It is a truth universally acknowledged that all commencement speeches say more or less the same thing. All that really changes in the annual dusting off of “follow your heart,” “fix the world,” and “dare to face the great challenges” is the precise address of the heartfelt, world-fixing, great challenge that lies ahead. The space race? Poverty? AIDS?
This year it was that ever-imminent existential threat to humanity, that undeniable theory that explains everything but predicts nothing: catastrophic anthropogenic global warming.
“We are now deep in the most serious environmental crisis in human history,” Bill Nye (the “Science Guy”) admonished Rutgers’ grads at the university’s 249th commencement on May 18. Comparing climate change to World War II, he urged the Scarlet Knights to take arms against the 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide invading our atmosphere. “You all can be the Next Great Generation,” Nye advised. “You can, dare I say it, Change the World.” In twenty-two minutes, he invoked that imperative six times.
“Don’t think that you can change the world by sending each other e-mail petitions,” Bill McKibben, founder of the activist environmental group 350.org, warned at Grinnell College in a speech about the urgency of climate activism. Real change evidently requires picketing and chanting. He recounted how Gus Speth, former chair of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, claimed his most important position was a cell he shared with McKibben after their arrests for illegally protesting the Keystone Pipeline.
NASA administrator Major General Charles F. Bolden Jr. joked at Rochester Institute of Technology that he’d seen from space a giant “help wanted” sign plastered on the feverish CO2-blanketed Earth. The planet needs entrepreneurial citizens who are “not afraid to change what they are doing from one day to the next or one year to the next,” he said.
Not to be outdone, Naomi Klein on June 6 sermonized on the magnitude of the task: “It is true that we have to do it all. That we have to change everything.” Riffing off her bestseller, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Klein advised College of the Atlantic grads to give up piecemeal lifestyle changes and instead create a “massive and organized global movement” for systemic revolution on “climate change, wealth concentration, and racialized violence.”
It’s understandable why college students should care about the climate. After all, climate change is set to slash coffee production, and it’s the real force behind the rape crisis on campus. Global warming entrenches oppression, and, per Klein herself, it perpetuates racism. Just about the only thing climate change hasn’t been blamed for is the student debt debacle—though Robert Redford did list the two on par in his talk at Colby College: “You’re stepping into a world that’s, well, pretty rough.…You’ve got climate change, you’ve got debt, you’ve got wars, you’ve got political paralysis.”
President Obama added a few more faults to global warming’s record. Addressing Coast Guard Academy cadets in May, he apologized for the difficulties they would face in the line of duty: “I’m here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security. And make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country.”
The gravity of such risks makes ignoring them a high crime. “Denying (climate change) or refusing to deal with it endangers our national security,” Obama warned. At Tufts, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright praised “scientists who believe that conservation is a national security imperative” and denounced those who thought it “a four-letter word.” Comparing the climate change “consensus” to that on the health risks of smoking, Nye at Rutgers was perhaps the most direct of all: “Hey deniers — cut it out.”
The promise of technology to improve society opened a schism among the speakers. “Here in 2015, I don’t think we can count on entrepreneurs to invent everything we need fast enough,” Nye mused, even as he asked Rutgers grads to invent better batteries to store solar and wind energy. “So-called techno-optimism is just another way of living in denial.” Albright said technology had enabled “groups who use religion as a license of murder, as if God’s commandment were ‘thou shalt kill.’” McKibben, on the other hand, praised the solar panel for making the climate crisis “no longer necessary.” Bolden gave Gettysburg College grads a “mandate” to lead us to Mars and “tackle” climate change, and asked RIT grads to invent a way to “cure the previously incurable” planet.
All agreed that inaction was not an option. “Others might prefer to opt out of addressing the big challenges of these times. You don’t have that luxury,” Bolden advised at RIT. Michelle Obama echoed at Oberlin, “No, you don’t get to be precious or cautious or cynical. No, not when the earth is warming and the oceans are rising.”
McKibben cast climate activism as a civic duty: “The answer (to global warming) has to be citizenship. Aggressive, engaged, and occasionally impolite citizenship.” This is a moment, he pleaded, “When we desperately need you as full-fledged citizens.” Like Klein, he sees the climate campaign as part of a systemic revolution. “It is a good idea to change your light bulb” and drive an electric car, he averred, but only a “fool” could imagine such personal decisions capable of solving climate change: “This is a structural and systemic problem which means that the answers are structural and systemic.”
Michelle Obama listed climate change among “the revolutions of your time,” an opportunity to “wake up and play your part in our great American story.” Albright congratulated Tufts students for their “protests and marches” on sexual assault, racism, and climate change, which had made the university a “light on the hill” and “shown yourselves to be active citizens.”
“Class of 2015, you have to vote!” Nye chided, noting that “Right now, it’s still too easy for any of us to dump our carbon waste in the world’s atmosphere.” Any who didn’t care to vote, he said, should “please just shut up, so the rest of us can get things done.”
Perhaps the real draw of activism, though, is it’s answering an internal longing for significance. Long-time activist Mindy Lubber rejoiced in the “kindred spirits” she found at Green Mountain College in Vermont, a place “that warms an environmentalist’s heart.” Poet Julia Alvarez urged Middlebury graduates to mimic an environmentalist arrested at a protest who told a reporter, “I’m here because I have a soul.” “May you have a soulful beautiful life,” was Alvarez’s parting advice.
Flattering the audience seldom goes amiss, but it might be worth noting that even skeptics of global warming and supporters of the Keystone Pipeline have souls. And with an eighteen-year pause in global warming and our planet healthier than it’s been in centuries, this year’s grads might have been better served with some other chestnuts. Don’t believe everything you are told. And the grass isn’t necessarily greener on the other side of the sustainability fence.