Climate change again: David Orr’s Down to the Wire

Published online 6 June 2011.

This is a book review of David W. Orr’s (2009) volume “Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse,” a book about climate change. It is noteworthy because Orr has written significant things about environmental education, and for him to switch gears at this point implies that education really isn’t sufficient at this point; we’ve got to think about how the world is going to be. My review will be sympathetic although critical, and will carefully identify and critique the virtues of Orr’s approach. Orr combines 1) a social philosophy of climate change which recommends institutional redesign as a recommended means of coping, with 2) a set of policy recommendations aimed at making the changes he wants to see. There really isn’t enough work being done on this.


My recent re-encounter with the writings of David W. Orr has largely to do with an old edited volume on a very cool concept. Greening the College Curriculum: A Guide to Environmental Teaching in the Liberal Arts is a book about what could be done in each of the academic disciplines of the liberal arts academy to teach “environmental awareness” — and college-level curricula are given at the end of each chapter.

At any rate, David W. Orr wrote the chapter dealing with “education,” and his chapter starts with some wonderful recommendations about how the college rankings could be changed so that, instead of ranking colleges by the volume of research grants or whatever, institutions such as “US News and World Report” could rank colleges by environmental criteria. Examples: what do the graduates of a particular college or university do for mother Earth after they graduate? how are the college buildings set up to conserve energy and raw materials? How do colleges themselves contribute to the creation of sustainable local economies? All of this advice is given in the spirit of a critique of universities as specialist places, overconcerned with money, that need leadership in dealing with the environmental crisis.

Orr is also famous for writing the short (1994) book Earth In Mind, in which he applies the same precision he used in critiquing the universities to education in general. According to his Wikipedia page, David W. Orr teaches at Oberlin College and at the University of Vermont.

One gets the impression, then, that as an environmentalist Orr is a practical thinker, who approaches environmentalism by beginning with institutions and standards — since we spend our daily lives interacting with institutions, we look at things through institutional lenses, and so the first thing we can do is to evaluate our institutions differently. To a certain extent this is also what goes on in Down to the Wire, the David W. Orr book I will be reviewing here.

Curiously, Orr’s most recent book touches tangentially on education, and on his other passion, architecture, but is mainly about abrupt climate change. Orr doesn’t sugar-coat the problem as it stands. He begins by warning us that “the news about climate, oceans, species, and all of the collateral human consequences will get a great deal worse for a long time before it gets better,” (xiii), and that “Climate change, like the threat of nuclear annihilation, puts all that humanity has struggled to achieve — or cultures, art, music, literatures, cities, institutions, customs, religions, and histories, as well as our posterity — at risk. Unless we are led to act rapidly and wisely we are on a course leading to an Earth of greatly reduced biological diversity populated by remnants and ruins.” (4) We adopt the postures of reformists at our own, incredibly high, risk.

Orr’s first main topic in this regard is governance — he spends a good deal of time in this book analyzing the limitations of the American political system, and thinking about what should be done. His overall agenda: “Like the founding generation, we need a substantial rethinking and reordering of systems of governance that increase public engagement and create the capacities for foresight to avoid future crises and rapid response to deal with those that are unavoidable.” (40) At some times he appears to be struggling to devise polite, nonthreatening ways of saying “we need a revolution.” At other times he appears to have adopted a pro-reform message. “Natural capitalism is a necessary but insufficient response to the long emergency ahead.” (60). In the current situation it’s easy to want to applaud anything that looks good.

Orr’s solutions are many: “We must, in short order, build a world secure by design.” Change the education system to respect planet Earth, secure sustenance for the many, “rebuild democracy,” (178) promote small-scale alternative energy, protect biodiversity, create a green economy. The problem is that the existing, capitalist system does not show any current willingness to deal proactively with abrupt climate change as such, nor does it show any signs that it will do so in the future. I think that Orr’s suggestions are mostly on the right track, but conceding talking points to the mentalities produced by late capitalism is likely to be fruitless. Occasionally the author says stuff in this vein that makes no sense, for instance: “We are at the end of an age of isms — socialism, Marxism, and capitalism — all of which in varying ways held that economic growth and technology could solve all of our problems.” (68) This becomes hard to explain if we consider that “socialism” and “Marxism” placed no faith in technology outside of Marx and Engels’ short, overconfident comment about it in the Manifesto, and that the capitalists never claimed to solve all of our problems. If I knew Orr personally, I would send him a copy of Joel Kovel’s book on ecosocialism.

