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Bill McKibben Dartmouth Baccalaureate Address

June 11, 2011

Provost Folt, thank you so much. What a pleasure for me to be here. I've never had the pleasure of being here in this beautiful chapel before, which may, upon reflection, be true for a few members of the Class of 2011 as well. I was actually not supposed to deliver the baccalaureate address this year. The original person to deliver it was an old and dear friend of mine, Peter Gomes, for 30 years the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard, and I believe the preacher who preached at your installation here, Reverend Crocker, who died in February this year unexpectedly. He was a man of enormous contradictions, a Black, gay, Republican who preached at Ronald Reagan's first inaugural, and a man of even deeper unities, perhaps the greatest preacher in the United States in his later years. I will repeat only the small joke that he used on many an occasion. He would note to students who didn't spend much time in church that he was elevated, in a way that his other professors weren't, when he gave them a talk. And he would refer to the position that I am in at the moment as being six or seven feet above contradiction, a posture he enjoyed and I as well.

I am a poor replacement. My theological credentials are suspect. I have been a Sunday school teacher some of my life, but the kind of backwoods Methodist churches where I hang out, you could fit eight or nine of them in this beautiful sanctuary. And the only real qualification for becoming a Sunday school teacher, I'm afraid, is can you, on Christmas Eve, take a tea towel and turn a fourth grader into a Palestinian shepherd. If you can, then you are pretty much in. Sunday school teachers are usually down in the basement with the crayons and things. So we suffer a little bit with a kind of pulpit envy.

Add to the fact that I've given my share of commencement addresses too this year, at the University of Massachusetts and at Maine. Giving commencement addresses is a very unsatisfying affair. You are acutely aware, the whole time you're giving them, that you remain as the final obstacle between people and their diploma, and that the only virtue is brevity. But that's not quite the same at this occasion, so between the pulpit envy and that, I encourage you all to settle in comfortably here.

I want to begin where Eleana left off with that absolutely beautiful reading from the Book of Job in the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Job is a very interesting piece of literature. It's the first modern story that we have, the first where the ending is ambiguous. Most of you know this story. Job, a virtuous man, finds himself unaccountably cursed by God. His family dies, his flocks die, he finds himself living on a dung heap at the edge of town, covered with oozing sores. Not the patient Job of legend, he in fact is quite impatient and demands an answer to why these afflictions have come. And his friends try to comfort him with the conventional wisdom of the day: somehow you sinned, maybe your children sinned, and now God is visiting some punishment on you. And he will have none of it. He says, "I have been a good man. I may have done some things wrong but not on this scale. I demand that God come and explain this to me."

And he voices this demand for 38 chapters of the Book of Job, at which point, God appears. And it's a kind of lesson in a certain way, be careful what you wish for, because God appears in a tornado and speaks with enormous beauty and power. It is the first and greatest piece of nature writing in the Western tradition, but it's quite mystifying in many ways to Job. God does not deal at all in the categories that Job has been interested in, justice and so on. Instead, He contents Himself with giving an incredibly moving tour of the physical universe: biologically accurate, sexy, crunchy, powerful. He introduces one animal after another. It is a tour de force of writing. I highly recommend it, especially in the Steven Mitchell translation that North Point Press published about 15 years ago. One of the great pieces of poetry that we have.

But there's something, when you read it, that you'll notice, is very interesting, and that Eleana captured quite beautifully in her reading. And that is that God delivers this entire, long soliloquy. I believe —I hesitate, given the number of scholars in front of me to say this —but I believe it's the longest speech that God gives in the whole Bible, Old Testament or New, the longest soliloquy. It's delivered entirely in this taunting and sarcastic voice. "If you're so smart, Job—you who've been bothering me with these 38 chapters of complaint about things—if you're so smart, tell Me do you know where I keep the winds? Can you whistle up a storm? Do you tell the proud waves 'here you shall break and no further'?" And on and on and on. After a long time of this, Job essentially says, "Sorry I asked" and sits down. He has no real answer. He is in the position that human beings have always been in: very small in relation to God and the universe around us.

The message of the end of Job, from that speech in the whirlwind, seems to be that that is and should be good enough. To be a small part of this vast and cruel and buzzing and mysterious and orderly universe is a great privilege. It is enough, at any rate, for Job.

Unfortunately, we find ourselves, for the first time as human beings, no longer in that same position vis-à-vis God or the physical world. For the very first time, those of us who have been alive these last 20 or 30 years can answer back. We can really spit back right in that taunting God's face. Say, "Look, you say you're so great, you tell the proud waves where to break and no further that's us now."

