An Interview with David Orr, author of ‘Down to the Wire’. Parts Two and Three
Posted Mar 22, 2010 by David Orr
How do you see the relationship between sustainability and resilience as concepts? Is resilience part of sustainability? Is sustainability part of resilience?
I guess for me sustainability is kind of a boring word but we’re stuck with it. But I tend to like resilience because it implies an active disposition to be able to withstand, it’s more of an engineering and mathematical term, but to be able to withstand disturbances. Some parameters change, some factors shift, and the system is able to adjust. There’s enough slack in the system that it works. So for me, at a minimum, sustainability implies resilience. In any definition of sustainability the system has got to be resilient to disturbances.
Are there any dangers inherent within the concept of relocalisation?
With my students, we talk about all these gee whizz environmental solutions and so forth, I want to get them to think about the dark side of what can happen, because I think the ‘happy talk’ view of humans is quite dangerous. I think that there are clearly ways in which Transition Towns and the local sustainability movement could become parochial and in my part of the world we have a history which shows that small towns can be vicious, mean places. In the 1880s until recently, lynchings we not uncommon.
The trick I think with Transition movement in this sense, is going to be to build in the mechanisms whereby people become more tolerant and open, although more constrained for fuels, electricity and so forth, but that we don’t create violence or parochialism, no matter how sustainable or otherwise. So I think the network idea was brilliant, to bring people in and create a movement. To have towns networked across the world that are part of this larger cosmopolitan dialogue of human presence in the world, and recognising that a Transition initiative is going to be different in Southern India, and in Indiana, and in Totnes, Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, Japan and China. But the basic questions are all going to be the same. How do we build, within the parameters of nature, and do it fairly, decently, sustainably, resiliently, openly, and with compassion toward everybody? So intolerance has to be bred out of everyone!
As this dialogue goes forward I would love to help foster the mechanisms whereby Transition Towns stay open and cosmopolitan and not parochial. The enemy here is fundamentalism, and the problem is you can have technological fundamentalist, economic growth fundamentalist, you can be a New York City cosmopolitan fundamentalist! It wears lots of different faces! That’s a great question though.
What is inner resilience? Why are some people more resilient than others? What does it look like if a community encounters shock – the population doesn’t just all go crazy and run round looting and stabbing each other, how does one help build that sense of compassion and flexibility and adaptability?
I think regarding the resilience you’re looking at in the face of catastrophe, I think we know three things that are important:
One is that catastrophes are coming. We don’t know the dates yet but we do know that the system is coming under increasing stress. Reserve stocks are way down, there’s a big drought in the American Midwest, and those stocks drop to below zero and there’s no slack in the system, so it’s going to be hand to mouth.
Secondly, civilisation is only nine meals away from anarchy. We know that no matter how good the intention is, however good people are, if they’re hungry, saints will turn into a mob. Get them hungry enough, turn the water off and the electricity off and you’ll cause panic and social psychology and biology take over.
Thirdly, I think it means that Transition Towns need food policy instead of relying on large-scale storage. I think networks of people, not just a town, let’s say in the Totnes area, between Devon and Cornwall, there needs to be a discussion about how go begin to stockpile food for bad years, or at least begin to talk about this stuff. Because if we’re reliant on large-scale systems to feed us, I think we’re kidding ourselves.
This debate was more alive in the Seventies than it is today, in terms of awareness of fragility and vulnerability, what Amory Lovins called ‘brittleness’ in systems. It doesn’t take really severe shocks to crack the system open. Roberto Vacca, an Italian systems theorist, wrote a book in the Seventies called The Coming Dark Age, and other authors wrote along the same lines during that period of rising awareness in the Seventies, it was part of the dialogue, that this could all come undone. There was a lot of thinking about how one event could cause it to unravel, a terrorist event, two Katrina-scale event…
I was on a panel once, sponsored by the CIA to think like terrorists. My team had to think like terrorists. The second team had to try and figure out what we came up with and what to do about it, and the third team and the third team (inaudible) and the three teams never talked. My team had to come up with the most heinous possibilities for terrorism, and we did, and they haven’t happened yet, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t. One plane loaded with high explosives could shut down the United States. The results of that panel were never published, but the fact is we’re vulnerable.
