David W. Orr. (Photo: John Seyfried)
David W. Orr. (Photo: John Seyfried)

David W. Orr on the Inextricable Links Between Climate and Democracy

The environmental and politics expert discusses his book “Democracy in a Hotter Time” and why building “Democracy 4.0” must be a localized, grassroots mission.
By Spencer Bailey
September 18, 2023
30 minute read

David W. Orr could be considered at once an educator’s educator, a political scientist’s political scientist, and an ecologist’s ecologist. Through his non-self-serious, aw-shucks attitude; wry wit; raw oratorical talent (he’s the son of a preacher); and vast knowledge, Orr has continuously delivered conversation- and curricula-shifting books (nine so far, including, most recently, Democracy in a Hotter Time: Climate Change and Democratic Transformation, from M.I.T. Press, which he edited), articles (more than 250 to date), and lectures (hundreds around the world) with an impressive consistency and cadence. While he could be considered a generalist, through his long-view understanding of both democracy and the climate crisis, Orr’s also a specialist, someone deeply focused on the repair and strengthening of American democracy. The Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics emeritus at Oberlin College and currently a professor at Arizona State University, he is by turns an erudite academic and a political-science wonk, but also a cool-headed intellect and the kind of laid-back funnyman you’d want to grab a beer with.

On the latest episode of our At a Distance podcast, we talk with Orr about his latest book; the herculean leap required to reach what he calls “Democracy 4.0”; and why, in our “long emergency” that is the climate crisis, we must “stretch our hearts to reach out to other species and future generations.”

Click here to listen to the full interview on our At a Distance podcast.

Cover of “Democracy in a Hotter Time” by David W. Orr. (Courtesy MIT Press)
Cover of “Democracy in a Hotter Time” by David W. Orr. (Courtesy MIT Press)

First, I should say outright that I could not think of a more timely subject or title for your book: Democracy in a Hotter Time. This is something that’s been on my mind for years now, and I can’t really understand why it’s been so overlooked. It’s nice to see a book about the subject finally come out. Could you lay out for the listeners how you view these dual crises—democracy under threat and the climate crisis—and the ways in which they’re linked and intertwined? Neither is as stable, I think, as we’ve all thought.

Well, sure. The book started several years ago. I was teaching at Oberlin College, and in 2017, we did a conference on the state of American democracy. The acronym is SAD. [Laughter] The point of the gathering—it was three days, started off with Jane Mayer from The New Yorker and ended with William Barber, the great preacher, three days later. We were trying to get at: How did we get to the election of 2016? What happened? Then we published, out of that, a book called Democracy Unchained from New Press, and we had planned fourteen events across the country, starting at the National Cathedral on March 20, 2020. Cathedral staff told us in our weekly call, about two weeks from the event, “Hey, we’ve got great news, and we’ve got bad news. The great news is, we’re going to have a standing-room-only crowd. The nave and both wings will be filled. The bad news is, we’ll have to cancel.” We set about to do online events. We did eleven online events, drew an audience, I think, of about a million people, maybe a bit more. It included David Brooks, Jill Lepore from Harvard. It was an all-star crowd.

The next phase of the work, we decided to focus on democracy and climate. Our assumptions started off as, basically, that democracy is worth fighting for. For all of its flaws, it’s the only system of governance that ought to—and can—protect human dignity and all the things that we really value. Churchill, in that famous and overused comment, said it was the worst form of government, except for all the others that have ever been tried. I don’t quite subscribe to that. But that starts off the [argument that] democracy, what we have now, came down over years of history; it’s a gift. A lot of people died for it and sacrificed for it. So here we are.

Is it easy to do? No. Democracy is really tough. It requires the hardest of all things: forbearance, a capacity to listen, and a bit of humility along the way, to listen to other people and hear other viewpoints. The climate comes at us with a lot of warnings. Svante Arrhenius, the great Swedish scientist, predicted where we’d be if we burned as much carbon as we have. He was ballpark accurate. As a Swede, he thought it was a good thing to warm up a bit. [Laughs] But we now have a series of warnings. Like pixels accumulating in a picture, the view gets sharper and sharper with every scientific report.

