Warren Wilson College News

2009 WWC Commencement Address by Ray Anderson: “A Moment in Time”

President Pfeiffer, Chairperson Hunt, Members of the Board of Trustees, Jake Salt and graduates (Class of 2009), distinguished guests, alumni, administration, faculty, students, ladies and gentlemen: It’s good to be back.

What a setting! Thank you for the honor of addressing you. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to be here, for three primary reasons: 1) to get to talk to you graduates (Congratulations!), 2) to get to talk to your parents, and 3) to get to talk to your grandparents. By inviting me, President Pfeiffer has seen fit to inject an environmental theme into this august occasion, so I am doubly honored to have been invited to be a part of these proceedings. [Jake has set the bar very high. Jake, prepare to be bored.]

I graduated from college 53 years ago, Georgia Tech Class of 1956. Since then, besides becoming an industrialist, I have become a parent, and a grandparent. My grandchildren are of these graduates’ generation. So, I am presumptuous enough to think I have something to say to all three groups—graduates, parents, and grandparents. There’s an added bonus, too, I think, in the opportunity to address other family members and friends who are here.

Fifty-three years . . . seems like a long time, doesn’t it? And it is, on a human scale. But that’s not the only scale that counts. Consider, for example, the scale of, say, geologic time. On that scale, if we could take a walk along a one-mile-long time line that represented the 4.5 billion year history of the earth, we would see that life first appears at the 240 yard mark (3.8 billion years ago).

As we continue to walk, the staggering proliferation of life unfolds, as species after species come and species go, each preparing the way for the next and the next; and with the help of two natural processes—sedimentation and sequestration—remove the toxic hostility of the early world’s atmosphere, storing it down there, so life can evolve up here—with five major disruptions, called mass extinctions.

We continue our walk until, at long last, our species, Homo sapiens, appears—in the last 7/10 of an inch of the mile-long time line. That’s us!

For the next half inch or so, we are hunters and gatherers, foraging for a living. But then, .15 inches (a bit more than 1/8 inch) ago we settle down to become farmers and then merchants, and eventually, industrialists and teachers and graduating students, and so forth. That was the Agricultural Revolution, beginning .15 inches ago. With .04 inches to go: Buddha. With .03 inches to go: Jesus of Nazareth. With .003 inches to go (the thickness of a human hair in a mile): the industrial revolution. With .0015 (15/10,000) inches to go, we discover oil and begin the great carbon blowout. Oil (sequestered poison) has accumulated for the last 1360 yards of our mile. Today, as we speak, perhaps half of the accumulated total has been extracted and mostly burned for energy in the last .0015 inches, increasing greenhouse gas concentration 38% and bringing on climate disruption—global warming—in just an instant of geologic time.

With .0006 (6/10,000) inches to go, we learn to split the atom, and life faces yet another threat, this one unprecedented over the entire mile.

So, a lot has happened in the last 7/10 inch of our mile-long walk, since our appearance, as we have turned the Earth’s crust upside down and brought forth again into the biosphere—which nature spent practically the whole mile perfecting—the toxic hostility of the early world. And not just oil, but metals and minerals in whose presence we could not have evolved. What’s more, we have introduced man‑made compounds to which our species was never exposed throughout its evolutionary journey—PCBs, DDT, CFCs—totally alien to all life. It should not surprise us to learn that seven out of 10 members of the American Biological Association polled 10 years ago agreed that the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history is underway now, as species are disappearing at a rate unknown on Earth in the last 65 million years since the mass extinction of the dinosaurs—25 yards back.

But this one is different. All the other mass extinctions have been the results of natural disasters. But this one is the largely unconscious act of the highest form of intelligence yet to evolve, Homo sapiens (self-named “wise man”), and the fruit of that intelligence, the industrial age—the last 3/1000 inch. You might say we are “tripping on a hair” at the finish line, and are perilously close to ruining the whole walk—in just a moment in time.

