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Unity College Commencement Address
Unity College May 2012 Commencement Address by Cynthia Barnett

By Cynthia Barnett
May 12th 2012
Unity, Maine

Around the nation this weekend, commencement speakers are pushing tassels out of their eyes to advise new graduates how much this world needs them. They’re telling the latest generation of college-educated that it is time, now, to figure out their greatest passions – and align them with the world’s greatest needs.

It is my good fortune, as your speaker, to skip over the parts about you clarifying your passions and lining them up with the challenges that face our planet.

You completed that soul-searching four years ago when you chose Unity College. And so I begin by congratulating you – and your parents – for the prescient decision to spend your college years in rural Maine, where classes might take place in a forest … or a wildlife sanctuary … or even underwater … and for having that early wisdom to direct your devotion to the natural world onto a path toward its stewardship.

In nature, you are the precocial among us – species such as dolphins and sea turtles that are born not only knowing how to walk or swim, but with a remarkable sense of where to go – newborn dolphins to the sunlit surface, just-hatched turtles to the moonlit sea.

I see you as those bright and beautiful young dolphins – delivered just this afternoon in your shining academic skins, but already possessing great sense of your purpose, innate knowledge of your direction.

Your chosen direction is to save the life on this planet. It is a direction as vital as the dolphin’s to the surface to breathe. Having already figured it out, you’re swimming circles around the altricial newborns, those helpless creatures born furless, often blind, not yet walking or flying.

And so, I do not have the same advice for you that I would for them.

Instead, let us get straight to the how.

You will leave this bucolic corner of Maine to find a nation and a world paralyzed by an inability to work together on the greatest challenge our species has ever faced. As the global atmosphere warms, as the Arctic ice thins, as Americans sweat out the warmest spring in recorded history, our political, cultural and business leaders, and our government and private institutions, remain frozen stiff.

My generation’s paralysis, which extends from the geo-political to the local, is the single-greatest barrier to solving the climate crisis. At its heart are deep social, political and religious divides that are breaking apart the bedrock of this country like a hydraulic-fracture well.

You have chosen various paths to begin your work on behalf of the Earth and its life – conservation law-enforcement; wildlife care; environmental education; perhaps my field of environmental journalism. I do want you to know that, just like on the best hikes, you’ll sometimes make your greatest discoveries hopping off trail for a while, drawn by curiosity for an intriguing side-loop or the backcountry. In my own career, it was not until I ventured beyond journalism to study environmental history that I found the work that ignited me – writing books about humans and nature, particularly … water.

But what I most urgently want to tell you is that no matter which path you take, no matter how much you jump off and on, criss-cross or back-track, the essential work to fix our broken world involves healing human fractures and bridging human divides.

Whether you land in agriculture or aquaculture, ecology or ecotourism, your challenge is to build unity among people.

It is by no coincidence that Unity is the name of the college from which you graduate today. Unity College was named for the town, which was christened “Unity” in 1804. Thomas Jefferson had just been re-elected in a landslide.  The city’s fathers wanted to express “unison in political sentiment” for Jeffersonian Democracy.

Two hundred years later, the idea that civic leaders would put a premium on unity is quaint.  Factions of the Right and Left alike co-opt Jefferson’s ideals as their own. But the shallow back-and-forth … the too-familiar faces on 24-hour news … the jeering one-liners on Twitter … the foaming on talk radio … all do what Jefferson feared most: They dumb us and divide us, turning citizens against one another rather than toward our common interests, a livable planet being one.

In my home state, the Tea Party has boiled over this year fighting a small alternative-energy subsidy. I wondered: What if they’d join enviros to turn that sort of heat on the agricultural subsidies that help pollute and deplete freshwaters and cost America billions a year? Suspicion and pre-judgment keep them from a coalition that could be the most effective ever to combat giveaways harming the earth and the taxpayers.

On the other side, I keep hearing frustrated greens ask the question – where are the Teddy Roosevelt Republicans, today’s conservatives who would give climate, land and water the urgency they deserve? And here I wonder: Would they recognize a 21st-Century Roosevelt if they saw one? Or, would they judge and dismiss – unwilling to connect with someone outside their own political party, economic sphere or cultural beliefs? After all, the man who preserved 230 million acres of our most iconic public lands was also an enthusiastic hunter of exotic game, blood sport of the 1%.

I want to warn you against the uncompromising extremes. We desperately need your willingness to do the hard work of rowing across cultural gulfs – and your refusal to get pulled under by the angry tides swamping both ends of the political spectrum.

For this nation is populated by a vast, caring middle, like many of your parents and grandparents here today. These are the souls who are tired of partisanship and division. These are the souls who, in appreciation for land and water, and with love for their children and grandchildren, are going to turn the tides.

