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The Greening of Education

Schumacher Lecture
Bristol, England
October 29, 1994

David. W Orr

"Nothing less than the re-education of humankind will do."

-Paul Kennedy

Ours is the age of paradox. We have more power over nature than ever before, but the exercise of that power has created perils unprecedented in human history. Similarly, while knowledge is growing exponentially, we are engulfed by a worldwide tide of mindless nihilism, consumerism, drugs, and violence. In the 20th century the world economy has grown some 1300%, but the gap between the richest and the poorest continues to widen. These and other paradoxes of our time suggest that the great modern project to improve the human prospect through the control of nature has not worked out as its first proponents once assumed that it would. Nor has the project of improving the world through economic growth proved to be as benign or sustainable as once supposed in the middle decades of this the "American century."

We are now in the early stages of a great planetary emergency, aspects of which are familiar enough: population growth, ozone holes, spreading deserts, deforestation, species decline, and risks of rapid climate change, and global epidemics. These, in turn, have effects that ripple through politics, economics, and societies. Yet faced with crisis, our first impulse is to find yet another technological fix for ecological malfeasance. So, in the name of one imperative or another, we go where angels fear to go. And where does this lead? Describing the future direction of the great effort to create artificial intelligence, for example, Daniel Crevier says:

in the longer term AI remains immensely threatening. The machines will eventually excel us in intelligence and it will be impossible for us to pull the plug on them . . . they will be impossible to keep at bay . . . human society will have to undergo drastic changes to survive in the face of artificial intelligences . . . their arrival will threaten the very existence of human life as we know it . . . we should expect the (main battles of the 21st century) to be about . . . whether we or they control the future of the earth.

Who has ordained that progress means replacing humans with machines? Who decided that "society will have to undergo drastic changes"? When were such things discussed in our democracy or in the classrooms of our colleges and universities? I could have mentioned as well the effort to reweave the genetic fabric of life with consequences that we cannot know, or that to develop "nanotechnologies" which their developers admit may be more dangerous than nuclear weapons. The point, however, is clear enough. We are trying to solve with technological band-aids what can only be solved by deeper and more thoroughgoing change. In Vaclav Havel's words:

We treat the fatal consequences of technology as though they were a technical defect that could be remedied by technology alone. We are looking for an objective way out of the crisis of objectivism . . . We cannot devise, within the traditional modern attitude to reality, a system that will eliminate all the disastrous consequences of the previous systems . . . We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered.

Havel, I think, has it right. The planetary emergency unfolding around us is not a crisis of technology, although it certainly has technological aspects. It is rather, first and foremost, a crisis of thought, values, perceptions, ideas, and judgment. In other words, it is a crisis of mind which makes it a crisis for those institutions which purport to improve minds. This is a crisis of education, not one in education.

And how have educational institutions responded to the manifest deterioration in the human prospect? "Most colleges," in Dartmouth Professor Noel Perrin's words, "act as though they have all the time in the world." Yale historian , Yaroslav Pelikan , goes further to question whether institutions of higher education will ever:

address the underlying intellectual issues and moral imperatives of having responsibility for the earth with an intensity and ingenuity matching that shown by previous generations in obeying the command to have dominion over the planet.

In the face of overwhelming evidence that we have only a matter of decades in which to prevent irreversible and disastrous changes, colleges and universities continue to equip the young for short-term success in the extractive economy, not for long - term success in a society of sustainable and resilient communities. The hard truth is that the planetary emergency now upon us is not the fault of the uneducated, but of the well educated sporting degrees from our proudest educational institutions.

