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Bill McKibben

Better Building

A smart way to reduce carbon emissions.

I remember a warm spring day some years ago. I was taking down the storm windows on our little rural church, supervised by the oldest man in the congregation. When we were done, we sat down on the stoop out front, a truly massive piece of local granite. Don began talking about the day in his boyhood when the men of the town had cut that slab of stone, hitched it to a team, and rolled it a mile to the church on pine logs. I wasn't paying much attention to his discourse on chisels and harnesses—it seemed unlikely I'd ever be called on to do the same. But gradually it dawned on me that he was describing something more important than building technique: the ability to get a community to work together toward some common end. Such cooperation is a technology of sorts, and it's in steep decline.

David Orr's new book reminded me of that day. It's an account of one of the most efficient and sustainable buildings on any college campus anywhere—an account of the technological advances required, and also of the many human factors that very nearly derailed its construction. And it allows us to understand why we'll need to cleverly maneuver both the technological and the human track to have any hope of avoiding the ecological abyss we find ourselves approaching.

Orr is an interesting figure, the author of the highly regarded Earth in Mind, about environmental education, and a frequent and fiery lecturer on campuses around the country. The son and grandson of ministers, he's director of the environmental studies program at Oberlin College in Ohio, whose first superstar faculty member was the evangelist Charles Grandison Finney. The college was also an early educator of women and African Americans, and if it has shed its theological roots it has not shed its moral passion for many causes, including the environment.

Hence it made sense for Orr to let his imagination run when he imagined a new headquarters for his environmental studies program. The Adam Joseph Lewis Center was ...

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