Sandra L. Postel Commencement Address The University of Scranton May 26, 2013
I’d also like to congratulate The University of Scranton community on three important milestones. First, on the 125th anniversary you celebrate this year. Second, on the construction of your magnificent Loyola Science Center, a hallmark of sustainable design and of your commitment to environmental stewardship. And last, but not least, on bringing my childhood friend to Scranton to serve as your 25th President. Father Quinn – Kevin, if I may – and his family meant the world to me growing up on Long Island, and I am extremely grateful that several of Father Quinn’s family members are here with us today, including his wonderful mother Mrs. Pat Quinn, who reminded me last night that Kevin came to my birthday party when I turned two years old.
So, what to say on this momentous occasion? I can’t pretend to have any great words of wisdom, but I’d like to offer a few thoughts from my own journey so far.
I’ve devoted my life to the science and understanding of sustainability – the concept of inter-generational justice and stewardship that basically says we should aim to meet the needs of our present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Our human project on this Earth is a lot like long-distance running: it’s about endurance, resilience and careful use of resources so we don’t deplete our reserves and have to drop out of the race. It’s all about considering the next ten miles in deciding how to run this mile. As one of my favorite writers, Terry Tempest Williams, has said, “The eyes of the future are looking back at us and are praying for us to see beyond our own time.”
This is hard to do. It’s natural to be preoccupied with the present. We have concerns about finding a job, buying a house, making money, having a family. These are natural and real and important concerns. But there are now seven billion people on Earth with the same needs and desires, yet only a finite amount of resources and ecological space. So how do we live sustainability so the human project can not only endure but thrive for generations and generations to come?
I was six years old when one of my heroes, Rachel Carson, a native of Pennsylvania, wrote her ground-breaking book “Silent Spring,” which alerted the country to the dangers of widespread pesticide use and effectively launched the modern environmental movement. I was 13 on the first Earth Day, the national teach-in that told our nation’s political leaders that students cared about the environment and wanted change. Soon after, the U.S. Congress passed the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and created the Environmental Protection Agency – all during the Republican Administration of Richard M. Nixon. Thanks to these grassroots efforts and laws, our rivers and lakes and air today are much cleaner than they were 40 years ago.
But we have some big challenges ahead of us. One of the biggest – and it’s the one I spend most of my time working on—is how we’re going to meet the water and food needs of our growing population while at the same time protecting the ecosystems that sustain the web of life on the planet. And this challenge has gotten so much harder with the unfolding of climate change – and it’s here where I feel that my generation owes yours an apology.
It was in 1988 that climate change entered our public consciousness. I remember almost exactly when this happened, because I went off to China on a research trip in June of 1988 and when I left no one was talking about global warming and it was mostly only the scientific community that knew about it. Back then, there was no internet or email, and China was still pretty closed to the world, so I heard no news from back home during the three weeks that I was there.
When I returned home, I was surprised to find that “global warming” and “climate change” had become household words. Everyone was talking about it. There was a terrible drought and heat wave going on in much of the country, and NASA scientist James Hanson had gone before the U.S. Congress on a scorching hot day in Washington, D.C., to testify that human emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” were warming the planet and disrupting the climate. He presented clear scientific evidence, and he sounded the alarm compellingly.
That was 25 years ago. And the reason I feel my generation owes yous an apology is that we pretty much squandered that time. We put our heads in the sand about climate change and did nothing meaningful to prevent atmospheric CO2 from rising to dangerous levels. It’s now at 400 parts per million – the highest concentration in at least 3 million years, before the dawn of humanity.
Now the old New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once said, “It’s hard to make predictions – especially about the future.” But there’s one prediction we can make with confidence: thanks to climate disruption, the future won’t look like the past. We’ve loaded the planetary dice for more droughts and floods and fires and storms. We’ll see more events like Hurricanes Katrina and Irene and Superstorm Sandy. Everything from food production to flood protection will become more challenging.
But, the silver lining is that you – your generation – has the unique opportunity to re-imagine human society – what it looks like, how it functions and, perhaps most importantly, what it values. Adapting to this new Earth will require action in every sphere – from agriculture and health care to energy, transportation and water use. It will challenge every business and every community to develop ways of becoming more resilient. In short, no matter what you choose to do, you will be part of one of the greatest moments of co-creation in human history – and the generations that follow yours will be shaped by the choices you make.
So take time to find your niche – your place and role in the human enterprise. Your niche is that sweet spot where what you love intersects with what you’re good at. Maybe you already have some inkling about what that is. Maybe it’s nursing because you love medicine and caring for people, and you think you’ll be good at it, so you’ll try it out. Maybe you’ll try your hand at being an entrepreneur, because you love the idea of starting new businesses, and you have some confidence you’ll be good at it. Maybe you plan to teach, because you love learning and helping others learn, and you’re good at it. Many of you no doubt are still searching for your niche. That’s good. It may take time, and some experimentation and false starts to figure it out. But never stop looking for it, because doing what you love and doing it well are among the keys to a happy and fulfilled life.
One day, when I was 15 years old, I was standing in the driveway of my family’s little white-brick cape on Long Island. My mother had just died. I felt lost and sad and confused. But as sometimes happens in our darkest moments, a little light shined through. And I can still remember the feeling, the knowing that came to me from somewhere that yes, life felt pretty terrible right now, but I was here for a reason – and that reason (for me) was to work in service to the Earth…. to help protect the water and trees and beauty of nature that I loved and that lifted me up then and still does. It felt like a calling. And in that same moment, standing in that driveway, a scared 15 year old trying to make sense of what was happening, I thought to myself that the best job in the world would be to work with National Geographic – to inspire people to care about the planet. It took nearly forty years, but I’m now living that dream.
So find your niche – and don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things until you do. It’s been said that the two most important days of our lives are the day we were born and the day we understand why.
Be sure to build a life in which service trumps materialism. Somehow we’ve built a society that denominates our lives in dollars, but research has shown over and over that beyond some level of income that meets our needs, more money doesn’t make us happier. Since the 1950s, the economies of the United States and other developed countries have grown three to eight times, but indicators of happiness haven’t risen at all.
There’s a growing movement now that’s come out of the little Himalayan mountain kingdom of Bhutan to measure progress not, as we do now, by the Gross National Product (GNP)– which essentially measures the exchange of money – but rather by an index of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which measures things that directly affect our well-being – such as health, education, culture, and community vitality. Now a gross national happiness index might sound pretty pie-in-the-sky – I certainly thought so years ago – but it’s now being talked about in the halls of the United Nations and in communities around the world. And it cuts to the heart of the myth of materialism. If the size of our house, the make of our car, and the number of fancy clothes in our closet really doesn’t make us happier, then we’re free to do what does.
So as you venture out to build new lives and careers, carry the tradition of service with you, because nothing can bring you more happiness or fulfillment than serving a cause greater than yourself.
And lastly, never doubt that your story and your niche in this world matter. Because they do. It’s through our individual stories – yours and mine – that we change the big story happening around us.
So, with that, I congratulate you again, and wish each and every one of you a great journey.
Thank you very much.