When thorough going reform is called for, we have tinkered at the margins of the status quo. Remove computers and a scattering of courses and new programs and the curriculum of the 1990s looks a great deal like that of the 1950s. On the whole, higher education has failed to engage the big and contentious issues on the human agenda with "intensity and ingenuity." A more adequate response would have led faculty and administrators to challenge the hidden curriculum with its unstated assumptions that:

Section II

There is now, however, a growing consensus that we need to re-think higher education Ernest Boyer, perhaps the most prominent authority on higher education in the United States, for example, has proposed what he calls a "New American College:"

an institution that . . . takes special pride in its capacity to connect thought to action, theory to practice. This New American College would organize cross-disciplinary institutes around pressing social issues. Undergraduates at the College would participate in field projects, relating ideas to real life. Classrooms and laboratories would be extended to include health clinics, youth centers, schools and government offices. Faculty members would build partnerships with practitioners . . . the New American College, as a connected institution, would be committed to improving, in a very intentional way, the human condition.

Broadly adopted, these goals would be a decided improvement in higher education, but what would it require? First, to make the New American College affordable, colleges and universities would have to contain costs which in some places exceed $100,000 for four years. It is not uncommon for students to graduate from U.S. colleges with debts of $20-40,000. As a result, higher education is becoming inaccessible to all but the sons and daughters of the wealthiest who can afford it, or the poorest able to get full scholarships. In order to "organize cross-disciplinary" activities Boyer's New American College would require a sharp diminution of the power of departments and disciplines. It would mean encouraging risk-takers which would, in turn, require changing standards for hiring, promotion, and tenure. Boyer's New American College implies widening the focus of academic attention from abstract disciplinary issues to include issues and problems that connect the campus to its locality. Boyer's proposal for a New American College clearly aims in the right direction, but is it possible? Those familiar with the long history of American higher education have good reason to be skeptical. Frederick Rudolph in his Curriculum explains why:

Breadth, distribution, and general education were the hobby horses of new presidents, ambitious deans, and well-meaning humanists of the sort who were elected to curriculum committees by colleagues as a gesture of token support for the idea of liberal learning. When that gesture collided with the interests of department and major field, only occasionally did the general prevail over the special.

Historically, innovation in higher education, like that, say, in the auto industry, has been hesitant and incremental, affecting the periphery, not the core, of the curriculum. When we should have been rethinking basics, we did the educational equivalent of changing the chrome trim, adding gadgets, and offering slicker advertisements. Even computers and the new information technologies have not much altered the foundational assumptions and direction of the curriculum. On the contrary, virtually everywhere, they have been used to sustain the educational status quo, but with greater efficiency.

Let's assume, nonetheless, that the New American College is possible. Would it cure the complacency, fragmentation, and excessive professionalization that ails higher education? I do not think so. Boyer's New American College just does not go far enough or deep enough. The problem of higher education, like that of western civilization, is rooted in the crisis of objectivism that Havel describes. Real change will require us to overturn the hubris and ecological vandalism built into the modern curriculum. The New American College, for example, does not confront the harder issues and problems inherent in the organization of knowledge by discipline, over-professionalism, and the hidden curriculum which presumes human dominance of nature.

Section III

What would it mean for colleges and universities to respond to the global crisis with "intensity and ingenuity"? What would it mean for educators and educational institutions to address Havel's crisis of objectivism? First, there are obvious and important changes to be made in how institutions operate, how they exert their purchasing power in the economy, and how they invest endowment funds. Beyond these changes are other, and more difficult changes in curriculum and pedagogy. What will the young need to know in order to arrest and reverse the ecological deterioration? What qualities of mind, person, and heart will they need for perilous times ahead? What analytical abilities and practical skills will they need in order to make sense out of complexity and to find their way amidst mounting disorder? These are difficult questions for which there are no easy answers, but I can say with great certainty that the rising generation will face trials of intellect, moral stamina, and character more severe than those faced by any previous generation. For them the stakes are higher, the margin for error smaller, the stage on which they must act is global, and procrastination and dereliction will not be forgiven.

