Reed College Commencement Speech 2014
This speech was presented on May 19, 2014 at Reed College in Portland, OR by Igor Vamos aka Mike Bonanno.
Congratulations Reed College class of 2014!
Such a sad day. Bye.
College was fun right?
The last graduation I went to at Reed was in 1990. In those days it was common still for someone to graduate naked, and that year one of my friends did. His name was Michael. Today he’s a Rabbi.
They do say we’re all naked in the eyes of God. Or at the very least, some of us are naked in the eyes of each other. I’m not wearing anything under this gown. That way I can find my way into a respectable profession like Michael did. If graduating naked can lead to a career as a Rabbi, then surely delivering a commencement address naked can make me a bishop in the church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. That’s always an aspiration of mine.
But I’m keeping the gown on for the next 15 minutes because I don’t want it to distract from the seriousness of what I have to say.
I am very excited right now, very optimistic about your futures.
But before I talk about that, I want to give a shout out to the parents and grandparents here today. Well done. It’s not easy raising humans. Your kids or grandkids may be graduating today, but they started out as small, useless, rude little creatures who didn’t care a whit for the ways of civilized men and women. Thank you, parents, for keeping these college graduates alive through those first very tough years.
Today’s graduates: At an extremely young age each and every one of you was seriously infantile. You were impossible, but look at you all now!
So please, join me in giving the clap to your parents.
(pause for applause)
Now, why did they bother to keep you alive? Because you are the future. And you have a special responsibility. Never in history has it been so important to be the future as it is now. I’ll tell you why. Because you, the college graduates of today are entering into a very different world than the one that I graduated into in 1991. I’m not just talking about how mullets have fallen out of favor.
Your world is literally very different. Upon graduation, your world includes the definitive knowledge that our climate is spiralling out of control.
A little over 20 years ago, I graduated from Reed. I loved it here. At what other school could an Art major get a nuclear reactor operator’s license? It was a rigorous education, both in class and out. That makes sense – because in some ways it can be seen as an education 10,000 years in the making. The rigor that can be found in this liberal arts education represents the culmination of a series of educational philosophies that grew and mutated since the dawn of civilization.
Civilization! That precious, highly complex, system that emerged in the 10,000 years since the last ice age, the geologic period that we call the Holocene. The word Holocene is derived from the Greek words holos (ὅλος), meaning entire, and kainos (καινός) meaning “recent.” For the last 400 generations we’ve been taking great advantage of the stable climate and great weather that has characterized this entirely recent period to build our civilization. In fact, many scientists say the ONLY reason we’ve got the thing we call civilization is that we’ve had a climate predictable enough for agriculture – and eventually literature, science, and underwater basket weaving.
When I graduated from here in the early ‘90s (and I did take the underwater basket weaving class as a Phys. Ed. requirement–it was a real class at Reed), I was the ultimate beneficiary of 10,000 years of a stable climate.
Unfortunately, I think of myself today as being among the last graduates of the Holocene era. Or at least, the last clueless graduates who were blissfully unaware of what lay just around the corner, and could imagine rebellion as a kind of hobby rather than a way of life.
Fast forward one short generation. There is a new word for the era that we’re in. Anthropocene is a combination of Greek roots: anthropo- meaning "human" and -cene meaning "new." This new HUMAN induced geologic era has several disturbing characteristics, the most frightening of which is how our species is affecting Earth’s climate. You are, I think, truly graduates of the Anthropocene, and that, I would argue, makes the whole project of your education an entirely different animal than that of mine only a little more than 20 years ago.
So I ask you, what is the goal of a great college education in a world that is going to hell in a hand-basket?
In the last 40 years, the ocean has become 20 percent more acidic due to climate change. A majority of scientists who study the subject believe that the Ocean’s coral reefs will be dead by 2050–just about the time that your kids will be in college, should you choose to reproduce soon.
I did reproduce, and I love my kids, but I’m scared for their future. A few years ago I went on vacation to a beautiful beach in Mexico. My oldest daughter was five at the time. She could swim, and she had a little mask, and she saw all kinds of wildlife, including turtles, her favorite animal. She was blown away.
I found myself loving the trip, but hating the reality. Sorry, kid, these fish, these turtles: they’re the last ones. If the scientific consensus is right, and it usually is, they will be dead when you are an adult. Some scientists are now saying that by the time you are as old as your grandparents there will be NO more saltwater fish to speak of left in the ocean. Sushi is not the cause–its ocean acidification brought on by climate change.
But despite all this incredibly scary news, a study of media coverage done by Media Matters showed that one family of tabloid celebrities–the Kardashians–got forty times more news coverage.
The ocean is dying and we’re not getting the story. The land is not doing so well either. Since I was born, global warming has added 4 percent more moisture to the atmosphere, causing a dramatic increase in extreme storms, like Hurricane Irene, which flooded the Northeast, and Sandy, which constituted the largest wind field ever measured. The southwest drought of 2012 represented the driest conditions in 800 years. We’ve recently had the largest wildfires in history.
Climate change has already affected the global food supply; crop yields for wheat, for example, are beginning to decline even as the human population continues to grow. And the violence, starvation, and disease that come from these upheavals are here. By 2100, several studies have indicated that there are expected to be one billion climate refugees.
To say this is very bad only diminishes the gravity of the situation.
Graduates of 2014: you truly have to live with the blowback of the Anthropocene era–the era in which humans leave 10,000 years of climatic stability.
With changes like this afoot, what is a graduate to do? What is the next step in life? When I was graduating, a mantra that often was repeated in contexts like this was “do what you love.”
Reed’s most famous dropout, Steve Jobs, promoted that idea religiously. In 2005, he gave a commencement speech at Stanford where he said that THE most important thing graduates must do is to do what you love.
