Ed. note: This piece was originally published in the Realistic Living newsletter. More information about the work of Realistic Living can be found on their website.
I started to write a brief review of David W. Orr’s 2016 book Dangerous Years: Climate Change, the Long Emergency, and the Way Forward. I found, however, that a longer “essay” was what I felt called to write. Orr’s book is the best thing I have read on the overall social-change challenges of this century. I am ranking this book, along with the Bible, as something to read over and over for the rest of my life. I recommend that you buy a hard copy, and wear it out over the next decade. The social content of this book is broad, deep, and on target, and Orr’s prose reads like poetry. His choice of words is beautiful, gripping, and often funny. I am going to quote some examples for you to taste.
First of all, he demolishes the lies of climate crisis denial, as well as the lies of minimalist response to this emergency:
Nearly everything on Earth behaves or works differently at higher temperatures. Ecologies collapse, forests burn, metals expand, concrete runways buckle, rivers dry up, cooling towers fail, and people curse, kill, and terrorize more easily. Climate deniers . . . are doomed to roughly the same status as, say, members of the Flat Earth Society. page 25
The solutions Orr develops begin with a shift in the human will or heart, then move on to a shift in the human mind, and end with real-world, down-and-dirty, power-politics, as well as the year-in-and-year-out local tasks of reconstruction. Here is a quote about the educational care of our social minds:
We would be embarrassed to graduate students who could neither read nor count. We should be mortified, then, to graduate students who are ecologically illiterate—clueless about the basics of ecology, energetics, systems dynamics—the bedrock conditions for civilization and human life. page 110
Orr prepares our awakening “hearts,” “wills,” and “minds” for our real-world politics with sentences like these:
And there will be no Deus ex machina, or cavalry, or invisible hand, or miracle technological breakthrough that will rescue us in the nick of time. It will be up to us to change the odds and the outcomes on our own. page 144
The next passage I will be reading aloud in my speeches. It is a gem that notices the spirit depth of our call to action:.
If humanity is to have a better future it will be a more “empathic civilization,” one better balanced between our most competitive, hard-driving selves and our most harmonious, altruistic traits; one that embraces the yin-yang poles of behavior. It must be a change sufficiently global to bridge the chasms of ethnicity, gender, religion, nationality, and politics and deep enough to shift perceptions, behaviors, and values. The change must enable people to grow from a “having” orientation to a “being” orientation to the world. It must deepen our appreciation, affiliation, and competence with the natural world, albeit a natural world undergoing accelerating changes.
I do not think, however, that we can simply will ourselves to that empathic new world. The transition will result from social movements, activism, education, and political changes. But there is always an X-factor, an inexplicable process of metanoia, a word meaning “penitence; a reorientation of one’s way of life; spiritual conversion.” It is a change of inner sight. “I once was blind, but now I see” as the former slave trader John Newton wrote in the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Metanoia is liberation from bondage—physical, mental, emotional—a total change of perspective. pages 147-8
I view the core of the revolution for a next Christianity to be the creation of metanoia circles, small groupings of people in which our deepest humanness can be nurtured on a regular basis and our compassion and persistence prepared for our wide-world responsibilities.
Orr pictures the role of politics as a “long revolution.” We now need more than small teams and edge movements: we need large structures of action that year-in-and-year-out for decades do all the little and big things that need to be done for this huge transition.
Orr works through our core challenges with thorough analysis and inspiring description of practical options. He also continues to indicate the spirit courage and persistence it is going to take. He deals with sustainable democracy, ecological design, hotter cities, systemic thinking, a new agriculture, and much more.
Orr concludes his book with a description of the Oberlin Project—a multi-committee, local project of community-renewal organized by Orr and others, in Orr’s Oberlin, Ohio home town. He pictures the kind of things that the co-pastors of future Christian Resurgence Circles might envision for their quality action in their local parishes of responsibility. Here is a quote taken from that final chapter:
We need people who make charity and civility the norm. We need more parks, farmers’ markets, bike trails, baseball teams, book groups, poetry readings, good coffee, conviviality, practical competence, and communities where the word “neighbor” is a verb, not a noun. We need people who know and love this place and see it whole and see it for what it can be. page 227
Orr is also clear that we need people who lead the global level responses to the climate crisis, economic equity, democratization, campaign financing, racism, sexism, and more.