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Courage, Commonsense, and the World Before Us

Some Thoughts for High School Seniors

Robert Shetterly

The following was given as a commencement address at George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, Maine on June 14th:

It’s an honor to have this opportunity to share in your graduation.…. Congratulations to all of you. Every graduation, as with every rite of passage, is a community triumph. We want our children well educated not for success as it is usually defined in terms of jobs and money but because the success of our communities and our democracy depends on well educated, critical thinking, creative, fun loving people, people who seek truth and see through propaganda and advertising, people who understand that personal success is only meaningful in the context of the common good. Today your community celebrates with you and makes two seemingly contradictory offerings:  a new sense of personal freedom and a new awareness of personal responsibility. 

I’ve been thinking about my little bit of time with you today and what I could possibly say to you that was real. I’d like it to be something as real & as useful as an umbrella in today’s weather.

But that may be asking too much. 

If you had been graduating in 1932 or 1942 or, for that matter, in 1861 or 1968 it might have felt pretty much the same. Depression, war, war, more war. The world you are graduating into appears more than a little out of control --- adults have made a disaster of managing the world, and what you might have thought previously about a sensible course for your future may seem improbable. It’s like you were about to jump into the escape vehicle, the door is open, the engine’s revving, you’re running to hop in, and  Poof! It disappears. Literally disappears. 

In a sense adults have borrowed your future, not as though it were incalculably  precious, what this day is all about, but as if it were a toy or your ipod, broken it, and now they are handing it back, in twenty smashed pieces, half of them missing, saying, oh, sorry, sorry about that. Don’t know how that happened. Guess you’ll have to buy a new one. 

But, that’s OK, it’s all for the good. The old economic models were lousy in the first place. They had this moment of comeuppance built into them. Our communities, our democracy and the earth need you to be totally re-thinking the means and goals of your lives. The future as we may have thought about it a few years ago is not the one we really want anyway, and surely not the one that the Earth wants. 

But you hear so many disputatious voices, conflicting claims about good guys and bad guys, contradictory solutions, so much spin, bitter accusation; it’s hard to make any sense. And when you look at so much of the information you are subjected to, it turns out to be infomercial brought to you by people far less interested in your health and welfare than your money. Too often our cherished ideal of free speech is being used as the freedom to purposely mislead for profit.  

So it’s best to look down & focus on the ground we are standing on, focus on the essential values we will need to create an honest and sustainable future. 

These values don’t proceed from the left or the right, from Democrats or Republicans, from one religion or another. They don’t proceed, either, from new technologies.

Without the proper values we won’t invent the right technologies. 

These necessary values do proceed from commonsense. I read an essay recently by the South African artist and writer Breyten Breytenbach in which he said, “My vision of Utopia is a country guided by commonsense.” 

The first and most important commonsensical idea is to identify the primary reality of our lives. Most of the voices you hear are shouting at you that it’s the economy. That’s your reality --- jobs, markets, cool stuff, credit cards, resources, profits, new gadgets, interest rates, recovery, getting a robust --- they seem to love that word “robust”---- economy running again. Every news cast has a business update & and stock market report. Where are the social justice index and latest count of species extinctions? You hear all about necessary bailouts for enormous banks & insurance companies whose corrupt policies led to the economic collapse. You hear it said that these corporations are too big to fail. If there is one economic system in our lives that we should consider too big to fail, it’s the earth. Not AIG or CitiGroup.

Our reality is nature. And nature’s model, which has to be ours because this is where we live, is not robust in its growth. 

It’s cyclical. Nature’s cycles are not based on expanding markets, that unquestioned good that we are taught to call progress.  And Nature certainly doesn’t define progress in terms of resource development which is a euphemism for exploitation of nature. If nature has a word for progress it might be something that expresses gratitude for less damage. If nature has a word for progress, it might be evolution, but without any species hierarchy or value judgments. Actually “progress” is a foreign concept for nature --- its closest synonym might be “continuance.” The next time you read about a plan to build another super mall dominated by big boxes surrounded by acres of asphalt parking lots that require the bulldozing of marshes, streams, and forests, ask yourself how nature would define this. Progress? The only definition of progress that will finally matter will be nature’s, not ours. Seems like commonsense to me. 