Whatever the institutional form and pedagogical details, post-modern education has six essential tasks. First, whatever else they learn, the young must master the analytical and practical skills necessary for them to make a rapid transition to a post-fossil fuel world. They must learn, in other words, how to run civilization on current, not ancient, sunlight. Accordingly, educators must confront, in economist Richard Norgaard's words, the many ways in which "modern values, knowledge, organization, and technological systems reflect the availability of fossil hydrocarbons." In subtle, unstated, but powerful ways the modern discipline-based curriculum has been shaped by the assumption that humans have solved the energy problem. We haven't, but our students must.

Second, post-modern education must equip students to think in systems and patterns and extend their sense of time to the horizon. We can no longer safely and confidently educate only specialists whose bailiwick is the hermetically sealed discipline. We must equip our students to think "at right angles to their field of specialization." This does not mean the end of disciplines, but rather the end of disciplines that exist as islands and sometimes as fortresses. It means developing linkages between different branches of knowledge. It means disciplines disciplined by the knowledge and perspectives of other fields, particularly those of ecology and ethics. Further, we must educate the young to comprehend how cause and effect work in complex systems. We must help them establish an honest economics in which prices tell the truth about the full ecological and human costs of consumption.

Third, in the face of epic changes looming in the century ahead it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that: "Long before 2030 the trend toward ever larger cities and an increasing ratio of urban-to-rural dwellers is likely to have reversed." Accordingly, education must equip the young for a post-urban world. The proper question is not whether the urban tide will ebb but when, how rapidly, and whether by foresight or happenstance. In other words, the choice is whether those returning to rural areas in the century ahead will do so, in the main, willingly and expectantly with the appropriate knowledge, attitudes, and skills as homecomers or arrive as ecological refugees driven by necessity, perhaps desperation. For all of the fashionable talk about cultural diversity, schools, colleges, and universities have been agents of fossil energy powered urban homogenization. There is one curriculum, which, as Wes Jackson notes, prepares the young for "upward mobility" in an urban world. But if the human future will be as much (or more) rural as urban, what will the young need to know?

For one thing they will need to know more about food and agriculture than they are now taught. Agriculture will become more important for a large number of people. British sociologist, Raymond Williams once put it this way:

If we are to survive at all, we shall have to develop and extend our working agricultures. The common idea of a lost rural world is then not only an abstraction . . . It is in direct contradiction to any effective shape of our future, in which work on the land will have to become more rather than less important and essential. It is one of the most striking deformations of industrial capitalism that one of our most central and urgent and necessary activities should have been so displaced in space or in time.

For another they will need to know how to do more than they are now being taught to do. But a considerable number of practical skills useful for rural life in a post-fossil fuel world are being lost. An Amish friend of mine, for instance, describes his father in these words:

Father was one of those rare people who possessed many of the arts and skills needed in thriving rural communities. Besides being a farmer and a husbandman, he was a thresherman (a title that also included silo filling, corn husking with the machine, fodder shredding, and clover hulling), a sawyer, an orchardist, his own mechanic, a carpenter (he could design and build anything from kitchen cabinets to mortise and tenon frame buildings), for a short time his own blacksmith, plumber, and for a while he even whitewashed our milking stable using the orchard sprayer. (Kline, 1994)

Outside the Amish community, however, these are no longer common skills. But the more serious loss is the decline of the qualities of mind that permit skill to flourish. A mind that knows how to do many things well has a complexity, agility, and resilience unknown to the specialist (what Nietzsche called an "inverted cripple," i.e. one with a single overdeveloped faculty instead of an impaired one). This is a mind capable of shifting from one material to another, from one set of tools to another, and from mechanics to biology to animal husbandry all in the same day. It is a mind with the wherewithal to design, build, repair, grow, heal, form, tinker, orchestrate, improvise, neighbor (a verb), and tell good stories; a mind with range and stretch to it.

