Books interview: David W. Orr

The Paul Sears distinguished professor at Oberlin College on the hottest climate change literature, gifting nature books and post-US election reading

January 5, 2017
Author David W. Orr, Oberlin College

What sort of books inspired you as a child?
History, biography and mysteries mostly, but I read about everything I could find. That habit persists presently in my late childhood.

Which were the key books that raised your awareness of ecological issues and spurred you to become an activist?
It’s a dead heat between Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey, René Dubos’ So Human an Animal, Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Each combined literary magic with accessible science. Worn, frayed and marked up, they are still read for pleasure and instruction.

Which books would you recommend as non-specialist accounts of climate change and the urgent need for us to respond?
Five stand out: Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers, Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species, Betsy Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Dale Jamieson’s Reason in a Dark Time and Bill McKibben’s Eaarth. Their command of the science and of the larger issues at stake is clear and powerful. And none sugar-coats the scale, scope and duration of the problem.

Dangerous Years is a call for a different kind of politics to address climate change. Which texts offer the best pointers to what this would look like?
The climate emergency is fundamentally political, with economic and technological aspects. James Gustave Speth’s America the Possible, read with Jonathon Porritt’s Capitalism, gives a full course on the political economy of the issues and the way forward. The political writings of Václav Havel and Tony Judt are essential to making sense of the turbulent politics of our time. Older works such as William Ophuls’ Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity and Robert Heilbroner’s An Inquiry into the Human Prospect put the issues into broader philosophical perspective. Assuming that we can summon the wit to cap off the worst that could happen, the changes required in the conduct of our national and international politics are massive. It is time to rethink the role of the nation-state and global corporations in relation to the management of the global commons, peace, economic justice, sustainability and the rights of future generations. I recommend Burns Weston and David Bollier’s Green Governance, and Thomas Berry’s The Great Work and The Universe Story.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
I recently gave Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees to my 14-year-old granddaughter, Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk to my two sons and Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways to friends.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
Given recent events hereabouts, I will be reading Waller Newell’s Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror, Josiah Ober’s The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement and Wolfgang Streeck’s How Will Capitalism End? Boning up, you might say, for what looks like a rough patch.

David W. Orr is counsellor to the president and Paul Sears distinguished professor at Oberlin College in Ohio. His latest book is Dangerous Years: Climate Change, the Long Emergency, and the Way Forward (Yale University Press).

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