Everything nature takes out, it puts back. It functions like the Blue Hill Library.

You borrow & bring back. If you don’t, you pay a fine. We’re paying a huge fine now.

Just as we have borrowed from China to pay for our oil and our wars, we’ve tried to borrow from your future to pay nature’s fine. But nature doesn’t accept cash, doesn’t accept good intentions or symbolic gestures, doesn’t tolerate bad debts, doesn’t take bribes or campaign contributions, neither does it accept excuses. And, as we all know, nature’s patience is wearing thin. 

We live on an ecological miracle isolated in a vast, cold unforgiving space and in this miraculous system the health of every species of plant and animal, including ourselves, depends on the health of every other. We are often taught that it is a competitive system, and use the idea of nature’s competition, the survival of the fittest, to justify our own preoccupation with competing and owning.  

There is competition in nature, but the system has persisted for billions of years because it is overwhelmingly cooperative. The plants, the insects, the animals, the birds, the fishes, the microorganisms, all dependent on each other. Paul Stamets, the great mycologist from the state of Washington has discovered in recent years that the vast underground mycelia of fungi function like a natural internet, a brain that connects many plant species so that they can co-operate for mutual success. He studied young hemlock trees in the old growth forests that were receiving virtually no sunlight because of the deep shade --- and yet they were flourishing. How could that be? He discovered that the fungi mycelia, the underground nerve center of the forest, was transferring nutrients from birch and alder trees growing along stream beds where there was sun and an excess of photosynthesis to these young hemlocks long distances away. It is in the interest of the fungi that the entire plant community succeed. Stamets suggests that the entire earth is wired with such intelligence promoting sustainability. 

If the insects all died, the earth would die. If all the fungi died, the earth would die.

If humans disappeared, the earth would flourish.

Maybe we have been looking through the wrong end of the telescope when we rated the species. The hierarchical pyramid of importance should be inverted. Ants and worms bees and fungi have a lot to teach us. 

Humans have created economic systems as though nature were irrelevant except as a cookie jar for resources and a bottomless dumpster. And some humans have created political and economic systems as a means of funneling profit to the few instead of protecting the common good for the many.

A good example of this is the bottled water industry. Here is one of life’s essential ingredients that all inhabitants of the earth inherit and, thus, should own equally. It’s part of our commons. Like sunlight, like air. And yet we have allowed industries, often the same industries that have polluted our water supplies, to take it from us and sell it back to us at immense profit. 11 billion dollars a year. Clouds don’t sell water to trees, fish don’t sell it to birds, frogs don’t sell it to deer. But we sell it to each other and and we sell it in plastic bottles that are made from oil and leach chemicals into the water and create greenhouse gasses when they are made & an enormous litter problem that doesn’t break down when people toss them out of car windows or don’t recycle them. And such a system encourages a lack of concern for the purity of local water supplies because what you drink comes from somewhere else and consumes more petroleum to deliver it to you. The bottled water industry masquerades as convenient and healthy, but it is really exploitative economically and environmentally. 

At how many different points in this process should commonsense have intervened and halted it? It’s a system that is harmful and irrational, but we keep it because it produces jobs and profit, but no more jobs than if we upgraded our local water supplies. It’s a bargain with a devil we have chosen to worship. It’s a process that saws off the limb we are sitting on. 

Many of our economic, military, political, and life style systems are like that.

We have let policies on health care be determined not as a right and duty of social concern, but as a right of profit for the insurance and pharmaceutical companies. We have allowed the coal companies to blow up over 500 of the oldest mountains on earth and destroy our most bio-diverse forests for their enhanced profit. Erik Reece, a professor of writing at the University of Kentucky and author of Lost Mountain, says: “Our most modern sin is that we have not loved the world enough. We have exiled the holy from this realm so that we might turn its mountains into money.” These are the things that happen in a culture that identifies economy rather than nature as its reality.