So our first assumption is that democracy, for all of its worth, won’t survive climate change. Climate change, sooner or later, will accumulate so many problems. Rising sea levels and droughts and all of those things end up with social stresses and economic traumas and so forth. Democracy won’t survive that. Governance generally may not survive it. The second assumption we make is that, if we’re going to solve the climate or manage the climate crisis, it has to be through democracy. We have to engage the public and tap into this reservoir of creativity and ingenuity, and, I think, even patriotism exists in the public realm.

The third assumption is that democracy isn’t what we have now. Thinking about the history of this and collapsing this into a short description, Democracy 1.0 was all the kinds of governance that had never been tried—tribal systems and so forth around the world, up through the Iroquois or Shoshone. Democracy 2.0 starts in Greece. Greek democracy, was it perfect? No, not at all. There was slavery and so forth, all kinds of problems. What you might call 3.0 begins in Philadelphia, the culmination of the Enlightenment, with Thomas Jefferson sitting in that Philadelphia hotel room and beginning to pen the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln drew on that as the core principle of American democracy. 4.0 has yet to be invented. But each of the preceding kinds of democracy required an extension of the constituency, from a tribal level, to the Greek level, to the Democracy 3.0. Every time we improved democracy, we widened that thing called “We the People,” the constituency for democracy. So in the beginning, a document written by slave owners had to reckon with slavery. And then Democracy 4.0 has to reckon with all these people, and let me put the word beings out there, left out. So other species, natural systems, and future generations.

This is going to be a tough extension, because Democracy 4.0 has to reckon with the sins of 3.0. We built this enormous capitalist enterprise globally. But we did it on the backs of a lot of people. Colonialism was an artifact of that era, and we extracted resources and exploited people mercilessly. Democracy 4.0 is going to have to be global. To a great extent, it will vary from culture to culture; it’s not going to be a copycat kind of thing. But the basic principle is to allow people to have a say in how they’re governed by whom and to what purpose.

And so, Democracy 4.0 is in the process of invention. But having said that, I’ve got to say that all the pieces are there. You don’t have to sort through many recent books, or books written in the last fifty years, that lay out what has to be done. But it would be a leap to get to 4.0. The working assumption is that if we’re going to manage the climate crisis in any humanly decent and ecologically solvent way, we have got to widen the constituency of people. In practical terms, I think this means several things right off the bat. It means all the reforms that John Lewis proposed—that he proposed for a long time: the franchise right to vote has got to be guaranteed; it is not guaranteed in the Constitution. Gerrymandering—the right to vote in a fair electoral district has got to be guaranteed. And it’s hard to run a smart country with dumb people, so the constituency has got to be educated.

So the work ahead is hard. I think the good news is that a good bit of the intellectual work has been done. We’re now down to organizing. If you get the questions right and ask any number of people—even people on the, quote, “political right”—do you want to breathe dirty air? The answer is no. Do you want to drink dirty water? No. The answer comes back to the same. Do you want to live in climate chaos? The answer is going to be no. Do you want your children to have a decent life on the planet? The answer is yes. So a good bit of the work has already been done. We’ve won a lot of battles. Now it’s an organizing battle. As Frederick Douglass once said, “Power never gives up.” Never has, never will.

And so, a good bit of the fight—and it will be a fight; there will be casualties—will entail overcoming the powers of money, fossil fuels, entrenched interests, just the sense that this is what we do. This is the fight of our lives. This is the fight. The younger generation, if they’re looking for something to do, in Tom Berry’s words, this is the great work ahead.

You describe, in the book, our current situation as a “long emergency,” and I wanted to ask about that. Do you view democracy and its ability to endure in certain terms? Or, I guess phrased differently, how can democracy exist—and even thrive—in this long emergency?

Well, that’s a complicated answer. Let me say this with required humility: I don’t know the answer. But I think that if I start with, first of all, the word “long emergency,” that’s simply baked into the biophysical reality. Once carbon is in the atmosphere, it stays there for a long time. We haven’t seen the worst of global warming yet. We’re just seeing the opening chapter of the book.

The long emergency means that carbon will be in the atmosphere for a long time. This past summer has been a real primer in how the Earth works physically under provocation. The build-up of greenhouse gasses—we worry mostly about carbon dioxide, but if you add the other greenhouse gasses to trap all heat-trapping gasses, we’re really closer to five hundred parts per million than we are to four hundred twenty-two. This won’t change quickly. Ninety-seven percent of the heat generated [by greenhouse gasses] has gone into the oceans. The amount of heat is staggering. Bill McKibben had an article several years ago saying that the amount of heat released every day is roughly equivalent to four Hiroshima-sized bombs going off every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week. All the combustion and the fires in our cars and industrial processes add roughly to a calculation of that much heat. Even if he’s wrong by one or two bombs, it’s still a lot.

