Skip to content

C200 (x4): Not “global warming” but planetary destabilization: What’s to be done?

2011 April 18
by David W. Orr

Climate destabilization is not just another issue on a long list of vexing problems, but the linchpin issue, that properly handled would lessen many other problems including national security, balance of payments, economic recovery, economic justice and public health.

We need a far-reaching national climate and energy policy executed with wartime urgency. But too much money in politics, media dedicated to entertainment, multiple leadership failures, too much power in the hands of Senators representing more acres and cows than people add up to a system rigged to prevent solutions to public problems and seemingly incapable of repairing itself.

With no prospect for meaningful Federal climate and energy legislation anytime soon, however, what’s to be done? The short answer is that, whatever the prospects, we must keep pushing on every front to: change Federal and state policies, transform the economy, improve public understanding of science, engage churches and civic organizations, reform private institutions, and change our own behavior. But we might also take a page from the Tea Party movement and begin a fierce grass-roots commotion of our own—one powered by sunlight and science.

As one example, Oberlin College and the City of Oberlin have joined to launch the Oberlin Project. We have four goals: (1) rebuild a 13- acre block in the downtown to U.S. Green Building Platinum Standards as a driver for economic revitalization; (2) quickly transition to carbon neutrality; (3) develop a 20,000 acre greenbelt to revive local farming and forestry; and (4) do all of the above as a part of an unique educational venture that joins the public schools, Oberlin College, a community college, and a vocational educational school. Ten community teams are working on strategic issues such as energy, public policy, finance, community, economic development, and education. The aim is “full-spectrum sustainability” in which the parts reinforce the resilience and prosperity of the whole. Beyond reducing our climate “footprint” and building a more durable economy, the Project will also improve our security.

If true security means safety and access to food, water, energy, shelter, health, and livelihood—Americans have never been so vulnerable. Beyond traditional security challenges, we must now reckon with terrorism (homegrown and foreign), a “perfect storm” of food shortages, water scarcity, expensive oil, the multiple effects of climate destabilization, and “black swan” events such as the recent tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan or the financial collapse of 2008. The upshot, in one analyst’s words, is that “we must squarely face the awful fact that our security will become ever more perilous.”

We must also face the fact that no government on its own can protect its people and that citizens, neighborhoods, communities, towns, cities, regions, and corporations will have to do far more to ensure reliable access to food, energy, clean water, shelter, and economic development in the decades ahead. This is not to argue against Federal policy changes to promote sustainable development, reform the tax system, deploy clean energy, and improve public transportation—things that can best be done or only done by the Federal government. But communities will have to carry much more of the burden than heretofore.

Sustainability must become the domestic and strategic imperative for the twenty-first century. Its chief characteristic is resilience—a concept long familiar to engineers, mathematicians, ecologists, designers, and military planners—which means the capacity of the system to “absorb disturbance; to undergo change and still retain essentially the same function, structure, and feedbacks.” Resilience is a design strategy that aims to reduce vulnerabilities often by shortening supply lines, bolstering local capacity, and solving for deeper patterns of dependence and disability. The less resilient the country, the more military power is needed to protect its far-flung interests and client states hence the greater the likelihood of wars fought for oil, water, food, and materials. But resilient societies need not send their young to fight and die in far-away battlefields, nor do they need to heat themselves into oblivion.

A revolution in the design of resilient systems has been quietly building momentum for nearly half a century. It includes dramatic changes in architecture, solar technology, whole systems engineering, ‘cradle to cradle’ manufacturing, and smarter growth and transportation systems. Taken to its conclusion, ecological design would radically improve our security, environment, economy, health and strengthen communities while reducing our vulnerability.

National security is too important to be left solely to the generals, defense contractors, TV pundits, and tub thumping politicians in Washington. It will be necessary for neighborhoods, communities, towns, cities, and regions to improve their resilience and security by their own initiative, ingenuity, and foresight. The Oberlin Project is one example, but there are many others at different scales and in different regions. We have begun to join many of these into a “national sustainability network of sites, cities, and projects” which aims to improve local and regional resilience and prosperity. Remove the word “national” and imagine a global network of transition towns, cities, regions, and organizations—a solar powered renaissance of local capability, independence, culture, and real security. Imagine a world, someday, where no child need fear violence, hunger, thirst, poverty, ignorance, homelessness, or heat and storms beyond imagining.


David W. Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics the Special Assistant to the President of Oberlin College, and a James Marsh Professor at the University of Vermont. Orr is the recipient of five honorary degrees and other awards including The Millennium Leadership Award from Global Green, the Bioneers Award and the National Wildlife Federation Leadership Award. He has lectured at hundreds of colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and Europe. Dr. Orr will be speaking at Town Hall Seattle this Thursday April 21, 6 – 7:30 p.m.