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Paul Hawken's Commencement Address to the Class of 2009

University of Portland, May 3rd, 2009

When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked if I could give a
simple short talk that was "direct, naked, taut, honest, passionate,
lean, shivering, startling, and graceful." No pressure there.

Let's begin with the startling part. Class of 2009: you are going
to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a
time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is
accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation... but not one
peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that
statement. Basically, civilization needs a new operating system, you
are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.

This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have
misplaced them. Important rules like don't poison the water, soil, or
air, don't let the earth get overcrowded, and don't touch the
thermostat have been broken. Buckminster Fuller said that spaceship
earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on
one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no
need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really good food-but all
that is changing.

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive,
and in case you didn't bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you
what it says: You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring. The earth
couldn't afford to send recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you
rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that
unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint.

And here's the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not
possible in the time required. Don't be put off by people who know what
is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was
impossible only after you are done.

When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my
answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is
happening on earth and aren't pessimistic, you don't understand the
data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth
and the lives of the poor, and you aren't optimistic, you haven't got a
pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing
to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore
some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world.

The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, "So much has been destroyed I have cast
my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary
power, reconstitute the world." There could be no better description.
Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action
is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses,
companies, refuge camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums.

You join a multitude of caring people. No one knows how many groups
and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day:
climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger,
conservation, human rights, and more. This is the largest movement the
world has ever seen. Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather
than dominance, it strives to disperse concentrations of power. Like
Mercy Corps, it works behind the scenes and gets the job done. Large as
it is, no one knows the true size of this movement. It provides hope,
support, and meaning to billions of people in the world. Its clout
resides in idea, not in force. It is made up of teachers, children,
peasants, businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists,
government workers, fisherfolk, engineers, students, incorrigible
writers, weeping Muslims, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without
borders, grieving Christians, street musicians, the President of the
United States of America, and as the writer David James Duncan would
say, the Creator, the One who loves us all in such a huge way.

There is a rabbinical teaching that says if the world is ending and the
Messiah arrives, first plant a tree, and then see if the story is true.
Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it
resides in humanity's willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild,
recover, reimagine, and reconsider. "One day you finally knew what you
had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their
bad advice," is Mary Oliver's description of moving away from the
profane toward a deep sense of connectedness to the living world.

Millions of people are working on behalf of strangers, even if the
evening news is usually about the death of strangers. This kindness of
strangers has religious, even mythic origins, and very specific
eighteenth-century roots. Abolitionists were the first people to create
a national and global movement to defend the rights of those they did
not know. Until that time, no group had filed a grievance except on
behalf of itself. The founders of this movement were largely unknown -
Granville Clark, Thomas Clarkson, Josiah Wedgwood - and their goal was
ridiculous on the face of it: at that time three out of four people in
the world were enslaved. Enslaving each other was what human beings had
done for ages. And the abolitionist movement was greeted with
incredulity.

Conservative spokesmen ridiculed the abolitionists as liberals,
progressives, do-gooders, meddlers,and activists. They were told they
would ruin the economy and drive England into poverty. But forthe first
time in history a group of people organized themselves to help people
they would never know, from whom they would never receive direct or
indirect benefit. And today tens of millions of people do this every
day. It is called the world of non-profits, civil society, schools,
social entrepreneurship, non-governmental organizations, and companies
who place social and environmental justice at the top of their
strategic goals. The scope and scale of this effort is unparalleled in
history.

The living world is not "out there" somewhere, but in your heart.
What do we know about life? In the words of biologist Janine Benyus,
life creates the conditions that are conducive to life. I can think of
no better motto for a future economy. We have tens of thousands of
abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned
people without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed regulators
on how to save failed assets. We are the only species on the planet
without full employment. Brilliant. We have an economy that tells us
that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time rather than renew,
restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but you
can't print life to bail out a planet. At present we are stealing the
future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic
product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing
the future instead of stealing it. We can either create assets for the
future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and
the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit
people and cause untold suffering. Working for the earth is not a way
to get rich, it is a way to be rich.

The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries
ago, and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams.
Literally you are breathing molecules this very second that were
inhaled by Moses, Mother Teresa, and Bono. We are vastly
interconnected. Our fates are inseparable. We are here because the
dream of every cell is to become two cells. And dreams come true. In
each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are not
human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other
microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each human cell has 400
billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of
atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one
septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros
after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more
processes than there are stars in the universe, which is exactly what
Charles Darwin foretold when he said science would discover that each
living creature was a "little universe, formed of a host of
self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the
stars of heaven."

So I have two questions for you all: First, can you feel your body?
Stop for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going on
simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to ignore
it, and wonder instead when this speech will end. You can feel it. It
is called life. This is who you are. Second question: who is in charge
of your body? Who is managing those molecules? Hopefully not a
political party. Life is creating the conditions that are conducive to
life inside you, just as in all of nature. Our innate nature is to
create the conditions that are conducive to life. What I want you to
imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a deep innate wisdom
in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the past.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only
came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of
course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be
ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the
stars come out every night and we watch television.

This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other
and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened,
not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as
complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done
great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring
creation. You are graduating to the most amazing, stupefying challenge
ever bequested to any generation. The generations before you failed.
They didn't stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of
the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature
beckons you to be on her side. You couldn't ask for a better boss.

The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the
dreamer. Hope only makes sense when it doesn't make sense to be
hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends
on it.


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