Orr discusses acting with honor and integrity to combat climate change


Environmentalist David Orr speaks Friday afternoon in the Hall of Philosophy. Photo by Michelle Kanaar.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

“Is it possible for one generation to undermine the possibilities and scope of honor and integrity for its children and theirs?” asked David Orr during the 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture Friday in the Hall of Philosophy.

“The answer is sure it is.”

In the final Week Seven Department of Religion lecture on the theme “Creating Cultures of Honor and Integrity,” Orr discussed culture, honor and integrity from the lens of an environmentalist in a lecture titled “Creating Cultures of Honor and Integrity in a Hotter Time.”

Orr, Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College, appropriately opened his lecture with some assigned readings: The Honor Code by Kwame Anthony Appiah and A Perfect Moral Storm by Stephen M. Gardiner.

“The words ‘honor’ and ‘integrity’ are confusing and complicated words. There’s nothing simple about them,” Orr said.

He illustrated his understandings of honor and integrity using four stories. He was first exposed to integrity through the actions of his father, a president of Presbyterian College. In his capacity as a college president, he established a retirement program that would benefit every future president that governed the school, excluding himself.

Orr’s father also facilitated the early integration of the school. Early on, he would often check on the well-being of the school’s newly admitted black student population. During a conversation, one student informed him that the local barber shop refused to cut his hair. Orr’s father walked the student into the barber shop and told the owner that he had to cut the student’s hair. When the owner responded that he didn’t know how to cut “that kind of hair,” Orr’s father sat the student in the barber chair and began cutting his hair himself.

“Integrity takes a bit of courage, I think, to follow,” Orr said.

Orr told the story of Aldo Leopold, a noted ecologist and the author of A Sand County Almanac and The Land Ethic. In one essay titled “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Leopold described standing on a ridge in New Mexico and shooting a wolf and her cubs. After shooting the animals, Leopold went climbed down to investigate and realized that the wolf was still living. He wrote that as he stood next to the wolf, he saw a “fierce green fire dying in her eyes.”

“His belief that the mountains and the ecosystem needed fewer wolves and more deer was wrong. He said the mountain knew that, and the wolf knew that, and he didn’t,” Orr said.

Later in his life, when Leopold published The Land Ethic, a seminal work that catalyzed the environmental movement in the United States, he discussed killing the wolf.

“That was integrity that was the honesty to follow that idea seen first in the wolf’s eyes and follow that through to the end,” Orr said.

Orr once lived in Stone County, Ark. There, he served on a grand jury for a small-town embezzlement case in which someone in the town had embezzled money from the sheriff’s office. As they were investigating the case, the jury realized a local woman named Thelma Louise has stolen the money. As the jury discussed whether to indict Louise, one by one, jury members stood up to defend the local woman. One jury member said he “didn’t believe that she was guilty, and besides, she didn’t take a penny more than she needed to pay her husband’s medical bills,” Orr said. The jury decided not to proceed with the case.

“In definitions of honor and integrity, that was their definition; they didn’t want a local woman humiliated,” Orr said.

Orr’s final story was about the 1995 Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City. At 6 a.m. the day following the bombing, Orr received a phone call from one of his Amish friends, David Klein. Klein called to tell him that no Amish men had been implicated in the bombing. He said, “You know, if an Amish man had been involved, the get-away buggy would have been blown up,” Orr said.

Americans live in a culture that is “pedal to the metal,” Orr said. But the Amish live differently, more attuned to nature and the earth.

“We should be about the effecting of all things possible,” Orr said. “That’s written into our scientific code, but for the Amish, it’s not about the effecting of all things possible.

“Culture, I think, is the sum total of who we are, how we think, how we speak, how we act and the reasons we give for those things.”

Orr said honor requires being worthy of honor but also a community that accepts the same standard for honor. Integrity means faithfulness to an honorable standard.

“In our time, climate change — and it’s not global warming, it’s planetary destabilization — gone far enough is neither recoverable nor solvable,” Orr said.

Climate change and planetary destablization is related to the use and combustion of oil, coal and natural gases, influenced by how people build, get around, work and live, Orr said.

“Climate change is the biggest issue on the human agenda bar none,” he said.

At the start of the industrial era, carbon dioxide was a trace gas in the atmosphere; it made up 280 parts per million. Today, the concentration of CO2 has increased to 395 parts per million, Orr said.

Photo by Michelle Kanaar.

The Keeling Curve measures the rapid increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — it can be extended back 1.4 million years. Scientists who have studied those atmospheric measurements and changes say the world has left the only paradise it has ever known — the Holocene Epoch — and entered the Anthropocene Epoch, Orr said.

“We’re in a brand new era, and we’ve got to understand why and how we got there,” he said.

