Hope Is an Imperative: The Essential David Orrby David W. Orr, Fritjof Capra
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For more than three decades, David Orr has been one of the leading voices of the environmental movement, championing the cause of ecological literacy in higher education, helping to establish and shape the field of ecological design, and working tirelessly to raise awareness of the threats to future generations posed by humanity’s current unsustainable trajectory.
Hope Is an Imperative brings together in a single volume Professor Orr’s most important works. These include classics such as “What Is Education For?,” one of the most widely reprinted essays in the environmental literature, “The Campus and the Biosphere,” which helped launch the green campus movement,and “Loving Children: A Design Problem,” which renowned theologian and philosopher Thomas Berry called “the most remarkable essay I’ve read in my whole life.”
The book features thirty-three essays, along with an introductory section that considers the evolution of environmentalism, section introductions that place the essays into a larger context, and a foreword by physicist and author Fritjof Capra.
Hope Is an Imperative is a comprehensive collection of works by one of the most important thinkers and writers of our time. It offers a complete introduction to the writings of David Orr for readers new to the field, and represents a welcome compendium of key essays for longtime fans. The book is a must-have volume for every environmentalist’s bookshelf.
"David Orr is a treasure trove of provocative thought as he probes the treacherous fault lines leading to unsustainable communities and ecological collapse. He challenges us to tear down the walls of separation between analytical science and intergenerational love and to ponder knowledge in search of life-sustaining wisdom."
"Orr lays out our societal blocks candidly, examines them, and then plainly and honestly states next steps. Steps that, while not necessarily easy, will help us evolve beyond current cultural constructs. This book dares you to be humble and to not react to ignorance and arrogance but rather reflect and respond with care and integrity.
This book begins and ends by challenging and encouraging those who profess to lead, to teach, to do good in the world: Demonstrate your worth. Be humble, be honest, be visionary. Act. Study, love, appreciate, work with, and emulate what gives us life, purpose, connection, and beauty. There is so much more I would love to share about this book. It is totally worth your time and energy. Read it!"
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Hope Is an Imperative
The Essential David Orr
By David W. Orr
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2011 David W. Orr
All rights reserved.
In the beginning was the word....
HE ENTERED MY OFFICE for advice as a freshman advisee sporting nearly perfect SAT scores and an impeccable academic record—by all accounts a young man of considerable promise. During a 20-minute conversation about his academic future, however, he displayed a vocabulary that consisted mostly of two words: cool and really. Almost 800 SAT points hitched to each word. To be fair, he could use them interchangeably, as in "really cool" or "cool ... really!" He could also use them singly, presumably for emphasis. When he was a student in a subsequent class, I later confirmed that my first impression of the young scholar was largely accurate and that his vocabulary, and presumably his mind, consisted predominantly of words and images derived from overexposure to television and the new jargon of "computer-speak." He is no aberration, but an example of a larger problem, not of illiteracy but of diminished literacy in a culture that often sees little reason to use words carefully, however abundantly. Increasingly, student papers, from otherwise very good students, have whole paragraphs that sound like advertising copy. Whether students are talking or writing, a growing number of them have a tenuous grasp on a declining vocabulary. Excise "uh ... like ... uh" from virtually any teenage conversation, and the effect is like sticking a pin into a balloon.
In the past 50 years, by one reckoning, the working vocabulary of the average 14-year-old has declined from some 25,000 words to 10,000 words (Harper's Index 2000). This is a decline in not merely numbers of words but in the capacity to think. It is also a steep decline in the number of things that an adolescent needs to know and to name in order to get by in an increasingly homogenized and urbanized consumer society. This is a national tragedy virtually unnoticed in the media. It is no mere coincidence that in roughly the same half century, by one estimate, the average person has learned to recognize over 1000 corporate logos, but can now recognize fewer than 10 plants and animals native to their locality (Hawken 1994, 214). That fact says a great deal about why the decline in working vocabulary has gone unnoticed—few are paying attention. The decline is surely not consistent across the full range of language but concentrates in those areas having to do with large issues such as philosophy, religion, public policy, and nature. On the other hand, vocabulary has probably increased in areas having to do with sex, violence, recreation, consumption, and technology. Words like twitter and google have been appropriated or invented to describe entirely new ways to be illiterate and incoherent. As a result we are losing the capacity to say what we really mean and ultimately to think about what we mean. We are losing the capacity for articulate intelligence about the things that matter most. "That sucks," for example, is a common way for budding young scholars to announce their displeasure about any number of things that range across the spectrum of human experience. But it can also be used to indicate a general displeasure with the entire cosmos. Whatever the target, it is the linguistic equivalent of duct tape, useful for holding disparate thoughts in rough proximity to some vague emotion of dislike.
