James "Gus" Speth's Address to Unity College Graduates
Unity College commencement speaker James Gustave “Gus” Speth has been characterized as one of the most important voices in the environmental movement. Speth is an internationally acclaimed environmental educator, writer, and scholar, and themes of his presentation to the Unity College graduates on Saturday, May 18th included climate change woven within a backdrop of caring: for the planet, communities, and each other.
Following is the Unity College 44th Commencement address as given by speaker Dr. James Gustave Speth:
“What a great honor to be your commencement speaker here today. Unity is a small place that has figured out some big things—including how to have a big impact and to educate students to make a big difference in the real world. I am totally confident that you will do that. And congratulations to Unity for setting the pace on fossil fuel divestment!
I suspect many of you have heard Woody Allen’s commencement quip. ‘Two paths lie ahead of you,’ he said to the eager graduates, ‘one leads to utter despair and the other to extinction. May you have the wisdom to choose wisely.’
When I told my son I’d be here today, I quoted Woody to him, and he said, ‘Don’t go too negative on them, Dad.’ I’m afraid I have a minor reputation for doing that. But I’m not going there!
Somehow, I’ve become an old man. Surely, old man, you’ve got something useful to impart to the younger generation. In fact, I have thought hard about what I have learned that might be truly helpful to you, something positive.
So let me say upfront what is the most important thing I’ve learned over the years. What we’ve got, mainly, to get us through life, with a maximum of happiness and a minimum of suffering, is each other. In the end, I think it is just that simple. The main thing that can and does give meaning to our lives is caring for others. We impart meaning to our lives and, indeed, to the world by caring so much for others that we act to create for them as much joy and as little suffering as possible. As the philosopher George Santayana said, ‘There is no cure for birth and death, save to enjoy the interval.’ And that enjoyment of life, above all, requires companionship, affection, support—things that only we can give to each other.
I say it’s just that simple, but, of course, we all too often seek to impart meaning to our lives in other ways. Almost universal is the tendency to try to find meaning at the Mall. Here I refer to our consumerism, our ‘affluenza.’ How wrongheaded to think that we can satisfy our non-material needs with more materialism—more stuff! You are probably familiar with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. At the bottom of the pyramid are the material things we really do need to buy—or, even better, make ourselves—food, water, shelter, health care, education—the basics. But as we move up the pyramid, we encounter the non-material needs—friendship, belonging, intimacy, self-esteem, a sense of accomplishment. Advertisers seduce us to try to meet these higher needs by buying stuff—cars, clothing, jewelry, beer, and so much more. Madison Avenue and its clients love it precisely because it doesn’t work. There is no meaning to be found at the Mall. But somehow that doesn’t stop us. We keep buying, shop ‘til we drop.
But, at some level, more and more people sense that this consumerism involves a great misdirection of life’s energy. We have channeled our desires, our insecurities, our need to demonstrate our worth and our success, increasingly into material things—into bigger homes, fancier cars, neater gadgets, exotic vacations. Yet we cannot help but know that “money can’t buy happiness” and that “the best things in life aren’t things.” We know we’re slighting the precious things that no market can provide—that truly make life worthwhile.
Wordsworth had it right long ago—‘Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.’
Here’s a revolutionary new product that is trying to make it at the Mall: Nothing! ‘Guaranteed not to put you in debt . . . 100 percent nontoxic . . . sweatshop-free . . . doesn’t contribute to global warming . . . family-friendly . . . fun and creative!’ The young women who set up a stand to sell Nothing in the shopping mall refused to leave and were arrested! Good for them. Humor is a powerful way to challenge the system—intelligent, irreverent debunking.
Maslow was an early advocate of focusing psychology not so exclusively on deviant behavior but on questions of life satisfaction, our own perception of well-being, and happiness. What these researches have found is extremely important for what I was saying about caring for others.
So what makes us truly happy? Positive psychology indicates that several factors stand out: our family relationships, our community and friends, our work, our health, and our personal values. They are almost all concerned with our personal relationships.
When a founder of the field of positive psychology was asked to state briefly the lessons of positive psychology, his answer was simple: ‘Other people.’ We flourish in a setting of warm, nurturing, and rewarding interpersonal relationships, and within that context we flourish best when we are giving, not getting.
So here we have a vital finding. Caring for others means coming into a supportive relationship—creating a bond. And that magical bond carries meaning in both directions. As the great Pablo Casals put it, ‘I feel the capacity to care is the thing that gives life its deepest significance.’ Those actively seeking to better the lives of others find deep meaning in their giving, and those that receive that caring attention and warm support are carried forward by it.