So the long emergency is largely an artifact of what we’ve done to the planet. It will take a long time for them to recoup and fall back to the level of…. when I was born, a million years ago, I think the carbon level was around three hundred fifteen parts per million. And that’s the long emergency part. The “everybody” part of democracy: I think we have to begin to understand that governments can’t solve all of this. That’s a right-wing notion. But I think governments are going to be overwhelmed with multiple disasters. If you imagine a scenario—which is not at all far-fetched—we have a nuclear accident, a massive drought, three hurricanes hit, and a terrorist act all at one time. I don’t think there’s a government anywhere that could handle all of that. FEMA’s not big enough. If you simply look at the things that we have to do to provision ourselves—food, energy, water, materials, healthcare and all the rest—I think we have to tap into that ingenuity of the public. W.E.B. Du Bois, in a kind of famous essay in 1919, spoke in those terms, about tapping into the public ability to do things. People are smart, and given a cause and a reason to do something, they can do a lot of things.

What we have to understand is how to calibrate the political needs, and the public needs, with that individual capacity. For example, in World War II, Americans grew something like forty percent of their own vegetables in backyard gardens—victory gardens—and the ingenuity that resides at that public level, to solve things. Rebecca Solnit’s book some years back, A Paradise Built in Hell, was about the Katrina disaster and how people came out to help each other—and for all the things that went wrong with that. I think we have to understand how to publicly build a channel for those things to occur—a platform for that to occur. The internet can help a lot by connecting people locally, but this is a face-to-face thing as much as anything else.

I think a part of what has fueled the right wing distemper has been, in fact, we don’t do things together much anymore. We sit and complain and argue with each other. We don’t do things much anymore. We don’t have what the Amish, in this part of the world, call “barnraising,” where everybody comes down to build a barn for somebody whose barn was burned down. It wouldn’t be that simple. But local food systems, local farmers markets, volunteers in schools, volunteer firefighters, first responders—coming together builds a bond that we have to restore. But it’s a face-to-face kind of bond. The long emergency is just baked into the way the earth works, its physical system. The democracy part is, I think, to begin to reinvent what John Dewey, years ago, described as: “Local democracy” begins at the grassroots and then moves up. It’s not foreordained at the top and passed down.

I happen to believe that people are mostly good. There are some exceptions that we all can name, but I think people are mostly good. Very few people wake up in the morning and say, “I want to endanger another species” or “I want to add another degree to the climate.” We just go about our daily work. Part of the job of deducing or drawing forth goodness in us is partly by example—seeing people do things—and partly by opportunity, and partly by connectedness.

Anyway, that sounds like a sermon in a Presbyterian church. Take up the offering. [Laughter]

Well, to bring it back to your book, one of the essays begins, simply, “The planet is burning.” Another starts with, “Burning hills and glowing red skies, stone-dry riverbeds, expanses of brown water engulfing tiny human rooftops. This is the setting for the twenty-first century.” There’s a bluntness and a bleakness to some of these texts. But at the same time, there are all of these solutions presented. I like that you just referenced Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, because that’s really what that book is all about. For you, what are some of the more compelling or realizable solutions that you yourself know about or that are presented in the book?

I have to start with education, because that’s where I’ve run my flag for a half century in the educational world. My dad was a college president. So from the time I was 5, until the current time, I’ve been in and around higher education. I don’t see it as a panacea. It’s one of those things that’s a necessary but not sufficient change. But education has also been implicated in the crisis. We’ve done a lot of things that were shortsighted, as it turned out, and compromised the human prospect. But I think education, and particularly the kind of education that engages young people in actually doing things…. So to supplement a college or university curriculum, years ago, or in the last twenty-five years, I’ve participated in an educational program at Schumacher College in Devon, England. And it’s just a great, little two-week place where you get together and talk. You begin to connect with human beings, and you do things together, take walks together or work together. In between teaching at University of North Carolina and Oberlin, I took eleven years out to build an educational center, where the goal was to connect head, hand, and heart. And it was just a lot of fun. Every event we did there, we had music, everybody did something physical and learned to do something or make something that they didn’t know how to before they arrived. Education can be a lot more proactive in calling out the better angels of our nature. I think it’s kind of the bedrock for all of this.

