On the one hand, it was heart-warming to look out and see that crowded lecture hall filled with bright, eager young faces, ready to step on to the world stage, if only in theory, and play leadership roles.
On the other hand, it was sobering to have to be the bearer of such grim tidings.
I started out by taking them back to a choral Ode in the Antigone that has always haunted me, the one where the Chorus sings the praises of human technological prowess, while at the same time sounding a warning note about how mankind’s “cunning…is the fertile skill which brings him, now to evil, now to good.
“When he honors the laws of the land, and that justice which he has sworn by the gods to uphold, proudly stands his city: no city has he who, for his rashness, dwells with sin.”
In other words, I told the students, we humans can do all kinds of amazing things with our great intelligence, but we will only prosper if we keep our moral compass and use our powers for good.
The Ode is basically a list of areas in which human beings have excelled, and that list is as valid today as it was in the 5th century B.C.: our power of navigation and transportation; agriculture; our dominion over other animals, wild and domestic; our ability to withstand the elements by building shelter and creating fire; our medical arts; our facility with language and “wind-swift thought.”
Truly we are a “wondrous” species. And yet the fact that this list is recited in the tragedy of Antigone bears witness to the fact that our great “cunning” does not always guide us well.
In Antigone, Creon is a proud, vindictive tyrant who demands absolute allegiance from his subjects, including his niece Antigone. When Antigone defies his order to let her brother’s remains be left in the open for the crows to feast on, and goes out alone to bury him, Creon goes into a fury and orders her arrested and sentenced to death.
It’s clear that the Chorus in this play believes Creon’s action is wrong. Antigone was obeying her own moral judgement, putting her filial and religious obligations before her allegiance to the King. And just as the Chorus predicted in the initial Ode, because he is not using his power wisely and ethically, in the end Creon’s house will fall.
In our time, I told the students, the same kinds of battles rage, of good people standing up for their beliefs against oppressive tyrants, who don’t hesitate to imprison and even execute any who defy their power.
The Arab Spring showed us what can happen when enough people dare to speak truth to power and defy an authoritarian state In the United States, the Occupy movements are now standing up, not so much against the state, as against the corporate capitalist elites—who often are the power behind the thrones of the various nations.
Even in our own country, the price of defying the status quo can be high.
But, I told the students, given the perilous state of the world today, the price of staying quiet and going along with the flow is inevitably going to be much higher.
I reminded them of the many dangers that face us today, including:
- the homogenization of media and the reduction of education to multiple choice tests, instead of a media that stands strong in its watchdog role and an educational system that focuses on teaching students how to think creatively and question authority;
- the tremendous militarization of police and national forces, with most countries fairly bristling with lethal weapons, from handguns to bombs;
- environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, including the contamination of our air, soils and waters with toxic chemicals caused by the very agriculture celebrated in the Antigone Ode;
- serious health problems caused by environmental toxins and chemical additives in our food supply;
- and above all, the looming menace of anthropogenic global warming.
These will be familiar themes to anyone who has been reading my blog these past few months. But it was good to speak these ideas out loud this time, to the young people who are going to have to bear the brunt of the problems.
I quoted U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who told negotiators from 200 nations gathered at the recent COP17 climate conference in Durban that the situation was so urgent that they could not afford to wait for unified global action.
“Don’t wait for a binding agreement,” he said. “It could take years. All member states should take their own measures,” before it’s too late.
“Last year we saw the highest emissions ever,” Mr. Ban said. “If we carry on as though it is business as usual we will be out of business.”
Those are pretty stark, unequivocal words from the leader of the closest thing we have to a global government.
Given the need for drastic change in the way we do business as a civilization, I challenged the students to dare to think outside the box.
I encouraged them to let Antigone be their guide as they began their Model UN negotiations. “If you know that a policy is wrong, don’t be afraid to say so, and to fight for what you believe,” I told them.
I urged them not to let artificial boundaries like nation, race, class, religion or gender cloud their vision of what is needed to succeed in the goal of making human society safer, more nurturing, and more sustainable for us all.
“It is a deeply flawed, damaged world you will all soon be stepping out into as young adults,” I said. “We live in a time of accelerated change and unprecedented transition. None of us knows what lies around the bend. But we do know that no matter what, we will be better off if we work proactively to overcome narrow national self-interests and begin to think in planetary terms—and not just about human interests, but in terms of the good of the entire web of life of which we are a part.”
Our only chance at changing the way we do business as a civilization, I said, rests with our ability to successfully communicate with one another–to use the powers of “speech and wind-swift thought” commended by the Chorus of Antigone.
What we need are not the stylized battles of debate, but the true, open-hearted communication of consensus building, where all viewpoints are listened to respectfully, and all positions are judged both on their own merits and on how well they’ll contribute to the collective goal of making the world a better place.
As I stepped away from the podium, I felt sad that I had to lay such a heavy burden on these bright young people, who through no fault of their own have inherited a planet in such disarray.
But I also felt the surge of hope that always rises again with each new generation. Maybe this generation will be the one to turn off the beaten path and forge a new relationship with our planetary home. Perhaps they will be able to resist the centripetal pull towards conformity.
As they all filed out of the room to take up their places at the Model UN negotiating tables, my heart went with them. They are our last best hope.