Graduates and friends, I have spoken of caring mainly at the personal level—our families, friends, neighbors, acquaintances. But caring for others is an opportunity that opens up in many spheres. Let me mention three:
- Care for your place, your community. We’ve had enough of throwaway cities and runaway businesses. Build the future locally. There is no Washington-style gridlock stopping us where we live.
- Care for your country. Listen to this: Here is what Thomas Jefferson wrote at the end of his presidency, ‘The care of human life and happiness . . . is the first and only legitimate object of good government.’
We had another wonderful, caring president in Franklin Roosevelt. In his last State of the Union Address in 1944, he called on America to accept, and I quote, ‘a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.’
And Roosevelt then listed these rights:
The right to a good job;
The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
The right of every family to a decent home;
The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
The right to a good education.
Whatever the craziness of our politics in the current moment, the proposition that we should have these rights is not radical. They are the rights—not the hopes, not the promises, but the rights—sought for all our people by a great American president. Just yesterday, when I was two!
Lord knows, we need these rights. We need a new America—an America that gives priority, in its economy and in its politics, to people, place and planet rather than profit, product, and power. Some have called it the caring economy. Others have called it the solidarity economy. Still others, the sharing economy. At the New Economy Coalition we are just calling it the new economy. Join with us and help us build it. Rebecca Solnit has written that ‘the grounds for hope are . . . in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks.’ Join us.
George Bernard Shaw famously remarked that all progress depends on being unreasonable. My friends, it’s time for a large amount of civic unreasonableness. It is time for a deeper critique of why America isn’t working for our people, our places, or the planet. Remember: to protest because you care for your country is an act of high patriotism. As Frederick Douglass observed in the fight against slavery, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand.’
- And lastly, care for our planet and care for our children and grandchildren and all future generations who will inhabit it. The young poet Drew Dellinger said it well about future generations:
The great Senator from Illinois Adlai Stevenson spoke to our planetary future in his last speech in 1965: ‘We travel together, passengers in a little spaceship, . . . preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft.’ Today we know that caring for our fragile craft requires much deeper change than we imagined a few decades ago.
When we think about caring for this earth, let’s always remember that that caring must extend to all the life that evolved here with us. It does not matter, for example, whether we think a particular species is important or unimportant. We did not create it and we do not own it. It has intrinsic value. Nature has rights. The cultural historian and visionary Thomas Berry observed that humans had created the concept of rights and then given them all to themselves. Aldo Leopold saw plainly and wrote beautifully that the ethics by which we live must extend to caring for the land and all the life on it. As Terry Tempest Williams noted, ‘We can no longer say, ‘”Let nature take care of itself.”’
As you leave here and go forward, will your caring succeed? I believe that your generation can and will succeed in many, many ways. In terms of caring for our country, I believe we still have it in us to use our freedom and democracy to create something fine, a reborn America—to realize a new American Dream.
This new dream envisions an America where the pursuit of happiness is sought not in more getting and spending but in the growth of human solidarity, real democracy, and devotion to the public good; where the average American is empowered to achieve his or her human potential; where the benefits of economic activity are widely and equitably shared; where the environment is sustained for current and future generations; and where the virtues of simple living, community self-reliance, good fellowship, and respect for nature predominate. These American traditions may not prevail now, but they are being awakened today across this great land. New ways of living and working, sharing and caring are emerging across America. We can realize a new American Dream if enough of us join together in the fight for it.
Of course, there are bound to be setbacks, and times when our efforts at caring at all levels do not seem to be working. But never despair. Never.
Perhaps the principal thing I’ve done in the public arena is to work in every way over 35 years to hold back the onslaught of climate change. I and others certainly haven’t succeeded well. But I have, at least, succeeded at trying, and, if that is not enough, it is still a lot. Moreover, this fight is not over, and with your help we will win it. We simply must.
The climate struggle has been like rolling the rock up the hill only to see it roll to the bottom again. So let me close with a remarkable interpretation of Sisyphus and his rock, that given to us by Albert Camus in his ‘The Myth of Sisyphus.’
Camus says that Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to the dreadful punishment of futile and hopeless labor, forever rolling a rock to the top of the mountain only to have the stone always fall back of its own weight. Camus says that Sisyphus’ crime was his ‘scorn for the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life.’ But Camus finds Sisyphus ‘superior to his fate, . . . stronger than his rock.’ ‘I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain.” Camus writes. ‘[But] the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a person’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’ The struggle itself, Camus concludes, is full of meaning.
So, here is my advice: find your rock. Find your rock. You never know. It might just stay up there one day.
Good luck to you, and thank you.”