An unforgettable commencement address

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Paul Hawken is an environmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist and author. Starting at age 20, he dedicated his life to sustainability and changing the relationship between business and the environment.

His commencement speech to the graduating class of the University of Portland, Ore., startled anyone who heard it or has read it. Let me quote a few paragraphs. Brace yourselves!

“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 one peer-reviewed paper published in the last 30 years can refute that statement. Basically, civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.

“This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, 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 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 the 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.”

Hawken ends his talk with this advice:

“You are graduating to the most amazing, stupefying challenge ever bequeathed 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. Hope 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.”

To read the entire incredible speech, you can find it at:

http://www.paulhawken.com/paulhawken_frameset.html

Sally Breen lives in Windham.

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