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Commencement 2012


Commencement Address

Sylvia Earle, Oceanographer, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and Founder and Chair of The Sylvia Earle Alliance

Sylvia EarleThank you, President Eastman, and thank you one and all.

So, to you President Eastman, trustees, fellow honorees, faculty, friends, parents, and most of all, you, the college, Eckerd College class of 2012, yes, Stephen Barber said in his remarks that you have crossed the finish line. Well actually, you've just started on a new line. This is the commencement after all, and it's just beginning.

I'd love to know, what you're thinking. What's on your mind? What's under those funny-looking hats that you're wearing?

When I was a kid not far from here, growing up in Dunedin, Florida, I used to sometimes dream of what it was like to go back in time and wished for one of those fancy time machines to see what the world was like when dinosaurs were stomping around or when there were mastodons actually here in Florida or camels, or giant tortoises not that long ago.

Actually, in 1955, I listened to Archie Carr, the celebrated turtle man, among other things, describe to me about how Florida has changed over recent times, relatively recent, over the last 100,000 years or so, when ice ages have come and ice ages have gone, but where we now sit high and dry once was covered with water. Sea level is not really level and it isn't where it always used to be. But, there's another whole Florida out there, 100 miles or more, off the West coast, a lesser distance off the East coast, things that we now know that our predecessors couldn't know.

Jackson Browne has written a song recently, and a line in there says "If I could be anywhere in time, it would be now." It would be now. It would be great to go back and see what it was like before, or race ahead and see what it is like in another 10-50-100-1,000 years in the future, but this is the moment, perhaps, the best time in all of history, all of human history, all of earth's history for you to be launching on whatever you're going to do next.

Just imagine two centuries ago. Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were both three years old two centuries ago. They were born on the same day, the 12th of February, 1809. You know what they could not know. You are armed with knowledge because you came along now. You have a perspective of earth that they couldn't see, they couldn't know because we didn't have that view of earth from space. They might have perceived what Copernicus, what Galileo could not before them, the earth is round and that we sit in the middle of the stars, and that we're all basically made of stardust, that we have this amazing perspective that in all human history, we're better armed than any who have gone before us with knowledge about those big questions. Who are we, where did we come from, and where are we going?

This is the moment when the decisions that you make, that will be made in the next ten years, your time, will resound forward and make a magnified difference in the next 10,000 years because not only do you know more, owing to when you have been born and being here, of course, at Eckerd College, than any who have preceded you in time.

But, this may be the last chance that people will have a chance to make a difference, to secure an enduring future for us, to shape the way the world works in ways that will hold the planet steady, give us a chance to build on the knowledge that has been accumulated by all preceding humans and given to you in the vast dose of four years of learning.

Think about where we have come from. Humankind goes back, in terms of our roots on this planet that goes back four and a half billion years, it depends on how you count. Have humans been around for five million years, two million years, one million years? Well for sure, humans have been around over the past 50,000, 100,000, perhaps much longer than that. But looking over just the last 100,000 years, when people who had brains like yours but didn't have the knowledge that you now have and could not know what you now know, experienced changes in the climate up and down, up an down; ice ages came, ice ages went; humankind kept on. But only in the last 10,000 years have we prospered, have we gotten above being a very minor player on the world's stage.

It wasn't until 1800 that there were finally one billion humans. When I came along, there were two billion. By 1980, when Eckerd College had graduated its 20th class, there were four billion, and here you are, the 49th class, there are seven billion of us.

It looks as though we are really successful, and we are, but we shouldn't take our success for granted because during this last 10,000 years, the planet, owing nothing to human actions, has been held rather steady. But in the last 100 years, and especially in the half century, changes have taken place greater than during all preceding human history, and I mean, not just in terms of the ups and downs of climate change, but rather in terms of what's happened to the fabric of life, itself, to the state of the world, the state of nature, and, for better or worse, we can take credit or blame for that.

I have some friends, astronauts if you will, who dream of going to Mars. I mean, I'd like that, too, see how the red planet is, but to get there will take some doing and we'll have to take our life-support system with us. The people who want to go to Mars and set up housekeeping there are thinking about what it would take to terraform Mars and make the red planet more like the blue one. Here's the thing, though. On our watch, in the past century, and now in the 21st, we're actually doing a pretty good job of Mars-a-forming earth.

