Courage, Commonsense, and the World Before Us

Some Thoughts for High School Seniors

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

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.

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
Without Trust there is no

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.

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