Commencement… to Life!
Friends and fellow humans! We all need a commencement every once in awhile. This is the most striking I’ve ever seen and although it was for the college graduates of University of Portland, May 3rd 2009; it is so far reaching and inspiring, it will move every passionate, caring human.
Purpose is something I touch on in almost every one of my posts, because it is something I think about every day. I recently wrote a post about death, exploring life from the perspective of it’s negative space. I spent the weekend spending time alone, processing, making things with my hands, and pondering meanings and of course purpose. It was a powerful weekend spent in some of the darker shadows of life, but coming back into the brightness this morning has left me feeling refreshed and full of beauty and amazement.
Before you read, take a moment to look at the beautiful image of earth below.
The Unforgettable Commencement Address to the Class of 2009, University
of Portland, May 3rd, 2009
By Paul Hawken
When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked if I could give a
simple short talk that was “direct, naked, taut, honest, passionate,
lean, shivering, startling, and graceful.” Boy, no pressure there.
But let’s begin with the startling part. Hey, Class of 2009: you are
going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth
at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline
is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation but not one
peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that
statement. Basically, the earth needs a new operating system, you are
the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.
This planet came with a set of operating instructions, but we seem to
have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil,
or air, and don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the
thermostat have been broken. Buckminster Fuller said that spaceship
earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on
one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no
need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really good food but
all that is changing.
There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive,
and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you
what it says: YOU ARE BRILLIANT, AND THE EARTH IS HIRING. The earth
couldn’t afford to send any recruiters or limos to your school. It sent
you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that
unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the
deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time
required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do
what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after
you are done.
When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer
is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening
on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you
meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of
the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see
everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair,
power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of
grace, justice, and beauty to this world. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote,
“So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after
age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”
There could be no better description. Humanity is coalescing. It is
reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms,
farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refuge camps, deserts,
fisheries, and slums.
You join a multitude of caring people. No one knows how many groups and
organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day: climate
change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation,
human rights, and more. This is the largest movement the world has ever
seen. Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance,
it strives to disperse concentrations of power. Like Mercy Corps, it
works behind the scenes and gets the job done. Large as it is, no one
knows the true size of this movement. It provides hope, support, and
meaning to billions of people in the world. Its clout resides in idea,
not in force. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants,
businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government
workers, fisherfolk, engineers, students, incorrigible writers, weeping
Muslims, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without borders, grieving
Christians, street musicians, the President of the United States of
America, and as the writer David James Duncan would say, the Creator,
the One who loves us all in such a huge way.
There is a rabbinical teaching that says if the world is ending and the
Messiah arrives, first plant a tree, and then see if the story is true.
Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it
resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild,
recover, reimagine, and reconsider. “One day you finally knew what you
had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their
bad advice,” is Mary Oliver’s description of moving away from the
profane toward a deep sense of connectedness to the living world.
Millions of people are working on behalf of strangers, even if the
evening news is usually about the death of strangers. This kindness of
strangers has religious, even mythic origins, and very specific
eighteenth-century roots. Abolitionists were the first people to create
a national and global movement to defend the rights of those they did
not know. Until that time, no group had filed a grievance except on
behalf of itself. The founders of this movement were largely unknown
Granville Clark, Thomas Clarkson, Josiah Wedgwood and their goal was
ridiculous on the face of it: at that time three out of four people in
the world were enslaved. Enslaving each other was what human beings had
done for ages. And the abolitionist movement was greeted with
incredulity. Conservative spokesmen ridiculed the abolitionists as
liberals, progressives, do-gooders, meddlers, and activists. They were
told they would ruin the economy and drive England into poverty. But for
the first time in history a group of people organized themselves to help
people they would never know, from whom they would never receive direct
or indirect benefit.. And today tens of millions of people do this every
day. It is called the world of non-profits, civil society, schools,
social entrepreneurship, and non-governmental organizations, of
companies who place social and environmental justice at the top of their
strategic goals. The scope and scale of this effort is unparalleled in
The living world is not “out there” somewhere, but in your heart. What
do we know about life? In the words of biologist Janine Benyus, life
creates the conditions that are conducive to life. I can think of no
better motto for a future economy. We have tens of thousands of
abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned people
without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed regulators on how
to save failed assets. Think about this: we are the only species on this
planet without full employment. Brilliant. We have an economy that tells
us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time than to renew,
restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but you
can’t print life to bail out a planet. At present we are stealing the
future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic
product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing
the future instead of stealing it. We can either create assets for the
future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and
the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit
people and cause untold suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to
get rich, it is a way to be rich.
The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries ago,
and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams. Literally you
are breathing molecules this very second that were inhaled by Moses,
Mother Teresa, and Bono. We are vastly interconnected. Our fates are
inseparable. We are here because the dream of every cell is to become
two cells. In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which
are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other
microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each human cell has 400
billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of
atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one
septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after
it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes
than there are stars in the universe exactly what Charles Darwin
foretold when he said science would discover that each living creature
was a “little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms,
inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars of heaven.”
So I have two questions for you all: First, can you feel your body? Stop
for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going on
simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to ignore
it, and wonder instead when this speech will end. Second question: who
is in charge of your body? Who is managing those molecules? Hopefully
not a political party. Life is creating the conditions that are
conducive to life inside you, just as in all of nature. What I want you
to imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a deep innate
wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the past.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came
out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course.
The world would become religious overnight. We would be ecstatic,
delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead the stars come
out every night, and we watch television.
This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the
multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a
thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as complex and
beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done great things
and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring creation. You are
graduating to the most amazing, challenging, stupefying challenge ever
bequested to any generation. The generations before you failed. They
didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of the fact
that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons
you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. The most
unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer.
Hopefulness only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful.
This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.
Paul Hawken is a renowned entrepreneur, visionary environmental
activist, and author of many books, most recently Blessed Unrest: How
the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It
Coming. He was presented with an honorary doctorate of humane letters by
University president Father Bill Beauchamp, C.S.C., in May, when he
delivered this superb speech. Our thanks especially to Erica Linson for
her help making that moment possible.