No doubt, we need revolutions in food and water, industry and agriculture. But the climate crisis cannot wait for those revolutions – much less resolutions of debates as old as hand-outs … or hunting. And it cannot wait for an overhaul of the American political system, which has proven too hamstrung by money and self-interest to work seriously on climate change.

It is like the near-century-long failure of the federal government to right the wrong of slavery – and for the same reason: the profitability of the status quo for the leading industries of the day.

Just as now, in the early and mid-nineteenth century, the many abolition movements were too insular, and too politicized themselves, to tackle our national moral failure on the large scale. Ultimately, the voices that turned the nation then were fresh, naïve, and unencumbered by the baggage of anti-slavery politics. They included Maine’s Harriet Beecher Stowe, who had never even been to an abolition meeting by the time she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the best-selling novel credited with turning average Americans against slavery. Her biographer, Joan Hedrick, writes that Stowe’s lack of experience with abolition politics enabled her to act as a unifying force – to help people see what was being sold to them as a political issue was actually a moral one.

Unity is not compromise at all costs. It is an ability to find common values and hoist them above politics, above single-issue cabals.

Your decision to invest your college years in this place … with this inspirational faculty … at this time … gives you such a platform on which to lift the work of the earth. As newly minted graduates en route to new communities around the country and around the world, you are also, like Mrs. Stowe 160 years before you, unencumbered by the politics of the environment.

Those politics err in routinely disparaging the “other” … whether the “other” refers to political parties … or different-shaded greens … or Christian evangelicals … or other … dreaded … others.

The Christian Right, for example, is blamed for the public’s waning interest in the environment. But a closer look at the Gallup polling cited reveals the decline is in public concern for the environmental movement. Polling that asks about environmental behaviors finds them stable or on the rise – from using less energy to choosing one product over another because it is better for the earth.

Perhaps more importantly, any number of surveys that track public enthusiasm for the outdoors show it is also stable or increasing – particularly when it comes to water. America’s most popular outdoor sport is still fishing. And the fastest-growing outdoor sports all involve water, from boardsailing to whitewater kayaking.

That brings me to my own intersection of personal passion and ecological obligation. For me, the two finally met at the water. I say finally because I was not among the precocial. It took me twenty-five years cranking out daily newspaper stories, then magazine articles, and then books, to find my writer’s voice. This is the voice that speaks to you this afternoon, the voice that tries to reach the caring middle and rescue water from politics and bureaucracy to reveal it as an ethical imperative.

As President Mulkey said so eloquently in his inaugural address this morning, tackling anthropogenic climate change is also an ethical obligation. I suggest that water is the way we’ll help the caring middle see this. The initial impacts of our changing climate all involve water – altered rainfall and storm patterns, more-extreme flooding, more-severe drought. These are happenings people love to talk about – even people who don’t want to talk about climate change.

This is why I’ve come to believe water will be the issue around which the shouting match over climate change finally becomes a conversation. Literally a chemical bond, water is also one of the deepest bonds among people. Ultimately, it will bring unity.

I began this afternoon with your parallels to the precocious young dolphins of the sea, and I end with those intelligent, social mammals. My family encounters them a lot when we are underway in our small boat among the near-shore islands of the Gulf of Mexico. Almost every other sea creature we meet swims away for dear life, and with good reason: Silver-bellied mullet flee my husband and his cast net. Tiny sand crabs shoot sideways into holes to avoid my children’s own pinchers.

But the dolphins accept us. They swim toward us with curiosity. They play in our wake. They show off their babies.  And if we’re lucky, they leap out of the Gulf and into the pale blue sky. It is as if they are jumping for joy at being alive in that beautiful place.

Now this is how to build unity in a fractured world. Be curious, with open mind and heart. Respect and accept “others.” Show them your babies. Find common ground, swapping stories of the biggest fish or the heaviest rainfall.

Next thing you know, they will not be “others” at all.

Above all, as you go about saving the planet, keep joy with you. You will best inspire people when you offer up some joy. And you will do your own best work when you indulge your personal joy.  I can’t tell you the number of times a paddling trip, or a work of art or music, clarified or elevated some muddied piece of writing. I consider Johnny Cash personally responsible for the final chapter of my first book. As the manuscript deadline neared, I couldn’t get it … and I couldn’t get it. I finally gave up and went to see I Walk the Line. Sitting in the dark theatre, the conclusion came to me: It had to be about redemption.

Why, to get through your commencement address, I had to haul my laptop up a rope ladder into my children’s tree house and finish up in the leafy canopy.

There, I kept thinking of those dolphins and why it is they jump. Scientists are uncertain, and suspect there may be multiple reasons, from harnessing energy to sighting distance. 

But some researchers believe that maybe … just maybe … the dolphins … indeed … are jumping … for joy.

Surely, today, they jump with joy for you.

Thank you.

Saturday, May 12, 2012