Commencement 2013


Commencement Address

Bill McKibben, Author, Educator and Environmentalist

Listen to Bill McKibben's remarks

Bill McKibbenGood morning, everyone. Thank you so much for that greeting and thank you so much for the privilege of getting to be here with you on this most important of days. There is no place that I would rather be right now than right here. My good fortune may not be your good fortune, quite, you know. This is an incredibly cheerful and celebratory day, and you've picked as your speaker someone whose most famous book has the title The End of Nature. There are moments when I think my role in the world is essentially to be a professional bummer-outer of other human beings. So I will try to avoid that as much as possible. It's also always, when I give a talk at Commencement, a sort of reminder that I'm the last obstacle standing between you and a diploma. Many, many years ago you started in kindergarten, and you've been forced for all those years to sort of listen to people stand at the front of a room and talk at you, over and over and over again, and I'm the last one. If you can make it through this, then you're on your own.

What I want to talk to you about today for a moment, a short moment, is citizenship. You enter a lot of things today. You enter the ranks of the alumni of this college, and with any luck, you enter the ranks of the employed. But, just as important, you enter completely and fully into the ranks of citizens of this country and this world. You're already there in many ways, in fact; you've served as good citizens already. But now you're needed as you've never been needed before. It is a great cliché at events like this to talk about the unprecedented challenges that face our time and one, dare say, that commencement speakers for a very long time have been making that claim. But in this case, I'm afraid, it's really true. We're here at the 50th Eckerd Commencement - if we don't get it right, the 100th Commencement won't be right here because this will be underwater.

The burden of my work has been to watch as what scientists told us about the future would happen, happens. Now this is a college that graduates an enormous number of students in environmental studies and in marine science, and so you know all that I'm telling you already. But you know it with real depth and power. You know what it means when we say that the ocean is 30% more acidic than it was 40 years ago. That's a change on an almost epic scale. You know what it means when we say that last summer while you were in college the Arctic melted. That 80% of the sea ice in the Arctic that was there 40 years ago is now gone. That we've taken one of the largest physical features on earth, and in your lifetime on this planet, we've broken that physical feature and the rest following close behind.

Every generation has its challenges, but no generation has had a challenge like the one before you. And it requires that we do not let the world operate on autopilot, that we don't let it just keep heading in the same direction. We've told ourselves now for some years in this country that most of what needs accomplishing will be accomplished if we simply get out of the way and let markets do their thing. And markets are very powerful. But clearly they are not saving the Arctic, preventing the acidification of the ocean, keeping the atmosphere from becoming wetter at every turn. Global warming in some sense is a profound market failure. Since we don't price carbon there's no reason for markets to do anything about it and, hence, the biggest problem we've ever faced. But that market failure can only be stopped by all of us engaging as citizens to do the sort of political work necessary to make sure that something changes. The good news is that's beginning to happen, even on campuses. Yours is not the only campus where this is starting to happen in profound ways.

A year ago, we launched a campaign to try to get colleges to divest their holdings in the fossil fuel industry to send a message to those companies. Now on 340 college campuses, students are involved in that fight, and five of those campuses have already divested. As The New York Times said not long ago, "This is the fastest-growing student movement in generations." So you're part of a wave that's beginning to build. But it has to build very quickly. Unlike the other challenges that we've faced, this one comes with an absolute time limit. If we don't get it right quickly, we will not get it right. And so it requires not passive spectator citizenship, but active citizenship.

As it happens, I grew up in, went to high school in, the town of Lexington, Massachusetts, which was the birthplace of American liberty. For my summer employment, I wore a tricorn hat and gave tours of the Battle Green every day telling people the story of the first battle of the American Revolution. One of the things that was good about that was a reminder to me, all the time, that patriotism and descent often go hand-in-hand. Now we do not need to be active citizens in quite the way that the Minutemen were. We don't need you shooting anybody, but we do need standing up to the biggest empires of our time. We need you standing up to them quickly and powerfully.

The fossil fuel industry - the most powerful and richest industry that the world has ever seen - has, so far, dominated this debate. And they've done it in all kinds of ways. The largest corporate campaign donation that was ever given came two weeks before the last election, from Chevron, and it was designed to make sure that the House of Representatives would stay in the hands of people who would do nothing about this biggest of challenges, and it was successful, and since we will never outspend the Chevrons and the Exxons of the world, then our only hope is to find the other currencies we can spend. The currencies of movement, passion, spirit, creativity - the kinds of things that you guys have demonstrated in spades for the last four years. As you go ahead now into the next part of your life, we'll need you to do some of your good work at the office. Those of you who are going into careers that have something to do with any of this, we need you very, very badly.

But the work of citizenship, as opposed to the work for which you'll be paid, the work of citizenship is done mostly after hours, and it's done on weekends. It's the work of engaging with the world around you. It is, in some sense, a burden - that work. It would be nicer to live in one of those ages, I suppose, when there is no great need of you. When all your responsibility would be to yourself and to your family. But we don't live in an age like that. And it's not just a burden; it's also, in certain ways, a great privilege and a great honor to get to be part of that fight. And to do it knowing that you're among the relatively few people situated in this world who have the leverage to be effective citizens.

At, we organize all over the world. We've organized about 20,000 demonstrations in every country in the world, except North Korea. As I look at the pictures in the Flickr account of what those rallies have looked like, one of the things that strikes me always is how wonderful it is that people around the world who have done nothing to cause the problems that we face are willing to join with us in trying to solve them, but of course there are limits to what can be done.

Last year in Haiti, at a rally, there were students holding a big sign, and their sign said, "Your actions affect us." And they were right. We watched in horror as Hurricane Sandy came up the east coast of the United States. We watched the devastation it did in New York City where it filled the subway system with seawater. But it killed more people in Haiti than it did in New York. In fact, there's still a cholera outbreak underway there in its wake. And there is nothing that people there can do to solve this problem. They do not have the world's sole superpower close to hand. They do not have the headquarters of the most important corporations on earth. They don't have the leverage; you do have the leverage.

This is not an end, Commencement. It's an opening. Your minds have been brought alive, and hopefully your hearts have been brought alive as well by the education for the last many years. Do not let those hearts and those minds go back to sleep. I know that you won't. I won't soon forget, standing outside the White House in Washington a year ago, as we were trying to gather enough people to circle that White House in what was the largest, to date, demonstration about climate that this country has ever seen. And we didn't know when we asked people to come whether people really would. And to watch bus after bus roll up from Eckerd College from a long, long bus ride away - to know that this college had sent, per capita, more students off to that demonstration, and many other demonstrations, than any college in this country - was to understand that this is a key place for the future, and you are key players for the future.

I cannot promise you that we are going to win this fight or many of the other fights that we face. We don't know if we're going to win. The physics of climate change are daunting. Now that the Arctic has melted, things are progressing at a rapid rate. I don't know whether 50 years from now, we'll be able to gather here for this kind of ceremony or whether this will be soggy ground. But I do know now that we're going to fight this fight, and I will consider it one of the great privileges of my life to get to fight shoulder to shoulder with you all.

Congratulations and so many thanks.

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Commencement 2013

The Commencement of the Class of 2013 of Eckerd College
Sunday, May 19, 2013
8:00 a.m.

South Beach Field