Unity College Commencement Address By Cynthia Barnett
May 12th 2012 -- Unity, Maine -- Around the nation this weekend, commencement speakers are pushing tassels out of their eyes to advise new graduates how much this world needs them. They’re telling the latest generation of college-educated that it is time, now, to figure out their greatest passions – and align them with the world’s greatest needs.
It is my good fortune, as your speaker, to skip over the parts about you clarifying your passions and lining them up with the challenges that face our planet.
You completed that soul-searching four years ago when you chose Unity College. And so I begin by congratulating you – and your parents – for the prescient decision to spend your college years in rural Maine, where classes might take place in a forest … or a wildlife sanctuary … or even underwater … and for having that early wisdom to direct your devotion to the natural world onto a path toward its stewardship.
In nature, you are the precocial among us – species such as dolphins and sea turtles that are born not only knowing how to walk or swim, but with a remarkable sense of where to go – newborn dolphins to the sunlit surface, just-hatched turtles to the moonlit sea.
I see you as those bright and beautiful young dolphins – delivered just this afternoon in your shining academic skins, but already possessing great sense of your purpose, innate knowledge of your direction.
Your chosen direction is to save the life on this planet. It is a direction as vital as the dolphin’s to the surface to breathe. Having already figured it out, you’re swimming circles around the altricial newborns, those helpless creatures born furless, often blind, not yet walking or flying.
And so, I do not have the same advice for you that I would for them.
Instead, let us get straight to the how.
You will leave this bucolic corner of Maine to find a nation and a world paralyzed by an inability to work together on the greatest challenge our species has ever faced. As the global atmosphere warms, as the Arctic ice thins, as Americans sweat out the warmest spring in recorded history, our political, cultural and business leaders, and our government and private institutions, remain frozen stiff.
My generation’s paralysis, which extends from the geo-political to the local, is the single-greatest barrier to solving the climate crisis. At its heart are deep social, political and religious divides that are breaking apart the bedrock of this country like a hydraulic-fracture well.
You have chosen various paths to begin your work on behalf of the Earth and its life – conservation law-enforcement; wildlife care; environmental education; perhaps my field of environmental journalism. I do want you to know that, just like on the best hikes, you’ll sometimes make your greatest discoveries hopping off trail for a while, drawn by curiosity for an intriguing side-loop or the backcountry. In my own career, it was not until I ventured beyond journalism to study environmental history that I found the work that ignited me – writing books about humans and nature, particularly … water.