An Interview with David W. Orr: Ecological Design on the Edge of A New Story
A Conversation between Daniel C. Wahl and Prof. David W. Orr, Oberlin, Ohio, 2006
Daniel: Thank you David for giving me the opportunity of this interview. Could you start by giving a definition of ecological design and how you see the role of ecological design in the transition towards a culture of sustainability?
David: Ecological design is the art and science by which we would remake the human presence on Earth. It applies to how we provision ourselves with food, energy, shelter, clean water, materials, waste cycling, entertainment, health care, virtually everything.
Design is not a typical discipline.
The discipline, say, of architecture is a subfield of a larger subject called ecological design. Design typically has been how we make things, but ecological design is how we make things that fit. That means the fittedness between an artefact, a technology, or a house, or a community and the larger system is the key question.
There is a caveat here, because about that larger context as it plays out over time we are mostly ignorant about how those bigger systems work over long periods of time. So design is always about margins of error and resilience. It is about not betting it all on a single throw of the dice, and not assuming — as Robert Sinchheimer once put it — that nature does not set traps for unwary species.
Design is about caution. It is about precaution, about harmony, about pattern, and about weaving systems and strands together in a way that is durable over long periods of time, but also changeable and resilient.
Daniel: You mentioned in your latest book, Design on the Edge, that design could be perceived as a healing profession. Could you say a few things about that?
David: Well, humans on the face of the Earth, have been something of — or at least often times — a disaster. It would be difficult to identify any technology or human “advancement” that did not move carbon skyward or seaward. The hoe, a primitive tool way back when, started the process by which we began to tinker with climate, and we have accelerated that so that it is now an exponential process. So the problem that we have, as a species, is that we have been digging a hole for ourselves as a species for a very long time, and the last 50 to 70 years the damage has become what appears to be catastrophic if allowed to go much further.
Ecological design in that sense is a healing process. It is how we understand patient Earth, and about how we understand ourselves, and our own health, to be dependent on the larger body of Earth — Gaia. The idea that as species can be healthy and prosperous on a planet run to wreck and ruin isn’t just wrong. It is a form of mental derangement for which I don’t have any words.
Daniel: Do you see the increasing climate chaos and the looming scenario of peak oil as the end of civilisation or as an opportunity for a new start? Do you think we will have what James Lovelock called a “powered descent,” or will we have a crash and then a rebuilding?
David: (Laughter) We don’t know that yet! That’s what is at stake. That is the fork in the road, and one of the difficulties with this is the issue of leads and lags. What we have already initiated in terms of climate change, that thirty years of difference between the emission of the carbon that amplified the sea water temperatures, that amplified the storm that hit Louisiana we called Katrina. We don’t know where we are, and neither do we know how wise and far-sighted our response can be, because we haven’t responded yet. Which is to say, we have been pretty stupid up to this point.
So, fork in the road? Absolutely. Even if we decide to take the fork toward opportunity, we do not know for sure whether the opportunity has passed. It may be. That is the fear, the nightmare scenario, but I think we ought to assume that it hasn’t passed. That we can make something much better of this than would occur if we simply let things take their course and run carbon levels in the atmosphere to 550, 600, or even 800 or 1000 parts per million. That truly would mean the end of civilization by everything that we know now. That would destroy us. So, good questions, and that was not an answer. You have defined I think where we are at this moment.
Daniel: In The Nature of Design you speak about the need to invent, or reinvent, the idea of a sustainable human civilization and then distribute or promote it as widely and quickly as possible. This very much points towards the fact that global issues are not about national interests anymore, but about the survival of humanity. Could you say a few more things about that?
David: Let me just say two things. The issue of sustainability isn’t just about technology and systems and housing and so forth. It will be very much about, it will be won or lost on, the battle for equity and fairness. There is no sustainable world that could be made around inequity, and there is no inequitable world that we would want to sustain anyway.
The politics around this will be particularly troubling. It will be much easier to see how we make solar collectors, than how we make a solar-powered civilization. That is going to require a level of political inventiveness that we haven’t seen on this planet.
The corporation, I think, is a peculiarly maladapted institution. It is adapted to extraction of materials and to endless economic growth. Those are assumptions that we can no longer safely hold. So what the politics will have to be is a politics that says that our great, great grandchildren have standing. Which is to say a right to stop parts of our behaviour that deprive them in terms of our constitutions of their right to life, liberty, and property.
So sustainability and ecological design are about seeing the world as a system, and seeing the interconnections over long periods of time. Those are two fundamental changes, and they run against anything that we have done scientifically and technologically in the past 300 years. Our science has proceeded by disaggregation not by aggregation. It has proceeded in small steps without, for the most part, adequate regard for the long term.
Systems of government will face the same challenge. We have to understand how to govern in terms of systems and patterns over long periods of time, that honour the rights of generations five, six, seven removed from our own.
Daniel: Where do you see the role of grass-roots movements like the permaculture movement and the ecovillage movement in the shift towards a sustainable civilization?
David: Well, I think they are the groups in the trenches trying to create actual patterns of living and livelihood that will work in such a world, but in the absence of larger changes and a larger consensus at the very top of society a good bit of that will be wasted. So I see this as not exclusively a top down movement, neither can it be a simply bottom up movement. There will have to be some form of coordination between the upper layers and the grassroots organizations.
I see those movements to be critical for people to see what life could be like lived beyond consumption, and lived beyond the extractive economy from mine to dump. Ecovillages, permaculture, and community supported agriculture, and hundreds of other kinds of related enterprises are the inventive wing, or the inventive edge, or the cutting edge of this movement. They are important, as much as anything else, for what they do to spark our ecological and social imagination of possibilities.