Naomi Klein’s book ‘The Shock Doctrine’, is one of the best books around, because what she did was to put her finger on something, there are some people whose interest it is to have shocking developments, you see a weak government, you take it over, you provide services to it, such as these now highly vulnerable, highly dependent people in New Orleans. She offers an important reality check. It’d be good to have her brought into this discussion because she brings a new perspective to what we perceive as disaster. I effectively dodged your whole question didn’t I?! But I talked learnedly! (laughs).
As somebody who has lived a long time immersed in climate data and environmental information and has lived with your nose up against the reality of that for a long time, how do you cope with that? What are your coping mechanisms? Knowing what you know, how does it affect how you live your life?
There is something to TS Elliot’s statement that humankind cannot bear too much reality. Not totally, but clearly if you come down with cancer or heart disease you want the truth. Ecological truths are harder for us to absorb and the pain of the world, not many of us can face this. A Canadian wildlife guy, John Livingstone, wrote some brilliant stuff, he really felt nature, and when he saw what was happening, extinctions and so forth, he wrote these outraged, impassioned columns, but it always amazes me that more people aren’t angry about this.
Maybe we’ve come into an era where nothing makes us angry other than when our favourite TV show is taken off, or the utility flips the lights out, maybe we’re an ‘opposed-to-anger’ society, but we’re discovering that with 7 billion people on the planet, maybe we’re a new species, but that’s not your question…
I’ve got a nice life. Today I was hanging out talking to the Prince’s Foundation, talking to smart intelligent people, yesterday the same, now I’m hanging out with you who I’ve wanted to meet for a long time, all of us doing good things, I’m really enjoying what I’m doing on the Oberlin Project, you’re really enjoying what you’re doing with Transition Towns….we get to go visit places… we have nice lives. It makes it difficult for us to empathise and to feel pain. In some ways we’re autistic to the future that we’ve created as a species – we can’t feel it very well or very consistently…
We were working on a project in New Orleans with Brad Pitt a couple of years ago, in the 9th Ward, he put a bunch of money up for these houses. It’s a large scale project that is actually moving. Anyway, I was with a friend of mine, in a bar in New Orleans, and I said “you look awful, you OK?’ He said he was really depressed. This was about the time when some of the hardcore data came out about the melting of the cryosphere, sea level rise. You look at that and you go “my God, this all could end, everything we care about as humans”.
You know Rob, this is so hard to think about. The most profound meditation I’ve ever read on extinction was how do we think about the silence in the Universe that we’re going to create when we’re no longer around? When you run the film fast forward and we go extinct, or something changes, we don’t have a date, but there isn’t much of a future for humankind. The most powerful meditation on this that I have ever read is from Jonathan Schells’ book ‘The Fate of the Earth’ which came out over 3 decades ago.
Here’s where that leads me. We don’t know and we cannot know yet, whether we’re up to survival or not. I’m persuaded that George Monbiot is probably right, that we live better than people have ever lived, and we live better than people will ever live. I don’t see a way round that.
I listen to all the people who promote ‘happy talk’, arguing that all we need is to invent new gizmos and deploy them and all will be well, but I think that what ails us is deeper than that. It is a kind of autism: we can’t feel what we’re doing to the world. We see the numbers over here of how many species have gone extinct but we don’t feel it.
At the recent launch of the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World report, there was a guy there with these amazing photographs of albatross babies dead on the beach with their innards stripped open. What their mothers had been feeding them was the flotsam and electronic stuff and plastic that is floating about in that garbage belt in the Pacific and these birds have eaten it and are dying of starvation. It’s an amazing show. What he’s trying to do is raise awareness through the medium of photography, and to end our autism. We don’t know yet if that’s curable. I believe it is, but your question was how do I handle this?
My life is good, the situation here is bad. I’m part of a species that’s severely flawed through all sorts of things that we have created. I’ve got four grand kids. I enjoy what I’m doing. I would do it without pay. It’s the issue of our entire existence, whether humans can make themselves the positive presence on planet earth instead of a planetary blight. The jury’s out. We don’t know, but this is the time.
