Environmental philoshopher David Orr delivers lecture over preparations for climate change

Miles Hutson

Dr. David Orr, an award-winning environmental philosopher, questioned how society could prepare for the unpredictable and potentially disastrous effects of climate change in an open lecture Friday.

The Environmental Science Institute, the Office of Sustainability, the School of Architecture and the Center for Teaching and Learning sponsored Orr, who also spoke to faculty Thursday about teaching sustainability to students.

Orr said in his lecture that Black Swan events are events with low probability and high impact, like Hurricane Katrina and 9/11. Global warming can cause Black Swan events that catch civilizations off-guard, Orr said.

“Somebody once said a long time ago, we’re running a one-time experiment with the planet,” he said. “We’ve worked with a theory that we assume you can turn the thermostat of the planet up a bit and nothing over her wobbles. But that’s not the black swan world.”

Orr, a professor at the Oberlin College in Ohio, said the campus has made progress in greening itself and its city. He said he wants lessons learned in his community to spread into a national movement for the environment.

“What we’re trying to do is make sustainability visible as part of the fabric of life,” Orr said. “It’s just the norm. In the same way we take lots of things now for granted, we take different things for granted.”

Orr also said after the lecture that he’d like to see a plan put forward to get UT off fossil fuels and reduce its environmental footprint.

“It is an excellent opportunity to disseminate his vision to the Austin community,” said Geoff Hensgen, outreach coordinator for the Environmental Science Institute.

Graduate research assistant Eric Hersh said Orr’s work complemented the mission of the institute, which is meant to tie together various departments in solving problems that can’t be addressed by only one discipline.

Before Dr. Orr’s lecture, environmental and scientific groups advertised themselves to students and faculty outside the Student Activity Center auditorium. Among them were the Campus Environmental Center and the Science Undergraduate Research Group, which sold small plants and seedlings to attendees as part of a weekly fundraiser. Many members of the broader Austin community attended Orr’s lecture, such as Pat and Dale Bulla — homeowners recognized for their green residence.

After the lecture, ESI director Jay Banner said he believed solving this problem required a shift from specialized focus.

“We can no longer solve environmental problems just by having biologists study them, or just social scientists,” Banner said. “We have to have a very interdisciplinary approach, and that’s what we try to bring to students.”

Dr. Orr’s lecture can be found online at mediasite.esi.utexas.edu.

Printed on Monday, September 17, 2012 as: Guest lecturer Orr urges sustainability