How do you save the world? Go green, SEED speaker says

Marissa Weeman

Author and Oberlin College professor David Orr challenged about 100 students and community members Saturday afternoon to change the nature of institutions in order to preserve the planet.

“We have dumb organizations,” Orr said. “They are oftentimes unresponsive to all kinds of things. We have to figure out how we can calibrate what we do here at these institutions with how the world works as a global system.”

Orr spoke as part of Students for the Ecological and Environmental Development’s 2002 conference titled, “It’s Not Easy Being Green: The Road to Sustainability.” SEED is an environmental-activism group geared toward educating the Northwestern community about ecological concerns and acting to improve the environment. The conference also featured booths and workshops about air pollution, water management and other ecological concerns.

The efforts Orr spearheaded to create an environmental studies center at Oberlin resulted in the Lewis Center. The earth-friendly building is equipped with a water purification plant that cleans and recycles waste water, furniture made from recycled materials and a technology system that collects energy data 24 hours a day.

“Architecture is becoming a way to reconnect people with nature,” he said. “This world has come undone in so many ways and we have to put it back together.”

Orr said academic institutions are becoming increasingly disconnected with global issues.

“Education is an underachiever relative to the big things on the agenda,” he said.

While constructing “green buildings” such as the Lewis Center is one way of attuning universities to environmental needs, Orr said talking about major issues and changes also is important.

“Language is the beginning of truth,” Orr said. “We’ve got to take back language. Language has to mean something again.”

He said today’s generation is running out of time to improve the earth’s condition, but all it takes is a small, dedicated group of people to set the process in motion.

“I think we’re already passing points of no return,” Orr said. “We need a minority that understands where this world needs to go. This planet was given to us as a gift that needs to be passed on.”

Orr cited an example of an 11th-grader who converted his high school’s energy source to solar power to emphasize that individuals need determination — not doctorates — to significantly effect change.

Weinberg senior Faisal Ahmed said he liked some of Orr’s points, but expected the speech to focus on more general issues rather than specific architectural and institutional ones.

“I liked his optimistic tone and how small things can make a difference,” Ahmed said. “I was kind of disappointed, because I thought he was going to talk about more global issues.”

Ahmed also said he was a little skeptical about some of Orr’s ideas, especially the effects of constructing green buildings on college campuses.

“I don’t think that’s the best use of funds,” said Ahmed, who is writing his senior thesis about environmental economics. “I think it might work at Oberlin because it’s a smaller college, but I don’t think Evanston’s really concerned about it.”

McCormick junior Rob Kutter said Orr’s speech opened his eyes to the impact students can have on the world.

“I didn’t realize that there’s a bigger difference you can make than just recycling,” said Kutter, SEED’s energy chairman. “You can change anything you want to.”