The University of Arizona

Alan Weisman 2009 UA Spring Commencement Speech

By Alan Weisman, May 27, 2009

Alan Weisman
Alan Weisman
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University of Arizona Graduate Commencement Speech, delivered May 15, 2009

Copyright © 2009 by Alan Weisman

I come to this university each spring to teach an international journalism course, which every year takes student reporters to a different foreign country. We do this because in a globalized world, it's critical that we learn to observe and function outside our own borders, and also because what's going on outside our borders affects our lives within them - more than ever before.  Because I have a joint  appointment by the School of Journalism and the Center for Latin American Studies, the prerequisite for this class is Spanish fluency - in case anyone hasn't noticed, the days in which we North Americans think we can make friends and influence people on this planet by forcing them literally to speak our language, are over.  That's not to suggest that the importance of English in this world is endangered - hardly.  But even though others have learned to do business and science in it, they still do their thinking in their own languages, which reflect their own cultures.

To fully understand the people with whom we're going to have to deal in order to hold this planet together in the coming decades, we're going to have to meet them on their own level - which means learning to hear how they perceive the world in Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Russian, and Farsi, among many others.

And because - as ecologists have been telling us for decades - everything on this planet is linked to everything else, we also have to do a better job at listening to each other.  In this arena tonight are newly-minted specialists in dozens of fields. One of my great joys here is that my class has been open to applicants from anywhere in the university, regardless of discipline.  As a result, students have learned as much, or more, from each other's different perspectives than they've learned from me - and my non-journalism students have learned the value of being able to convey their specialized expertise in language all the rest of us can grasp.  In these complex times, in which we're inextricably tangled with one another - and where the planet's fate is everyone's - we need to be able both to hear and to make ourselves understood.

Having learned so much myself in my classes from graduate students from many parts of this university, I'm honored to get to speak to you tonight. 

Last June, I received an invitation to Hong Kong to address an annual fall conference of a London-based global commercial real estate investment firm. I should explain that, in this case, by real estate we're talking the kinds of architectural wonders that have transfigured Shanghai's skyline, or the dazzling towers that glitter above Dubai or Hong Kong itself, or the ones on various continents that compete to be the tallest building in the world.  I would be speaking at a dinner for the firm's investment clients - who were not individuals, but giant insurance companies, endowments, and pension funds.  My audience, I was told, would represent more than one third of the equity capital in the world.

They had asked me to talk about what the future might hold for the environment - which meant, I gathered, what changes and developments did I foresee that might impact their earnings?  

They'd invited me because my recent book, The World Without Us, had become an international bestseller and was now in 32 languages - which I gather is the same reason I was invited here tonight.  For those of you who haven't read it, I'll briefly explain that The World Without Us grew from having spent too much of my last two decades covering environmental disasters: from the invisible hole hanging over Antarctica, to the fires and chain saws bringing down Connecticut-sized chunks of the Amazon; or to the catastrophe at Chernobyl, which defiled my father's Ukrainian homeland. In those places and many others, I had come to understand that these tragedies were not discrete events, but all connected.  I decided that I had to write something that brought together all that I'd witnessed to describe those connections - but I refused to write yet one more environmental book that only environmentalists would read. The problem, of course, is that the notion of a global ecological crisis is just too depressing or too downright scary for most people, who would prefer spending precious leisure time doing anything other than curling up with some book that warns that if we don't change our ways, and fast, we and everything else might die.

At the suggestion of an editor, who'd seen something in one of my own writings that had completely escaped me, I finally came up with a disarming approach, which involves simply killing everyone off right at the beginning so we don't have to worry about that anymore - and which, I'm grateful to say, has managed to seduce several million people who normally might be watching TV to actually read and think about this.

The book has crossed not only international borders but also boundaries within our own land. I'm especially grateful that it's been warmly received by the business press, and featured on everything from Catholic and Southern Baptist radio programs to Jewish and Buddhist publications. I've been not only on progressive NPR programs, and yes, The Daily Show, but also on some conservative AM radio talk shows.  What the latter like about it is that, to quote one host: "This guy doesn't try to make you feel guilty, or preach to you about the environment.  He just takes you to interesting places and shows you interesting facts, and lets you decide for yourself."

Which, of course, is what we journalists are supposed to do.  But more than one of those guys has added that, had they known that I was going to bring up a certain fact that I raise at the end of the book, they would've never read it.  "Except," as one told me, "given everything comes before, it's just obvious. You had no choice."

He's right - in fact, it was something I'd never intended when I began the book, but the research unavoidably led to it. That fact, which kind of drops like a bomb near the end of the book, a bomb which I was planning to detonate again at this Hong Kong talk, is that about every four days, there are a million more people on the planet.

