Orr, David W. (1944 – ) American Environmental Writer

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David W. Orr (1944 )
American environmental writer

In recent years, an effort has been undertaken to make every citizen numerate, that is, able to use mathematics at a level that is minimally functional in modern society. David Orr, and writers and thinkers of kindred mind, believe that for citizens to be minimally functional in the complex, interdependent world of the twenty-first century, they must go beyond literacy in language and beyond numeracy and attain also a certain level of ecological literacy.

Orr is best known for his 1992 book titled Ecological Literacy and for his brief editorial essays in the journal Conservation Biology, written from his position as education editor for that journal. Born in Des Moines, Iowa, and raised in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, he holds degrees from Westminster College (BA), Michigan State University (MA), and the University of Pennsylvania (Ph.D. in International Relations). He was a professor of political science before becoming Professor and Chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin College in Ohio. He is well-known for his criticism of the environmental degradation brought about by the free market system, his critique of the American educational system, and his activist attempts to change both systems toward more ecologically sustainable behavior.

Though the free market system seems to be in the ascendancy today, Orr believes that capitalism "is failing because it produces too much and shares too little." He especially laments conservatives in the capitalist system who do not understand the history and meaning of what conservative means. He claims that a genuine conservatism would be conservation oriented and not intent, for example, on perpetual economic growth that "has become the most radicalizing force for change in the modern world."

Much of this failure in the western system he traces to an ecological crisis that "represents, in large measure, a failure of education." He faults every level of education in general for not teaching students how to learn, while in school and throughout life, and for failing to define knowledge adequately for postmodern life. Too many disciplines do not consider the interrelations between people and the earth on which they live. This failure, Orr claims, can "ultimately...be traced to our schools and to our proudest universities."

Much of Orr's work focuses on changing universities, to eliminate what he considers the nationwide campus emphasis on "fast knowledge," or "ignorant knowledge" that is "cut off from its ecological and social context." He laments the over-professionalization of the professorate, researchers who churn out fast knowledge and create students (and citizens) who are "knowledge technicians instead of broadly thoughtful, liberally educated persons." He relates narrowness and self-interest to "the problem of ecological denial," in which people cannot think in the long term or about the "large and messy questions" associated with environmental issues. Througout his career, Orr has received many awards such as an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Lettersfrom Arkansas College in 1990 and the Benton Box Award from Clemson University in 1995.

Orr believes that campus buildings even teach negative lessons: "the design, construction, and operation of academic buildings can be a liberal education in a microcosm that includes virtually every discipline in the catalog." Thus, he has undertaken what is proving to be a life-long campaign to change campuses to educational laboratories for ecological systems and environmental sustainability.

[Gerald L. Young Ph.D. ]



Orr, D. W. Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1994.