First of all, a huge congratulations to all the graduates—and to the parents who raised you, and the teachers who guided you. It’s a true privilege to be included in this special day.
Mine is not going to be your average commencement address, for the simple reason that College of the Atlantic is not your average college. I mean, what kind of college lets students vote on their commencement speaker—as if this is their day or something? What’s next? Women choosing whom they are going to marry?
Usually, commencement addresses try to equip graduates with a moral compass for their post-university life. You hear stories that end with clear lessons like: “Money can’t buy happiness.” “Be kind.” “Don’t be afraid to fail.”
But my sense is that very few of you are flailing around trying to sort out right from wrong. Quite remarkably, you knew you wanted to go not just to an excellent college, but to an excellent socially and ecologically engaged college. A school surrounded by tremendous biological diversity and suffused with tremendous human diversity, with a student population that spans the globe. You also knew that strong community mattered more than almost anything. That’s more self-awareness and self-direction than most people have when they leave graduate school—and somehow you had it when you were still in high school.
Which is why I am going to skip the homilies and get down to business: the historical moment into which you graduate—with climate change, wealth concentration, and racialized violence all reaching breaking points.
How do we help most? How do we best serve this broken world? And we know that time is short, especially when it comes to climate change. We all hear the clock ticking loudly in the background.
But that doesn’t mean that climate change trumps everything else. It means we need to create integrated solutions—ones that radically bring down emissions, while closing the inequality gap and making life tangibly better for the majority.
This is no pipe dream. We have living examples from which to learn. Germany’s energy transition has created 400,000 jobs in just over a decade, and not just cleaned up energy but made it fairer—so that energy systems are owned and controlled by hundreds and hundreds of cities, towns, and cooperatives. The mayor of New York just announced a climate plan that would bring 800,000 people out of poverty by 2025, by investing massively in transit and affordable housing and raising the minimum wage.
The holistic leap we need is within our grasp. And know that there is no better preparation for that grand project than your deeply interdisciplinary education in human ecology. You were made for this moment. No, that’s not quite right: You somehow knew to make yourselves for this moment.