The problem is not confined to teenagers or young adults. It is part of a national epidemic of incoherence evident in our public discourse, street talk, movies, television, and music. We have all heard popular music that consisted mostly of pre-Neanderthal grunts. We have witnessed "conversation" on TV talk shows that would have embarrassed retarded chimpanzees. We have listened to many politicians of national reputation proudly and heatedly mangle logic and language in less than a paragraph, although they can do it on a larger scale as well. However manifested, it is aided and abetted by academics, including whole departments specializing in various forms of postmodernism and the deconstruction of one thing or another. Not so long ago they propounded ideas that everything was relative, hence largely inconsequential, and that the use of language was an exercise in power, hence to be devalued. They taught, in other words, a pseudointellectual contempt for clarity, careful argument, and felicitous expression. Being scholars of their word, they also wrote without clarity, argument, and felicity. Remove half a dozen arcane words from any number of academic papers written in the past 10 years, and the argument—whatever it was—evaporates. But the situation is not much better elsewhere in the academy, where thought is often fenced in by disciplinary jargon. The fact is that educators have all too often been indifferent trustees of language. This explains, I think, why the academy has been a lame critic of what ails the world, from the preoccupation with self to technology run amuck. We have been unable to speak out against the barbarism engulfing the larger culture because we are part of the process of barbarization that begins with the devaluation of language.
The decline of language, long lamented by commentators such as H. L. Mencken, George Orwell, William Safire, and Edwin Newman, is nothing new. Language is always coming undone. Why? For one thing it is always under assault by those who intend to control others by first seizing the words and metaphors by which people describe their world. The goal is to give partisan aims the appearance of inevitability by diminishing the sense of larger possibilities. In our time, language is under assault by those whose purpose it is to sell one kind of quackery or another: economic, political, religious, or technological. It is under attack because the clarity and felicity of language—as distinct from its quantity—is devalued in an industrial-technological society. The clear and artful use of language is, in fact, threatening to that society. As a result we have highly distorted and atrophied conversations about ultimate meanings, ethics, public purposes, or the means by which we live. Since we cannot solve problems that we cannot name, one result of our misuse of language is a growing agenda of unsolved problems that cannot be adequately described in words and metaphors derived from our own creations such as machines and computers.
Second, language is in decline because it is being balkanized around the specialized vocabularies characteristic of an increasingly specialized society. The highly technical language of the expert is, of course, both bane and blessing. It is useful for describing fragments of the world, but not for describing how these fit into a coherent whole. But things work as whole systems whether we can say it or not or whether we perceive it or not. And more than anything else, it is coherence our culture lacks, not specialized knowledge. Genetic engineering, for example, can be described as a technical thing in the language of molecular biology. But saying what the act of rearranging the genetic fabric of Earth means requires an altogether different language and a mind-set that seeks to discover larger patterns. Similarly, the specialized language of economics does not begin to describe the state of our well-being, whatever it reveals about how much stuff we may or may not possess. Regardless, over and over the language of the specialist trumps that of the generalist—the specialist in whole things. The result is that the capacity to think carefully about ends, as distinct from means, has all but disappeared from our public and private conversations.
Third, language reflects the range and depth of our experience. But our experience of the world is being impoverished to the extent that it is rendered artificial and prepackaged. Most of us no longer have the experience of skilled physical work on farms or in forests. Consequently words and metaphors based on intimate knowledge of soils, plants, trees, animals, landscapes, and rivers have declined. "Cut off from this source," Wendell Berry writes, "language becomes a paltry work of conscious purpose, at the service and the mercy of expedient aims" (Berry 1983, 33). Our experience of an increasingly uniform and ugly world is being engineered and shrink-wrapped by recreation and software industries and pedaled back to us as "fun" or "information." We've become a nation of television watchers, googlers, face bookers, text messengers, and twitterers, and it shows in the way we talk and what we talk about. More and more we speak as if we are voyeurs furtively peeking in on life, not active participants, moral agents, neighbors, friends, or engaged citizens.
Fourth, we are no longer held together, as we once were, by the reading of a common literature or by listening to great stories and so cannot draw on a common set of metaphors and images as we once did. Allusions to the Bible and great works of literature no longer resonate because they are simply unfamiliar to a growing number of people. This is so in part because the consensus about what is worth reading has come undone. But the debate about a worthy canon is hardly the whole story. The ability to read serious things with seriousness is diminished by overexposure to television and computers that overdevelop the visual sense. The desire to read is jeopardized by the same forces that would make us a violent, shallow, hedonistic, and materialistic people. As a nation we risk coming undone because our language is coming undone, and our language is coming undone because one by one we are being undone.
The problem of language, however, is a global problem. Of the roughly 5000 languages now spoken on Earth, only 150 or so are expected to survive to the year 2100. Language everywhere is being whittled down to the dimensions of the global economy and homogenized to accord with the imperatives of the "information age." This represents a huge loss of cultural information and a blurring of our capacity to understand the world and our place in it. And it represents a losing bet that a few people armed with the words, metaphors, and mindset characteristic of industry and technology that flourished destructively for a few decades can, in fact, manage the Earth, a different, more complex, and longer-lived thing altogether.