The atmosphere of Mars today is mostly carbon dioxide. We're adding more carbon dioxide to our atmosphere than during all preceding human history. We need some, of course, because carbon dioxide drives photosynthesis and that means oxygen in the atmosphere. It means that plants grow and fix food. We need enough carbon dioxide, just enough, to keep the planet steady. We need a lot of things to hold the planet steady, but this is the first time in all of history that we're getting our arms, our mind around what it takes to have an enduring place for humankind within the systems that sustain us.

So here we are. This is your backyard; it's my backyard; it's where I spent years as a kid and still come back because I love the Gulf of Mexico, I love the ocean. People over the ages have loved and still love the ocean; they are attracted to the sea, attracted to water, and why not; no water, no life; no blue, no green; no ocean, no us.

Although we don't think about it that way most of the time, we are all sea creatures because with every breath we take, every drop of water we drink, we are connected to the sea. It's where most of the oxygen comes from, little creatures in the sea generating oxygen, grabbing carbon. Most of the water on earth, 97%, is ocean, but it's only now, only now, during your time, that we are really gaining significant access, both to the skies above and to the depths below.

So enjoy it. Take it on. Jump in the ocean, go get wet. See the world from the inside out. Take advantage of the opportunities that Galileo didn't have, that Abraham Lincoln didn't have, Charles Darwin didn't have, Archie Carr didn't have to be able to live underwater. Stay there for a week or two. Sleep with the fish for heaven sakes. Swim with them. Get to know your fellow creatures.

I've had the joy of doing this using a number of techniques, technologies that have come along in my time, in your time. They are there for you to grasp and run with. Use it as a basis for commencing what your net steps will be.

Imagine walking on the ocean floor a thousand feet down where it's dark all the time. You have a chance with new submersibles that are there for you to use, are there for you to design and build to create, to use the gifts that you have, your good brains, being around at this point in history when, for the first time, we know the magnitude of our ignorance about the planet as a whole, about what we have to do to stay alive in this little speck in the universe.

Only about five percent of the ocean has been seen at all, let alone explored, so if you think there's nothing left to do, that all the frontiers have been covered, well think again. Every door that has been opened, it opens another ten or 100, or 1,000 doors, and you're here, perched at this special point in time, all of us are, but you, in particular, you are commencing the next stage with cool tools like this, little subs. This one is called the Deep Sea, operating out of Costa Rica. You can buy a ticket and go down 500 meters, 1,500 feet beneath the sea, and look at the fish. You are in the aquarium. The fish are looking in at you.

Most people have not yet had a chance to do this, just as early in the 20th century, most people had not been up in the sky in an airplane. But I dare say, I'm in an audience now of people who have viewed earth from high in the sky at some point in their life, probably many times. But, how many of you have been to 1,000 feet beneath the ocean? And if not, why not? It's there to be done. Go for it. Go see the fish swimming in something other than lemon slices and butter. You might be amazed to find that fish have faces, personality, that every fish is different from every other one and so is every jellyfish, every crab, every oyster, every clam.

The diversity of life on earth is not limited just to individual species, it's individuals, like all of you. There are no two of you alike, either, no two parrot fish with freckles on their noses exactly like this. It's one of the big miracles of life, how different everything is, how everything connects. Maybe just as important is how everything does tie together, that the genetic material that makes up a Moray eel shares a lot in common with what makes up every one of you, every bacterium, every tree, every fern, every little piece of plankton out in the ocean, the chemistry of life that holds us all together.

You know, all things considered, it's a great time to be a human being on the earth, certainly a great time to be a graduate of Eckerd College. It's, all things considered, not such a great time to be a turtle.

From the time when Archie Carr was born in 1909, early in the 20th century to now, a little more than a century later, we've lost maybe 95% of the sea turtles. I mean, the good news is there are still some out there chomping on sponges, eating jellies, grazing on sea grasses, but they're also faced with daunting challenges that no sea turtle in several hundred million years of history has had to face, like the avalanche of plastic on the beaches of the world.

