Marlboro College

News Remarks by Bill McKibben

Thank you all so much. What a pleasure for me to be here. Now, I know there are a lot of people in this room, but I’m going to really direct my remarks at my colleagues in the class of 2012. Because of the way you’re seated it’s going to make it look as if I’m sort of watching a slow-moving tennis game as I proceed. The rest of you are welcome to listen, in but mostly I want to congratulate you all. This is an awfully big deal. I know many of you are going to go on to study later and things, but, you know what? You’ve been in school since you were three or four and this pretty much checks the last thing off the list that you actually have to do. You know, you’ve met the minimum and done it in real style and, in fact, looking at the program, the only thing you have to do is endure my talk and since I’ve already got my mine it may go on a little while.

I’ve been looking forward to this on my calendar for a very long time. I’d never been to Marlboro, but I’d always intuited from a distance the kind of spirit and passion and distinctiveness of this place, and known that there were no other places quite like it in the country. And all I really want to do is just sit and talk with you about all that you know about horror cinema and hagiography, and about Frost and Foucault. Just reading the list, from pollination to Proust, from Dutch Baroque to data analysis of urban fire departments, I would love to just sit and talk for hours and hours about all that you’ve done and said. But instead I’m going to talk at you and then I’m going to ungraciously leave before the ceremony is even over because I have to get to the west coast tonight. They’ve just announced plans for a series of big coal ports on the west coast to ship coal to Asia and a number of our colleagues were arrested the other day trying to block a coal train running to the west coast. I need to get there, but this is the thing that I most was looking forward to doing.

I am so grateful for the opportunity. And so grateful that the year that began with Irene for you all ends on this beautiful, glorious day. It must be said that even beautiful, glorious days now carry a kind of freight that they didn’t in the past. I don’t know about you, but that March heat wave that we had, that sort of freakish heat wave at the end of winter when the temperature rose—in South Dakota, while it was still winter, the temperature was 94 degrees, and across Vermont we were in the 80s. We had 15,000 new temperature records set, and place after place where the low temperature for the day beat the old all-time high temperature mark—something that really should be statistically impossible but happened over and over again. Those beautiful days when we were all out wandering around in shorts and t-shirts, still, at the back of our minds we had that sense that this was not how it should be. And it isn’t how it should be.

The burden of what we have done to this world lays a little heavy on the older us, as we look at you. The great wish of people, I think, it to pass on to their children and grandchildren a world in better shape than the one that they were born into, and we have failed at that task. The world is not in as good shape as it was when we were born. You know the chemistry and physics around climate change. You know that the most important thing that has happened so far in your life is that this planet left what scientists call the Holocene, a 10,000-year period of benign climatic stability that underwrote the rise of human civilization. Sometime in the last 20 years we crossed some invisible line to what comes next. The only question now is how far down that path we will go, and that will largely be up to you.

It is not just the physical world that, in certain ways, is less than it should be. Our society, too, is in certain ways not what we would hope. Fifty years ago, the average American had twice as many close friends, statistically, as the average American today. A very, very large loss, a very big change, and it explains why statistically we find that people in our society are nowhere near as happy as they were, no longer feel as satisfied with their lives as they did some decades ago. These things aren’t ideological, they’re physics and chemistry and sociology, and they’re not determinant either. The question is how to turn them around and keep them from getting worse, and then reverse them: to build a world that you can leave with somewhat more pride than we do.

The hallmark of Marlboro is personal responsibility for your education and for your lives and I have no doubt that you will keep that theme going; in all the ways that one can be responsible to one’s community and to one’s earth, that you will do those things you can. I want to add, however, that as you go forward you need also (and I know you already do) to think about it well beyond the bounds of your own individual selves and think a lot about the role that you can play in building communities strong enough to really turn things around.

I deal with climate change, the most pressing problem humans have ever faced. It is very clear why we’re making no progress. The fossil fuel industry, the richest enterprise humans have ever engaged in, has been able to use that financial power to block change. They will always have more money than the rest of us and so, if we’re going to turn them around, we will need to find other currencies to work in. Those are mostly the currencies of community, passion, spirit, creativity, the things that build movements. It has been fun to watch these movements build over the last few years. We started four years ago with myself and seven seniors at Middlebury, so people exactly like you, and now it’s grown to be this great grassroots climate change movement around the world, active in every country but North Korea. And we may not get there anytime soon.

One of the things I always think when I’m at a college, but especially here, is that while you’ve been busy studying important things the real thing you’ve been studying has less to do with the various disciplines and all the good work that your professors have been doing with you than it does with the context of that studying, with the community in which you’re embedded. When people come back, like Dr. Grinspoon, to the place where they had their college years, and when they say, “those were the best years of my life,” part of what they’re remembering is how much they enjoyed their classes. But mostly what they’re remembering is the incredible rightness of being in a place where for four years, you get to live the way that most human beings have lived for most of human history—in close physical and emotional proximity to a lot of other people. And sometimes that’s a complete pain, you know? But most of the time it’s magnificent to always have people to bounce ideas off of and that’s what we evolved to do and the wrong turn we took as a society was to get away from that.

The reason that we have half as many friends as people fifty years ago is that we spent the intervening five decades hard at work on the project of building bigger houses farther apart from each other. And that’s also the reason why we pour so much carbon into the atmosphere. One of ironies of higher education, or education in general, is that we bring you here and you have this wonderful community, but one of the subtexts is that you now are equipped to go out and earn enough money that you never have to live this way again. But there is no absolute requirement that you do that, and if you’re wise, and I think you are, you’ll look for ways all along to try and take some of this community and make it work in the rest of your lives.

I’ve got to tell you the truth, which is that I don’t know if we’re going to win this epic fight about the climate. There are scientists, as you know, who think we’ve waited rather late to get started and there are political scientists who think the odds are simply too great and there’s too much money on the other side. And they might be right. But I can tell you, I can guarantee you that the community of concern, of people who like to build movements and want to fight, now extends in all directions.

Last weekend we convened around the planet what we called Connect the Dots, this day where people everywhere who’d already felt the sting of climate change rallied in those places. And it was incredibly beautiful to watch the pictures coming in from thousands of places around the globe. In Afghanistan, where they have other things to worry about, people were there in their dried up rivers planting trees along the side; or in Pakistan, where floods had taken twenty-million people out of their homes; or across Vermont, where Irene was in some ways an adventure and in some ways, many ways, the worst tragedy that Vermont has ever endured and a sign of the power of this new world that we have unleashed.

I don’t know if we’re going to win, but I do know that all around the world, including in places that have done nothing to cause this problem, there are people ready and willing to fight in all the ways they can. It is always such an honor for me to get to be in those communities and it is such an honor to get to be in this one and say that I very much look forward, in the years ahead, to just getting to stand side-by-side with you and take on these problems and see where we go. There are no guarantees, except that involvement and engagement and the kind of love that it comes from is the thing that makes all of this worthwhile.

Thank you so much, and so many congratulations.

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