Because we cannot think clearly about what we cannot say clearly, the first casualty of linguistic incoherence is our ability to think well about many things. This is a reciprocal process. Language, George Orwell once wrote, "becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts" (Orwell 1981, 157). In our time the words and metaphors of the consumer economy are often a product of foolish thoughts as well as evidence of bad language. Under the onslaught of commercialization and technology, we are losing the sense of wholeness and time that is essential to a decent civilization. We are losing, in short, the capacity to articulate what is most important to us. And the new class of corporate chiefs, global managers, genetic engineers, and money speculators has no words with which to describe the fullness and beauty of life or to announce their role in the larger moral ecology. They have no metaphors by which they can say how we fit together in the community of life and so little idea beyond that of self-interest about why we ought to protect it. They have, in short, no language that will help humankind navigate through the most dangerous epoch in its history. On the contrary, they will do all in their power to reduce language to the level of utility, function, management, self-interest, and the short term. Evil begins not only with words used with malice; it can begin with words that merely diminish people, land, and life to some fragment that is less than whole and less than holy. The prospects for evil, I believe, will grow as those for language decline.
We have an affinity for language, and that capacity makes us human. When language is devalued, misused, or corrupted, so too are those who speak it and those who hear it. On the other hand, we are never better than when we use words clearly, eloquently, and civilly. Language does not merely reflect the relative clarity of mind; it can elevate thought and ennoble our behavior. Abraham Lincoln's words at Gettysburg in 1863, for example, gave meaning to the terrible sacrifices of the Civil War. Similarly, Winston Churchill's words moved an entire nation to do its duty in the dark hours of 1940. If we intend to protect and enhance our humanity, we must first decide to protect and enhance language and fight everything that undermines and cheapens it.
What does this mean in practical terms? How do we design language facility back into the culture? My first suggestion is to restore the habit of talking directly to each other—whatever the loss in economic efficiency. To that end I propose that we begin by smashing every device used to communicate in place of a real person, beginning with automated answering machines. Messages like "your call is important to us ..." or "for more options, please press 5, or if you would like to talk to a real person, please stay on the line" are the death rattle of a coherent culture. Hell, yes, I want to talk to a real person, and preferably one who is competent and courteous!
My second suggestion is to restore the habit of public reading. One of my very distinctive childhood memories was attending a public reading of Shakespeare by the British actor Charles Laughton. With no prop other than a book, he read with energy and passion for 2 hours and kept a large audience enthralled, including at least one 8-year-old boy. No movie was ever as memorable to me. Further, I propose that adults should turn off the television, disconnect the cable, undo the computer, and once again read good books aloud to their children. I know of no better or more pleasurable way to stimulate thinking, encourage a love of language, and facilitate the child's ability to form images.
My third suggestion is that those who corrupt language ought to be held accountable for what they do—beginning with the advertising industry. Advertisers spend hundreds of billions to sell us an unconscionable amount of stuff, much of it useless, environmentally destructive, and deleterious to our health. They fuel the fires of consumerism that are consuming the Earth and our children's future. They regard the public with utter contempt—as little more than a herd of sheep to be manipulated to buy whatever at the highest possible cost and at any consequence. Dante would have consigned them to the lowest level of Hell, only because there was no worse place to put them. We should too. Barring that excellent idea, we should insist that they abide by community standards of truthfulness in selling what they peddle, including full disclosure of what the products do to the environment and to those who buy them.
AUTHOR's NOTE 2010: Upon reflection I would move peddlers of misinformation up to the next level and reserve the very basement of hell for those using the public airwaves to incite hate, intolerance, fear, and violence. I would condemn them to listen to their own broadcasts 24/7 for eternity.
Fifth, language, I believe, grows from the outside in, from the periphery to center. It is renewed in the vernacular where human intentions intersect particular places and circumstances and by the everyday acts of authentic living and speaking. It is, by the same logic, corrupted by contrivance, pretense, and fakery. The center where power and wealth work by contrivance, pretense, and fakery does not create language so much as exploit it. In order to facilitate control, it would make our language as uniform and dull as the interstate highway system. Given its way, we would have only one newspaper, a super USA Today. Our thoughts and words would mirror those popular in Washington, New York, Boston, or Los Angeles. From the perspective of the center, the merger of entertainment companies with communications companies is OK because it can see no difference between entertainment and news. In order to preserve the vernacular places where language grows, we need to protect the independence of local newspapers and local radio stations. We need to protect local culture in all of its forms from the domination by national media, markets, and power. Understanding that cultural diversity and biological diversity are different faces of the same coin, we must protect those parts of our culture where memory, tradition, and devotion to place still exist.
Finally, since language is the only currency wherever men and women pursue truth, there should be no higher priority for schools, colleges, and universities than to defend the integrity and clarity of language in every way possible. We must instill in our students an appreciation for language, literature, and words well crafted and used to good ends. As teachers we should insist on good writing. We should assign books and readings that are well written. We should restore rhetoric—the ability to speak clearly and well—to the liberal arts curriculum. Our own speaking and writing ought to demonstrate clarity and truthfulness. And we, too, should be held accountable for what we say.
Excerpted from Hope Is an Imperative by David W. Orr. Copyright © 2011 David W. Orr. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Meet the Author
David W. Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College and the author of six previous books.
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