ZCB US research trip: Stop 2 – The Oberlin Project, Ohio

Home » ZCB US research trip: Stop 2 – The Oberlin Project, Ohio

This is the third instalment in a series of blogs by Paul Allen as he travels across the USA talking with numerous grassroots groups about CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain research project. The first blog explains the purpose of the trip and the second blog details his time in Boston. This blog covers Paul’s time in Ohio, the second of five stops on the journey.

My visit to Oberlin was a hive of activity. I gave three key Zero Carbon Britain presentations, two radio interviews plus a panel discussion to ‘flush out’ the relevant contacts. This was followed by seven meetings with active local groups, the recording of a joint composition with Oberlin musicians for the ‘theclimatemessage.com’ project, and culminated on the final day with a most exciting discussion with the Oberlin Project’s originator David Orr.

 Clearly something special is happening in Oberlin, it’s diverse, it’s facing up to highly challenging opposition, but it’s defiantly something special. The phrase they use to describe this activity stuck with me straight away; they call it ‘blessed unrest’. Coined by environmental and social activist Paul Hawken it describes actions towards a ‘great turning’ towards restoring the environment and fostering social justice. Blessed unrest is plentiful in Oberlin. It manifests in a wide spectrum of ways; from groups working to ‘weatherise’ (retrofit) dwellings of the less well off, to those teaching green ideas in a super green building with a ‘living machine’ to treat the wastes, to a radical college operating a 2 megawatt solar power station, to the citizen pioneers who have built ‘net climate positive’ houses.

My visit opened with a ‘get to know you’ meeting with a dozen or so key players from the various groups which comprise the Oberlin Project. It was hosted at Carl and Mary McDaniel’s home, “Trail Magic”. Construction was completed in 2008 with the installation of an airtight wood-burning stove. It was the perfect end to their personal journey and a great example of how the couple’s philosophy echoes through their climate neutral, LEED Platinum home (LEED is the US measure of impact reduction in the buildings rather like the UK’s BREEAM rating). Through Carl’s enthusiasm and ingenuity the house had been built at a cost similar to quality, conventional construction. Now that construction dust has settled, they regularly invite visitors to take a tour, and were marvellous hosts to our visit, offering residence to Joanna Wright our ‘video artist in transit’ for the trip, travelling with her son Wren.

The Oberlin project was established by leading green thinker and doer David Orr to act as a catalyst between the tow big players in the area – Oberlin City Council and the renowned Oberlin College. Oberlin College has a long history of progressive leadership in both race and gender equity, and now aims to lead on ecological issues too. In December 2006 Oberlin College was the first of its peer institutions and one of the first institutions in the country to sign the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (PCC), aimed at achieving “carbon neutrality.” Their commitment is reflected in two key elements; the first is a quantitative, campus-wide audit of carbon emissions arising from to day-to-day operations, and have developed a ‘dashboard’ to aid the process. The second is their action plan to reduce emissions to zero by 2025. Oberlin City, with a much wider remit, aims for zero by 2050.

I was very taken by this quote which someone there repeated. It is from a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s in 1967, on the subject of ending the Vietnam War, delivered at Riverside Church in New York City. It feels directly relevant to the struggle with climate change today:

“We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood-it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on.”

My meetings during the Oberlin visit resulted in an impressive range conversations, including an evening with Rick Flood’s father who had worked for NASA in the early days of photovoltaics. Hearing the trajectory of the technology over someone’s lifetime was a moving experience. “The one thing we never expected”, he explained to me over a drink on evening, “was that photovoltaics would ever get so cheap, and the price looks set to comedown even further”. A mix of new film coatings crossed with the economies of global mass manufacture will bring the price down, and as the cost falls, the scale of the technology will continue to rise. Basically solar (and wind for that matter) are racing up on the inside lane, with grid parity per kilowatt-hour clearly on the horizon.

By coincidence my visit to Oberlin also coincided with a study tour from another Clinton Climate Initiative from the Danish county of Sonderborg, ‘Project Zero’. The very able local catalyser Rick Flood spotted this early on, and flagged up to the Oberlin project the potential for a ‘mini summit’. The Danish visitors Hans Lehmann and Elisabeth Ibing Holm enthusiastically explained to us how their entire county had developed a vision for a CO2-neutral growth area by 2029, creating and demonstrating robust measurable CO2 reductions and new green jobs for a talented generation of young people. It was created to unite all of the area’s stakeholders to reach a clear goal: CO2-neutral growth and sustainable urban development.

Their key driver seems to have been that for far too long, the focus of climate discussions have been in academic and political circles. Round about 2007, to get things moving Sonderborg, residents made a plan for taking action instead of talking – and the results speak for themselves, they look set to achieve a 25% reduction CO2 by 2015!
 This ambitious goal will be reached both by much more efficient energy consumption and increasing generation from their area’s own renewable energy sources. Hans explained to me the background; ProjectZero is a public-private partnership, which includes the innovative technical company Danfoss. Hans made it clear that Education is vital. New, clever and creative thinking will be required to combat the climate challenge. Therefore, a core aspect of ProjectZero is the engagement in education at all levels, right from Kindergarten to PhD – the climate must be in focus. Whilst at kindergarten and in school, children gain inspiration backed by the latest knowledge so that they can influence their parents.

Whilst in Ohio, through Rick Floods most able networking skills, I also was invited into Cleveland to present ZCB at their prestigious Natural History Museum. This allowed me to meet members of the Cleveland 2030 District group. Part of the Architecture 2030 US network, who had drawn a significant square footage of ‘downtown building space’ into a high quality retrofit scheme. A few days after the meeting I was pleased to receive a message from Jon J. Reidy Executive Director of the Cleveland 2030 District which included this kind comment:

“Thanks especially to Paul for your inspiring lecture. Your presentation was engaging and easy to follow, and I was especially impressed with the legibility of the graphics illustrating land use recommendations. Personally I must say that it is quite easy to get caught up in the minutiae and the daily slog of working to change hearts and minds in my community, but every so often I slow down to reflect on the big picture and absorb information which reinforces the importance of my work … your talk certainly re-charged my batteries. Best of luck to all of you, and keep up the great work!”

Key lessons from Oberlin:

  • Clearly ‘blessed unrest’ is thriving in Oberlin and Ohio. From municipal councils to non-profits, from families and single-person activists to academics, these groups collectively are pushing into new ground and working to catalyse the institutions in their locality to embrace the ‘great turning’.
  • But up lifting though it is, there still remains a general realisation that this turning is simply not happening fast enough (at least outside Denmark!) for humanity to stand a reasonable chance of avoiding the really dangerous climate change, which will be beyond our ability to adapt.
  • Having a zero carbon (climate positive) target is a strong motivator, but without scenarios there remains a lack of clarity as to how this can be achieved.
  • There is a great deal to be gained by investing a relatively small amount of resources in catalysing synergy between the larger players in a locality.
  • Using a ‘dashboard’ to make energy generation and consumption transparent can have a powerful effect in changing attitudes and behaviours
  • Engaging with the arts and creative practice is a powerful agent for change; we were invited to attend a meeting hosted by the beehive arts collective using highly detailed pen drawings, which was packed with young activists.