The month of May is a time to celebrate graduations. And a time for all of us to think.
This excerpt is from Barbara Kingsolver’s commencement address to the 2008 graduating class of Duke University and is considered by Time magazine one of the “Top 10 commencement speeches” of the past 100 years.
“Rule of Escalating Isolation”
The rule of “Success” has traditionally meant having boatloads of money. But we are not really supposed to put it in a boat. A house would be the customary thing. Ideally it should be large, with a lot of bathrooms and so forth, but no more than four people. I see our dream-houses standing alone, the idealized life taking place in a kind of bubble. So you need another bubble, with rubber tires, to convey yourself to places you must visit, such as an office. If you’re successful, it will be a large, empty-ish office you don’t have to share. If you need anything, you can get it delivered. Play your cards right and you may never have to come face to face with another person. This is the Rule of Escalating Isolation.
We’re a world at war, ravaged by disagreements, a bizarrely globalized people in which the extravagant excesses of one culture wash up as famine or flood on the shores of another. Even the architecture of our planet is collapsing under the weight of our efficient productivity: our climate, our oceans, migratory paths, things we believed were independent of human affairs. Twenty years ago, climate scientists first told Congress that unlimited carbon emissions were building toward a disastrous instability. Congress said, “We need to think about that.” About ten years later, nations of the world wrote the Kyoto Protocol, a set of legally binding controls on our carbon emissions. The US said, “We still need to think about it.” Now we can watch as glaciers disappear, the lights of biodiversity go out, the oceans reverse their ancient orders. It’s an emergency on a scale we’ve never known. We’ve responded by following the rules we know: Efficiency, Isolation. We can’t slow down our productivity and consumption, that’s unthinkable. Can’t we just go home and put a really big lock on the door?
Not this time. Our paradigm has met its match. The world will save itself; don’t get me wrong. The term “fossil fuels” is not a metaphor or a simile. In the geological sense, it’s over. The internal combustion engine is so 20th Century. Now we can either shift away from a carbon-based economy, or find another place to live. Imagine it: we raised you on a lie. Everything you plug in, turn on or drive, the out-of-season foods you eat, the music in your ears. We gave you this world and promised you could keep it running on a fossil. Dinosaur slime. And it’s running out. The geologists only disagree on how much is left, and the climate scientists are now saying they’re sorry but that’s not even the point. We won’t get time to use it all. To stabilize the floods and firestorms, we’ll have to reduce our carbon emissions by 80 percent, within a decade.
Hard Choices, New Rules
How we get from here to there…will be [the] central question of your adult life: to escape the wild rumpus of carbon-fuel dependency, in the nick of time. You’ll make rules that were previously unthinkable, imposing limits on what we can use and possess. You will radically reconsider the power relationship between humans and our habitat. The new Emancipation Proclamation will not be for a specific race or species, but for life itself. Imagine it. Nations have already joined together to rein in global consumption. Faith communities have found a new point of agreement with student activists, organizing around the conviction that caring for our planet is a moral obligation. We’re the five percent of humans who have made 50 percent of all the greenhouse gases up there. But our government is reluctant to address it, for one reason: it might hurt our economy.
For a lot of history, many nations said exactly the same thing about abolishing slavery. We can’t grant humanity to all people. It would hurt our cotton plantations, our sugar crop, our balance of trade. Until the daughters and sons of a new wisdom declared: We don’t care. You have to find another way.
Rethinking the Money Answer
Have we lost that kind of courage? Have we let economic growth become our undisputed master again? As we track the unfolding disruption of natural and global stabilities, you will be told to buy into business as usual: You need a job. Trade your future for an entry-level position. Do what we did; preserve a profitable climate for manufacture and consumption, at any cost. Even at the cost of the other climate – the one that was hospitable to life as we knew it. Is anyone thinking this through? In the awful moment when someone demands at gunpoint, “Your money or your life,” that’s not supposed to be a hard question.
A lot of people, in fact, are rethinking the money answer. Looking behind the cash-price of everything, to see what it cost us elsewhere: to mine and manufacture, to transport, to burn, to bury. What did it harm on its way here? Could I get it closer to home? Previous generations rarely asked about the hidden costs. We put them on layaway. You don’t get to do that. The bill has come due. Some European countries already are calculating the “climate cost” on consumer goods and adding it to the price. The future is here. We’re examining the moralities of possession, inventing renewable technologies, recovering sustainable food systems. We’re even warming up to the idea that the wealthy nations will have to help the poorer ones, for the sake of a reconstructed world. We’ve done it before. That was the Marshall Plan. Generosity is not out of the question. It will grind some gears in the machine of Efficiency. But we can retool.
We can also rethink the big, lonely house as a metaphor for success. You are in a perfect position to do that. You’ve probably spent very little of your recent life in a freestanding unit with a bathroom-to-resident ratio of greater than one. Maybe more like 1:200. You’ve been living so close to your friends, you didn’t have to ask about their problems, you had to step over them to get into the room. You’ve had such a full life, surrounded by people, in all kinds of social and physical structures, none of which belonged entirely to you. You’re told that’s all about to change. That growing up means leaving the herd, starting up the long escalator to isolation.
Not necessarily. As you leave here, remember what you loved most in this place: the way you lived, in close and continuous contact. This is an ancient human social construct that once was common in this land. We called it a community. We lived among our villagers, depending on them for what we needed. If we had a problem, we did not discuss it over the phone with someone in Bhubaneswar. We went to a neighbor. We acquired food from farmers. We listened to music in groups, in churches or on front porches. We danced. We participated. Even when there was no money in it.
Community is our native state. You play hardest for a hometown crowd. You become your best self. You know joy. This is not a guess; there is evidence. The scholars who study social well-being can put it on charts and graphs. In the last 30 years our material wealth has increased in this country, but our self-described happiness has steadily declined. Elsewhere, the people who consider themselves very happy are not in the very poorest nations, as you might guess, nor in the very richest. The winners are Mexico, Ireland, Puerto Rico, the kinds of places we identify with extended family, noisy villages, a lot of dancing. The happiest people are the ones with the most community.
Make the World New
You could walk out of here with an unconventionally communal sense of how your life may be. This could be your key to a new order: you don’t need so much stuff to fill your life, when you have people in it. You don’t need jet fuel to get food from a farmer’s market. You could invent a new kind of Success. If somebody says “Your money or your life,” you could say: Life. And mean it. You’ll see things collapse in your time, the big houses, the empires of glass. The new green things that sprout up through the wreck –- those will be yours.
We have done hard things before. And every time it took a terrible fight between people who could not imagine changing the rules, and those who said, “We already did. We have made the world new.” The hardest part will be to convince yourself of the possibilities, and hang on.
Look at you. You are beautiful. The magic is community. You can be as earnest and ridiculous as you need to be, if you don’t attempt it in isolation. The ridiculously earnest are known to travel in groups. And they are known to change the world. Look at you. That could be you.