David Orr, a member of the Center for Ecoliteracy board of directors,is Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies andPolitics at Oberlin College, and the James Marsh Professor at Large,University of Vermont.This talk was delivered as the commencement address to the School ofDesign, University of Pennsylvania, on May 14, 2007.The Designer's ChallengeBy David W. Orr.Dean Hack, distinguished faculty of the School of Design, honoredguests, and most important, you the members of the class of 2007: Itis a great privilege to stand before you on your graduation day.As a Penn alumnus I feel a deep sense of affection for thisinstitution and for this place. My own interest in design was kindledhere long ago by Ian McHarg, who as much as anyone was the founder ofmodern landscape design and the larger field of ecological design. Hisbook Design with Nature remains a classic statement of the art ofintelligent inhabitation. From its founding, the city of Philadelphiahas been home to a great deal of innovative urban design andexperimentation now carried on here in the School of Design. You are apart of a great history and have inherited a legacy of which you maybe justly proud. But the work of designers is now entering itscritical and most important phase.It is said that we are entitled to hold whatever opinions we choose,but we are not entitled to whatever facts we wish. Whatever opinionsyou may have, there are four facts that will fundamentally shape theworld in which you will live and work.The first is the fact that we spend upwards of 95 percent of our timein houses, cars, malls, and offices. We are becoming an indoor speciesincreasingly shut off from sky, land, forests, waters, and animals.Nature, as a result, is becoming more and more an abstraction to us.The problem is most severe for children who now spend up to eighthours each day before a television or computer screen and less andless time outdoors in nature. Author Richard Louv describes theresults as "nature deficit disorder" — the loss of our sense ofrootedness in place and connection to the natural world. In somefuture time, it is not farfetched to think that disconnected androotless we would become unhinged in a fundamental way and that is aspiritual crisis for which there is no precedent.Second, when Benjamin Franklin walked the streets of Philadelphiathere were fewer than one billion of us on Earth. The human populationis now 6.5 billion and will likely crest at 9 or 10 billion.One-and-a-half billion live in the most abject poverty, while anotherbillion live in considerable wealth. One billion suffer from theafflictions of eating too much while others suffer from malnutrition.When I was a graduate student at Penn the ratio of richest to poorestwas said to be 35:1. It is now approaching 100:1 and growing. Theproblem of a more crowded world is not just about what ecologists callcarrying capacity of the Earth. It also a problem of justice with moreand more people competing for less and less.A third fact has been particularly difficult for a society built onthe foundation of cheap portable fossil fuels to acknowledge. We areat or near the year of peak oil extraction, the point at which we willhave consumed the easy and better half of the accessible oil. Theother half is harder to refine, farther out, and deeper down, andmostly located in places where people do not like us. We are notlikely to run out of oil or liquid fossil fuels from one source oranother, but we are nearing the end of the era of cheap oil. We haveknown this for decades, but we still have no coherent or farsightedenergy policy. In the meantime the penalty for procrastination growsdaily along with the risks of supply interruptions and volatile energyprices.There is a fourth fact. When the University of Pennsylvania wasfounded the level of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 280 parts permillion. But now the level of all human-generated heat-trapping gasesis 430 parts per million CO2 equivalent. We have already warmed theEarth by .8 degrees C and are committed at least to another .6 degreesC. According to the scientists who participated in writing the FourthReport for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change we are notjust warming the Earth, but destabilizing the entire planet. Climatescientist James Hansen says that we are close to making Earth adifferent planet and one that we will not much like.Four facts.One has to do with the largeness of the human spirit and our capacityto connect to life.The second has to do with justice, fairness, and decency in a morecrowded world.The third has to do with our wisdom and creativity in the face oflimits to the biosphere.The last is about human survival on a hotter and less stable andpredictable planet.In the face of the remorseless working out of large numbers do youhave reason to be optimistic? Frankly, no. Optimism is a predictionthat the odds are in your favor — like being a Yankees fan with aone-run lead in the ninth inning and two outs and a two-strike counton a .200 hitter and Mariano Rivera — in his prime — on the mound. Youhave good reason to believe that you will win the game. That'soptimism. The Red Sox fans, on the other hand, believing in thesalvation of small percentages, hope for a hit to get the runner homefrom second base to tie the game. Optimism is a bet that the odds arein your favor; hope is the faith that things will work out whateverthe odds. Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. Hopeful peopleare actively engaged in defying the odds or changing the odds. Butoptimism leans back, puts its feet up, and sports a confident lookknowing that the deck is stacked.If you know enough, you cannot honestly be optimistic. But you haveevery reason to be hopeful and to act faithfully and competently onthat hope. And what does that mean for you as designers?My message to you is this. As designers you hold the keys to creatinga far better world than that in prospect, but only if you respondcreatively, smartly, wisely, and quickly to the four facts describedabove. Your generation does not have a choice to solve one or two ofthese problems. You must solve them all — rather like solving aquadratic equation. And you have no time to lose. As designers youmust design so artfully and carefully as to help reconnect people tonature and to their places. You must design to promote justice in amore crowded world. You must design a world powered by efficiency andsunlight. You do not have the option of maintaining the status quo — aworld dependent on ancient sunlight. And since Nature is a ruthlessand unforgiving bookkeeper, you must do your work in a way thatbalances the carbon books. How will you do such things? The answers,fortunately, are many, but the principles of design are few. Let mesuggest three.The first has to do with the scope of your work. You must see designas a large and unifying concept — quite literally the remaking of thehuman presence on Earth. Design in its largest sense has to do withhow we provision ourselves with food, energy, materials, shelter,livelihood, transport, water, and waste cycling. It is the calibrationof human intentions with how the world