Each decade of the last three has been warmer than the previous. The International Energy Agency predicts a 2-degree centigrade warming of the earth by mid-century; the Royal Academy of of London said that the odds that earth will experience an increase of 4 degrees centigrade by 2062 are better than even, Orr said.

“It is coming at us faster, and it’s bigger than scientists thought even a few years ago,” Orr said.

This year, for the first time ever, the entire surface of Greenland has melted. Ice at the North Pole and in Antarctica is shrinking at a shockingly fast rate, Orr said.

“The air conditioning system for the earth is breaking down,” he said.

Nature is non-linear, Orr said. Changes can sometimes occur slowly or speed up with little warning. According to the British magazine Nature, the earth is nearing its tipping points, but people do not know how close they are.

No one would get in a car if the chance of a fatal accident was 50 percent, Orr said. People would never put their grandchildren in a car if that was the fatality risk, but we live in a world where 98 percent of scientists say that we are creating those risks with climate change and planetary destabilization.

“When people say they don’t believe in climate change, ‘belief’ is the wrong word,” Orr said. “You can say ‘I don’t believe in Moses, or Jesus or Buddha’ — that’s belief. Climate change is physics and chemistry.

“What this means is that these words ‘culture,’ ‘integrity’ and ‘creativity’ occur against a backdrop in which we’re changing the basic biophysical conditions in which we grew up as a species.”

Climate change currently propelled by human beings will result in bigger storms, severe droughts, rising sea levels, higher food prices, wars, revolution and famine for the future, Orr said.

Gus Speth, a leading environmentalist and the former dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, called global climate change the “perfect problem,” Orr said.

Climate change and planetary destabilization is slow moving, and it is complicated; there are often confusing numbers and an environmental lexicon attached when people discuss it, Orr said.

“Nobody in this room got sweaty palms when I said we’re at 395 parts per million. Nobody’s heart rate went up at all,” he said.

If someone stood at the podium in the Hall of Philosophy and pointed a gun at the audience, a flight or fight mechanism would kick in and people would run or attack the assailant. But in the case of the climate change, there is no definable enemy, because we are the enemy, Orr said.

“Everyone has a carbon footprint. There are no good guys here, and we’re all part of a system,” he said.

Another problem contributing to its status as the “perfect problem” is that the issue has been politicized, Orr said, when it never should have been; it is about how we live our lives, and the issue does not align with a political party. Climate change is also a consequence of human successes, not failures, he said. It is a problem that deals with intergenerational justice. It sets our present interests at war with those of our children and grandchildren, Orr said.

“What do honor and integrity mean from the standpoint of five generations ahead looking back at our generation? Will they say we acted honorably with integrity, or will they say something else?” Orr asked.

It is possible to create a civilization that does not require fossil energy, Orr said. Solar energy is a viable option. Each day, enough solar energy hits the earth that can be harnessed a thousand times over, Orr said.

“We have the technology. This is not a matter of technology, it’s a matter of leadership and initiative,” he said.

Biomimicry is another technology that can be utilized wherein manufacturers mimic the natural world and create profitable products with little pollution.

The Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College is powered entirely by sunshine. The students wanted drinking water to enter and leave the building, so they created a “living machine,” which is essentially an indoor marsh that handles pollution in a natural biological fashion. That can be adapted to help deal with pollution in lakes and create clean water areas, Orr said.

“Can we build a civilization that works in the boundaries of nature? The answer is yes,” Orr said.

For the past three years, Oberlin has been participating in a full-spectrum sustainability project. In Oberlin, Ohio, they are trying to build a model of a prosperous, cheap, post-fossil fuel economy. A goal is to rebuild the city’s downtown so it is solar powered with zero discharge. As part of the Clinton Climate Initiative, they intend to make the town a zero-carbon city.

“Next year, the electric supply in Oberlin will be 96 percent carbon free,” Orr said.

The project will also deploy a 3-megawatt solar array this summer. They also plan to create a 20,000-acre green belt around the city so ultimately 70 percent of locally consumed food will also be locally grown.

The project endeavors to complete its goals with a team composed of experts and 1,000 students from local public schools and colleges, Orr said.

“I don’t worry about the solvability of problems, but I do worry about the despair that can eat away at the morale of this generation of kids coming in,” he said.

The project is also working with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and military institutions. The goal is to take the model created in Oberlin and replicate it throughout the country in every congressional district, Orr said.

The biggest questions related to the project are if it can be scaled to fit a larger city like Los Angeles or Bangalor, India, and if there is enough time for those projects to impact and to protect the future. Orr said the answer to both questions is yes, but we have just enough time if we start now.

“There is no protection in law for future generations. You and I are protected by the guarantees that were written in the Fifth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment of due process in cases where life, and liberty and property were in jeopardy. They have no such guarantee,” Orr said. “Their guarantee is our ability to act quickly and with foresight — with honor and integrity.”