So, on that scale, 53 years is about, oh, .0005 (5/10,000) inches, a bit less than the nuclear age. When I was your age there were fingers on the buttons in Washington and Moscow that could have blown everything to smithereens. You live in a post‑911 world, and even without terrorism, it’s hard to say which era is/was more dangerous. When you are my age, will the world be less or more dangerous? I’m pretty sure it won’t be a close call; it will be clear‑cut, one way or the other—way more dangerous or way less dangerous.

Do you know what I think will make the difference and determine which? That’s what I came 200 miles to talk about to you, your parents, and your grandparents, because all three generations have something to say about what kind of world your grandchildren will live in—50 years from now, the class of 2059.

Your grandparents and I—our generation—represent, theoretically, the wisdom of our culture. Your parents are in their most productive years, in the midst of their drive to satisfy their lives’ ambitions, whatever those may be. You—well, you don’t yet know what you don’t know, but you’re about to be on the fast track yourselves, right behind your parents.

The wisdom of the culture embodied in my generation has changed in 50 years. To my grandparents, the common wisdom went like this: the Earth is large, so large, it’s an inexhaustible source of natural resources; we’ll never run out.

Today the emerging wisdom is: the Earth is finite, not infinite; you can see it from space. That’s all there is. It has limits as a source.

The common wisdom used to be: the Earth is large, so large; it’s a limitless sink, able to assimilate our waste, no matter how much, no matter how poisonous. “The solution to pollution is dilution,” the environmental protection people used to say.

Today the emerging wisdom is: the Earth is finite and therefore necessarily limited in its ability to be a sink, to absorb and assimilate our waste. Dilution is just a delaying action. The solution to pollution is prevention.

The common wisdom used to be: relevant time frames are, well, the life of a human being, or more likely the working life of a human being. Sometimes shorter, as in business, just the next quarter; in politics, just the next election.

Today the emerging wisdom says relevant time frames are evolutionary in scale, and we must learn to think beyond ourselves and our brief time on Earth, and think of our species and all the 30 million other species that share planet Earth, across evolutionary time. Earth has another mile to go (five billion more years) the scientists tell us. Is, say, a whole inch too much to wish for our species? That’s 1,000 more generations for just one whole inch for humankind in Earth’s two‑mile time line.

The common wisdom used to say: Earth was made for man to conquer, to subjugate, to rule. Homo sapiens don’t really need the other species, except for food, fiber, fuel, and maybe shade on a hot summer day.

The emerging wisdom says, no, it’s the other way around. Humankind was made for Earth, and the diversity of nature is crucially important in keeping the whole web of life—including us—going, sustainably,
over evolutionary time. If you are religious in the Judeo-Christian tradition, God’s first commandment, implicit in Genesis 2:15, was, “Tend the Garden.” It has been there all along, and it means what it says: take care of Earth.

The common wisdom used to be: technology is omnipotent, especially teamed with human intelligence. What do you mean, intelligence? Why, you know, left‑brained intelligence: practical, objective, realistic, pragmatic, numbers‑driven, results oriented, unemotional, board room thinking. These will get the job done, thank you very much.

The emerging wisdom says, Hey, wait a minute! What about right‑brained thinking, the caring, nurturing, artistic, subjective, emotional side? Isn’t that at least as important as the left side, perhaps a good bit more important, since it represents the human spirit? If something doesn’t feel right, chances are it’s not right, no matter what the numbers say.

And what about technology? Isn’t technology part of the problem, considering its dominant characteristics: extractive, linear, take‑make‑waste, fossil fuel driven, abusive to the biosphere, wasteful, and focused on labor productivity (more stuff per man-hour)?

The emerging wisdom says technology must be part of the solution, but it must fundamentally change. It must become renewable (not extractive), cyclical (not linear), solar and hydrogen driven (not fossil fuel), benign, waste free, and focused on the productivity of all resources, not just labor.

The common wisdom used to be: trust the market to be an honest broker and allocator of resources—the revered “invisible hand” of the market.