I've spent my life working on climate change, global warming. I wrote the first book about climate change 22 years ago this year. We knew 22 years ago most of what we needed to know, that when you burned coal and gas and oil you put carbon into the atmosphere and that the molecular structure of carbon traps heat that would otherwise radiate back out to space. The only thing we didn't know 20 years ago was how fast and how hard this was going to pinch. And the story of the last 20 years is that it is pinching a lot harder and a lot faster than we thought. In fact, we can say that in the period of time that the members of the Class of 2011 have been alive, almost exactly in that period of time, we have exited the 10,000 year period that scientists call the Holocene, the period, among other things, of benign climatic stability that underwrote the rise of human civilization, and entered something very different. If you wanted to pick a date, you really could do no worse than right about 1989 or 1990 when you were being born. It was at that time that the earth's atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide past 350 parts per million. We did not know it then but we now know that was really a kind of, maybe the threshold moment for our civilization.

Three years ago, our greatest climatologist, Jim Hanson, a NASA scientist, published a paper that said, and I quote from the abstract, "Any value for carbon in the atmosphere of greater than 350 parts per million is not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted." In your lifetimes, we've gone from 350 to 390 parts per million or slightly more. That's why we're seeing things like we saw in this last year. 2010 was the warmest year for which we have records. Nineteen nations set new all-time temperature records, some of them were quite unbelievable. We were on the phone one day with our crew in Pakistan, and one of them said, "It's hot here today." And I was surprised to hear him say it, because it was June and it's always hot in Pakistan in June, and why would one remark. And he said, "No, it's really hot. We set the new all-time Asia temperature record today. It's 129 degrees." That's hot.

When you have heat like that, remarkable things happen. For the fourth summer in a row, the arctic melted at a rapid, rapid rate. Both the northwest and northeast passages opened last summer, there was a yacht race through territory that people thought even a decade ago no human would ever be able to navigate. You saw the pictures from Russia of the epic heat wave and drought across central Russia. It had never been 100 degrees in Moscow before in 250 years of record keeping. It was above that level day after day in August, and as a result, no only were there great fires, but also the Kremlin became spooked and stopped all grain export to the rest of the world. Now, Russia is the third biggest grain exporter on this planet. That meant that the price of corn and wheat immediately jumped 70-80 percent and it has stuck there ever since as we've seen crop failures across Australia from crazy weather, as we've seen crop failures across Texas, across France and Germany at the moment, place after place. That means, in the simplest terms, that there are a couple of billion of people on this planet tonight eating less than they want to because they can't afford it. The price of that grain has gone that high.

Maybe the most dramatic pictures from last year were those pictures, again from Pakistan, of the mighty and almost biblical flood that came down. There was a stretch up around the Khyber Pass that normally gets three feet of rain in a year. But normal no longer applies. Warm air holds more water vapor than cold. That perhaps the most important physical fact of this century. What it means is that the atmosphere is about 4 percent moister than it was 40 years ago, an incredible change in a basic physical phenomenon. That loads the dice for deluge and downpour and flood. And country after country in the last year has thrown snake eyes. You've seen pictures from Queensland in Australia. We watched the havoc across the Mississippi basin in our own country this year. More spectacular was what happened in Pakistan. They did not get the usual three feet of rain a year up in that region but they got 12 feet of rain in a week at the end of July. And that's why, before August was out, a quarter of that country was submerged. The Red Cross said as recently as a month ago that there were still four million homeless people as a result of that flood across Pakistan.

You understand, then, when I say that we can answer God back in a way that Job couldn't. We can and do whistle up storms, cause the flooding, cause the sea—we think now will rise, if we're very, very vigilant and do all the things we need to do to get off fossil fuel, we think it will only rise two or three feet this century. If we're not, if we continue on the path we're on, the scientists caution us it will be double that and maybe more. Almost unbelievable and very, very, very hard to deal with.

So far human beings have raised the temperature of the whole planet one degree. Climatologists tell us that unless we get off fossil fuel far faster than any government currently intends, that one degree will be four degrees before the century is out. And the agronomists tell us that we can expect grain yields around the world to fall about 10 percent for each degree of increase in temperature that we see. You guys do the math. But the theology is just as compelling. We have inserted ourselves in this drama in a profound, unsettling, and deeply, deeply dangerous way. And our job now is to figure out how to back off.

