By David W. Orr, Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics and Senior Adviser to the President, Oberlin College

(This article appears in the October, 2011 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

Adapted from the Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Fall 2011

Historian Geoff Blodgett once wrote that “Oberlin has always been preoccupied with the moral issues of the day.” That legacy is evident, notably, in Oberlin’s leadership in race-blind admissions and co-education. In the 21st century moral issues will be far more daunting and difficult than ever before, but mendacity, confusion, evasion, and paralysis are rampant in high places. In the summer of 2009 the College reconceptualized and joined four otherwise disparate objectives as an overarching initiative, the Oberlin Project. In affiliation with the City, we aim to revitalize the local economy, eliminate carbon emissions, restore local agriculture and forestry, and use the entire effort as an educational laboratory applicable in virtually every discipline.

The specific responsibilities of the College in the Project are those primarily of providing the leadership required to conceptualize and launch the effort, rebuilding the Green Arts District as the primary economic engine for the downtown economy, and eliminating its own carbon emissions—a goal to which it is committed as an early signatory to the Presidents’ Climate Commitment (2006) and as one of 19 members of the Clinton Climate Initiative’s Climate Positive Program (2010). The larger effort will be driven by partnerships between the City, the College, private investors, local corporations, and regional development agencies. It will be funded in the decade ahead by a combination of private investment, state funding, new market tax credits, federal support, philanthropy, and savings from increased efficiency in the use of energy, materials, and water.

Signing the ACUPCC in 2006 helped create the vital support within the College for the larger City and College collaboration to eliminate carbon emissions. The leadership of Second Nature nationally has created the conditions in which colleges and universities can play a leading role the transition to “full-spectrum sustainability” at an urban and even regional scale.

We have a useful model for the Oberlin Project in the creation of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center. Begun in 1995, we aimed to build the first substantially green building in higher education as the home for the fledgling Environmental Studies Program. Sixteen years later the Lewis Center is widely acknowledged as the best environmental studies facility in higher education and home to the best environmental studies program anywhere. Among other awards, it has been acknowledged as “one of thirty milestone buildings in the 20th Century” by the U.S. Department of Energy, and in a 2010 survey published in the AIA magazine Architect as “the most important green building of the last 30 years.”

With that example as background, what would it mean for Oberlin once again to step forward and how would that actually transform the College and the City? Turn your imagination loose . . .

Imagine Oberlin in the year 2025 with a vibrant 24/7 downtown featuring local foods, arts, and music, powered by energy efficiency and sunlight. Imagine arriving from Hopkins airport on a light-rail coming through a 20,000 acre greenbelt of farms and forests that terminates close to a new, deep green hotel with a cuisine featuring local foods. Imagine a Green Arts District in which great College strengths in music, the arts, and drama are joined to those in the sciences as the backdrop for performances, exhibitions, lectures, and an ongoing conversation on the most important issues on the human agenda, all having to do with whether and how civilization might endure and flourish in radically altered biophysical conditions.

Look deeper and you’ll discover an economy designed for the future, with thriving local businesses that provide renewable energy, foods, materials, and services sustainably; a city with the lowest unemployment and poverty rates of any mid-western city; a college curriculum founded on the thoroughly liberal belief that no student in any field should graduate without knowing how the Earth works as a physical system and why that is important for their lives and careers.

Where are we now?

Despite great national progress in areas of racial and gender equality, issues of justice are becoming more complicated and portentous than anyone could have imagined in 1833. We’ve entered what the editors of the New York Times andThe Economist have called the “Anthropocene,” an age when the actions of seven billion humans have become, for better or worse, the dominant force changing the Earth. The most important fact in that transition is the permanent and global effects of our burning fossil fuels. We are not just warming the Earth, but progressively destabilizing virtually everything on the planet. So far this year—in the U.S. alone—we have experienced record heat and drought from Arizona to Florida; unprecedented floods in the Mississippi Valley; wildfires in Arizona and Texas larger than any in recorded memory; and swarms of tornadoes across the South unequaled in numbers and destruction. Welcome to the Anthropocene!

An Oberlin Response

One difference between the issues of justice at our founding and those ahead has to do with the longevity and complexity of the problem. Carbon dioxide (CO2) from the combustion of fossil fuels will stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years and so cast a long and deepening shadow over all future generations and over the entire web of life on which they will depend. We are now in the rapids of human history. The Oberlin Project is an effort by the City and College to create an integrated response to these challenges. It is an umbrella term that includes six concrete and very practical goals:

(1) Develop a 13-acre Green Arts District at the US Green Building Council Platinumnd level as the main driver for community economic revitalization.

(2) Create new business ventures in energy efficiency and solar deployment, food and agriculture, and the sustainable use of local resources.

(3) Shift the City and College to renewable energy sources, radically improve efficiency, sharply reduce our carbon emissions, and improve our economy in the process.

(4) Establish a 20,000-acre greenbelt and develop a robust local foods economy to meet at least half of our consumption.

(5) Create an educational alliance between the College, the Oberlin schools, the Joint Vocational School, and Lorain County Community College focused on education appropriate to issues of sustainability.

(6) Replicate the Project at varying scales and in different regions through a national network of diverse communities and organizations with similar goals.

Our intention is to integrate these goals in a way that each of the parts reinforces the prosperity, resilience, and health of the larger community. To that end we have organized the community into working teams including economic development, education, energy, policy, agriculture, community, and data collection and analysis.

How far have we come?

Since the launch in the summer of 2009, we have:

  • Raised $8M in grants, gifts, and commitments from fourteen foundations and individual donors;
  • Organized the community into 10 teams working on issues of energy, education, policy, civic engagement, economic development etc.
  • Established a “Friends of the Oberlin Project” group with a goal of raising $5M over the next five years;
  • Signed a power purchase agreement to deploy 2MW of solar electricity;
  • Organized a faculty team to track economic, social, and physical data and provide community-scale, real-time feedback with Lucid Design, Inc. (a company founded by Oberlin students and faculty);
  • Completed a $1.1M DOE funded study on the regional transition to energy efficiency and renewable energy;
  • Established a downtown office in the East College Street complex—a $17M LEED-gold facility created by three former Oberlin students;
  • Hired a managing director, Bryan Stubbs, who has assumed responsibility for day-to-day management of the project, including integration of the 10 community teams and development of a website and communications plan;
  • Created a website and larger communications strategy for the Project.

In addition, the College has completed a $12M LEED-gold renovation of the Allen Memorial Art Museum which anchors the northwest corner of the Green Arts District.

The City, in turn, has adopted an energy plan that will eliminate 85 percent of utility carbon emissions from electrical generation by 2014 along with a partnership with the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation to improve energy efficiency throughout the community. The Oberlin School District has authorized BNIM Architects to draft a conceptual study for a new, green, consolidated public school building north of the Green Arts District.