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Market-based solutions only get us so far: we need policies, too, and fast. David Orr stares political reality right in the eye, and refuses to back down.

David Orr

When David Orr began his keynote speech on full-spectrum sustainability at the Building Energy conference yesterday, I was sitting in my car at a dead stop near the Harvard campus, furious with myself (and everyone else) for not taking public transit.

The irony was not lost on me. I tried to turn my audible growling into laughter by recalling that classic Onion headline, "Report: 98 Percent of Commuters Favor Public Transportation for Others." But I'd been up since 4 and had pulled out of my driveway in Vermont at 6, so it was hard to find anything funny.

Luckily, people like David Orr aren't waiting for "others" to do the work of sustainability for them. And luckily for me, his speech was long and substantive enough that I got a lot out of it even though I arrived half an hour late. Here at BuildingGreen, we pride ourselves on doing a lot of technical legwork for our readers, and sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the FSC-certified lumber with no added urea-formaldehyde. Orr's speech helped many of us pull back and look at the big picture.

Frankly, that picture isn't very pretty right now. "We need to equip young people for a world the likes of which we as homo sapiens have never seen before," he said.

The proposed "green arts block" in Oberlin, Ohio, shown in this conceptual drawing apparently caught the Pentagon's attention as a potential boon to national security. Click on the drawing to enlarge.

We the People: Green Design and the Founding Fathers

That's exactly what he does at Oberlin College, where he not only teaches environmental studies but pushes--hard--to make his campus and his town as green as possible. Orr showed some photos of his grandchildren at the end of his speech to remind us how high the stakes are. And when was the last time you heard someone at an energy conference quote the Constitution? We have to "secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity," Orr argued. It was a real tearjerker, and Orr got a standing ovation.

One thing that intrigued me about his presentation was that it directly addressed the elephant in the room (the same elephant was politely ignored at all the other sessions I went to): politics. Perhaps because he lives in Ohio rather than New England, Orr is acutely aware that no matter how much we'd like to think otherwise, advocating recycling or renewable energy or smart growth is a political act in this country. Sustainability simply will not happen at the federal policy level until we find a way to depoliticize it--or at least find ways to use politics in the favor of science.

For example, I went to a session about green climate change policies in Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont. How soon do you think policies requiring 80% cuts in CO2 emissions are going to be implemented in the job-starved rust belt? Coal country? The Deep South?

A Green Tea Party Movement?

Maybe sooner than you think, if Orr gets his way. Apparently he's part of a group that has been talking to the Pentagon about the national security implications of climate change, and the overlap between sustainability and passive survivability. He showed them his plan for the Oberlin College campus, and the off-campus "green arts block" that integrates the school with the "typical rustbelt downtown" (a description this Ohio native finds rather amusing for what we considered a hippie stronghold) that is Oberlin proper.

You'll never guess what the Pentagon said: that they hoped to see one of these "national security network" sites in every congressional district in the country. Orr seemed to relish the idea of planning the next national security network site in John Boehner's district. He roused the crowd with a call for "our own version of the Tea Party movement--one powered not by bullsh*t but by sunlight."

The Building Energy conference is always a good show! The historic Apollo Theater in Oberlin's "typical rustbelt downtown" will become part of the proposed arts block/national security site. Click on the photo to enlarge.

Everyone seemed so relieved--almost giddy--to be talking about politics directly for once. We don't like to, because the science behind our work is not political. But pretending it's not politicized is simply insane.

No Policies without Addressing Politics


We've worked so hard in the last couple of decades to put the market to work for green initiatives. We've found ingenious ways to prioritize, monetize, and incentivize sustainability. But we've also found that market-based solutions only go so far. At some point, policies--radical, sweeping, federal policies--will have to take over where the market leaves off. I'm awfully glad people like David Orr aren't waiting for "others" to get to work on that.

Orr brought up these national security sites. What other ideas do people have for addressing political reality in ways that further sustainability? Feel free to discuss--politely--in the comments.

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1 A great point, Aaron! One thi posted by Paula Melton on 03/11/2011 at 06:46 am

A great point, Aaron! One thing I did not mention in the post is that David talked a lot about climate change as an issue of "wartime urgency," and said it was the challenge of our generation. You hear a lot about small things people did during WWII—Victory Gardens and such—as heroic. Perhaps some of the small things we do every day go a longer way than we now imagine.

But I think we need to get creative, and specific, about how we can ride the political waves rather than getting caught in the undertow. So many of these apparently political barriers seem to be deeply cultural as well, which I think could be a more problematic hangup. Is emphasizing national security a foot in the door? Perhaps. Another idea I have heard people talking about on and off is forming stronger coalitions with faith groups. What else are people doing, and what have the results been? I'd love to hear more ideas!

2 Paula, thank you. I'd like to posted by Aaron Desatnik on 03/11/2011 at 06:11 am

Paula, thank you. I'd like to not just hear about David Orr's work but ask him to provide ways for people in other areas to plug in, take leadership. This "Green Tea Party Movement" idea is impossible without this shared insight. I just wrote this letter to my Congressman the other day:

Dear Congressman,

How can you, with any integrity and hope for the generations of your children and their children, seek to dismantle the power of EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions? How can you, with any heart and compassion towards other people and the world you were given, seek to kill any change of a good world for future generations? How can you, with such a position of power, act with such cowardice such a turning point in our nation's economic and social trajectory?

Measure twice, cut once,

Aaron Desatnik

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