Isolation and Efficiency

I have made two valuable discoveries to-day. The first is that if you want to know what wisdom respected leaders in our society would like to share, a commencement speech is an excellent place to start. These are secular sermons, often about temptation, sin, and salvation, given by important leaders, to a captive audience, from a bully pulpit.

They are very interesting, not the least because of the insights they provide into our culture, our economy, and into the thinking of these leaders.

There seems to be a pattern, beyond the required courtesies of the occasion, which are easy to skim over or skip altogether:

1) Identify a major concern and include anecdotal, historic, or statistical evidence of its importance.

2) Identify the ethical or moral issues, the behavioural issues that are driving this situation.

3) Identify the qualities of mind and character that can be helpful in solving the problem, the business, scientific, or technological strategies that may be employed.

4) Reassure the graduates that they have the skills, the courage, the opportunity, and the responsibility to effect necessary changes.

5) Rally them to the task with encouragement and more congratulations!

The second lesson is that if a really fine author has written a clear and coherent argument, using all her intelligence, charm, and powers of persuasion, it is both futile and disrespectful to try to precis it. I plead guilty on both counts. These are just teasers… read the whole speech! Kingsolver’s remarks deserve our greatest attention!

Vancouver traffic jam

The remarks by Barbara Kingsolver (click here)  were prepared for delivery at Duke’s 2008 commencement ceremony. Barbara Kingsolver is a novelist, essayist, non-fiction and short-story writer. The speech closes with a wonderful poem about Hope!

Here is a very slight glimpse of what she has to say.

The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides.

We’re a world at war, ravaged by disagreements, a bizarrely globalized people in which the extravagant excesses of one culture wash up as famine or flood on the shores of another  …. It’s an emergency on a scale we’ve never known. We’ve responded by following the rules we know: Efficiency, Isolation. We can’t slow down our productivity and consumption, that’s unthinkable. Can’t we just go home and put a really big lock on the door?

Now we can either shift away from a carbon-based economy, or find another place to live. Imagine it: we raised you on a lie… We gave you this world and promised you could keep it running on: a fossil substance. Dinosaur slime, and it’s running out.

….That will be central question of your adult life: to escape the wild rumpus of carbon-fuel dependency, in the nick of time. You’ll make rules that were previously unthinkable, imposing limits on what we can use and possess. You will radically reconsider the power relationship between humans and our habitat. 

 ….Is anyone thinking this through? In the awful moment when someone demands at gunpoint, “Your money or your life,” that’s not supposed to be a hard question.

…The future is here. We’re examining the moralities of possession, inventing renewable technologies, recovering sustainable food systems. We’re even warming up to the idea that the wealthy nations will have to help the poorer ones, for the sake of a reconstructed world.

…The arc of history is longer than human vision. It bends. We abolished slavery, we granted universal suffrage. We have done hard things before. And every time it took a terrible fight between people who could not imagine changing the rules, and those who said, “We already did. We have made the world new.” The hardest part will be to convince yourself of the possibilities, and hang on…you, who were born into the Age of Irony. Imagine getting caught with your Optimism hanging out. It feels so risky.

Barbara Kingsolver is an amazing author.  I think I have read just about all of her books. The Lacuna, and The Poisonwood Bible are my favourites. If you have not read them, put them on your summer list. Do not be deterred by their length. When you finish you will wish that the book had been longer. Because Kinsolver not only entertains with powerful narrative and interesting characters, her books contain so much interesting information and such challenging ideas, that you will know it has been time well spent.


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