Below is an excerpt from a speech by Dr. Thomas Cardoza at my graduation from UC San Diego (undergrad) in 2004. I recently thought of all the graduates coming out of universities around this time of the year and searched my computer for the transcript. The content still seems relevant in our world today, 7 years later, so I thought I'd share. Thank you Dr. Cardoza...
...I promised myself, while sitting through graduation speeches elsewhere, that I would do my best to avoid clichés in my speech, as much out of a sense of personal pride as out of pity for you. Nevertheless, graduations lend themselves to some common themes, and it’s hard to avoid them entirely. You are ending one important and formative phase of your lives, and embarking on another. Each of you will take a different and unique trajectory from now on, but all of you will be faced with myriad choices, and if I am going to use this speaking platform to make one last attempt to influence you, and thus the world I will grow old in, I need to talk to you about the choices you will make.
There is an old curse that says, “May you live in interesting times,” and we certainly DO live in interesting times. They are not, to crib a cliché from one of my wife’s favorite Dead White Male Authors, the best of times, nor are they exactly the worst of times. Past generations have faced worse challenges, and I’m sure future generations will face worse as well. Yet we live in a world and in a country that faces numerous and frightening dangers.
We face many challenges, more than I can discuss here, but if I had to choose, I would argue that our biggest are:
1. Fighting a shadowy and ill-defined war to defend freedom without destroying it.
2. Learning to use that dearly bought freedom wisely and responsibly, especially in regards to global warming, resource depletion, issues of inequity and injustice on a national and a global scale, and an alarming increase in species die-off, all of which threaten our very existence, free or not.
Finding solutions to these key issues is the central challenge of the 21st century. Faced with a world that often seems out of control, you may be saying, to quote from my favorite author, ”I wish it need not have happened in my time.” To which I might reply, “So do I. And so do all who live in such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Many of you may be focused on practical short-term issues. You are going forth to find work in one of the toughest job markets in the last century, in the midst of an economic recovery that remains as wobbly as a freshman at Sun God. The very prospect probably recalls to you those infamous last words of Walter Kurtz: “The Horror! The Horror!” To dispel that fear, let me just say this: it will work out. You’re smart, talented, and you have a degree from a very reputable university, not to mention a superb college. The advice my father gave me when I was twelve worked for me, and it will work for you too. He told me, “Do what you love, and the money will follow.” He was right, though he neglected to name a precise dollar figure, which I see now was pretty cagy of him. Nevertheless, I know people who chose careers for the high pay, and I know people who chose careers because they had a passion for them. Guess who’s happier?
Now that we’ve addressed your personal, immediate fears, let’s look at the bigger picture, because this is where it gets scary. I recently read that the key difference between drivers who have many accidents and drivers who have none is in perception. Both groups on the whole do not speed, drink, or use drugs, but the accident-prone drivers stay focused on what is immediately in front of them. They stare at the taillights of the car ahead of them, and they neglect what is coming further ahead. They forget that perception patterns that work for humans’ biological speed of 3 mph are totally inadequate for humans’ technological speed of 70mph. What gets them is not the car straight ahead of them—the perceived danger—but the traffic hazard building 300 yards down the road. When it suddenly imposes itself on them, they are totally surprised, overwhelmed, and often killed. Truly safe drivers, on the other hand, stay focused 8 to 12 seconds down the road from where they are. They scan all around, and are aware of the cars in front, behind, and to either side, but they also see a hazard far ahead, and can compensate before it becomes an emergency. They understand that moving at 3mph, we move 44 feet in 10 seconds, but that at 70 we move over 1000 feet in the same time. Faster motion requires a more forward-looking approach. Please forgive the driving analogy: we are, after all, in Southern California.
I raise this issue because we as a nation, as a species, and as a planet are moving ever faster in a figurative sense. In 1945, one nation possessed nuclear weapons. In 1995, five did. Today, nuclear powers are proliferating so fast that no one can be totally sure, but at a bare minimum, there are nine. At least one, Pakistan, has actively engaged in large-scale sale of nuclear technology, while security around nuclear materials in many other nations, including our own, has been appallingly lax. We have chased nuclear phantoms such as Iraq with amazing determination, while we have steadfastly refused to deal with real nuclear threats such as North Korea and Pakistan. We may be able to get away with this kind of fantasy foreign policy for a long time. We may not. Who wants to find out the hard way?
But the existence of weapons themselves is not the key issue. After all, many of my middle-class neighbors own guns, but I’m not worried that they’ll come over and rob me. No, the people we fear when they are armed are the people who don’t have what we have and who have no chance of obtaining it peacefully: thus we fear that they might take it from us. Let’s review a little basic math. The United States today makes up 5% of the world population, but uses 25% of world energy resources, and 40% of all gasoline. Is this because people in Bangladesh don’t want to drive? Are Somalians content to struggle to obtain energy? Do people in Botswana prefer to drink contaminated water that’s not pumped, filtered, and transported by energy-guzzling equipment? “No thanks,” they might say, “you guys drive around one person per SUV and build huge energy-hungry communities in the desert: we’ll just continue with what we know.” I’m afraid it doesn’t quite work that way.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently put it like this: “we have often noted that the growing disparities between rich and poor increase the potential for violence and war. Poverty and repression breed anger and desperation. Charismatic leaders with easy answers prey on the dispossessed and disaffected, channeling their anger into dangerous and destructive activities. The global community must recognize these facts and do much more to address them. The success of the war on terrorism depends not only on disrupting and destroying terrorist organizations, but also on eradicating the conditions that give rise to terror. We therefore fully support the statement signed by 110 Nobel laureates last December, which reads in part, ‘The only hope for the future lies in cooperative international action, legitimized by democracy...To survive in the world we have transformed, we must learn to think in a new way.’”