Plainly, that is not a sustainable figure.  In 1900, there were 1.8 billion people on earth.  During the twentieth century, the population doubled, and nearly doubled again.  Today we're at 6.7 billion, and by 2050 - just 41 years away - we're projected to be at least 9.2 billion. In order for there to be that many people on earth, we have to feed them - which means scraping away more of the tropics every year to turn forests into cropland, thus depriving all kinds of species of their habitats, especially migratory species who need places to rest and feed themselves as they pass between the hemispheres.  Have you noticed that there are fewer songbirds around each year?  Fewer pollinators? 

Growing enough stuff to nourish this many humans also means force-feeding laboratory-bred, high-yield crops with energy intensive chemicals made from fossil fuel.  And, because these new breeds didn't evolve in nature and lack defenses to survive out in the fields by themselves, we protect them with more chemicals: poisons that, in theory, supposedly only kill insects, selective weeds, and various fungi.

Lately, of course, all this is coming back to bite us, hard.  Oh, and have I mentioned the water all this requires?  Here in the west, four-fifths of the water goes to agriculture, though cities and their golf courses covered with a non-nutritious crop called grass do add up. And now, with climate change upon us, there's not as much water to spread around.  Last year I wrote a piece for Vanity Fair noting that dwindling rainfall and snowpack in the Rockies mean there's now a better than even chance that by 2017 levels in Lake Mead will no longer reach the Hoover Dam turbines - and within five years of that, the lake will be essentially gone.  I asked the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority what our then-fastest growing city, Las Vegas, will do when 25 million downstream users in California demand the little remaining water trapped behind Hoover Dam's lower sections.  Knowing full well that Vegas lacks the clout of Los Angeles, she described a scenario in which Nevada would try to take Denver's Colorado River allotment, because Denver, in turn, could take Nebraska and Kansas's share of the Platte River, because those states could recharge their depleted Ogallala Aquifer by siphoning water from the Mississippi, and so on ever eastward. 

It should come as no shock that this grand stair-step scheme is already doomed, if not from astronomically prohibitive engineering costs, then by the fact that Great Lakes states have already passed laws forbidding any other drainage basin from trying to stick straws into Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, et cetera.

So I was prepared to bring what I figured to be a startling message to the people in Hong Kong: namely that the notion of measuring economic health by one criterion above all - namely, growth - was over.  While population and its demands had nearly quadrupled in a century, we still only had one planet, and it hadn't gotten any bigger.  For the first time in human history, we'd have to learn to live within our means - or else.

Except, how do you tell that to a group of über-capitalists?  Capitalism is a terrifically creative process that has given our civilizations incredible marvels, but it's also assumed as a self-evident truth that the definition of a robust economy is growth.  In fact, at the first world population conference, in 1984 in Mexico City - then, the biggest city in the world, but today merely one of eight over with over 20 million, in a world where, for the first time in history, most humans live in cities, and most pretty poorly - at that population meeting the richest country on earth, the United States, opposed birth control programs - partly because of abortion, but also because, our representative said, the more people on the planet, the more consumers for US products.  How could I tell that audience in Hong Kong, whose great wealth depended on continued annual growth, that, with no more room to grow and no more places to throw away the waste products of our dynamic economies, especially carbon dioxide, that our only chance for a liveable future meant redefining the idea of prosperity as not depending on growth, but on finding an optimum sustainable level of production that would allow us to constantly recycle used material and waste products - and on maintaining a stable optimum population that wouldn't overwhelm everything else?

 Every species in  the history of biology that ever outgrew its resource base has suffered a population crash.  The wildlife biologists graduating today know that today their field often encompasses what years ago would have seemed an oxymoron: wildlife management, in which stewards manage wildlife populations so they don't outstrip resources in national parks, in hopes of maintaining a sustainable balance between prey and predator.  To apply such concepts to the human race strikes us as terrifying on multiple levels - cultural, moral, religious, and demographic - yet history shows us that to ignore what's obvious is never a good idea.  Thus far, only China has attempted to manage its population, and the results, while effective, have been sobering, and have alerted us to unintended pitfalls that any such attempt might encounter, such as tragic discrimination against female infants.

It turns out, though, that if we do conclude that we have to manage our numbers because all the Earth is now a parkland that needs careful stewardship, more humane alternatives already exist.  The best one is exemplified by Italy, a country that doesn't readily leap to mind when we think of population control.  Yet Catholic Italy's population growth rate vies with Catholic Spain's for the lowest on the planet, simply because they educate their women.  Italy has one of, if not the highest per capita number  of female Ph.D.s.  An educated woman defers her child-bearing until her studies are through, and then doesn't have so many kids that she can't exercise the interesting and useful profession she's trained for. 