They are necessary to build a consensus that this is not ruin. We don’t have to go with a whimper or bang. That we can, in fact live quite well, I think even better than we now live in a world that is more humane, that operates at a slower clock speed, that conserves nature and people. That is a better world, but to believe that, people will have to see that. We are visual creatures and it is important that people see in order to be able to understand what is possible to do.
Daniel: In your latest book (Design on the Edge) you mention: “Our choice is not whether we are spiritual or not, it is whether our spiritual energy is directed towards authentic purposes or not.” You also start the book with a poem that mentions the four elements and spirit.
David: That’s my first cut at poetry.
Daniel: Where do you see the role of spirit and the dimension of the sacred in this transition that lies before us?
David: My sense is, Daniel, that humans are inevitably spiritual and the question, again, is not whether we are, but whether we are authentically spiritual or not. It bubbles out of us.
We are meaning seeking creatures, and if the highest meaning in my life is soccer, I will make soccer my religion and it will orient my live. It will give my life meaning and gravity and direction. It just happens to be a bad religion. I could make environmentalism a religion. That happens to be a bad religion, too.
We can’t help but to make something into a believe system, and you can argue why this is for us. This goes back to cave paintings, but this is part of humanity. As soon as we identify the human species, we see a species trying to grapple with: What does this mean? Where are we? Who are we? How did we get here? You see these questions being asked. They pop up in early philosophy, early art. This is what it means to be human.
What the consumer and the economy driven world did was to assume away spirituality of any kind of authentic kind. It said that the world is purely secular and we can satisfy human needs and wants by purely secular means. But we have it on high authority that we don’t live by bread alone, and we find this desperate search for meaning in the modern world. We had to invent words like anomie, meaning rootlessness. That was Neil Dirkheim.
We have all kinds of behaviour patterns that show the need for authentic belief, the need for authentic work. Not just a job, but good work, a job that fits a larger scheme of meaning. But the modern world has a surplus of stuff, but is pauperized at the level of meaning. We are long on means but short on ends, which is a different play on those words.
For this transition to be authentically spiritual, we will have to do something that is incredibly difficult to do: We will have to decide not just how we make ourselves sustainable, but why we should be sustained. That’s a much more difficult thing.
There is an old Islamic tale, the tale of the Jin. In which the animals have humans on trial and it was retold by Joanna Macy and John Seed in a book the title of which I cannot recall.
Daniel: Thinking Like a Mountain
David: Is that it?
Daniel: I think so.
David: They retell the story and I have my students sometimes do this and just wrote a column on this that comes out in Conservation Biology. The column is simply called the trial and it will be the opening chapter of a new book that I am working on.
Imagine, being in the dark and you are the attorney for the human species. What case would you make to all the critters that have been rendered sentient and given voice? How would you defend human kind?
I do think that there is a defence that can be made, and believe we have to make it. We have to understand, not just that we can survive, if we develop all this gadgetry, if we are just smart enough, but that we are good enough to deserve longevity. And, I think the point of that exercise is simply this: If we knew why we should survive, we would better understand, I think, how we might survive.
So this is not an idle debating question, and it takes you to the core of spirituality. What do we owe? How are we obliged? What do we owe to the far distant future? What do we owe to the distant past? What does it mean for us to be stewards or trustees?
And that takes you back, if you push those questions far enough to: Who are we? What are we? Was our role here on this planet simply to dig up carbon and release it to the atmosphere and then expire? Was that what we were all about? I don’t think so. I think that there is a higher destiny waiting for us, but that means for us that we will have to find common ground, politically, morally, and spiritually.
That does not mean all believe the same thing, it means a common ground of tolerance, acceptance, forgiveness, love, compassion, before we can find the higher ground by which we might survive. Let’s call it sustainability or whatever term fits. The task is finding common ground in the very best that humanity has been and the very best that humanity can be, and that in every way will be a spiritual task. It will not be a technological kind of thing.
And it will happen — one final note here — it will happen with a level of spiritual leadership rather like a Gandhi, or Desmond Tutu, or Martin Luther King, who is able to articulate a level of reality that is impossible to articulate if we only focus on materiality.
If our debate does not go further than the language of neoclassical economics, we are done for! Because you cannot make an economic argument for human survival, you have to make a spiritual argument for human survival. We are worth it, and we are worthy of it in that higher sense.
[This interview was videoed at David’s home in December 2006 during a visit to Oberlin College, Ohio. The visit was made possible by being awarded the Krystyna Johnson Travel Award of the Scottish Ecological Design Association (SEDA) in August 2005 before David Orr came to the University of Dundee to act as external examiner on my PhD defence committee. My PhD is entitled Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability and is strongly influenced by the David’s work. David Orr is one of the most lucid and articulate writers on the transition towards a sustainable human civilization, one of America’s leading environmental educators, and a tireless activist at all scales of the political process. His books include, Ecological Literacy, Earth in Mind, The Nature of Design, and Design on the Edge.
The above interview and the many conversations we had during my stay at his home in 2006 started a process which ultimately led me to write Designing Regenerative Cultures which was published with a foreword by David Orr in May 2016.
Here is a quote from David’s foreword:
“Daniel Wahl has compiled a great deal of useful information in a masterful synthesis. That alone is a significant accomplishment, but he’s given us more than that. Designing Regenerative Cultures describes the doorway to a possible, indeed, necessary future. We are not fated to the dystopia in prospect. We have, as he writes, the capacity to design and to organize our societies to protect, enhance, and celebrate life. The blueprint was there all along. The awareness of our possibilities is growing. The art and sciences of ecological design are flourishing. The choice, as always, is ours and that of those who will follow.”]