March 2013

The Oberlin Project: Visions of a Sustainable Future

Starting with the small town of Oberlin, Ohio, David Orr hopes to spark a wider movement that harnesses America's ingenuity and enterprise to rebuild an entire country from the grass roots up.
David Orr in a facility designed to sustainably treat waste water using natural processes.
The basic aspects of the Oberlin Project.
David Orr stands in a solar powered parking garage in Oberlin, Ohio.

It was a new experience to hear the words "Tea Party" and "environmental" mentioned in the same sentence. The speaker was David Orr, talking passionately about the Oberlin Project, his vision for a sustainable future. In a nutshell, the project aims to develop a full model of sustainable development while drastically reducing the carbon footprint of an entire town, namely Oberlin, Ohio. David is Special Assistant to the President in Sustainability & Environmental Affairs and Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies & Politics at Oberlin College.

He is asking if it's possible to create an ecological version of the Tea Party movement, harnessing and transforming the angst in communities all over the country to help solve large problems such as education, economic renewal, and climate change.

"We have five goals in the Oberlin Project" says David. "One is to rebuild an economy here that is sustainable. We’re a small city in the Rust Belt with a poverty level of about 25 percent. The second goal is to get to carbon neutrality - get past fossil fuel use and power the community by efficiency and solar power and renewable energy, broadly. Third goal is to rebuild the local food system in order to supply up to 70 percent of our food. The fourth goal is to do all this as an educational venture. This isn’t top-down, directed by me or anybody else. This is a College and community enterprise."

"The fifth goal: if we build this and it’s a great little community powered by sunshine, but we sit here as an island, we will have failed…Our goal is to contribute to a wider movement that harnesses ingenuity and enterprise to rebuild America from the grass roots up."

In an eco-tour of Oberlin, David proudly presented two solar arrays; inklings of future possibilities. One sits atop a parking lot and powers the Adam J. Lewis Center; the other, in a ten-acre field adjacent to the college's athletics center, will produce approximately three million kilowatt hours of electricity annually, enough to power 275 homes in Ohio. "We are witnessing," says David, "a revolution in human ingenuity harnessing sunshine. The great dream has been a hydrogen-powered economy, where you would take solar electricity and electrolysis of water to split oxygen and hydrogen part. The hydrogen would be converted to electricity in fuel cells without pollution – that’s the great dream. It hasn’t happened yet, and some of the early projections were premature, but in the not-too-distant-future, it will come to pass.”

We visited a few thriving local businesses – a café and a garage that retrofits vehicles to run on biodiesel fuels – all evidence that the Oberlin Project is both a social as well as technological vision – one that could spark and exemplify a new movement on a grand scale.

"American ingenuity is alive and well," exclaimed Orr. "There are people everywhere who are good with their hands and know how to repair, build, and invent. That’s been one of America’s strengths and is represented by the Oberlin Project. We can tap into that tradition again to revitalize economies powered by sunshine and efficiency and renew America’s entrepreneurial spirit . . . that is America at its best."

For more information on the Oberlin Project, visit www.oberlinproject.org