Orr does have one thing thoroughly right, though, and that’s that “it is likely that economic contraction, not expansion, will become the norm.” Just to provide some support for Orr’s thesis, here, from another literature: William K. Tabb argues in the Journal of World-Systems Research that:

Real global growth averaged 4.9 percent a year during the Golden Age of national Keynesianism (1950–1973). It was 3.4 percent between 1974 and 1979; 3.3 percent in the 1980s; and only 2.3 percent in the 1990s, the decade with the slowest growth since World War II. The slowing of the real economy led investors to seek higher returns in financial speculation…. [I]increased liquidity and lower costs of borrowing encouraged in turn further expansion of finance. The coincident trends of growing inequality and insecurity…and the spreading power of rapid financialization do not suggest a smooth continued expansion path for a society based on increased debt and growing leverage.

Eventually, then, the trend should proceed from 4.9 to 2.3 to zero to negative, and whether it be from excessive financialization of the economy or from Orr’s favorite cited cause, the drying up of fossil fuel reserves, we will get economic shrinkage. In the end, however, Orr tells us:

My position is not “socialist,” whatever that word is presumed to mean, but it is decidedly in favor of placing limits on corporate power and even individualism where its excesses cast long shadows on the prospects of our grandchildren and theirs. (39)

For some reason, I gather, the defenders of more capitalism cannot be told outright that in this era they in fact advocate mass impoverishment. Somehow we are to fit in economic contraction, corporate profit, and public well-being, all in the same world? This even when, as Orr argues, “we must repair and enhance our civic culture and our collective capacity to solve problems associated with climate change in the brief time before they become unmanageable.” (39) Certainly a healthy civic culture would discuss, debate, and seriously assess the potential merits and drawbacks of getting out of capitalism altogether. Orr doesn’t broach this matter.

The main virtue of Orr’s work, as I’ve been arguing here, is that it does not sugar-coat global warming. There are two chapters at the end of this book, “hope at the end of our tether,” and “the upshot: what is to be done?” The first of these chapters argues that the tinkering reform approach is based on a sort of cynicism about the public that reflects the neoconservative philosophy of the followers of Leo Strauss — they will, in the fashion of the guardians of Plato’s Republic, tell the public that things “aren’t really that bad” so that people won’t despair of a solution. Orr doesn’t believe this.

What do I propose? simply that those who purport to lead us, and all of us who are concerned about climate change, environmental quality, and equity, treat the public as intelligent adults who are capable of understanding the truth and acting creatively and courageously in the face of necessity — much as a doctor talking to a patient with a potentially terminal disease. (189)

Of course, that isn’t what politicians are for. Politicians are there to tell the public “elect me.

Orr then launches into a long discussion of why small is beautiful in the era of limits, using the rhetoric which Ted Trainer mastered so well in his descriptions of the “conserver society.” He concludes by arguing for a society based on nonviolence:

The transformation to a nonviolent world will require courageous champions at all levels — public officials, teachers, communicators, philanthropists, artists, statespersons, philosophers, and corporate executives. But in democratic societies it will most likely be driven by ordinary people who realize that we are all at the end of our tether and it is time to do something a great deal smarter and more decent. (202)

The last chapter of Orr’s book will delight the policy wonks who inhabit this place. Orr, writing at the beginnings of the Obama administration, wants to see a carbon tax, and he wants to see climate policy prioritized in the ways reflected in the Presidential Climate Action Project. Then, Orr insists, “the president must launch a public process to consider long-term changes in our system of governance, politics, and law.” (207) Further, he proposes the “creation of a council of elders to advice the president, Congress, and the nation on matters of long-term significance relating to climate.” (209) Orr is great because he doesn’t stay on the level of abstraction, but, rather, he gets down to concrete matters of business while retaining the philosophical spirit which informs his attempts to convert social institutions to environmentalist principles.

Of course, the problem with Orr’s proposals is that they’re not going to happen as long as governance in this country and throughout the world is oriented the wrong way, and even if such proposals do happen they are likely to be “spun” so as to defend the destructive interests (as Orr himself cites them) who consider it their financial interests to continue civilization on the path of mass suicide. Recommended for the reasons stated above, and considering the objections noted above.

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