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Cleaning up a Global Mess: Hope from the "Commitments Commencement" at Dickinson College

Jacob Scherr

Posted May 20, 2014 in Living Sustainably, Solving Global Warming

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Last Sunday at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, Madeleine Albright was blunt in her assessment of our generation’s legacy to the class of 2014: Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Dickinson Commencement Albright.jpg

What I’m saying, dear Graduate, is that the world is a mess. I’m sorry, but it’s true.

And now, it falls to your generation to solve the problems my generation is leaving behind.  

In her commencement address, the former Secretary of State spoke about mega-trends — globalization and information technology — that have transformed the world and overwhelmed existing international institutions.  National governments are failing to cooperate collectively to confront 21st century challenges such as climate change, diseases, and terror.  Albright said:

Today, instead of harnessing the winds of change, it often seems those winds of change are driving us.

Our leaders are groping and grasping for ways to secure prosperity, progress, and peace… in a world that is spinning so rapidly we are struggling to keep our footing.

So we need smart, capable young people such as you to get things back on track… to help us make the most of the new reality we inhabit.

It is going to be up to young people to fix our broken political and economic systems, but the Secretary warned that it would take more than “tweets” and “apps” to create a better world.  They will have to engage in politics, business, and society to make change happen. 

I chuckled when Albright said that she had to been to so many graduation ceremonies, that it was “ok” to daydream at points.  Her remarks did set me thinking again about my own work — not atypical for a Washingtonian!  On a beautiful Sunday morning, I did not expect to get supportive arguments from a former Secretary of State for our Cloud of Commitments Initiative to create a new global architecture to drive transformative action.  It also triggered thoughts about the deeper question of what we as parents  like many at the commencement who have worked so hard to educate their children   can still do to fulfill the commitment we should also have to leave them a livable planet?

This was my third visit to the campus since I was invited to join the Selection Committee for the Sam Rose ’58 and Julie Walters Prize at Dickinson College for Global Environmental Activism.  The $100,000 prize was established in 2012 in honor of John H. Adams, co-founder of NRDC, for his lifetime of commitment to defend the environment.  The first two prizes were awarded to environmental defenders Bill McKibben and Lisa Jackson.

This year’s Prize winner is James Balog — conservation photographer, visual artist, writer, and speaker.  Jim has succeeded in making global warming visible and accessible by documenting the rapid retreat of glaciers in the wilderness of Greenland, Iceland, and Alaska.  His images ofThumbnail image for Dickinson Commencement Balog.jpg ice are otherworldly and beautiful.  They are compelling evidence that a major change is underway on Earth. You can experience Jim’s quest to create the Extreme Ice Survey through the captivating documentary film, Chasing Ice.   

 In his brief remarks at the commencement, Jim talked about his own doubts about whether he could mount the survey that involved building, deploying, maintaining for years cameras in some of the most remote and inhospitable places on the planet.  He reminded the graduates that no commitment of any consequence is achieved without overcoming uncertainty and difficulty. (The photo above is of Jim (center) about to receive congratulations from Dickinson College President Nancy Roseman and with John Adams.) 

Both Albright and Balog were very well received by the members of the Class of 2014, more than 20% of whom had made a voluntary “Graduation Pledge: Dickinson Alumni’s Commitment to Sustainability.” They promised to apply what they had learned at Dickinson about sustainability practices and values in their future organizations and communities. While the 583 grads’ names were being read out as each one descended the ceremonial steps of Old West to receive their diplomas, I confess I did spend some time thinking about how these pledges related to the global challenges posed by Albright and Balog. 

First, I was struck at how internationally-engaged the seniors were.  Many pinned to the sleeves of their gowns flag patches from the countries where they had grown up or studied at while attending Dickinson.  Many of these young people are already “global citizens” and with their connections could be among the new leaders harnessing new technologies to drive change worldwide.

Second, while we often look only to Presidents and Prime Ministers when we think of dealing with big issues, just as important are these pledges made by the Dickinson grads — and by millions of other young people —  to seek to improve social and environmental conditions where they work and live.   Lasting change occurs at the local level, and it starts with “islands of sustainability” like Dickinson College and hundreds of other colleges and universities around the world.    

After what was to me a “Commitments Commencement,” I have new hope that we can, pushed and led by a new generation, drive the changes we need to address climate change and secure a more sustainable future

Thanks to Carl Sander Socolow, College Photographer, for use of his images here. 

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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