works as a physical system andthe awareness of how the world works to inform our intentions. Andgood design at all times joins our five senses (and perhaps othersthat we suspect) with the human fabricated world. When designers getit right, they create in ways that reinforce our common humanity atthe deepest level.Ecological design is flourishing in fields as diverse as architecture,landscape architecture, biomimicry, industrial ecology, urbanplanning, ecological engineering, agriculture, and forestry. It isgathering momentum, driven by necessity, better technology, andeconomic opportunity. Designers in diverse fields are learning how to * use nature as the standard, as Ian McHarg proposed; * power the world on current sunlight; * eliminate waste; * pay the full cost of development; * build prosperity on a durable basis.Design as a large concept means, in Wendell Berry felicitous words,"solving for pattern," creating solutions that solve many problems.When you solve for pattern you will also have created resilience,which is the capacity of systems to persist in a world perturbed byhuman error, malevolence, and what we call "acts of God." And bysolving for pattern you are also likely to learn the virtues ofreparability, redundancy, locality, and simplicity.Here is an example of good design: Last week I took a class to a farmin Virginia in which the farmer raises poultry, cattle, and hogs soartfully that each element enhances the others while improving soilfertility and making a substantial profit by selling directly to alarge base of local customers. As a designer, he has designed outchemicals, pollution, genetically modified organisms, pharmaceuticals,and most of the fossil fuels necessary to transport food longdistances. The result is health in the large: of land, animals,people, and economy.As a corollary, you must see yourselves as the designers, not just ofbuildings, landscapes, and objects, but of the systems in which theseare components. That means that you must reckon with economic,political, and social aspects of design. And the hardest but mostimportant object for designers is the design of what Peter Senge callslearning organizations, in which designing ecologically becomes thedefault setting, not an aberration.Second, you will need a standard for your work, rather like theHippocratic Oath or a compass by which you chart a journey. For that Ipropose that designers should aim to cause no ugliness, human orecological, somewhere else or at some later time. That standard willcause you to think upstream from the particular design project orobject to the wells, mines, forests, farms, and manufacturingestablishments from which materials are drawn and crystallized intothe particularities of design. It will cause you, as well, to lookdownstream to the effects of design on climate and health of peopleand ecosystems. If there is ugliness, human or ecological, at eitherend you cannot claim success as a designer regardless of theartfulness of what you make.As a corollary, you, as designers, ought to think of yourselves firstas place makers, not merely form makers. The difference is crucial.Form making puts a premium on artistry and sometimes merely fashion.It is mostly indifferent to human and ecological costs incurredelsewhere. The first rule of place making, on the other hand, is tohonor and preserve other places, however remote in space and culture.When you become accomplished designers, of course, you will havemastered the integration of both making places and making thembeautiful.Third, as designers, you will need to place your work in a largerhistorical context — what philosopher Thomas Berry calls, your GreatWork. No generation ever asks for its Great Work. The generation ofthe Civil War certainly did not wish to fight and die at places likeShiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, or the Wilderness. But their Great Work,the end of human bondage, required just that of tens of thousands ofthem...and they rose to do their Great Work. Those now passing fromthe scene that Tom Brokaw calls "The Greatest Generation" did not wishto fight and die in places like Iwo Jima or the battlefields ofEurope. But their Great Work, the fight against Nazism, required themto do so and they rose to the challenge to do their Great Work aswell. Your Great Work, however, is not one of fighting wars, but ofextending and speeding a worldwide ecological enlightenment that joinshuman needs and purposes with the way the world works as a biophysicalsystem.Your Great Work will be no less demanding and no less complex thanthat of any previous generation. But in outline it is very simple.Your Great Work as designers is to: 1. Stabilize and reduce all heat trapping gases 2. Make a rapid transition to efficiency and renewable energy 3. Build a world secure by design for everyone...a world in whichevery child has a decent home, food, water, education, medical care 4. Preserve the best of our history and culture 5. Enable us to see our way forward to a world that is sustainableand spiritually sustainingThis challenge, your Great Work, is neither liberal nor conservative;neither Republican nor Democrat. It is, rather, the recognition thatthe present generation is a trustee standing midway between a distantpast and the horizon of the future. As trustees we are obligated topass on the best of our civilization and the ecological requisites onwhich it depends — including a stable climate and biological diversity— to future generations. The idea that we are no more than trusteeswas proposed long ago by Edmund Burke, the founder of modernconservatism (1790), and by one of the founders of modernrevolutionary politics, Thomas Jefferson (1789), as well. It is aperspective that unites us across our present divisions in service toour posterity.Your Great Work is a sacred trust given only to your generation. Ifyou do not rise to do your Great Work, it will not be done. We knowenough now to say what no other generation could rightfully say: theprice for that dereliction — not rising to do your Great Work — willbe high and perhaps total. Your Great Work as designers is to honorwholeness, health, and the great holy mystery of life. No othergeneration before you ever had a greater challenge and none morereason to rise to greatness.My charge to you is to do your work so well that those who will lookback on your time — the beneficiaries of your Great Work — will knowthat this was indeed humankind's finest hour.Copyright(c) 2007 David W. OrrDavid W. Orr, a member of the Center for Ecoliteracy board ofdirectors, is Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of EnvironmentalStudies and Politics at Oberlin College and the James Marsh Professorat Large, University of Vermont. Nationally recognized as a leader inenvironmental education, ecological literacy, and environmentaldesign, he is a contributing editor to Conservation Biology, theauthor of The Last Refuge: Patriotism, Politics, and the Environmentin an Age of Terror, The Nature of Design, Earth in Mind, andEcological Literacy, and coeditor of The Global Predicament and TheCampus and Environmental Responsibility..
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