Some Aphorisms excerpted from the writings of David W. Orr


From “The Problem of Education”


Much of the current debate about educational standards and reforms…is driven by the belief that we must prepare the young only to compete effectively in the global economy….There are better reasons to reform education, which have to do with the rapid decline in the habitability of the earth.


Without significant precautions, education can equip people merely to be more effective vandals of the earth.


many things on which our future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy: climate stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world and biological diversity…this is not the work of ignorant people.  Rather it is largely the results of work by people with BA’s, BSs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs.


…we cannot comprehend the world in its entirety.  The advance of knowledge always carried with it the advance of some form of ignorance…With the discovery of CFCs knowledge increased, but like the circumference of an expanding circle, ignorance grew as well


…some knowledge is increasing while other kinds of knowledge are being lost.  Systematics, taxonomy, or ornithology…because of the recent overemphasis on molecular biology and genetic engineering, which are more lucrative but not more important areas of inquiry …vernacular knowledge…the knowledge which people have of their places…the modern university does not consider this kind of knowledge worth knowing except to record it as an oddity “folk culture.”


In thinking about the kinds of knowledge and the kinds of research that we will need to build a sustainable society, a distinction needs to be made between intelligence and cleverness.  true intelligence is long range and aims toward wholeness.  Cleverness is mostly short range and tends to break reality into bits and pieces.


…the modern curriculum…[has] fragmented the world into bits and pieces called disciplines…we routinely produce economists who lack the most rudimentary understanding of ecology or thermodynamics.  This explains why our national accounting systems do not subtract the costs of biotic impoverishment, soil erosion, poisons in our air and water and resource depletion from gross national product.


Knowledge carries with it the responsibility to see that it is well used in the world. …Knowledge of  how to do vast and risky things has far outrun our ability to use it responsibly. The ecological emergency is about the failure to comprehend our citizenship in the biotic community.   From the modern point of view, we cannot see how utterly dependent we are on the “services of nature” and on the wider community of life.”



David W. Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment and the Human Prospect  (1994)



From “Reflections on Oil and Water”


The drift of high-energy civilization is to make the world steadily less amenable to the kind of thought that results from the friction of an alert mind’s grappling with real materials toward the goal of work well done.


Oil has undermined intelligence because it requires technologies that we are smart enough to build but not smart enough to use safely. 


Water and water purification should be built into the architecture and the landscape of educational instituutions.  Institutional waste streams offer a good place to begin to teach applied (as opposed to theoretical) responsibility.  Solar aquatic waste systems and similar approaches offer a way to teach the teechniques of waste water purification, biology and closed loop design. 


Restoration  is an opportunity to move education beyond the classroom and laboratory to the outdoors, from theory to application and from indifference to healing.  My proposal is for institutions to adopt streams or entire watersheds and make their full health an educational objective as important as, say, capital funds campaigns to build new administration buildings or athletic facilities.



David W. Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment and the Human Prospect  (1994)



From “Virtue”


Lewis Mumford said the modern economy converted seven deadly sins of pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony and lust into virtue.


People with no sense of community are not likely to care how their actions affect the larger world.


Sustainability requires reduction in consumption in wealthy societies…moderation must replace self indulgence.


Only people who take their obligations seriously, people of virtue, would willingly pay the full costs of their actions or even demand to do so.


Anything that destroys the capacity for reasoned choice promotes sin and a grosser national product.



David W. Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment and the Human Prospect  (1994)



From “Forests and Trees”


More and more colleges and universities are willing to sell of natural areas in their possession and use the proceeds for what administrators regard as more practical purposes. A few have participated in large scale commercial developments on university owned lands…Land holdings, including those in forested land, are appraised mostly for their cash value, not for their value in preserving biodiversity or in educating the young about forests.


Intended or not, decisions to sell off natural lands do have an effect that can be rightly described as educational.  Colleges educate and universities educate by what they do as well as by what they say.  Students will observe that when the going gets a wee bit tough, their intellectual mentors and role models regard natural lands ands and whaever biological diversity they hold as expendable.


