look promising, you just don’t see vindication on their faces, to follow that metaphor. If you hold a gun to my head and say make a choice, I think I’m a Powerdown person. I think the place I want to spend my energy is trying to figure out how we get off this energy binge we’ve been on, I think Richard is right that if you sit back far enough it’s like this huge spike which will collapse. I think that’s the challenge of our time, to figure out how to maintain prosperity while using a whole lot less energy.
But then look around this space, those lights are all powered by fossil fuel energy coming from some place, those chandeliers (see picture at the start of this piece) have a footprint, there’s no low energy lightbulbs in them, so the question is we have this huge infrastructure to maintain, and it’s really hard to see a graceful way to power that down. On the other side of the debate, you’ve got James Lovelock saying at the end of the century there will be 2 billion people left on the planet, where did the other 4 or 5 billion go? You’re talking about a massive dieback. Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal at Cambridge, gives a fifty-fifty chance to have a civilisation intact by 2100, that’s 90 years away and then it all comes undone.
So, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I am. Richard Heinberg really helped frame the debate well. It’s clear that we’re running out of cheap fossil fuels. What’s left is deeper down, further out and in places like the Middle East where people don’t like us. We’ve built an incredibly fragile system. This was more in the public mind back in the Seventies. I was part of an effort, working with Jimmy Carter’s Transition Team in 1976. We delivered him a paper on energy and US resilience and the thing that’s so disturbing is that it still reads well forty years later. Which means not much has happened and the human population has expanded, every one of which has a footprint.
What do you think we can learn from that? It seems that in that period in the Seventies between the two oil shocks, lots of stuff flowered like research into permaculture, but it seems that when we got to the Eighties we made a collective decision to party for the next thirty years. Were we in the position at the end of the seventies to create a low carbon society if we chose to?
I think so. At the end of the Seventies, when Jimmy Carter left office, there was a report called the Global 2000 Report and a lot of the data is now obsolete – it’s even worse now than we thought it was, and we weren’t talking about climate change in that era! I think that that era began what was potentially the most important dialogue ever. It was on remaking the human presence on the planet in a way which was philosophically realigned, the Enlightenment wasn’t bad, it just didn’t go far enough! It didn’t include Enlightenment about our place in the natural world, it just wasn’t enlightening enough!
The instinct for data and logic was right. We began to prove the concept, through the work of John Todd, that you can clean wastewater and grow food sustainably and so on. Jane Jacobs was writing about sustainable cities without ever using the word. I think the intellectual capital and some of the experimental capital was incredibly valuable. By the end of the Eighties we had Wes Jackson’s work and Amory Lovins was starting to hit his stride and we had the capacity to re think the standards and the metrics by which we judge our success. In the economic movement Richard Heinberg was still a pup at that stage, probably still at college or something, but Herman Daly and Hazel Henderson, they were writing, there were people thinking this out. Edward Goldsmith’s ‘Blueprint for Survival’ came out in 1972. We had a cause, and we had solutions that were starting to congeal.
It’s hard to say exactly what happened to it. In the States Ronald Reagan ran on this platform of ‘It’s Morning in America Again’ and as I say in the book its now twighlight, the due bill is sitting on the desk. It was certain that big business got realigned and began to push the other way. That goes back to a memo that was written by a guy in the US Supreme Court, I forget his name, but he wrote a letter to the US Chamber of Commerce basically calling for a counter attack on the environmental movement. If you use the attorney’s rule of thumb, follow the money… if you want to find out why something happened, just trace the money back. I think all that stuff was threatening to agri-business, to Big Oil, to car manufacturers, to a whole lot of people.
The one thing that was missing in that dialogue in the Seventies and Eighties was that nobody was really talking about strategy. How do we convey this as a message? We made the assumption, at least I sure did, that all people needed were the facts, data and logic. That meant more articles, more books, and then pretty soon they’ll see what’s at stake. I think we missed the whole issue of how you motivate people and how you actually move the dialogue. I don’t know that even if we had tried to do that, I don’t know that we could have done. I know that I went to meetings in the Seventies and Eighties, talking about the politics of these things and I don’t think people got how important the political dimension was, even at the local scale, the national or global scale, I don’t think people were understanding it.
So, I think those years were potentially very valuable. In the meantime, John Todd’s work has got better, Wes Jackson’s work has morphed into natural systems agriculture, permaculture has become a technique for landscape management, water conservation, food production and aesthetics and real estate values, there’s been a lot of progress, it’s not like we’ve been sitting still.
We’ve come to a point now where some people, like Stewart Brand, are arguing that we’ve got our backs to the wall and maybe we have to be ready to do things that otherwise we’d prefer not to do. I’m not a happy camper with that stuff. I think that’s a way to try to prop up the Western project to dominate nature and with ever more heroic technology, and it will fail ever more catastrophically and spectacularly, to the point where you’re trying to geo engineer the planet, and well who the hell knows enough to do that?! How will you ever adjudicate the differences, if you’re going to increase rainfall there, decrease rainfall someplace else, tell me how you adjudicate those decisions, let alone know what you’re actually doing. … we don’t have the ecological know-how.
Wes Jackson pulled together a conference once on ‘ignorance-based world view’ (laughs), he and Wendell Berry and a bunch of us, and for three or four days we sat around and mulled over what it means to recognise that in fact we are inevitably more ignorant than we are smart … so what that means is, not that you stop science, but that you curtail large scale risky projects… call it the Precautionary Principle, which Stewart Brand dismisses, or call it what you will, the long of it is just prudence, there are some places angels fear to tread because you don’t go there, because you really don’t know what you what you’re causing. As Wendell Berry once put it “you don’t know what you’re doing because you don’t know what you’re undoing”…