Inspiration for Life

Commencement Address to the Class of 2009
University of Portland, May 3rd, 2009

When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked if I could
give a simple short talk that was "direct, naked, taut, honest,
passionate, lean, shivering, startling, and graceful." Boy, no pressure

But let's begin with the startling part. Hey, Class of 2009: you
are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on
earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of
decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation - but not
onepeer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute
that statement.

Basically, the earth needs a new operating system, you are the
programmers, and we need it within a few decades.

This planet came with a set of operating instructions, but we
seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don't poison the
water, soil, or air, and don't let the earth get overcrowded, and don't
touch the thermostat have been broken. Buckminster Fuller said that
spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that
we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour,
with no need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really good food
- but all that is changing.

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will
receive, and in case you didn't bring lemon juice to decode it, I can
tell you what it says: YOU ARE BRILLIANT, AND THE EARTH IS HIRING. The
earth couldn't afford to send any recruiters or limos to your school. It
sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that
unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here's the
deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time
required. Don't be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do
what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after
you are done.

When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future,
my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is
happening on earth and aren't pessimistic, you don't understand data.
But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the
lives of the poor, and you aren't optimistic, you haven't got a pulse.
What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to
confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some
semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. The poet Adrienne
Rich wrote, "So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those
who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world." There could be no better description. Humanity
is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking
place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies,
refuge camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums.

You join a multitude of caring people. No one knows how many
groups and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our
day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger,
conservation, human rights, and more. This is the largest movement the
world has ever seen.

Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance,
it strives to disperse concentrations of power. Like Mercy Corps, it
works behind the scenes and gets the job done. Large as it is, no one
knows the true size of this movement. It provides hope, support, and
meaning to billions of people in the world. Its clout resides in idea,
not in force. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants,
businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government
workers, fisherfolk, engineers, students, incorrigible writers, weeping
Muslims, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without borders, grieving
Christians, street musicians, the President of the United States of
America, and as the writer David James Duncan would say, the Creator,
the One who loves us all in such a huge way.

There is a rabbinical teaching that says if the world is ending
and the Messiah arrives, first plant a tree, and then see if the story
is true. Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may
befall us; it resides in humanity's willingness to restore, redress,
reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. "One day you
finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you
kept shouting their bad advice," is Mary Oliver's description of moving
away from the profane toward a deep sense of connectedness to the living

Millions of people are working on behalf of strangers, even if
the evening news is usually about the death of strangers. This kindness
of strangers has religious, even mythic origins, and very specific
eighteenth-century roots. Abolitionists were the first people to create
a national and global movement to defend the rights of those they did
not know. Until that time, no group had filed a grievance except on
behalf of itself. The founders of this movement were largely unknown -
Granville Clark, Thomas Clarkson, Josiah Wedgwood - and their goal was
ridiculous on the face of it: at that time three out of four people in
the world were enslaved. Enslaving each other was what human beings had
done for ages. And the abolitionist movement was greeted with
incredulity. Conservative spokesmen ridiculed the abolitionists as
liberals, progressives, do-gooders, meddlers, and activists. They were
told they would ruin the economy and drive England into poverty. But for
the first time in history a group of people organized themselves to help
people they would never know, from whom they would never receive direct
or indirect benefit. And today tens of millions of people do this every
day. It is called the world of non-profits, civil society, schools,
social entrepreneurship, and non-governmental organizations, of
companies who place social and environmental justice at the top of their
strategic goals. The scope and scale of this effort is unparalleled

The living world is not "out there" somewhere, but in your
heart. What do we know about life? In the words of biologist Janine
Benyus, life creates the conditions that are conducive to life. I can
think of no better motto for a future economy. We have tens of thousands
of abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned
people without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed regulators
on how to save failed assets. Think about this: we are the only species
on this planet without full employment. Brilliant. We have an economy
that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time than to
renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank
but you can't print life to bail out a planet. At present we are
stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross
domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on
healing the future instead of stealing it. We can either create assets
for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called
restoration and the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the
earth we exploit people and cause untold suffering. Working for the
earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich.

The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million
centuries ago, and its direct descendants are in all of our
bloodstreams. Literally you are breathing molecules this very second
that were inhaled by Moses, Mother Teresa, and Bono. We are vastly
interconnected. Our fates are inseparable. We are here because the dream
of every cell is to become two cells. In each of you are one quadrillion
cells, 90 percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a
community, and without those other microorganisms you would perish in
hours. Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of
processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one
human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a
one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has
undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe
- exactly what Charles Darwin foretold when he said science would
discover that each living creature was a "little universe, formed of a
host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous
as the stars of heaven."

So I have two questions for you all: First, can you feel your
body? Stop for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going
on simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to
ignore it, and wonder instead when this speech will end. Second
question: who is in charge of your body? Who is managing those
molecules? Hopefully not a political party. Life is creating the
conditions that are conducive to life inside you, just as in all of
nature. What I want you to imagine is that collectively humanity is
evincing a deep innate wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and
insults of the past.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars
only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night,
of course. The world would become religious overnight. We would be
ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead the
stars come out every night, and we watch television.

This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other
and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened,
not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as
complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done
great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring
creation. You are graduating to the most amazing, challenging,
stupefying challenge ever bequested to any generation. The generations
before you failed. They didn't stay up all night. They got distracted
and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your
existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn't ask for a
better boss. The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not
the dreamer. Hopefulness only makes sense when it doesn't make sense to
be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life
depends on it.
"Take it and run as if your life
depends on it."-----------------------It literally does, there is no if about it.

A good speech Cliffy.
quoteing cliffy
"But let's begin with the startling part. Hey, Class of 2009: you
are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on
earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of
decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation - but not
onepeer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute
that statement.

Basically, the earth needs a new operating system, you are the
programmers, and we need it within a few decades."

Basically, the people need a new operating system the planet has seen countless ups and downs and weathered them all with no diminishment of it's essential powers to provide for life. A few decades means virtually nothing to earth and little to the owners of the planet. So rather than some grand human altruistic plan to save the planet and it's life what we (as a civilization) are really concerned about en masse is ourselves and nothing more. Decline is natural, for every species unable to adapt another will take its place, this is the way there is no other. In reality there is nothing we can do to adjust the incoming from the sun which determines every atoms reaction on this planet on a second to second basis. What we can do is take the slim chance to learn how to adapt to the coming climatic disaster which will be devastating for many lifeforms.
You've heard of the seed banks buried in rock all over the planet. Well they are part and parcel of the present global consolodation of power which will determine who has a chance to live and who has none. The earths recent cyclical cataclysmic past has been carefully kept from the mainstream of humanity, that is not about to change for obvious reasons.
Your essay is a good place to enter into discussion about the dire consequences for humans of our solar systems presently proceeding natural adjustments.
Great speech, I will keep it and pass it on throughout my family, what insight
from that young person, and I'm sure those students will never forget it, and some
of them will be so inspired that it will change their lives forever, and they will
go out into the world and contribute to the well being of our earth.
The way I see it is that there are two things happening on the planet today. One is that the old paradigm is dying: the old power structure, the old religious view, the old world view. The other is that a new one has been in the works for at least the last fifty years or so. It will become the new paradigm. The process seems slow to us mere mortals but to the Earth it is but a blink of an eye.

I have said for decades that to watch the old dinosaur die is to risk being caught up in its death throws: to get crushed by the fall. I prefer to look forward to a new and brighter future where people are more concerned with the whole and less about what is in it for them.

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