If I had been asked to speak at Commencement….

This is what I would have said:

It’s become a cliché to say that every day is the first day of the rest of your life, and yet like most clichés this one holds truth to it.

When you walk down that aisle today holding your B.A. diploma, achieving a goal which you have worked towards for many years, you will be stepping into your adulthood with all the rights and privileges, but also all the responsibilities that this maturity brings.

The year 2012, long prophesied as a time of great change and transition, is not an easy time to be reaching adulthood.

I don’t have to tell you that times are tough economically, or that our planetary environment is facing its own severe shifts due to anthropogenic global heating.  You have probably heard tell of a “sixth great extinction event” on the horizon, if climate change projections continue unabated on their current course, causing the heating and acidification of the oceans and resulting drought, floods and violent storms on land.

Most of us “know” about these issues the same way we “know” that toxic chemicals in our food, water, air and household products cause cancer.

We do our best not to think about it too much, because thinking about it just makes us scared and depressed, and what can we do about it, anyway?

I want to suggest to you, as you step out into the world this afternoon with your newly minted B.A., that you are stepping into an unprecedented opportunity to do more than any previous human generation has ever done.

It is not an exaggeration to say that you have the opportunity to turn this great Titanic of an earthship around, sailing her away from the iceberg and into safer waters.

There have been “greatest generations” before now.  But their challenges have been far less global and all-encompassing than the challenges we face now.

Now it’s not just a nation or even a group of nations that are faced with disaster.  It is the entire globe, human civilization writ large, which could in fact be toppled if the earth gives a great climatic shrug of her shoulders and goes back to the evolutionary drawing board.

Even the most sober earth scientists are predicting that if we do not change our habits of carbon emission, the resulting global heating will make the world uninhabitable for some 90% of current species on the planet by the year 2050, including 90% of current human populations.

I lay this out for you starkly not to depress you on what should be a happy and auspicious day, but to impress upon you the importance of the decisions you will be making and actions you will be taking in the coming years.

While it is true that lifestyle changes of individuals can only have limited effect on climate change, they are a start.  We can choose to support alternative energy whenever and however possible.  We can choose to push our elected representatives to shift subsidies and incentives away from fossil fuels and towards renewables.  We can encourage sustainable agricultural practices in our own communities and through our consumer choices.

What I would ask of you above all is to stay informed and engaged with these issues as you move forward into adulthood, and seize all opportunities to push governments and corporations to do the right thing not just for the bottom line or the national interest, but for the good of our planetary home and her current life forms, including humanity.

I am not proud of the condition of the world that my generation is now handing off to you.  I am not proud of what I and my cohort have allowed to happen on our watch.

The past cannot be undone.  But the future is yours to shape.

Don’t be afraid to try out completely new ideas. Listen to your dreams, listen to your intuition.  Be alert, be thoughtful, be creative.  Tune out the background buzz that will try to lull you into complacency and inaction.

I hope that when it’s your turn to witness your children stepping out into their adulthood, you will be able to be proud of the world you have created for them.

Truly, their future is in your hands.

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  1. Martin Lack

     /  May 20, 2012

    Assuming I am correct in my assumption about why what British people call a “Graduation Ceremony” is called “Commencement” in the USA (even though it comes at the end of one’s time at University), choosing to tell the audience that, “Today is the first day of the rest of your lives” would appear to be almost tautological…?

    However, your words are nonetheless very profound and appropriate for our times. I am also extremely grateful for the link to the Thoreau Farm blog, where the discussion about ecocentrism versus anthropocentrism and/or whether or not our current situation is hopeless was incredibly challenging.

    As for me? Well, although I am in favour of ecocentric ecologism (i.e. I think the fallacy of The Enlightenment was to think humans are superior to nature rather than part of it), I think it is doomed to fail…. The only way to achieve what we all want to achieve for our children (i.e. minimising climate change) is via anthropocentirc environmentalism. This means focussing on helping people see that all our environmental problems have arisen as a consequence of over-population. For example: Our CO2 emissions have only become a problem because the rate at which they are occurring exceeds the Earth’s capacity to deal with them.

    In essence, my prescription for success is one I learnt from spending a year training to be a teacher. Even though I chose not to pursue that particular change in career, l feel it was a crucial to understand that children cannot be forced to learn; they must want to do it for themselves: They must be given a reason – What’s in it for me? – W.I.I.F.M.

    Appealing to people to be altruistic will never work: Behaviour modification will only ever be achieved if people see it as being in their own interest (or that of their children).

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  May 21, 2012

      Yes, I agree. That’s why I think it’s essential not to sugar-coat the reality of AGW, because if we see what’s really in store for us, it becomes much clearer that it’s in our self-interest to change our ways now.


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