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Back to School
David W. Orr says the planet's future rests with a generation of children who need desperately to go outside.

Photo of David W. OrrDavid W. Orr grew up in a small town in western Pennsylvania, the son of a preacher, a student of the Amish model of sustainable living, a lover of hills and creeks and hemlock forests who developed a lifelong case of what E. O. Wilson calls "biophilia" -- a deep emotional affinity for the natural world. Orr has gone on to become one of the country's leading environmental educators as well as a prolific author and essayist. His most recent book is The Last Refuge: Patriotism, Politics and the Environment in an Age of Terror. George Black spoke to Orr at the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics. The U.S. Department of Energy, hailing the Lewis Center's energy-efficient design, called it one of the 30 "milestone buildings" of the twentieth century.

You like to quote what H. G. Wells once said about humanity being in "a race between education and catastrophe." How long do you think we have?
Well, Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal of Great Britain, reckons we have a fifty-fifty chance of the planet making it to the year 2100. So the question to me is how we create grounds for hope -- not wishful thinking -- and then equip people to act on that basis. Things are serious and the time is late, so what is called for is a kind of sub-frantic urgency.

As an educator, how do you instill that in your students?
I think it's particularly difficult, because the architecture of education is so divided by subject and discipline, and then subdivided again and again. There's been a lot of talk about interdisciplinary teaching, but very little progress. Environmentalists have to step back to look at the whole picture, as Martin Rees does. We try to make sure that by the time young people leave here, they have a good grounding in the sciences, the humanities, the social sciences. The liberal arts have come to mean an education that's largely divorced from practical competence, so we also try to give them a skill set, as well as the start of a good Rolodex. There's a company of courageous, creative people out there, and I want my students to work with them and use them as role models.

Is that what you mean when you say that the process of education, how and where it takes place, is just as important as the formal curriculum?
Well, our students were very involved in planning the building we're sitting in, working with an incredible design team. We started work in 1995, and the question we asked was, what kind of building would you like to learn in? What values should it reflect? The answer was that they wanted, among other things, a building with no outside energy sources that used locally available, environmentally benign materials, and that recycled all the waste generated by the occupants. Out there in the parking lot we're about to install a 100-kilowatt photovoltaic array that'll match the one we already have on the roof. The students in my design class worked on that with an engineer from NASA and with Steven Strong, who to my mind is the best solar engineer out there.

Give me another example of the kind of skill set students develop here.
There are three students and a faculty member, for instance, who have just founded a company in San Francisco based on what they've done on this building. We have 150 environmental sensors here that feed real-time information about the building's performance to the center's web site and a plasma display in the atrium. It's a way of educating people about the relationship between humans and the built environment.

You also have a "living machine" here in the Lewis Center that treats all the building's wastewater. How does that work?
The living machine is a kind of artificial wetland that uses local plants, fish, and snails to remove organic wastes, nutrients, and pathogens from our wastewater. It's mostly powered by sunlight. Once it's cleaned, the water is reused in our toilets. The machine is run and maintained by the students.

Your main focus is on college-age students, but by the time kids get to you, they've already been through childhood and high school. Is there any sense in which you're having to do remedial education?
Not here, perhaps. The kids I see in class by and large already think of themselves as environmentalists of some sort. But nationwide it's a different story. I was down at George Mason University in Virginia for Earth Day, and someone who teaches biology there told me that one third of the kids don't believe in evolution now. They'll take courses, and they'll say, I'll tell you what you want to hear, whatever I need to get the grade on my test -- but I don't believe this.

Why do you think that is? Is it what they're being taught in school?
To some extent, yes. The most inflammatory thing, it seems to me, is when education strays over into this contested terrain of values. We're seeing a right-wing effort to undermine environmental education programs. My impression is that this started about 10 years ago, and it wasn't entirely ill-founded -- there were kids coming back from school terrified about the future. If I'm asked, what should I teach my 8-year-old kid, my response is, just let them be an 8-year-old kid, have fun, fall in love with mountains or woods or something in nature. Don't tell them all this bad stuff; they'll find it out soon enough. Having said that, the attack has become more broadly based, on environmental education in general. There are attacks on curriculum, on funding, on extracurricular activities. There are calls for "sound science" in textbooks. There was a bill in the state legislature in Florida recently that would have allowed students to sue faculty members if they thought their beliefs were not being respected.

As you suggest, kids are also growing up with much less direct exposure to nature. If that doesn't kick in by a certain age, do you think it can ever be recovered?
Well, you think of those accounts of chimpanzees raised without mothers and given to surrogate mothers that were mechanical devices. There seemed to be some ceiling on their emotional development thereafter. My hunch is that something like that may happen with humans, even though the tug toward nature is always there, like a magnetic field. But there are so many more pressures for kids to be indoors. Television is a terrible tug, the Internet, computers, video games -- all that keeps kids inside, cut off from the natural world. You can drive through any number of suburban neighborhoods on a nice summer evening, and no one's on the street.

And you can't fight for something unless you know and love it.

Maybe environmentalists have to take some of the blame, since we've relied so much on amassing scientific data. Do you ever think we may have confused information with education?
It's true we've assumed that we could write research papers and books and articles and that logic and data would carry the day for us. But I don't think that works. There's that line of Pascal's: "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of." I think environmentalism has come across to a lot of people as a list of dos and don'ts.

If you could do one thing to fix that, what would it be?
Devote part of the curriculum at all levels, from K through Ph.D., to the study of natural systems, linked roughly to the manner in which we experience them. There's nothing new about this; it goes back to the old idea that nature has something to teach us.

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A filet of non-toxic salmon

"The seafood industry has a serious PR problem," says Henry Lovejoy, who makes his living selling fish. "Consumers think that all fish are full of toxins."

Three years ago, Lovejoy, the owner of EcoFish, a small, New England-based distributor specializing in sustainably harvested fish, started getting desperate calls from grocers who buy his products. The Food and Drug Administration had just released a consumer advisory about mercury in seafood, and shoppers were asking questions. But grocers didn't know themselves what dangers lurked in their fish.

Then, in 2003, Bill Lockyer, California's attorney general, began to file lawsuits against restaurants and grocery stores, charging that by failing to warn consumers of risks involved in eating contaminated fish, they were violating state law. In 2004, he went after canned tuna companies. Restaurants and grocery stores agreed to post consumer advisories, but the tuna industry has dug in its heels.

To fill the information void, several environmental groups offer advice on their Web sites. But seafood companies have done nothing to steer shoppers perplexed by seemingly similar choices in the frozen foods aisle. "The seafood industry has its head in the sand," Lovejoy says.

Lovejoy aims to change that. Earlier this year, he started Seafood Safe, a testing and labeling program that will tell consumers how many servings of a specific product they can eat in a month without overexposure to mercury and PCBs, two common contaminants.

Under Lovejoy's pilot program, random samples of his EcoFish products -- tuna, mahimahi, salmon, shrimp, scallops -- are sent to independent testing labs. Dietary guidelines specific to each product are written based on the Environmental Protection Agency's risk-exposure standards (which are stricter than the FDA's advisory) for a woman of childbearing age who weighs 145 pounds.

Lovejoy hopes that shoppers will learn to look for the label, which in turn will encourage other companies to join the program. Those who make healthy products will only benefit from labels that say so. "If there's no label, it will almost imply that something's wrong," Lovejoy says.

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Photos: top, Roger Mastroianni; right, Ecofish, Inc.

OnEarth. Fall 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council