Reprinted from Common Dreams
Part of the team from Greenpeace that tracked Shell's drilling rigs as they recently crossed the Pacific Ocean on their way to Arctic waters off the coast of Alaska. From left: Johno Smith, Zoe Buckley Lennox, Aliyah Field, Andreas Widlund, and Miriam Fri
(image by (Photo: Vincenzo Floramo/Greenpeace)) DMCA
First of all, a huge congratulations to all the graduates -- and to the parents who raised you, and the teachers who guided you. It's a true privilege to be included in this special day.
Mine is not going to be your average commencement address, for the simple reason that College of the Atlantic is not your average college. I mean, what kind of college lets students vote on their commencement speaker -- as if this is their day or something? What's next? Women choosing whom they are going to marry?
Usually, commencement addresses try to equip graduates with a moral compass for their post-university life. You hear stories that end with clear lessons like: "Money can't buy happiness." "Be kind." "Don't be afraid to fail."
But my sense is that very few of you are flailing around trying to sort out right from wrong. Quite remarkably, you knew you wanted to go not just to an excellent college, but to an excellent socially and ecologically engaged college. A school surrounded by tremendous biological diversity and suffused with tremendous human diversity, with a student population that spans the globe. You also knew that strong community mattered more than almost anything. That's more self-awareness and self-direction than most people have when they leave graduate school--and somehow you had it when you were still in high school.
Which is why I am going to skip the homilies and get down to business: the historical moment into which you graduate -- with climate change, wealth concentration, and racialized violence all reaching breaking points.
How do we help most? How do we best serve this broken world? And we know that time is short, especially when it comes to climate change. We all hear the clock ticking loudly in the background.
But that doesn't mean that climate change trumps everything else. It means we need to create integrated solutions -- ones that radically bring down emissions, while closing the inequality gap and making life tangibly better for the majority.
This is no pipe dream. We have living examples from which to learn. Germany's energy transition has created 400,000 jobs in just over a decade, and not just cleaned up energy but made it fairer -- so that energy systems are owned and controlled by hundreds and hundreds of cities, towns, and cooperatives. The mayor of New York just announced a climate plan that would bring 800,000 people out of poverty by 2025, by investing massively in transit and affordable housing and raising the minimum wage.
The holistic leap we need is within our grasp. And know that there is no better preparation for that grand project than your deeply interdisciplinary education in human ecology. You were made for this moment. No, that's not quite right: You somehow knew to make yourselves for this moment.
But much rests on the choices we make in the next few years. "Don't be afraid to fail" may be a standard commencement-address life lesson. Yet it doesn't work for those of us who are part of the climate-justice movement, where being afraid of failure is perfectly rational.
Because, let's face it: The generations before you used up more than your share of atmospheric space. We used up your share of big failures too. The ultimate intergenerational injustice. That doesn't mean that we all can't still make mistakes. We can and we will. But Alicia Garza, one of the amazing founders of Black Lives Matter, talks about how we have to "make new mistakes."
Sit with that one for a minute. Let's stop making the same old mistakes. Here are a few, but I trust that you will silently add your own. Projecting messianic fantasies onto politicians. Thinking the market will fix it. Building a movement made up entirely of upper-middle-class white people and then wondering why people of color don't want to join "our movement." Tearing each other to bloody shreds because it's easier to do that than go after the forces most responsible for this mess. These are social-change cliches, and they are getting really boring.
We don't have the right to demand perfection from each other. But we do have the right to expect progress. To demand evolution. So let's make some new mistakes. Let's make new mistakes as we break through our silos and build the kind of beautifully diverse and justice-hungry movement that actually has a chance of winning -- winning against the powerful interests that want us to keep failing.
With this in mind, I want talk about an old mistake that I see re-emerging. It has to do with the idea that since attempts at big systemic change have failed, all we can do is act small. Some of you will relate. Some of you won't. But I suspect all of you will have to deal with this tension in your future work.
A story: When I was 26, I went to Indonesia and the Philippines to do research for my first book, No Logo. I had a simple goal: to meet the workers making the clothes and electronics that my friends and I purchased. And I did. I spent evenings on concrete floors in squalid dorm rooms where teenage girls -- sweet and giggly -- spent their scarce nonworking hours. Eight or even 10 to a room. They told me stories about not being able to leave their machines to pee. About bosses who hit. About not having enough money to buy dried fish to go with their rice.