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Sustainability Champion

The reality of our time was captured long ago by H.G. wells' observation that we are in a race between education and catastrophe.


By Alex Wilson

GREENSOURCE: What’s wrong with architectural education today, or education in general?

DAVID ORR: This is a big question for which there is no single answer. Overall, architectural education is changing, as is evident in the recent AIA report, Ecology and Design. Until recently, however, the great majority of architectural schools taught form-making rather than place-making. The first rules of place-making are to not wreck other places and to design buildings and landscapes so artfully as to cause no loss of human dignity or ecological integrity, at any time or place. Form-making and place-making, of course, are two faces of one coin. One side is the aesthetics of buildings, the other is the wider impact of buildings (which is also an aesthetic issue, at a macro scale). Together, they imply a radically different curriculum, yet one with roots going back as far as Vitruvius.

David ORR
Photo: Courtesy, Oberlin College
David Orr
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The field of education overall suffers from some of the same problems writ large. Bruce Wilshire’s indictment of higher education in the Moral Collapse of the University (SUNY, 1990) still stands. Educational institutions have often been more concerned with means than ends, justifying this by reportedly enhancing the lifetime earnings of alumni. This is the kind of fraud that makes epitaphs for whole civilizations. Underlying the failures in education is a cultural failure dating back at least to Francis Bacon and Galileo. We have come to see ourselves as lords and masters of creation, and education as mostly utilitarian and technical. The reality of our time was captured long ago by H. G. Wells’ observation that we are in a race between education and catastrophe. The good news is that things are changing. The green campus movement, for example, is flourishing both here and in Europe.

GS: How can we instill in students an awareness of the environment and an interest in greening their work after college?

DO: Richard Louv, in his recent book Last Child in the Woods, argues that the process of instilling awareness has to begin in childhood. By the time a student arrives at college he has been exposed to hundreds of thousands of advertisements and the deep silliness of a hypercommercial culture. The average teenager can recognize more than a thousand corporate logos, but fewer than 10 plants or animals native to her home region. What to do? Schools, colleges, and universities should serve as models of ecological design that produce their own energy from sunlight, process all of their waste, and grow a substantial portion of their food. These activities should be the core of a liberal arts curriculum. Engaging students in the design of their own places and monitoring its ecological impact would bring home the reality by which we live at a scale they could comprehend. The scope of these endeavors would still be large enough to be significant to the outside world. The goal is to change the default setting from a fossil fuel–powered culture to sunshine, ecological design, and zero waste.

GS: Many experts paint a fairly dire picture about global warming, and buildings play a disproportionately large role in this. What does the building industry need to do to turn this ship around?

DO: Edward Mazria’s goal of climate-neutral buildings, adopted by the AIA, is a big step in the right direction. However, we ought to expand this goal to include carbon-neutral communities and regions. Achieving energy and carbon neutrality will require the integration of architecture and landscape with local and regional energy systems, agriculture, and more self-reliant economies that build on sunlight, soils, and forests. The twin forces of climate change and peak oil point us in the same direction: localization of supply. This is a challenge and an opportunity for design professionals: first, because they will have to get out of their silos and talk to one another; and second, because they will have to educate clients more fully.

GS: Relative to greenhouse gas emissions, how important is carbon trading as a tool for reducing emissions?

DO: Carbon trading is a useful beginning, but the point is to reduce our carbon emissions to nearly zero by “disinventing” fire, as Amory Lovins once put it. Do we need to commoditize carbon—attach an economic value to it—to bring about significant conservation? Yes—while recognizing that this is not first and foremost a matter of economics but one of morality and intergenerational justice. And one of great urgency. We’ve caused a planetary emergency that has the potential to destroy civilization.


GS: How do you maintain a positive view about the world? Tell us some good news about the environment.

DO: First, we now know a great deal about our situation. Our capability to scientifically analyze and predict environmental impact has improved dramatically. Second, we have the technical means to power civilization on sunlight. Third, there is now a global movement around the broad issues of sustainability, even if leadership on the issues is woefully pathetic. Fourth, the design sciences, including ecological engineering, architecture, industrial ecology, and biomimicry, now form the basis for remaking human presence on earth … not as nirvana, but as something a lot better than the alternative.

GS: Any other thoughts on the future?

DO: Looking back, say, 500 or 1,000 years from now, what will our time look like to anyone able and willing to do so? When facing a choice between life and death, the writer of Deuteronomy enjoined us to choose life. We’re the first generation to face that choice on a planetary scale. The latter choice is irrevocable, a permanent silence. But the choice of life would be, for those looking back, humankind’s “finest hour,” the time when we chose life, mastered what that meant, and did what will appear to them only obvious.

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This article appeared in the November 2006 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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