Programs to educate girls in some provinces of India and even Afghanistan are proving that this works in poor countries, too - families there are reproducing at far lower rates than in neighboring Pakistan, a country with one of the fastest growing populations on earth - a fact with some frightening implications that I'm sure you don't need me to explain.  But I'll repeat: one of the most powerful tools we have to bring ourselves into a sustainable balance with the rest of nature is one of the most logical, humane, and just: educate our women. My congratulations and thanks to the women graduating tonight, doing their part to solve the future.

It also turned out that I didn't need to convince my elite audience in Hong Kong that the days of imagining that growth was unlimited were over, after all.  Because between the time they'd invited me and the October night when I spoke to them, they'd learned for themselves that the fantasy of perpetual growth depended, like a chain letter, or a Ponzi scheme, on new people always feeding into the system.  At a certain point, our reach had outstripped our eco-nomic-system's resources, so to keep the party going we invented imaginary resources based on virtual wealth such as derivatives so byzantine they could conceal the fact that they were baseless, and mortgages that pretended that someone who couldn't afford one would somehow be able to do so in ten years - and at ballooned rates, to boot.  All these lofty financiers had just been slammed back to earth - to the only earth we have, with its wonderful, but physically limited bounty - by a great big economic reality check. 

In fact, the notion of prosperity without growth was suddenly very appealing to them.  What they wanted to know, however, was exactly what you graduates, who have just landed on a planet where you have to both make a living and a contribution to your society, and to your selves, are wondering.  How do we do that? In the short time I had with them, I gave them a couple of ideas.

First, since they're in the big expensive building business, I said, one way to save both money and the ecosystem was to build buildings that produce as well as consume energy.  We don't yet know how to concentrate enough solar energy to run all our industries and our transportation systems, but we do know how to make ever-more-efficient, and even attractive, photovoltaic films that could be slathered all over the roofs and faces of every building to take advantage of the free sunlight that made life on earth possible in the first place.  At first glance, that sounds expensive, but mass-producing the stuff to cover lots of skyscrapers will start to bring down costs quickly.  And, they wouldn't necessarily have to pay for it. Utility companies, who generally hate the idea of solar panels making electricity on rooftops, because it cuts into their profitable centralized control over power, could be brought in as partners - in effect, to design, own, and operate a clean, on-site power plant.  In exchange for their investment, let the utility charge for the solar electricity, and for maintenance.  That means the rest of us don't have to pay up front for expensive solar stuff that takes years to amortize, or master how to keep it working.  We're paying utilities every month for electricity anyway, so let's pay them to do the solar and at the same time save tons more of CO2 from going up chimneys.

The other thing I told them, and I now tell you graduates, especially those of you in business, economics, engineering and the applied sciences, agriculture and medicine included, is that from here on the way to prosperity will be harnessing your ingenuity, and capitalizing your creativity to meet the exciting challenge of how to do what we want to do in such a way that it mimics nature, which turns every waste product into something useful, over and over again.  Think of this economic crash that we've just sustained as a godsend of an opportunity to design and sell new systems, tools, dwellings, and services that will never again be based on reality-defying notions that come crashing down on us.  Compare notes and knowledge with our graduates in the natural and environmental sciences, and aim for a world in which everything we humans do lets us live in balance and harmony with the rest of nature, not in mortal combat with it.  Bring our footprint down to size, so we're not stomping other species out of existence, or pushing them off the planet - lest suddenly we find that we've pushed off one thing too many: something we didn't realize how much we depended on, until it was too late.

To you graduates in the social and political sciences, in religion and philosophy:  Help us understand that human nature is exactly that: both human and nature.  That to live together ethically, we have to live as nature created us.  Whether the hand of God or sheer random selection was behind that, the outcome is the same, with natural limitations, but with endless great opportunities to get it right.

And for those of you in the humanities, you literature and music, fine arts and performance majors:  As I've often told my wife, theatrical artist and sculptor Beckie Kravetz, whose work graces this campus's new Lowell Memorial Plaza - and, someone who at times wonders if doing things like opera, theater, and bronze sculpture isn't a frivolous luxury in an era of worldwide economic and ecological crises -

 what I've told her is that I could no sooner live in a world without poetry, music or art than in a world without trees.  In the challenging years to come, we'll need all the beauty, illumination, inspiration, and sometimes just sheer joyous entertainment as we can get.  Just as our souls lift when birdsong fills the trees, or when the desert blooms, our world would be empty and lifeless without you. 

We humans pride ourselves on being a species set apart from others because we can foresee the consequences of our actions.  Though I'm not necessarily convinced that we're the only ones who do that, I know it's true that we can.  I also know that now is the time to take that gift of foresight and apply it, as never before. You graduates have been blessed to grow up, and grow educated, in an unprecedented Age of Information.  What we need now is for you to take all that knowledge and raise it up to a new level: to transform the Information Age into an Age of Wisdom. 

Do that, and I believe that we and our beloved Earth will be all right.

Thank you.

Contacts

Alan Weisman

520-626-6407

weisman@u.arizona.edu