This speech was delivered on June 6, 2015, in Bar Harbor, Maine, as the College of the Atlantic commencement address. It appeared at The Nation on June 17.
First of all, a huge congratulations to all the graduates—and to the parents who raised you, and the teachers who guided you. It’s a true privilege to be included in this special day.
Mine is not going to be your average commencement address, for the simple reason that College of the Atlantic is not your average college. I mean, what kind of college lets students vote on their commencement speaker—as if this is their day or something? What’s next? Women choosing whom they are going to marry?
Usually, commencement addresses try to equip graduates with a moral compass for their post-university life. You hear stories that end with clear lessons like: “Money can’t buy happiness.” “Be kind.” “Don’t be afraid to fail.”
But my sense is that very few of you are flailing around trying to sort out right from wrong. Quite remarkably, you knew you wanted to go not just to an excellent college, but to an excellent socially and ecologically engaged college. A school surrounded by tremendous biological diversity and suffused with tremendous human diversity, with a student population that spans the globe. You also knew that strong community mattered more than almost anything. That’s more self-awareness and self-direction than most people have when they leave graduate school—and somehow you had it when you were still in high school.
Which is why I am going to skip the homilies and get down to business: the historical moment into which you graduate—with climate change, wealth concentration, and racialized violence all reaching breaking points.
How do we help most? How do we best serve this broken world? And we know that time is short, especially when it comes to climate change. We all hear the clock ticking loudly in the background.