Now, I, too, come from the pre-plastic azoic just like turtles, who, like humans, tend to live a fairly-long time. We, if we're lucky, might live to be a century; so might sea turtles; so might a lot of creatures that we  share space with on earth, certainly many plants like trees, but also many fish, many mammals. Some whales are known to live as much as two centuries; bow-head whales in the Arctic have been known to live at least that long. But turtles, and whales, and many other creatures are having a hard time these days.

Consider sharks. They've been around 300 million years, and when I first started diving, I was warned to be careful of sharks. There are man eaters out there, but now the problem is there are man eating sharks out there. We don't have to worry about them eating us as much as they have to worry about us consuming them.

On our watch, your watch, sharks in the sea, dominant species in the ocean for millions, hundreds of millions of years, have been drawn down to about ten percent of what they were when I was a child.

During that first year that Eckerd graduated a class, 1960, that's when the pressure was amped up for sharks, shark fin soup, shark stake, sharks in tournaments to see who can kill the most of them.

This is a moment in time when it's really not a great time to be a shark or tuna fish. Tuna fish, that nobody really used to eat, but now they are pricy creatures. The last one sold of a tuna fish, a blue-fin tuna, in the Tokyo fish market in December of this year, the highest price that I know about for a single fish was $746,000 for one fish. Because we now see their numbers diminishing and as their numbers diminish, the price goes up. So, it's not a great time to be a tuna, or a turtle, or even a whale, even though it's better now than it was in the middle of the 20th century or certainly the middle of the 19th, or 18th, or even the 17th century because it took that long, until the middle of the 20th century, for us humans to realize that either there would be whales in the future, or there would not be whales, depending on what we do or what we do not do.

We managed to draw them down to close to extinction on many fronts, many species, and their numbers look promising. Most of them are showing encouraging signs of recovery now that, for the most part, we have stopped killing them outright, although it is true that in some nations in the world, Iceland, Norway, and Japan, whales are still taken and sold as commodities. For the most part, we've come to see other values. Yes, they probably taste good, but at the same time, there are other things that we can do with whales, with fish, with turtles that now we know.

Now we have seen what we can do to the ocean in the negative way. About half of the coral reefs that were around when I was a child that I used to explore in the Florida Keys and out at [Pulley?] Ridge, 100 miles offshore from the coast right here, they have really taken a hit on our watch. Half are either gone or they're in a state of great decline.

Good news, we still have some coral reefs out there. Your job, your challenge, your opportunity is to look ahead and say, OK, they're not all gone yet; there is still a chance to do something, not just for the big conspicuous things, but what about the little guys, the [Cocalitha?] phorids, the small creatures, the plankton that generates most of the oxygen, does the heavy lifting about grabbing carbon out of the atmosphere, what are we going to do about them now that we know. Now that we know how good fish taste and also know the destructive actions that are taking place to obtain those wild creatures from the sea, we can change our ways. We can alter the way we treat wildlife in the sea just as we have wildlife on the land. We can look with respect of what it has taken to power our civilizations to where we now are, to give you the knowledge that you have, to send rockets in space, to send humans in space, to make it possible for us to go deep in the sea, to have knowledge that can be communicated widely over the world in ways that our predecessors would sigh with envy if they could just see a laptop, or iPad, or cell phone. What would they think? Imagine Abraham Lincoln with a cell phone!

You take so much for granted, or at least you should, because it's here, it's yours, but do not, for a moment, take nature for granted.  We have the power; we now know, owing in large measure to the consumption of fossil fuels that were gathered over millions of years that we have burned through in a very short period of time, there are issues with the way we treat the earth, the way we have the power, now, that exceeds that of any who have preceded us.

We need to look at the world with care, and you, certainly, in the last two years have seen what happens if we're somewhat careless and allow things to happen to our life-support system, the ocean, that puts not just the ocean, and turtles, and marshes, and birds at risk, it puts us at risk, puts polar bears at risk, because when you think about the consequences of burning those fossil fuels and warming the planet, yes, there have been great stages in the past, but nothing quite like what we are now experiencing. Bad news for polar bears, not a great time to be one. Maybe it's not a great time to be an investor in Florida real estate, although I have a home in the Red Zone, that area within six meters of sea level rise which will happen. Honestly, sooner or later, it will happen.