Fourth, the young must learn how to reduce the human "footprint" on the earth, by which I mean lower the total amount of energy, materials, land, and water necessary to sustain a good life. Over a lifetime each person in the United States uses onaverage 540 tons of construction materials, 18 tons of paper, 23 tons of wood, 16 tons of metals, 32 tons of organic chemicals--10 to 15 times as much as people in the "underdeveloped" world use. If environmental decline is to be reversed, Americans, by one estimate, will have to reduce their consumption of energy and materials by 50-90%. To do so and still live well those now in schools and colleges will have to master the art and science of ecological design which includes the perceptual and analytical skills necessary to: maximize resource and energy efficiency, take advantage of the free services of nature, make ecologically smarter things that "fit" in nature, and incorporate intelligence about how nature works - what David Wann calls "biologic" - into the way they think, design, build, and live. They will have to be smarter than earlier generations had to be when it was still possible to deplete the ecological and biotic capital of the earth. A curriculum that enables the young to do these things will include new fields of learning such as ecological engineering, sustainable resource management, restoration ecology, conservation biology, and "green" architecture. And it will include the knowledge necessary to know what should not be made in the first place.

Fifth, the young will need much more ecological imagination than they now have and new visions of the land that stretch their notions of ecological possibilities. Landscapes shaped by fossil energy will have to be made over in the century to come. The young will need the ecological imagination necessary to re- construct rural and urban landscapes that sequester CO2, restore wildness, support biological diversity, harness sun and wind, and create zones for hunting and gathering; landscapes with wildlife corridors, forests, wilderness areas, protected rivers, small farms, technologically advanced wind machines, and restored land. In a post-fossil fuel world, for example, the highly specialized, large, capital intensive, and ecologically destructive farm will be radically changed. The new farm will be ecologically diverse, smaller, and less expensive. Such farms will exist in both urban and rural areas. They will be "community supported" farms selling a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains directly to paying members. The young will also need broader visions of wild landscapes like that proposed by Dave Foreman, John Davis, David Johns, Reed Noss, and Michael Soule in "The Wildlands Project," that aims for:

the day when Grizzlies in Chihuahua have an unbroken connection to Grizzlies in Alaska; when Gray Wolf populations are continuous from New Mexico to Greenland; when vast unbroken forests and flowing plains again thrive and support pre-Columbian populations of plants and animals; when humans dwell with respect, harmony, and affection for the land; when we come to live no longer as strangers and aliens on this continent.

There can be no enlargement of our sense of the landscape, however, without a deeper ecological perspective about ourselves. We are, in part, reflections of our places. Locality is etched on our minds in more ways than we can know. We are eddies in one watershed or another. Humans are, as Canadian ecologist, Stan Rowe puts it, "deep air mammals." We are parts of larger parts, pieces in a larger ensemble, shot through with wildness beyond our imagining.

Finally, the great danger of contemporary education is that it will produce only technicians and specialists. But true education must be more than merely the transmission of facts, information, techniques, and know how. It must aim to provide the young with "know-why as well." As E. F. Schumacher once said, real education would "clarify our central convictions . . . for it is our central convictions that are in disorder." If education is not to be "an agent of destruction," in Schumacher's words, it must aim "to produce more widsom." When education does this well, it clarifies what's of lasting importance from the ephemeral and equips us with ideas and ideals large enough to overcome cynicism, anomie, nihilism, and pre-occupation with self.


The end of education as we have known it is in sight. Its trajectory follows the curves depicting the decline in the habitability of the earth itself. I am referring, of course, to the kind of education by which we presumed to master nature by technology. We must now confront the overwhelming irony that the greater the power of our technology over nature, the less predictable and resilient nature has become. The idea, tacitly built into much of the modern curriculum, that we can make an end-run around natural constraints is a bet that sane people would not make. It is a bet that humankind can not win.

