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Breaking Ground

The new environmental center at Oberlin College is designed to open students' imagination about a sustainable future.

The problem of education in our time has little to do with SAT scores. It is not in any important way related to how much money we spend on education. It has absolutely nothing to do with preparing the young for the global economy or how many computers we stuff into classrooms. The problem of education in our time is how to make ecologically intelligent people in an ecologically ignorant society.

The success of this effort rests not only on what happens in classrooms. Environmental education, however well-intentioned or well-executed, cannot compete with the instructional effects of highways, shopping malls, urban sprawl, factory farms, agribusiness, huge utilities, and multinational corporations. By the time a student reaches college, environmental education, if it happens at all, is mostly remedial. And what must it remedy? For starters, it must help students understand how some 300-500 chemicals got into their bodies and the deadly illogic by which some justify such risks to their health as necessary trade-offs.

Education must equip students to comprehend the effects of the economic practice of discounting, which devalues their future to the vanishing point, and to see through the distorted reasoning used to justify huge risks of climatic change for the benefit of the fossil fuel industry.

It must equip them to see through all of the hyperventilation about progress, economic growth, and salvation by technology - the stock-in-trade of the terrible simplifiers. It must prepare them to be more intellectually agile, broader, and deeper than the experts who would make them modern-day serfs in a virtual economy. It must equip them to see through all of the life-denying rationalizations used to sacrifice biological diversity and the beauty of the Earth for one spurious thing or another.

Real education, however, cannot stop there. In a decaying sensate culture dying for lack of vision, the larger task of education is to help expand our sense of ecological and human possibilities. We need a more life-centered concept of education that equips students with the wherewithal to recalibrate the larger society with ecological realities. And how is this to happen?

Models of eco-design

I propose a national effort to engage students in making schools, colleges, and universities models of ecological design that can be seen and experienced.

Every school, college, and university has a formal curriculum described in its catalog. But it also has a hidden curriculum consisting of its buildings, grounds, and operations. Like the infrastructure of the larger society, it structures what students see, how they move, what they eat, their sense of time and space, how they relate to each other, how they experience particular places - and it affects their capacity to imagine better alternatives.

The extravagant use of energy in buildings, for example, teaches students that energy is cheap and can be wasted. The use of materials that are toxic to manufacture, install, or discard teaches carelessness about the use of Creation and a kind of mindlessness about where things come from and at what cost. Windowless rooms, or those with windows that do not open, teach that nature is to be kept at arm's length.

Likewise, campus landscapes are seldom valued as a component of a larger energy system useful for blocking winter winds or providing summertime shading and cooling. Neither are they regarded as potentially useful for growing food or fuel, sequestering carbon, recycling wastewater, capturing water, conserving biological diversity, or providing animal habitat.

Such landscapes are, however, unfailingly educational. They teach that we are separate from nature and that intellectual acuity is an indoor thing having nothing to do with practical outdoor skills. Ironically, for all their worldly sophistication, our students are often starved for direct experience that connects them to soils, plants, water, forests, wildlife, and a related body of skills.

It is possible, however, to design buildings and landscapes that work differently. For the past three years, I have worked with a team of students and leading designers, including William McDonough, Amory Lovins, John Lyle, John Todd, and Andropogon Associates, to craft an environmental studies building that will use energy and materials with great artfulness and efficiency and will be powered by direct sunlight using advanced technologies like photovoltaics and fuel cells.

We set out to design not just a building in which education happens, but one that educates through its design and routine operations. The amount of electricity generated by a photovoltaic array and the building's energy use will be monitored and displayed in a central atrium. Whenever possible, we are using materials from local sources, giving priority to those that can be recycled. Some components will be 'products of service' that will be returned to manufacturers for recycling, not discarded.

The building will feature natural lighting and windows that open. It will purify its wastewater in a 'living machine' designed by John Todd. Wood for the building will come from forests that are managed for long-term ecological health. Building costs, including CO2 emissions, will be calculated on a life-cycle basis.

Similarly, the landscape around the Adam Joseph Lewis Center has been designed to teach ecological competence in horticulture, gardening, natural systems agriculture, ecological restoration, forestry, aquaculture, and techniques to preserve biological diversity. In other words, it is possible to construct buildings that promote ecological imagination and help to develop ecological competence. We broke ground on this building in September. It will be completed in the late fall of 1999.

Conscious connections

For the past 12 years, I have worked with teams of students here and elsewhere to research the invisible network of corporate farms, feedlots, forests, factories, oil wells, and mines that supply educational institutions. The evidence shows conclusively that colleges and universities can reduce environmental impacts, improve services, reduce costs of campus operations, and do so in a way that is an educational asset. For example, it is possible to use the institutional purchases of food, energy, materials, and water as part of a larger pedagogy to promote the evolution of sustainable local economies in which we can become responsible agents. These conclusions are borne out by similar efforts at Brown University, Dartmouth, Middlebury College, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and elsewhere. There are 3,700 institutions of higher education in the US, with 14 million students, annual budgets over $150 billion, and endowments in excess of $100 billion. We could make long strides toward sustainability if even a fraction of these were to adopt ecological guidelines for campus management.

The transformation of schools, colleges, and universities is, of course, a means to a larger end. Our role as educators is to show students that the world is rich in possibilities by engaging them in solving real problems and to foster the moral energy, practical competence, and analytical skill they will need to meet the challenges of the century ahead.

But these, too, are means, not ends. Education in our time should aim at nothing less than the renewal of wisdom, the rebirth of gratitude, and the recovery of a sense of beauty large enough to embrace both esthetics and justice.


Resources: David W. Orr's Operational Guidelines for Campuses and Universities can be found elsewhere on the YES! Web site. Other resources recommended by David Orr:

Ball State University, Proceedings, Greening of the Campus II, Muncie: Ball State University, 1997.

Michael Dwyer, et al., Oberlin and the Biosphere Campus Ecology Report, 1998.

Sarah Hammond Creighton, Greening the Ivory Tower, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998.

Julian Keniry, Ecodemia, Washington: National Wildlife Federation, 1995.

Second Nature: www.secondnature.org

David W. Orr is the author of Earth in Mind, Ecological Literacy, and co-author of The Campus and Environmental Responsibility and The Global Predicament. He is a professor of environmental studies and politics at Oberlin College.

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