It is a deeply conservative fight that we are engaged in as we try to deal with climate change. The most conservative fight that one could imagine against the most radical proposition one came imagine. A proposition put forward by the fossil fuel industry, that it is OK to simply alter in powerful ways the composition of the earth's atmosphere and see what happens. That radical plan is one that we need to figure out how to deal with. Some of that dealing is political. That's what I spend much of my time doing and will continue to do. And the moral urgency and witness around that action will only escalate. We'll be doing civil disobedience in Washington this summer as we attempt to slow down things like vast new pipelines out of the tar sands of Canada and big new coal mines on federal lands across Montana and Wyoming. So some of that fight is political.

But some of it, too, is cultural, maybe the deeper part, as in, we need a redefinition of what is important, of what matters. Because the answers that we've given in the last hundred years are precisely the thing that has landed us in the predicament that we now are in.

So let's, since we haven't yet had a reading from the Christian tradition, lets turn to the Gospels for a minute. I'm worried that's always a slightly fraught proposition, in part because our level of biblical literacy has declined somewhat in this country, despite the best efforts of Sunday school teachers across America. A poll conducted by evangelical pollster George Barna found recently, among other things, that 25 percent of the nation labored under the conception that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. So forgive me if I am overstating the obvious as I go on.

A deeper problem is that that same poll found that 80 percent of Christians in this country thought that this phrase was in the Bible, the phrase, "God helps them that help themselves." Eighty percent thought that that aphorism, which in fact comes from Ben Franklin sort of channeling Aesop, that that was in the Bible. Not only is it not in the Bible, it almost falls in the category of what my daughter would call an epic fail. Not only is it not in the Bible, it's the opposite of what's in the Bible.

The Gospels are an interesting teaching document. They're very simple, in many ways, and all of us dimwitted onlookers, playing our role in this Gospel drama of the 12 disciples, who were extremely, by all measures dimwitted themselves, and can never quite remember what it is that's going on, and are forever asking Jesus what it is about. "What are we doing here again? Why?" Time and time again he has to repeat it. The whole point, he keeps saying, is love your God and love your neighbor as yourself. Love your neighbor, love your neighbor, love your neighbor. Over and over and over again, until even the dimmest of the apostles begin to get it beaten through their heads.

Now, let's think about that idea of loving one's neighbor. Clearly, we're not doing a brilliant job of it at the moment. One of the things climate change forces us to grapple with is its moral content. There is an almost perfect inverse linear relationship between how much of this problem you cause and how quickly you're being hurt by it. Your average peasant farmer in Pakistan has contributed exactly nothing to climate change, and yet, there they are, drowned, and fields that have been worked for thousands of years saturated and gone. We're not loving our neighbors, the four percent of us that live in this country and have produced about 40 percent of the global warming gasses currently in the atmosphere. We're drowning our neighbors. We're making their lives extremely difficult, as we create the conditions for the quick and rapid spread of mosquitos around the world, bearing diseases like dengue that have spread like wildfire in the last decade.

Of all of the things that people in this part of the world have thought up to do to other people in the last few centuries, whatever combination of colonialism, imperialism, and racism and everything else, nothing quite matches the undermining the basic physical stability on which people who live close to the margin depend more than anyone else. There is nothing that we do in terms of development aid or anything else that comes close to making up for the trouble that we cause in those ways.

But, that's kind of obvious. Let's think about loving one's neighbor in the ways that we sometimes think about it in our own lives. We tend to think about it in heroic ways, what ways we could go out and demonstrate our enormous love for our neighbors. And that's often very good and appropriate. My guess is they'll be 50 or 100 students who graduate tomorrow who will be headed off to do things like Teach for America and things like that that are noble and powerful incarnations of that spirit, that desire to be of service and of use, that's very good and very useful. But I think that that phrase "love one's neighbor" may have a homelier and even more potent meaning, a more subversive one, if we take it quite literally, to love one's neighbors.

We've been taught in our society an aggressive and powerful individualism for the last 50 or 100 years. I wrote a book 20 years ago, an odd book called The Age of Missing Information. And for it I found what was then the largest cable television service in the world that was in Fairfax, Va., and it had a hundred channels. And I got people there to tape for me everything that came across those hundred channels for 24 hours. So I had 2400 hours worth of videotape, a kind of snapshot of the life of the information age pre-Internet. I took it back home with me to the woods, and I went to Sears and got a recliner and settled in. And for a year, that was my job, was to watch that. If you boiled it all down, the one message the flowed through that coaxial cable all the time, the message that flows through most of the organs of our consumer culture all the time, is that you are the most important thing in the world. You, sitting there on the couch with the remote in our hand, are the heaviest object in the known universe, and all should circulate around you. This Bud's for you, you know?

