It is May and it is time for Graduation. After four years of studying, growing, learning and experiencing, hundreds of thousands of students will be moving from the somewhat protected world of academia into the real world of life. The stories of their lives are as of yet unwritten, a clean slate upon which they will, from that point forward, begin to leave their mark. As part of that rite of passage, most of these young men and women will be treated to a commencement address by someone who is believed to have some sage wisdom to pass along.
Many of the addresses will be very good. Some will be so bad that they will be comical, and the vast majority, peppered with bits of great advice, will be sufficient to charge our graduating students with the ideals of hard work and good deeds; the perfect message to send our young people into the world that awaits them. I can, without exception, tell you one thing that is true of all these speeches: not one will be written or delivered by me. That is true this year, and will be true in every year. Mind you, it is not that I may or may not enjoy delivering such a potentially impactful oration to our young graduates, nor is that I cannot be loquacious enough for such a speech (I can go on and on), but the fact is, I will never be invited to have the opportunity to speak to graduates of any class.
And so, - some of you are way ahead of me, here- I thought I would take this opportunity to address the graduating class of 2017, or at least anyone who cares to listen.
Graduates of 2017, you enter the world in troubling times. Our country right now is arguably the most divided it has been since the civil war. There is more than just philosophical disagreement between individuals; ugly parts of the human psyche that many of us had thought were now in our past are making a resurgence. The news is increasingly filled with stories of racism, bigotry, hate and violence and most alarmingly, many have lost faith in the institutions that help us discern right from wrong, good from bad, truth from lie.
I swear to you here and now, graduates, for all the current ugliness and tumult in our country now, there is more goodness and kindness than there is badness and hate. This country has a strong tradition of identifying and fixing our wrongs , learning from our mistakes and moving forward. Embrace what is fair, what is good, what is right, not just for you but for the stranger you do not know, the immigrant that has just landed on our shores, and the disenfranchised that have not been as fortunate as you and have not had the benefit of the education from which you are now graduating. Have the courage to stand up for what you believe in, and you will be part of the forces that keeps our country moving forward, correcting the mistakes of its past.
I hope to live to be at least 90 and by the time you are 90, you might well expect to live to be 110 or 120. In other words, you have a hundred years ahead of you and, although it may seem obvious, a hundred years is a long time to live. For perspective on how long a hundred years can be, let’s look back at how far this country has come in the last hundred years.
Put down your cell phones, graduates, and ponder for a second that the first trans-continental telephone call was made100 years ago in 1915. It would be another 15 years before telephones were to become more common place and most telephone calls had to be made with the assistance of an operator physically making the connection between copper wires. In 1917, half of all families lived in rural areas and more than 90% of rural America did not have electric power. Only one person in fifty had a car in 1917, and most either walked or rode a horse to get around. In 1917, the 19th amendment was three years from being ratified and women could not yet legally vote. Think of all of this and ponder for a second how technology, that so impacts American life, has changed drastically in the last 100 years; the period of time you still have ahead of you.
Now the growth in technology has become exponential and we cannot begin to envision the technological world of 2117. But, as much as the technological world will change in the next hundred years, I hope, I pray, that the physical world, the planet upon which we live and depend, will not change and the places we save as wild, free and open will remain such. I implore you to think not just of the political ebbs and tides of today, which can seem all consuming, but to think of the world of tomorrow as well. It is not too early to be thinking of your legacy, graduates. What will the world in which you raise your children look like? How about the world you will leave them?
If history provides a roadmap for the future, the political division and the struggles that this country faces today, will be but a blip on the timeline of your life, on your personal history. We, as a society, have the ability to recover fairly quickly from political swings; we can correct the cultural missteps we may make and fix them. However, the changes we make to the planet, to the world upon which we depend, can be extremely long lasting, hard to correct, and, in some cases, irreversible- just ask the passenger pigeon, the auk, or the West African black rhino.
If you do not know the beauty, the peace and solemnity that is the natural world, I encourage you to explore it and become familiar. We are inextricably tied to the world about us and to learn of the natural world is to learn of ourselves. John Muir said, “The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us. Thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, wind song, and tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love.”
Preservation and conservation do not happen on their own; it takes effort and it takes work. How will you keep the water we drink and the air we breathe clean? Will you take up these causes of preservation and conservation and will you help to strike a balance between using natural resources responsibly and exhausting them beyond recovery? The decisions you make, class, will impact my world, your world, and the world you leave to future generations. This may be your greatest challenge.
There are many speeches that will talk about your future being bright and indeed, I am sure for most of you, it will be. There are many that will tell you to stay focused on your inner spirit, your dreams, your career or other noble causes, and all of that is good advice. But my advice to you, graduates, is do not get bogged down in the noise of today’s news. Go out and be doctors and lawyers, engineers and scientists. In fact, be whatever will make you happy and will be rewarding and fulfilling, but also please, commit yourselves to never stop considering the planet upon which we all live and depend and the wild places you leave to your children. While these wild places have been here since the dawn of our planet, they will not be here tomorrow without your help. Make that help part of your legacy as you make the most of the 100 years ahead of you.
Good luck, graduates of 2017.