Sorry, Steve, but that idea belongs to the late Holocene. Doing what we love may never have been politically okay in the first place, but it’s definitely not right for right now, when the Anthropocene is beginning to destroy everything that makes love possible.
What’s wrong with “do what you love?” First off, “Do what you love” reads as an insult to the vast majority of people globally who have to work shit jobs to get by. It implies great privilege. But on a deeper level the idea that we should all do what we love ultimately implies that self is at the center of the universe. This is a view that conforms very well to our current culture. But it’s over. The era of ME must transform into an era of “WE.” Community must now be the outcome of innovation. Because we will need community to survive.
Do what you love is no longer appropriate. When you graduate into this new era, I say find your best skills and do what you must. I say do what you must because the planet is in your hands, and if we’re going to save it we need everyone to do everything that they can. We need to very quickly change our culture, and to rewire our economy.
This is a revolution.
BE THE REVOLUTION.
No sane person “loves” revolution if they already live in relative comfort. We may love the idea of it, the principle of it, but the process is usually much more tedious and much less glamorous.
But today I am saying screw the comfort. Its over. The house is on fire. We need to act. Do what you must. If we’re going to have any love left we MUST take back the future of this planet from those that conspire to ruin it. We need a revolution.
There are countless ways to act. A simple step, if you have some money, is to get it out of fossil fuels. Divest. Have you read Bill McKibben’s “Do the Math”? In that piece, he observed that right now, the known reserves of the fossil fuel companies constitute more than five times the amount that is safe for the planet to burn. If they are allowed to dig it up and we burn it, it is game over for a livable world.
But the market–the pyramid scheme that is our civilization’s primary engine–is pegged to the value of those reserves. If we stop digging it up and burning it, we face an economic wall. With hard math like that, the oil companies and their lobbyists are compelled to convince everyone to keep on going like so many lemmings over the cliff.
And thus an industry of naysayers is generated. People whose job it is to make us think we cannot change the system, or that it is not worth it, or that it is futile, or that it will be too expensive.
The same kinds of arguments were used to validate slavery in the United States centuries ago. The economy would collapse without it, they said! But I’m pretty sure that outlawing slavery was the right choice.
Of course, it’s worth mentioning that outlawing slavery in the USA did not end the practice. In fact, there are more slaves in the world today than ever in history. And strangely, despite the great value this market machine extracts for us, and despite the dirt cheap, dirty energy from fossil fuels we’ve had for the last 100 years, we now live with more disparity than ever in history. We can clearly see failure everywhere in this oil economy. Cheap energy from fossil fuels has not brought us an era of equity and justice. So why lament its passing? Why not embrace a new reality.
The good news for you, Class of 2014, is that you have the opportunity to make that new reality. The story is not over. We can change this.
This morning I had breakfast with President Kroger. Over a delicious bowl of local yogurt and granola, I was very, very pleased to learn that the board of trustees of Reed College has just now decided to divest the school’s $500 million endowment from fossil fuels.
This is indeed fantastic news. Reed joins 11 other universities who have made this commitment to the planet and the future.
I am very excited to break the news to the graduating class of 2014, and if you want to break the news to the world, use #divestreed.
I’m also excited for the tuition-paying parents who will no doubt be very pleased that your investment in your child’s education is not in fact ruining the chance that their grandchildren will have a livable future on planet earth.
So lets hear it for Reed’s divestment from fossil fuels!
I am really pleased about the divestment. But I’m even more excited about Reed’s visionary plan for re-investment. The money that is pulled from fossil fuels, the President tells me, has been earmarked for community owned renewable energy projects. This means Reed is putting its money to work for a complete enviro-social justice program: pulling support from big oil while literally and figuratively putting power back in the hands of the people.
So this is incredibly inspiring.
And this is a message about opportunity for you, Graduates of 2014. As we rewire civilization to run on other kinds of fuel, there is the revolutionary chance to redistribute power–literally. When we pay for our energy that we use every day, we need to stop handing the money over to the Koch brothers for their tar sands and coal mines, and start giving it to decentralized, community-owned renewable energy initiatives–preferably ones in your own community. Wouldn’t you rather pay yourself for your energy than pay a multinational corporation that can then use that money to corrupt your democracy?
Class of 2014, look at the massive opportunity to build a better world. Do what you must. You are going to be responsible for nothing short of rewiring our civilization–turning away from fossil fuels, re-localizing, rebuilding. In your hands is revolution–a revolution to de-normalize the status quo, to turn the swords of fossil fuel into the plowshares of renewable energy.
Martin Luther King repeatedly said that human salvation was in the hands of the creatively maladjusted. As I look around this crowd, I’m pretty sure it was you who he was talking about. But what did he mean? Here is a bit more context. He said:
"I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination... I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, and leave millions of people perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of prosperity. And I call upon you to be maladjusted to these things until the good society is realized..."
Today, I’m sure Dr. King would call upon you to be maladjusted to the idea that we cannot address climate change. To be maladjusted to the idea that we cannot make a more equitable world. To be maladjusted to the status quo.
There is no shortage of opportunity in the great transition ahead. If you are thinking about how to get a job after college, don’t worry: the revolution is hiring. When I graduated, we were not thinking big enough about the possibility. But you must.
In the great change ahead there is unlimited potential for creativity, invention, innovation. There is an unlimited amount of organizing to do. And there is plenty of heavy lifting.
As we create a new energy infrastructure, as we create new local economies, new ways to govern ourselves, there is opportunity. Innovation is not just about making shiny new stuff, it’s about figuring out new political architecture. You are the ones who can design systems that liberate rather than enslave, that privilege freedom over oppression.
When I graduated, my class had to make our way in the world. But you are poised to re-make the world itself. Don’t let the future happen to you–make it.