David Orr, The Designers’ Challenge

(Commencement address, U. of Pennsylvania School of Design)



2.      One: We are becoming an indoor species disconnected from the natural world

         a.      95% of our time spend in houses, cars, malls, and offices

         b.      Shut off from sky, land, forests, waters, and animals

         c.      Nature becoming an abstraction

         d.      Worst for children who spend hours and hours before TV/computer screen

         e.      Nature deficit disorder: We are losing our sense of rootedness in place and our connection to nature; we are becoming unhinged

         f.       Unprecedented spiritual crisis:

         g.      This fact “has to do with the largeness of the human spirit and our capacity to connect to life”

3.      Two: More crowded world with dramatically increasing global inequality/injustice

         a.      One billion live in abject poverty; one billion considerable wealth

         b.      One billion suffer afflictions of eating too much; One billion suffer malnutrition

         c.      40 years ago ratio of rich to poor was 35 to 1; today it is 100 to 1

         d.      Reaching carrying capacity of earth, with more and more people competing for less and less, while some unjustly horde huge amounts

         e.      Fact deals with “Justice, fairness, and decency in a more crowded world”

4.      Three: Nearing the end of era of cheap oil on which our society has been built with no clear energy policy

         a.      We have consumed the easy and cheap half of accessible oil

         b.      Other half is much harder to get and refine and mostly in places where people don’t like us

         c.      Know about this problem for decades and we continue to procrastinate

         d.      Challenges our “wisdom and creativity in the face of limits to the biosphere”

5.      Four: Climate change is threatening to make the Earth a different planet and one we won’t like

         a.      “Human survival on a hotter and less stable and predictable planet”


6.      Can’t honestly be optimistic, but should be and act hopefully

         a.      Odds are not in our favor; no reason to be optimistic

         b.      Hope is a faith that things will work out whatever the odds

         c.      “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up”

         d.      Hopeful people are actively engaged in defying/changing the odds


7.      Designers must respond creatively, wisely and quickly to these four facts

         a.      Your generation must solve all these problems at once

                   i.       Must artfully and carefully reconnect people to nature and their places

                   ii.      Must design to promote justice in a more crowded world

                   iii.     Must design a world powered by efficiency and sunlight rather than ancient sunlight

                   iv.     Since nature is a ruthless and unforgiving bookkeeper, must do your work in way that balances the Carbon books



9.      Design on a grand scale: Design involves remaking the human presence on Earth

         a.      How we provision ourselves with food, energy, materials, shelter, livelihood, transport, water and waste cycling

         b.      Designing systems (not just buildings, landscapes and objects) that takes into account economic, political and social dimensions and insures ecological design is the default

10.    Good design

         a.      Joins our five senses with human fabricated world

         b.      Reinforces our common humanity

         c.      Solves for many problems at once

         d.      Builds in resilience

         e.      Involves repairability, redundancy, locality and simplicity

         f.       Uses nature as a standard

         g.      Powers world on current sunlight

         h.      Eliminates waste

         i.       Pays full cost of development

         j.       Builds prosperity on a durable basis


11.    Example of good design: A farm in Virginia where farmer raises poultry, cattle, and hogs so artfully that each element enhances the other while improving soil fertility and making a substantial profit by selling directly to a large base of local customers. As a designer, he has designed out chemicals, pollution, genetically modified organisms, pharmaceuticals, and most of the fossil fuels necessary to transport food long distances. The result is health in the large: of land, animals, and people, and economy.

         a.      For details visit Polyface farm


12.    Fundamental oath of designers: Cause no ugliness, human or ecological, somewhere else or at some later time

         a.      Make one think upstream of the design project

                   i.       To mines, wells, forests, farms and manufacturing facilities from which materials taken and put into particular design

         b.      Makes one look downstream to effects of design on climate and health of people and ecosystems

         c.      If any human or ecological ugliness at either end, can’t claim success (regardless of how artful what you make is)


13.    Your generation’s Great Work

         a.      Like the generation of the Civil War had the Great Work of ending human bondage and dying in places like Gettysburg

         b.      Like a more recent generation had the Great Work of fighting Nazism and dying in places like Iwo Jima and Omaha beach

         c.      This generation has its Great Work cut out for it:

                   i.       Extending and speeding a worldwide ecological enlightenment that joins human needs and purposes with the way the world works as a biophysical system


14.    The great work of this generation involves:

         a.      Stabilize and reduce all heat trapping gases

         b.      Make a rapid transition to efficiency and renewable energy

         c.      Build a world where every child has a decent home, food, water, education, medical care

         d.      Preserve the best of our history and culture

         e.      Enable us to see our way forward to a world that is sustainable and spiritually sustaining.


15.    This Great Work neither liberal nor conservative; Neither Republican or Democrat

         a.      You are trustees obligated to pass on the best of our civilization and ecological requisites on which it depends (stable climate and biological diversity) to future generations

         b.      A Great Work that can unite us in service to our posterity


16.    Your Great work a sacred trust given to your generation

         a.      If you don’t do it, it won’t be done

         b.      The price of your not doing your great work will be high and perhaps total

         c.      No other generation has had a greater challenge or more reason to rise to greatness

         d.      Your Great work is to honor the wholeness, health and great holy mystery of life

         e.      If you succeed it will be humankind’s finest hour


17.    The Great Work of ecological design is flourishing

         a.      In architecture, landscape architecture, biomimmicry, industrial ecology, urban planning, ecological engineering, agriculture and forestry

Questions on Orr, The Designers’ Challenge

1.         What are the four facts that Orr thinks shapes our world? How does Orr think designers/your generation should respond to these facts?

2.         What is “nature deficit disorder?”

3.         Does Orr think we are about to run out of oil or that we still have half left?

4.         Does Orr think we should be hopeful about the future? Why or why not?

5.         What are some of the principles of good design that Orr identifies?

6.         What is the “fundamental oath of designers?”

7.         Why does Orr talk about the Civil War and WWII?

8.         What is this generation’s “Great Work,” according to Orr? In what way is it “Great Work?”

9.         Does Orr think his ideas should appeal more to liberals and Democrats or conservatives and Republicans?