What do you see is the role of the arts in what we need to do?
This is kind of an almost late-life conversion. We have a great arts programme at Oberlin and the number 2, 3 or 4 ranked arts museum in US higher education. As I’ve see this debate unfold I think there are three factors in this that I see as galvanising. First is that for a long time we thought that science would save us, good data, logic and so on. That’s important, but it doesn’t move people. On the other side there’s the arts. Cinematography, photography, the classic arts, painting, poetry, music, they do move us, people read, they go to the movies, listen to symphonies, and books for me are terribly powerful things, but that’s the other side of the brain.
The third thing is the experiential level. That is beyond the capacity either of scientists to explain and probably beyond the arts to portray, that’s the experiential level. Watching a sunset, walking in the woods, fishing in the creek, that feeling of oneness with this all. It’s a friendly place. One of my favourite philosophers is Mary Midgley at Newcastle, I hope she’s still alive, I never met her but I love her books. She said we are all not as strangers in this place, we fit here, we belong here. That’s a powerful insight.
But how do you get that for young people today who watch who are plugged in to a screen or have earphones on for eight hours a day? Those three things have to be combined, recombined, in a way that creates probably a different human being. Science needs to continue, the arts need to engage that so it’s a common dialogue, experience needs to reinforce both of those… when you walk in the woods you need to see there’s something’s different here, there’s pain there in terms of species disappearing… I think if you aren’t connected with the natural world, if you don’t hike enough and walk the streams, have some sene of kinship with it all then science isn’t going to move you very much. It’s never going to really touch us.
Finally, have you seen the film Avatar and what do you think about it? It seems to have kicked off some fascinating debate among various writers in the green movement.
Firstly, I think it is important to stand back and notice how much high techy stuff it takes to entertain us nowadays. There’s this constant escalation of the gee-whizz factor. We get our highs now increasingly with electronic stimuli of various sorts. I thought the movie was OK. It was a fairly juvenile good versus evil story. In that sense it’s really a shallow story.
It didn’t portray nature I think in a way that would move more than a fraction of the audience to do any different than what they are already doing. It’s a little too goody two shoes in the way it portrays nature and these creatures that are so attuned. No human has ever been that close to nature, and there’s some pretty bad stuff that went on in tribal societies.
Avatar, on balance, I’d give a C. I am really sceptical about whether movies can move us much, and it’s sort of a heretical notion, I think a summer working on a farm can move somebody, I think a serious permaculture project can move somebody, I think a relationship with an animal, or animals, for people who are highly disturbed, they care and find they have an affection for it…
Building a cob wall?
Yes… what happens in a movie is strictly about how certain electrons hit the brain, but imagine sitting in a jam session with a bunch of other musicians around a campfire making music, on a warm summers night, the moon and the stars are in the sky, there’s a crowd milling round, the sight and smells of food cooking and fire burning. The whole envelopment of the senses moves us whereas a movie is really not that sensous. Just the eyeballs and whatever stimuli that kicks up.
What moves us is what engages our five senses and a couple of others that we maybe have but don’t know about. That’s what causes us to move. I think I am the person I am because I spent a lot of time out in the woods and in the fields… that oneness with nature is an infinite concept, but its hard to feel in a movie theatre, sitting in a black room, eating popcorn with artificial butter on, having driven there for an hour through freeways and the hellhole of this modern urban sprawl and parked in an asphalt parking lot to be shown that nature on another planet is really nice!
I guess I am jaundiced. I don’t find that movies move me. They can make you think about stuff, films like Dead Man Walking, which really made me think about the death penalty from two different sides, that movie made me think about something, rather than just scratching my head. It may open the concept that perhaps smart creatures can live in harmony with nature, but it was just too sweetsy cutsey, you know, sitting around in that big tree, flying on birds, it was just too sweetsy cutesy to be plausible, and when we get down to it, nature can be brutal and nasty, there were some nasty creatures but… a C, or maybe a C minus.
Originally posted at Transition Culture