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Professor David Orr and his students, Oberlin College, June 2012. "Hope," he often tells them, "is a verb with its sleeves rolled up." | Photo by Raymundo Garza

The bearded owner of an Oberlin, Ohio, antique store looks up from his copy of Captain Salt in Oz with a patient smile. His shop is packed with milk cans, hand tools, and other artifacts from the surrounding farm and rust belt. When I ask about upcoming changes in the town he calls home, he eyes me warily.

I've come to what may be the epicenter of America's economic, educational, and environmental salvation to meet a man some see as a wizard. His name is David Orr, and he has a big plan for turning little Oberlin College (2,800 students) and the little town of Oberlin (population 8,300) into a model of how our species can live more harmoniously with the rest of nature. It's called the Oberlin Project, and the goal is transforming everything from how people on campus and in town produce and use energy to how they build, eat, teach, and learn.

The shop owner says that lots of schemes have spilled from the college in the 32 years he's lived in Oberlin, and although he doesn't know much about this project, which has been taking shape for two years, he's as skeptical of it as he has been of others. "People say it's going to make them do things and cost them money," he says.

As I leave, I check out a display of Tonka-style toy metal vehicles. Although life-size versions still prowl America's highways, in context the rust-specked garbage truck and the yellow Shell Oil tanker seem like remnants of a fading era. They stir the realization that in investigating what Oberlin is trying to do, I'm exploring the terra incognita between past and future, reality and imagination—a realm called "change," which has probably frightened folks since our species took its first wobbly steps.

Two bits of eco-news caught my attention as I prepared for my springtime visit to Ohio. On the New York Times op-ed page, NASA scientist James Hansen sounded his latest cri de coeur about climate disruption's dystopian impact on our soon-to-be-overcooked little planet. "If this sounds apocalyptic," he wrote, "it is."

Then came the death of author Ernest Callenbach, whose 1975 novel Ecotopia reflected the utopian hope of a generation and helped accelerate the modern age of environmental activism. Callenbach's big ideas were woven into the Emersonian warp and Orwellian woof of many a college rap session back then. I'd never read it, though, so I loaded it onto a Kindle and clicked through it during the flight from San Francisco to Cleveland. The protagonist, a Manhattan-based foreign correspondent, is the first reporter to venture to the fledgling nation of Ecotopia (Northern California, Oregon, and Washington), 20 years after it has seceded from the United States to engender a sustainable, clean-energy environmental Eden.

I'm feeling a bit like a foreign correspondent myself as Orr barrels into the Oberlin Inn to greet me—though I'm hardly the first to come snooping around the college and town that are becoming, as a Chronicle of Higher Education reporter put it, "a laboratory for a new way of life."

I first met Orr, the author of such influential books as Design on the Edge and The Nature of Design, several months earlier at the VerdeXchange Green Markets conference in Los Angeles, where he'd given one of the 500 or so talks he's presented nationwide over the past eight years. Continue reading >>

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