Most colleges and universities intend their campuses to look like country clubs, weedless and biologically sterile places maintained by an unholy array of chemicals.  Campus landscapes ought to be more imaginatively designed to promote biological diversity and ecological resilience and to raise the collective ecological IQ of the campus community.  Campuses ought to be maintained as natural areas that harbor biological diversity.


David W. Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment and the Human Prospect  (1994)



From “Economics”


Biologists are paying attention to the larger economy of life: the biosphere: economists are looking at the subeconomy humans have built by exploiting nature.


As biotic stocks such as forests, soils and wildlife are destroyed, their loss should be subtracted from measures such as gross national product in the same manner as captial depreciation is subtracted from corporate profit and loss statements. 


$450 billion is spent worldwide on advertising each year to manufacture wants.



David W. Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment and the Human Prospect  (1994)



From “Rating Colleges”


Good education…may be inversely proportional to many of the qualities now used to rank educational institutions.


Most ranking systems face backwards, using measure that no longer describe present realities or the role of the institution in relation to those realities.


I propose…five criteria:


How much the institution consumes or discards per student…


Management policies for materials, waste, recycling, purchasing, landscaping, energy use, and building…


Does the curriculum provide the essential tools for ecological literacy?  What percentage of its graduates know the rudiments of ecology?…


Does the institution use its buying power to help build sustainable regional economies.  What percentage of its food purchases come from nearby farmers?  …To what extent are their funds invested in enterprises that move the world toward sustainability?


Institutions should be ranked on the basis of what their graduates do in the world.  On average what price will future generations pay for the manner in which…they live.


…Most colleges make serious efforts to discover who among their almuni have attained wealth.  I know of no college that has surveyed its graduates to determine their cumulative environmental impacts. 


David W. Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment and the Human Prospect  (1994)


From “Professionalism and the Human Prospect”


Why have so few of the tenured joined the effort to preserve biological diversity and a habitable earth?  Why are so few of the tenured willing to confront the large and portentous issues of human survival looming ahead?


Professional scholars tend to think of themselves as part of the established order, not as critics of it, let alone creators of something better.


Where intellectuals once addressed the public, they talk mostly to each other about matters of little or not consequence for the larger society.


Professionalization has rendered knowledge safe for power, thereby making it more dangerous than ever to the larger human prospect.


David W. Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment and the Human Prospect  (1994)



From “Designing Minds”


As homo sapiens’s entry in any intergalactic design competition, industrial civilization would be tossed out at the qualifying round.  It doesn’t fit.  It wont last. The scale is wrong.  And even its apologists admit that it is not very pretty.  The design failures of industrially/technologically driven societies are manifest in the loss of diversity of all kinds, destabilization of the earth’s biogeochemical cycles, pollution, soil erosion, ugliness, poverty, injustice, social decay, and economic instability.


Ecological design is the careful meshing of human purposes with the larger patterns and flows of the natural world and the study of those patterns and flows to inform human purposes.


Ecological design competence means maximizing resource and energy efficiency, taking advantage of the free services of nature, recycling wastes, making ecologically smarter things, and educating ecologically smarter people.  It means incorporating intelligence about how nature works, what David Wann called “biologic,” into the way we think, design, build, and live. systems, technologies, economies, and energy policies.


David W. Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment and the Human Prospect  (1994)


From “Architecture as Pedagogy”


Academic architecture is a kind of crystallized pedagogy…buildings have their own hidden curriculum… 


The process of design and construction is an opportunity for a community to deliberate over the ideas and ideals it wishes to express and how these are rendered into architectural form.


Within the design, construction and operation of buildings is a curriiuculum in applied ecology.  Buildings can be designed to recycle organic wastes thorugh minaitrue ecosystems that can be studied and maintained by the users. Buildings can be designed to heat and cool themselves…to inform occupants of energy and resource use.  They can be landscaped to provide shade, break winter winds, propagate rare plants,  provide habitat for animals and restore bits of vanished ecosystems.


Buildings can extend our   ecological competence…Buildings that invite partiticipation can help students acquire knowledge discipline and useful skills that cannot be acquired other than by doing.


David W. Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment and the Human Prospect  (1994)