Class of 2012, greetings! It's a deceptively glorious day, even under this tent in the broiling heat of an August-style afternoon in mid-June on this northeastern campus. Another local temperature record is being set: 98 degrees. And yes, let's admit it, the heat, the sun, the clearness of the azure blue sky stretching without a cloud to the horizon, the sense of summer descending with a passion, it's not quite as reassuring as it might once have been, is it? I suspect that few of you, readying yourselves to leave this campus, many mortgaged to your eyeballs (some for life no matter what you do), and heading into a country on edge, imagine personal clear skies to the horizon.
And while we're admitting things, let's admit something else about the heat today, as you bake under your graduation gowns: whether or not you have the figures at your fingertips, whether or not you know the details, who doesn't sense that this planet is on edge, too? I mean, here you are, the class of 2012, and like the classes of 2011, 2010, and so on, you are surely going to spend your first months out of college enduring one of history's top ten heat years.
As so many Americans have noticed, this was a spring for the record books just about everywhere in the continental United States. And keep in mind that at the moment we also seem to be making a beeline for a potentially record-setting summer, the months of your job hunt for a future, and maybe the hottest year in American history as well.
And records or no, this year is no anomaly. Look at a temperature map of the United States, 1970-2011, and every state -- every single state -- is, on average, hotter now than it was four decades ago. Imagine that.
And now, imagine this. If climate change is the main culprit and the burning of fossil fuels is threatening to turn Hell, which you were once supposed to visit after death for your sins, into a pit stop on planet Earth, and if you want to do something about it, brace yourself. What you're up against is the power of the richest, most profitable corporations in history at a time when the sky's the limit, not just for carbon dioxide, but for the infusion of private and corporate money into what we once called democratic (with a small "d") politics.
In other words, the giant energy corporations that rake in tens of billions of dollars every quarter and whose lifeblood is the burning of fossil fuels are essentially capable of buying more or less anything they want in Washington. That includes continuing massive subsidies -- via "your" Congress (via your tax dollars) -- of their unbelievably profitable operations.
And what exactly can you buy? How many lawyers, lobbyists, and politicians can fit in your less than spacious pockets? Okay, you don't want your world, and that of your children, hotter than hades? That's understandable, but tell it to ExxonMobil. It has money to burn and specializes in mobilizing some of those billions in profits to employ ranks of lawyers, hordes of well-organized lobbyists, klatches of politicians, and even its own armed mercenary warriors. If the planet burns as well, so be it.
What Goes Up Must Come Down
Believe me, I don't say this to discourage you in your passage into adult life. But who said it was going to be easy?
In large part, what I want to tell you has to do with the grade-school principle that what goes up must come down. Consider for a moment just what's gone up and what's come down in our American world in these last years.
For more than four decades, in the United States -- and possibly a good part of the rest of the world -- money, income, wealth, moolah, it's all been heading upwards, like migrating salmon, toward the top of society, toward the crew that only last year we started calling "the 1%" (Thank you, Occupy Wall Street!), although maybe the .01% or the .001% would be more appropriate terms.
That top 1% now controls at least 40% of American wealth. Meanwhile, with your student loans (something like 60% of you have them), many of you -- in what used to be called the American middle class -- are already essentially broke, and getting you this far, many of your parents are undoubtedly strapped as well.
It's not a far-fetched guess that in the audience today are proud parents who lost way too much in the financial meltdown of 2007-2008 and the subsequent bad years that show no signs of ending. Some are undoubtedly living in houses that are "underwater," while their cumulative wealth (largely in housing) -- to judge by the most recent figures we have -- might have been cut by 40%. (If you are Hispanic or African-American, those numbers could look horrifically worse.) And as I'm hardly the first to say, there's no one around with any intention of bailing you out.
Only the rich have made out like -- and it's a perfectly reasonable descriptive word -- bandits. Thought of another way, over these last decades, your people bailed out their people and, ingrates that they are, they now have no intention of returning the favor.
Over those years, their wishes have become the political and legal system's commands. After all, they have the money, Bain Capital-style amounts of it, to invest in keeping you where you are. They have the money to buy what matters most to them. You don't. But who said it would be easy?