Jon Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment, recently delivered the commencement address to the University of Minnesota’s College of Continuing Education class of 2013. Below is his speech in its entirety.
Thank you all for the opportunity to share this day with you. I especially want to thank Dean Mary Nichols, who asked me to be here today.
It’s really an honor to speak at the graduation ceremony of the University of Minnesota’s College of Continuing Education. You are an extraordinary group of students. Some of you have created your own degree programs, others have finished advanced degrees; many of you did this while working or raising a family. You have shown us how to work harder, be more committed, and be more creative. You have shown us the best of the University of Minnesota, and we’re all extremely proud of you.
I’m not exactly sure what Dean Nichols had in mind when she asked me to speak at your ceremony. Normally, I speak about global environmental issues and international affairs. But I really don’t think that you want to hear a speech about the greenhouse effect or tropical rainforests today. Instead, I’m guessing you want to hear something more inspiring.
I’m probably not qualified to do that, but I’ll see what I can do.
Part I. Ordinary People
To start off, I want to tell you the stories of ordinary people – ordinary people who did extraordinary things.
The first person I want to tell you about was named James Edward, or J. Edward for short. He was born in 1878. His father was an Irish-American bricklayer who worked himself to death at the age of 32, when J. Edward was only a little boy.
Even though he was only 8 years old, he had to start working to support his mother and siblings, and he worked every day of his life until he turned 90. His story is the quintessential American story: He started with nothing – no money, no connections, and no education – but he worked incredibly hard, focused on helping his family and his community, and eventually became a successful businessman and community leader.
Years later, as he lay dying, his family got a little bigger: two days before he died, he became a grandfather one more time. His daughter-in-law was giving birth in the same hospital, one floor away.
Now I want to tell you the story of the mother. Her name was Joan, and she gave birth to a little boy. But there was a problem: The boy was born with a severe bacterial infection that covered his entire body, and he was not expected to live through the night. But Joan refused to accept that, and she took the boy home to take care of him, knowing that leaving him at the hospital was a death sentence.
She went without sleep for days, popping every blister on the skin of that screaming infant, boiling every scrap of fabric that touched his skin, and managed to keep the infection at bay. The boy lived. For years afterward, doctors told her that she saved her son’s life. Without her determination, there was no chance he would have survived.
Like her father-in-law, she stood up when the chips were down, and gave everything she had for someone else. And that boy grew up knowing that he owed his life to his mother.
Unfortunately, his story was going turn out differently.
He could not help his mother when, 15 years later, she was diagnosed with ALS (or Lou Gerhig’s disease) – a fatal, degenerative neurological disease. He could donothing while she was in agony, slowly dying in front of him. Here was the woman who gave him his life, and then against all odds saved it, and he was completely powerless to help her. That feeling of helplessness still haunts him to this day.
The last thing his mother told him was that she was ready to die – it would release her from the incredible pain she was in – but she “wasn’t done yet” being his mother. Her last words to him were, “I can’t be there for you any more, so I need you to promise me something. I need you to be the best person you can be.”
She gave him one last gift: the gift of setting a lifelong direction. And that boy swore that he would do everything he could to follow it.
She died the next day. And he has been trying to figure out how to live up to that promise ever since.
As you might have guessed, I was that boy. (Forgive me for being a little choked up, but I have never spoken publicly about this before today.)
My mother, Joan, and grandfather, J. Edward, were ordinary people, but they did extraordinary things.
When things became difficult, they didn’t wallow in their sadness or self-pity: They rolled up their sleeves and did something for those around them, and for those that would live long after them. In short, they lived good lives, and they gave something to the future.
I bet you all have stories like this in your family too. Mine isn’t unique or special at all; it’s just the one I happen to know. You all have other versions of the same story – of ordinary people who did extraordinary things. And I think we should all give thanks to them today, on the occasion on your graduation.
Part II. The American Dream
What did these people – in your family and mine – all have in common? They all lived according to a dream – something we used to call the “American Dream”.
Unlike the current so-called American Dream – which seems to be about getting rich quick, without working very hard, having a fancy house and car, and living like there’s no tomorrow – the old American Dream is about building a better future for our families and our communities. It’s a dream that I still believe in, not out of some dopey sense of patriotism, but out of a sense of awe.
It’s a dream that says we should work hard, play by the rules, give something back to our community, and make sure our children have a better life than we did.
It’s a dream that says creating a better future for our families, our community, and our world is more important than living comfortably in the present.
This dream isn’t uniquely American, of course. Many people and cultures around the world share the values of hard work and building a better future for our children. But it’s the dream that built this country.
But lately many of us seem to have forgotten that dream. In fact, today we hear people say that we should try to live “in the moment”, as if that’s the secret to a meaningful life.
I don’t believe that.
The lesson our ancestors taught us is that the most meaningful life is not the one lived for ourselves, but it is the one lived for others. They taught us that the key to a great life is to live for people that you, yourself, might not even live to see.
Why have we forgotten this important lesson?
Part III. Inflection Point
Today, it is critically important for us to remember the lessons of our ancestors.
In fact, in the whole sweep of human history, there has never been a more crucial moment to live up to their example. Why is that? It’s because the world is under more pressure now than it has ever been.
Consider the following. Between 1960 and 2010, a period of only 50 years (roughly the lifetime of many of us in this room), the world’s population more than doubled, and the world’s economic output increased by seven fold. Imagine that: Twice as many people, with an economy seven times bigger! That growth required a three-fold increase in water use, a three-fold increase in food consumption, and a four-fold increase in global energy use.
Not only did this period of time see more change than any other in history, it has changed more than all human history combined. In short, we are living through an inflection point in the history of our civilization.
In many ways, the world has been getting better. We are living longer, more prosperous and safer lives than anyone else in history, largely thanks to the hard work of previous generations.
But we still face the specters of poverty, inequality, disease, environmental degradation, and climate change. We need to start changing our ways and remember the lessons of our ancestors, or we will leave behind a degraded and more impoverished world for future generations.
Whether we like it or not, the fate of the world depends on what we do now. What we decide to do with this time – our time – in history will not only have impacts on the lives of our children, it will shape the world for thousands of years to come.
You and I didn’t ask to be here. But here we are. And we are in the drivers seat in the most important moment in human history.
So what are we going to do with it?
Part IV. Hope and History
As we look to the future, what lessons should we follow to help guide us along the way?
First, I think we should be guided by hope. Not a blind optimism that everything will work out somehow, but rather a rock-solid faith in humanity – a faith built on knowing that, at our best, we can be an amazing people.
And I think we need to be guided by a sense of history. We are at our best when we see that we are connected to those who came before us, those we share the world with today, and those will come after we are gone.
I think we’re supposed to play a part in the great, unfolding drama of human history. We are only here today because of the sacrifices, hard work, and accomplishments of countless generations before us. And I believe that we have a moral responsibilityto take our turn at the wheel, and play our part of this continuing drama.
Of course, we could view this as a burden, but I see it as an incredible gift – a way to be part of something so much bigger than ourselves.
And have no doubt: What we do with our lives can have a real impact on the world, today and for generations to come.
Part V. Final Wish
So, what will you do as you move into the next chapter of your life, with your new knowledge, your new skills, and your new degree?
My hope for you is that you do something great, to live a good and meaningful life, and to make sure you give something to the future.
And I hope one of your children or grandchildren will be on this stage in 2078 – 65 years from now, 200 years after my grandfather was born – telling stories about you, and the great things you did for the them and for the world.
I’m sure they will be incredibly proud of you. I know I am.
Thank you for the chance to speak to you today.
And congratulations to the Class of 2013!
Photo courtesy College of Continuing Education.