What are the prospects that education can be transformed in ways that will enable it to equip the young to do what they must do in order to build communities, societies, and a global order that is ecologically durable and fair? This is, first, a problem of vision in institutions presently administered by people not often famous for it. The analogy of the churchmen of the 17th century refusing to look through Galileo's telescope comes to mind. Oliver Sacks, author of Awakenings, tells a similar story of "Virgil," a man blind from the age of four, who recovered his sight at the age of fifty. What should have been a miraculous and joyful recovery of vision, however, was for Virgil a painful and unwanted thing that interrupted comfortable routines and fantasies. Virgil had grown used to his blindness and the security of life as a partial invalid. Virgil did not want to see, and in the end he lost his sight, partly by his own choosing. In our day, too, many will refuse to see what is daily becoming all too clear. Comfortable academic and administrative routines are a kind of blindness by which we choose to avoid larger and more demanding concerns.

To end here would, however, be both inadequate and incomplete. There is a revolution in education from below gathering force. It has been apparent in the Conferences sponsored by the Student Environmental Action Coalition that have drawn thousands of students from campuses all over the United States and Canada. It was evident in the February, 1994 conference sponsored by Yale University students who organized the "Campus Earth Summit" to draft the "Campus Blueprint for a Sustainable Future." It is evident in the rapid growth of environmental studies programs on campuses virtually everywhere. It is evident in student enrollments in environmental studies classes and participation in campus environmental projects. Increasingly, the young know that their inheritance is being spent carelessly and sometimes fraudulently. And I believe that a sizeable number know in their bones the truth of Goethe's words that "whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it, Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it." What they may not know is where we, their teachers, mentors, role models, and leaders stand or what we stand for.

Education Otherwise is a good page for relevant information.


Paul Kennedy, Preparing for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Random House), p. 331. Quoted Here

Greater attention is now being given to the possibility of global epidemics as a result of ecological changes. See for example, Laurie Garrett, The Coming Plague, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994); Richard Preston, The Hot Zone (New York: Random House, 1994);A. J. McMichael, Planetary Overload (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Vaclav Havel, "The End of the Modern Era," New York Times (March 1, 1992). Quoted Here

Noel Perrin, " Colleges are Doing Pitifully Little to Protect the Environment ," Chronicle of Higher Education, (October 28, 1992), A 39. Quoted Here

Yaroslav Pelikan, The Idea of The University (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 20-21. Quoted Here

Ernest Boyer, "Creating the New American College," Chronicle of Higher Education (March 9, 1994), p. A 48. Quoted Here

William Honan, "Cost of a 4-Year Degree," New York Times (May 4, 1994).

Frederick Rudolph, Curriculum (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1977), 253. Quoted Here

David Eagan and David Orr (eds), The Campus and Environmental Responsibility (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992).

April Smith, Campus Ecology (Los Angeles: Living Planet Press, 1993).

Richard Norgaard, Development Betrayed (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 47. Quoted Here

No one has shown more clearly how this must be done than John Cobb has, particularly in his collaborations with Herman Daly in For the Common Good (Boston: Beacon, 1989/1994); and with Charles Birch in The Liberation of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).

Lester Brown, et. al., State of the World: 1990 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990), p. 188.

Wes Jackson, Becoming Native to this Place (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1994), p. 3.

Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), p.300. Quoted Here

John Young, "The New Materialism," WorldWatch 7:5 (September/October, 1994), pp. 30.

David Wann, Biologic (Boulder, CO: Johnson, 1990/1994). Quoted Here

See, for example, Robert Thayer, Gray World Green Heart: Technology, Nature, and the Sustainable Landscape. (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1994), pp. 235-306.

Gene Logsdon, The Contrary Farmer (Post Mills: Chelsea Green, 1994).

The Cenozoic Society, "The Wildlands Project" in a special issue of Wild Earth (1992), p. 3. Quoted Here

E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful (New York: Harper, 1973), p. 94. Quoted Here

Oliver Sacks, "To See and Not See," The New Yorker (May 10, 1993), pp. 59-73. Quoted Here

See Julian Keniry, "Environmental Movement Booming on Campuses," Change (September/October, 1993), pp. 42-49. Quoted Here

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