They are not a product of commonsense. 

When Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were mulling over the concept of unalienable rights as a foundation for democracy surely they were not thinking of them as being for one generation only, theirs. They were trying to formulate a way of organizing a society around an idea that could persist, safeguard those rights for generations. They knew that if the political system were degraded or the environment despoiled, those rights would be a lot less unalienable in the future. It’s as though they offered us a beautiful shirt that included the washing instructions --- cold water only, no bleach. And immediately we dunked it in hot water & dumped in the bleach. How can you pursue happiness in a blighted & poisoned environment or liberty if the government is listening to your phone calls and reading your emails and lying to you about the reasons for war and the media is acting the part of cheerleader rather than investigator? Jefferson knew that coupled to every unalienable right was an unavoidable responsibility. A responsibility to be accountable to your own law and not foul your own nest. A responsibility to pass on an unsullied political system and an unsullied environment to each succeeding generation. 

This is commonsense.  

Last Fall the citizens of the country of Ecuador took the idea of inalienable rights a step farther --- they wrote into their Constitution that Nature --- or Pachamama , Mother Universe, as they call it --- has inalienable rights that must be considered first, before the property rights of people. How can we really have property rights, anyway? Like water, we use the earth and pass it on. What we really have are property responsibilities, not rights. The enlightened people of Ecuador wrote into their Constitution the idea of sumak kowsay, or harmonious/humane living, making that their primary moral & legal responsibility. They know that if they want to perpetuate the common good and the most happiness for their people, they must live in harmony with nature.

These are the same values that Zoe Weil’s Institute for Humane Education (from right here in Surry)  is trying to get into school systems all across this country.

If we say that we want a world based in peace, sustainability, and humane values, we know that we must teach the responsibility of living those values from the earliest childhood. The motto of the Institute for Humane Education is The World Becomes What You Teach. If that motto is true, then we know where to begin to fix what’s wrong. We also know why we have the problems we do now. Commonsense.

I was in a school in Connecticut recently and a father of two young children asked me to write something about truth in a book he was giving to his kids.

I wrote:

Without Truth there is no trust.
Without Trust there is no hope.

I think that is true, but today I would extend it:

Without action there is no hope.
Hope without action is sentimental.

It would be silly and sentimental  for me to say to you today that I hope the best for your futures unless I am willing to work as hard as I can to ensure a sustainable future for you. And it would be silly of you as well. That’s really commonsense.

What I ask from all of us is an awareness of our fundamental reality, and then the necessary citizenship --- for our communities and the world --- to live our lives in accordance with that reality. This is not a chore or a punishment. It’s a privilege and a joy. It’s a life of meaning rather than consumption. It’s a life in harmony with reality. I suspect that all of you appreciate commonsense but the habits of our lives, our consumptive desires, and the forces that profit from those habits and desires are not based in commonsense. But they can be. Commonsense is closely related to the common good and the common welfare and simply to protecting the idea of the commons. But to live by commonsense will take a great quantity of common courage from all of us. It will take courage because our status quo is the enemy of commonsense. But everything good takes courage.

I want your success --- but no more or no less than I want the success of every other species on earth. Because for you to truly succeed, all the others must, too.

I’ll end with a poem by Mary Oliver --- many of you know it --- that says everything I have just tried to say, but far more beautifully:

Wild Geese 

You do not have to be good.  
You do not have to walk on your knees  
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.  
You only have to let the soft animal of your body  
love what it loves.  
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.  
Meanwhile the world goes on.  
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain  
are moving across the landscapes,  
over the prairies and the deep trees,  
the mountains and the rivers.  
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,  
are heading home again.  
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,  
the world offers itself to your imagination,  
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-- 
over and over announcing your place  
in the family of things.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do.

Robert Shetterly [send him mail] is a writer and artist who lives in Brooksville, Maine. He is the author of Americans Who Tell the Truth. See his website.

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