To go over to the political agenda, I think the most important thing is to get money out of politics. I don’t think you can run…. This is nothing new. Aristotle and Plato basically said the same thing. I think that money, in our society, has created an oligarchy, where the wealthiest five people own more or are wealthier than the bottom, whatever it is, fifty percent or eighty percent. You can’t keep a democracy going with that kind of economic imbalance. That’s nothing new.

I think, in terms of politics, I think we just have to end the Electoral College. There was a reason for it back in James Madison’s day. That reason’s long gone. But you can’t have New York State or California with two senators, and Wyoming with three hundred people and four million cows, with two senators. There’s some hard political reforming that has got to be done.

Going back a bit, it’s now been more than three decades since you wrote your first book, Ecological Literacy, in 1992. How do you think about these past three decades from an ecological literacy perspective? How does today’s conversation around ecological matters compare to the one in the early nineties?

Boy, that’s such an interesting question, thanks for asking. That’s the subject of a book I’m working on right now. That’ll be probably two years in the making, but to revisit those years, some of those issues: One way to see this is that we won. All that ferment won. It won in a cultural sense. Even hardcore “conservatives” support core principles that we fought over in the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties.

In a second sense, and in a more ominous way, I think every problem that we thought we had, or we knew we had in those years, has gotten worse. Almost everything. And some new ones have come on. Artificial Intelligence is another one. In the 1980s, I invited Joe Weizenbaum, who was a computer scientist, refugee from Nazi Germany as a kid, came to the United States, taught at M.I.T., and was one of the great computer scientists in his day. He helped to found the internet. We had him for a week on campus. A wonderful man. He had written a book called Computer Power and Human Reason ten years before. Still in print; it still is a very good read. I think what’s happened is that we’ve allowed this conversation about A.I. to get way too far without corrective action. Joe Weizenbaum said we really don’t need it, shouldn’t do it. That came up in these long conversations we had over the course of that week. It’s dangerous. He saw the dangers. But so did Norbert Wiener, the great M.I.T. mathematician. In 1948, in an article The New York Times reprinted seven or eight years ago, he said, these systems arrive at sentience, which eventually they will—self-awareness. We have no good reason to believe they’ll be kindly disposed to us. Those were his words. And so, you and I are “carbon-based intelligence.” We’ve had stubbed toes and broken hearts and wondered at the night sky and had pet doggies. A.I. is “silicon intelligence,” and has never had these experiences. That’s taken by some people as something good, because it means it’ll be decisions without emotion. But intelligence—raw intelligence—without emotion is like a car with no governor. There’s nothing to direct all that energy and all that smartness.

So, to answer your question, I think some things have gotten better. And I would not want to downplay that. If we decided to solarize the planet and end fossil fuels globally, I think a determined effort could do that by the year 2050 or shortly thereafter. The technology is mostly there. The economic case for doing it is mostly there. The other issues—of nuclear war and artificial intelligence—are different issues. The horse left the barn a long time ago.

I think we need to rethink science and technology, these prosthetic devices that extend our capabilities and our hatreds and affections. That has yet to be done. Again, I despair a little bit about the way technology has gotten a free ride. There was a time in which Lewis Mumford and other people were critiquing that, and it goes way back into Mary Shelley and before Mary Shelley, but it was a time when it was easier to critique these prosthetic devices. They always arrive with—benefits come first, and then the fine print is read later. We mostly see what they do to us through  the rearview mirror; what they’re going to do for us is through the windshield. That’s the prospect.

I remain what—Loren Eiseley, the anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, once said he’s a “midnight optimist.” He’s late, but he’s still alive. I’m getting off topic here, but I don’t find the words optimist and pessimist very helpful. I think our language needs an overhaul. We’re “liberal” or “conservative”—I don’t think these say anything very important about what we actually believe. Optimism and pessimism, I think, ought to be put aside. Let’s just buckle down, do what we can, what’s before us. Everybody has something to offer in this process.

But I’ve strayed—you’ve been very patient as I’ve gone far out on a limb.