We've imbibed that message so long and so deep that we've come to confuse it, to think of it as human nature, and whenever anyone proposes any other course of action, we say that it violates human nature. And of course it is part of our nature, that self-absorbed part. But it is not the only part. For most of human history, people have had something else—the tribe, the community, the natural world, God, some amalgam of those things—nearer the center of who they are, and those things could impose certain limits on how they behave. The point of getting rid of all those limits, of being as aggressively individualistic as we have become, is to unleash ourselves for consumption. And we have unleashed ourselves and we have consumed and we begin to see the fruits of that.

But even without looking at climate change, you can see that view of the world reflected even in our landscapes. Think about what we've spent our wealth on. For the last 60 years, since the end of the second world war, the period of the greatest prosperity any country has ever known, we've basically spent that money on the project of building bigger houses farther apart from each other. And having done that, the result is not only environment sadness, the fact that we have to heat and light all those great structures, but that we have to drive between them. Not only the environmental cost, the bigger cost is the social one. Almost mathematically, it makes it inevitable that we have less connection with other people once we've become isolated on our own half acre lot someplace. The average American 50 years ago had twice as many close friends as the average American today. If you had been sitting in that seat 50 years ago, statistically you would have had twice as many people with whom you were close. That is an enormous loss. There are not enough iPods in the world to make up for that kind of loss.

And so this question of loving one's neighbor becomes much more practical. It starts with meeting one's neighbor, knowing one's neighbor, having a neighbor, being a neighbor. It's in that mood that I want you to reflect on your four years at Dartmouth. Old grads, when they come back for reunion time, and you have seen them wandering unsteadily across the quad, they tend to say things like, "These were the best years of my life." What do they mean by that? That do not mean, and here I apologize to the faculty, they do not mean they wish that they could Sociology 101 yet again. Doubtless they enjoyed it, but doubtless it was not the center of their experience. What they mean was those four years are the four years in an American life now when you get to live like most human beings have lived through most of human history, in close physical and emotional proximity to a lot of other people. And sometimes that's a great pain, but mostly it's a great pleasure to always have people around to bounce things off, to do things with. It's one of the reasons why people in college don't spend an immense amount of time thinking about what they're going to buy next, because there's something else and more interesting to be done than buying.

The irony of American higher education is that those four years, the stated purpose of them, is to make sure that you have enough money never to have to live like that again in the course of your life. And if you follow most of your forbearers, that's the choice that you will make, but you do not have to do it. You can begin to figure out ways to build those same kind of strong connections and communities that you've felt here.

Ways in which this is beginning to happen in our culture… Having given you a lot of depressing statistics, I feel the need to give you a few hopeful ones. Look at what's happened in the last 20 years, the time which you've been alive, to the food economy in this nation. We discovered the idea that we like to be getting food from our neighbors. Farmers' markets have been the fastest growing part of our food economy, and it is now reached the point where the USDA said last year that for the first time in 150 years, there were more farms in America instead of fewer. That most deeply embedded American trend had actually bottomed out and reversed. We're beginning to really understand that those connections are so important, not only for ecological reasons. It's obviously better to have a five-mile tomato than a 2000-mile tomato, not only for culinary reasons. I traveled 2000 miles this week, I know how I feel; that's how the tomato feels also.

But most of all because it's a different experience. A pair of sociologists followed shoppers a few years ago, first around the supermarket and then around the farmer's market. You all have been to the supermarket, you know how it works. You walk in, you fall into a light fluorescent trance, you visit the stations of the cross around the outside of the supermarket, that is it. When they followed shoppers around the farmer's market, they had on average 10 times more conversations. Not 10 percent more, 10 times more. The only odd thing, of course, is that we've convinced ourselves we've come up with this brilliant new idea, the farmer's market is chic. And this is how all human beings shopped for food until 70 years ago and how 70 percent of the world still does. Of course we like it, it's who we are. We are social creatures.

But changes like this are still around the edges, not yet big enough to affect things like the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. If we are to affect those things, in the short time physics and chemistry gives us to deal with them, then you will have to move more boldly and more swiftly. You will have to love your neighbors around the world and close to home. And you'll have to have to figure out how to put that into real practice, in politics and in your life, your daily life. Because it is what we do day to day that who determines who we are and not what we hear once in a great while from a pulpit.

To move that boldly and swiftly, is asking a great deal of you. You have been raised, and the reason you have gotten as far as you have is you have been raised, with the notion that individual success is the most important thing that there could be, the thing that will propel you forward, clearly, the thing that got you to Dartmouth in the first place. And so it is hard to tell you to think in some other way as well. I will therefore merely just suggest that there are other ways to measure your success. And I wish you great good luck in finding them. Thank you.

Last Updated: 8/17/12