We used to think, when I was a kid, oh yeah, ice ages come, ice ages go, and 10,000 years in the future, Florida will be much smaller than it is today because the sea level has been rising since the height of the last ice age. But you are armed with knowledge. You know what we couldn't know 50 years ago that the pace is picking up, and we also have the power to take actions that can stabilize, slow the trends, maintain an enduring place for us within the natural systems that sustain us.

Not a good time to be a penguin. Their world is shrinking. If you haven't yet made a trip to the far North or the far South, find a way in your lifetime to make it happen. Go visit the poles. Go visit the deep sea. Go somewhere high in the sky. Go get in touch with nature. Go dive in and realize how lucky you are to be a human, to have the gift of knowledge.

There are creatures on the planet who are at least as old as humans. Here is one, an albatross I met in January of this year halfway across the Pacific, Midway Island. She is admiring her most recent egg. She was born hatched, if you will, the year I graduated from Clearwater High School, 1952. Clearwater had clear water in 1952. Just so you know, it did exist. It doesn't anymore in the same way that it did a half a century ago.

I wonder about this albatross. Her name is Wisdom. She has to travel thousands of miles to get food to feed her chicks. She has seen changes that I have seen in my lifetime, but she doesn't know why the world has changed and even if she knew, wouldn't know what to do about it. You do know why the world is changing, and you do know what to do about it.

This is a great time to be a human being, to fix the problems of those who have both given us the gifts of knowing from the past and also the problems that we have inherited because we didn't know the problems that plastics could cause in the ocean. We didn't know that what we put in the air would make any difference. We didn't know that we could take too many fish, or whales, or seals, or anything else out of the ocean, but now we know. Now you know, and that's the greatest gift of all. That's what this college has given you, the gift of knowledge.

You might not care, even if you know, but you can't care if you don't know. A predecessor didn't know that we could so alter the nature of nature that it could put our future at risk, but here's the good news. Those of you who know and care are out there making a difference, like these kids, like you, taking your time to go turn things around, retrieving stuff, junk that we've put into the ocean, and disposing of it properly.

There's still hope for turtles. We still have five percent of them out there on the land and in the sea, variations on the theme of turtledom.

There is still hope for whales, still hope for wale sharks. Now, instead of just killing sharks, either as the imagined enemy or something to eat or turned into products of various sorts, people are now enjoying getting in the water and admiring sharks. I'm one of them. If you haven't done it, go for it. The Gulf of Mexico still has sharks, lots of them. In fact, this image was taken 100 miles offshore from Fourchon right at the height of the spill of 2010. There were more than 100 whale sharks gathered eating the eggs of little tunas.

Reasons for hope, these kids in Hong Kong last summer celebrating sharks, taking the pledge that they will take care of sharks; they won't kill them, they won't eat shark fin soup.

Kids wearing T-shirts celebrating plankton, knowing this is where most of the oxygen comes from.

I celebrate this creature even though they are all gone, at least the cousin of this creature is gone. This is a monk seal from the Hawaiian Islands. There are still about 1,000 of them remaining on the planet. There are still fewer than that remaining in the Mediterranean Sea, all relatives of three species, called the monk seal, related. But the Gulf of Mexico once had these creatures.

Can you imagine seals swimming on the beach out here, or Miami Beach, or as far north as Galveston? 1952, the year I graduated high school, was when the last one was seen.

Columbus saw plenty of them. Ponce de Leon saw plenty of them. Now, they're gone. So, we've lost a chance with these little animals that we could have had, had we known 100- years, 50 years, or 50 years even, we needed to do something that we now have the power to achieve, that you have the power to do going forward.

We can't go back. We can't restore what has been lost. But, we can make things better than they are now that we know. You can hold the world in your hands on your desktop, your laptop. You can Google-earth. You can dive into the ocean in ways that no one who preceded this time could do it. You, literally, hold the world in your hands. This is the time, and I can't wait to see what you're going to do next.

Thank you.

Commencement 2012 Coverage

Commencement 2012 Coverage

Check out photos, remarks, honorary degree and award recipient information from Commencement 2012.

Commencement 2012

The Commencement of the Class of 2012 of Eckerd College

Sunday, May 20, 2012
8:00 a.m.

South Beach Field Eckerd College