The emerging wisdom says, maybe the invisible hand is not so honest after all, if it is blind to the externalities. How can prices be right if all the costs are not counted? Does the price of a pack of cigarettes, established by the market in its wisdom, reflect its costs? Of course not, not close, considering the societal costs that the market has externalized. Does the price of a barrel of oil reflect its cost? Not close, considering the cost of the military, the Gulf War, 9/11, the Iraqi War, and global warming that the market has externalized.

One more: The common wisdom used to say, business exists to make a profit.

The emerging wisdom says, no, no, business makes a profit to exist. It must surely exist for some higher purpose. What CEO really expects to stand before her or his Maker someday and talk about shareholder value?

There’s much more to the emerging wisdom that is superseding the common wisdom of my grandparents’ day, but I hope you get the drift. We really are beginning to think differently about our relationship to Earth, as we seek to save Earth (and us and our grandchildren) from ourselves.

I cannot say the new wisdom has permeated our culture yet, but it is taking hold, and that is very important, because our culture’s wisdom represents the paradigm—the mindset, the view of reality, the mental model of how things are—that underlies our entire global civilization, especially the industrial and economic systems that basically shape our lives. So, to the grandparents, my generation, I say grasp this new wisdom before it’s too late and shout it from the roof tops. The fate of your grandchildren and their grandchildren depends on the view of reality that will be held by your children, the parents of these graduates, and by the graduates themselves.

To the parents, the striving parents, I would say, quoting scripture again: “In all thy getting, get thee wisdom.” In large measure, our striving is not yet fully guided by the new wisdom. When our factories and businesses take and take and take from the earth to make, sell, use, and dispose of products (stuff) in linear, take‑make‑waste processes that are driven by fossil fuel for energy and pollute every step of the way, we are ignoring the finiteness of Earth as a source and as a sink. At least that’s the way it was with my factories before the new wisdom began to sink in with me 15 years ago at age 60. (Grandparents, it’s never too late.) Then we began to change the way we ran our factories, to acknowledge and embrace the new reality of a finite Earth. What a difference it has made, not only in the pride of our employees and in peace of mind, but in our economic results as well!

Parents, you hold the balance—you and your generation. You must continue to redesign the industrial and economic systems to accept and live within the limits of nature, and change the ways we have blindly accepted throughout the industrial age—the last 300 years (a moment in geologic time)—the most destructive and consuming in Earth’s entire 4.5 billion year existence. If my generation and yours do not change the system, these graduates will most likely be the last generation that can. That’s not just me talking; that’s the Union of Concerned Scientists, including more than 100 Nobel laureates, who told us in 1992 (17 years ago) in an open letter to humanity that we had one to a few decades to bring our civilization into harmony and balance with Earth’s limits.

Which brings us back to you, graduating Class of 2009. As your folks do their share of absorbing the new wisdom and living accordingly, you will live to see a much safer Earth, provided of course, you carry on yourselves in creating a kinder, gentler society, in ever greater harmony with Earth. As both generations succeed, I can tell you with a high degree of confidence, that when one of you graduates is standing here 50 years from now, you will be talking to the class of 2059 with pride about how you turned it around in your day and kept from messing up the Earth beyond repair, for all the creatures that share Spaceship Earth.

I think the world of 2059 will be better, safer, and healthier than the world of 2009, because so many of you “get it” already. I had not a clue 50 years ago. You have more than a clue; you do know what you know about the need to walk lightly on Earth during your own personal life’s journey, because it has become ingrained in you at Warren Wilson College. Thankfully, you have had that privilege—to be exposed to such a wonderful example. Go, change the system from inside or outside, it doesn’t matter which; just change it for the better. It needs you!

Congratulations for reaching this milestone. It’s a big one! You have the power. Use it wisely. Godspeed the rest of the way.

Copyright 1994, 2009 Ray C. Anderson. All Rights Reserved.

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