Well, it’s amazing to hear you speak in this way, because I think it just shows how dynamic and interconnected all these things are. They’re not simple; you can’t talk about them in simple terms. It requires time and deep thought. I was curious, was there an “aha” moment for you, or a moment as you were growing up, where you knew that ecological matters would be your path, in a way? Was there a particular event or thing that shifted for you?

No, I don’t think so. I wish there was a road-to-Damascus conversion, some lightning bolt, “Aha! Wow!” There was no such thing. I think my great passion is not so much “ecological” in a neuroscientific sense as the desire to connect, or just a curiosity of what’s related to what.

My dad was both a college president and a Presbyterian preacher. And the root of the word religion means “to bind together,” and the root word of ecology, going back into the Greek etymology, is much the same; it’s the interrelatedness of these things. So the interrelatedness of all of these issues, you can’t—is it “pull a thread without troubling the stars”? Somebody once put it better than that. I think that that is both portentous, and just damn interesting. The things that flourish intellectually, I think, for the most part, are making those kinds of connections.

The same thing ought to pervade our thinking about the human future: How do we connect to all that ever was and all that ever will be, and all that is right now? I’ve traveled enough to know that it’s hard to find or talk to anybody, anywhere on the planet, that you don’t share something in common with, and from whom you can’t learn something. We’re just all variations on a theme. We’re all human.

To finish this conversation, what’s giving you the most hope as you look forward? Do you sense that there is indeed a long-overdue change happening? What makes you wake up in the morning with some sense of—you don’t want to use the word optimism, so I’ll use hope?

Well, I once defined in an article, I wrote that “hope” is a verb, but with its sleeves rolled up. I think you get hope—and this certainly applies to me—by being engaged with people doing the work that needs to be done. I’ll tell you, honestly, the best people I’ve known in life have been people involved in this “movement,” whatever it is, but it’s a movement about life. It’s got kids’ lunch programs, saving redwood forests, and swimming and dolphins—the people who want to engage life and are passionately worried about its future, the ones that have taken care of it. So what gives me hope are the people—the colleagues—around the world that are engaged in this work and there are millions of us doing it. The rescue work now going on in Morocco, and the fight in Ukraine. People are doing heroic things. Depression is kind of an indulgence at that point. E.F. Schumacher, the great British writer and economist, years back, ended the book by saying, “If you ask the question ‘Can humankind survive?’ and the answer comes back no, then it’s just depression. If it comes back yes, then it’s eat, drink, and be merry. His advice was, ‘Don’t even ask the question. Just get down to work. Do what you have to right in front of you. And stay close to each other, build alliances, and friendships.’”

Robert Fulghum wrote a little book years ago called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It’s a charming little book. I suppose it’s still in print. He has things like, hold hands when you’re crossing the street, share your cookies, and clean up your mess. [Laughter] All those things you teach little kids. But there are lessons in that that apply—you can scale those, up to the global scale. You don’t leave messes behind. You don’t hold hands if you’re infected, but….

I think what we’re aiming to do is just really interesting stuff. Are we gonna make it? Who can tell? But it’s really interesting to understand how we take human purposes and meld it into national goals and purposes, and how we stretch our hearts to reach out to other species and future generations. What could be more interesting than trying to do what we have never been very good at doing as humans?

The last thing I’d say is this: I think there are lessons all around us. We have lessons from Ed Yong’s book [An Immense World] on how animals communicate. The world is much more complicated and interesting and interlocked than we ever thought. I don’t know if that ends up giving me hope, but it always gives me an agenda. To do this, I wake up in the morning, “Oh, my God, it’s six o’clock, and I’m not up. I’ve got stuff to do.” But I think the best people I’ve known are people in this movement, and in your business. Communicating is so critical, beginning to help build this nervous system that wires this all together into common purpose and make sure that we live up to our potential to be what we are—or could be—at our best. Lincoln’s comment “angels of our better nature,” I think, captured it as well as it can be captured. “With malice toward none and charity for all,” including future generations and other species.

And then, the other side of this: I think if a movement works in this regard, we’ll learn to party, and party regularly and have fun in this. It can’t be a bunch of Presbyterian elders sitting around, gloom and doom. Anyway, enough on that. But thanks for that question.

Party on, David.


Well, thank you. It was really great to sit down with you today and appreciate you taking the time.

Spencer, thank you. Thanks for having me.