Or, to put it more simply, in the words of a large, purple dinosaur, “Sharing is caring.” If we want to stop being afraid of people in the developing world, we need to give them something to feel warm and fuzzy about, and an equal share of wealth and resources might just do the trick. This kind of talk doesn’t go down well here in the First World. Like the young woman in Center 101 who once asked me “are you a communist?” many Americans refuse to see that they are at the very tip of a large and heavy resource and energy pyramid, and that while the view and the fresh air and the freedom in the penthouse may be grand, those crushed at the bottom aren’t looking up and saying, “I Wuv You!” Rather, they are bitter, angry, and filled with a desire to take what they see as their fair share. Helping them will admittedly cost us at least some of our privileged position, but the alternative isn’t hard to imagine: we are living it now. Armed guards in every public place, a continual series of undeclared wars and their attendant costs and brutalization, continual attacks on the individual liberty we hold so dear, and a $450 billion defense budget to maintain, among other things, 10,000 nuclear warheads in the U.S. alone. Uniformed soldiers toting assault rifles in airports used to be a sign that one had arrived in some third-world dictatorship. Now, they are part of daily life in the land of the free. We are rapidly becoming the global equivalent of a gated community: prisoners of our own wealth and privilege, and hostages to fear. How much are we REALLY paying for that 40% of the world gas supply? How much do we REALLY need?
This of course brings us to point #2: learning to use our freedom wisely and responsibly. In Heart of Darkness, Mr. Kurtz went to Africa to liberate and civilize the natives. Faced with absolute power and no accountability, he made himself a god, seized natural resources, slaughtered the natives, and decorated his hut with their heads on pikes. He had, to quote Marlow, “No restraint.” Will we? The days of cheap petroleum are numbered. In fact, if you passed the Chevron station at the bottom of the hill, you might believe they’re already over. We cannot consume our way to energy independence, nor can our system of democratic values survive an endless series of energy wars as the global supply shrinks. We can start to adopt a sane and responsible energy policy today, and we can apply our amazing intellectual and scientific resources to creating a brighter energy future for us and for the world. Conservation and innovation do not mean getting by with less: they mean using our intelligence to restore abundance and balance.
Likewise, the very technology, energy, and wealth-driven global system we have created allows our enemies to reach us in the blink of an eye, from anywhere in the world. The tools of our own consumer society, from boxcutters to 747s, can be used as deadly weapons against us. We can surround ourselves with armed guards, we can build more and more fences, and we can preemptively invade country after country that we think might be a threat. We can kill enemies one, or a dozen, or a hundred at a time, but none of these will make us safe. Our very methods inflame new hatreds, and do absolutely nothing to address the underlying inequalities that made us unsafe in the first place. A well-known self-help group says, “The definition of insanity is repeating the same behavior and expecting different results.” We might pause to consider the meaning of that definition in our societal policies as well as our personal lives.
I say personal lives because each of us, in our own way, helps define the larger norms of society though our choices and actions. As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in his classic 1946 work, Existentialism, “when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.” Sartre, imprisoned for resisting the Nazis, posited that the collective identity of humanity was determined by the cumulative choices of each of us: in other words, our identity as a species is the sum of what each of us is as an individual. “Thus,” Sartre wrote, “our responsibility is much greater than we might have supposed because it involves all mankind…We are alone, with no excuses.”
And that does impose a tremendous responsibility on us, one that doesn’t go away when the caps and gowns come off and the pretentious echoes of the graduation speaker’s voice have died away. In each small choice that we make, we create an example that helps others decide what is acceptable. Humans are social animals, so the choices we make define incrementally the acceptable social norms, which is why many people are so threatened by any signs of nonconformity: if left unchecked it might redefine conformity itself.
So, you see, your choices, even the little ones, will profoundly affect the future. Will you drive a hybrid or a Hummer? Will you wear New Balance, or Nikes? Will you defend the principles of the United States Constitution, or will you turn a blind eye as others lose their rights? Will you work for a just society, or see how much wealth you can accumulate for yourself? Each of us has a responsibility, as Sartre suggested, to create a better world by our examples. You are one of the most amazing groups of people I have ever worked with. You are intelligent, ambitious in the best sense of the word, and lucky enough to be aware of your place in the world. But that isn’t enough. As we’ve seen in our studies throughout MMW, brilliance and talent can do tremendous good, but they can also do appalling evil, often in the name of “freedom and civilization,” and usually in pursuit of cheap raw materials and labor in far away lands.
There is a third route too: that of paralysis and inactivity. Perhaps the worst danger is that we will forget who and what we are and aspire to be, as we are overcome with fear to the point that we give up the very values we are trying to defend, in order to protect them. Just as dangerous would be inaction, as we fear to do anything. Both these courses have vocal advocates, yet either would be fatal. Charting a reasonable middle course will be the responsibility of all of us, but as the fresh new generation, you will have a special responsibility.
The ultimate impact of your particular brilliance and talent will depend on the choices you make, and it is those choices that will be the crucial ingredient. Your extraordinary abilities are already in place: now you have an existential choice on what you do with them. To quote one of my children’s favorite authors, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
Your choices will define who you are, so think carefully about who you want to be, and what kind of world you want to live in. Make yourself the best you can be, as an individual, yes, but also as a member of this rapidly shrinking planet of ours. I say this partly out of selfishness: the choices you make will define the world I grow old and die in, and as you know, I have some rather particular ideas about how I’d like it to be. But I also sincerely believe that a radically more just, equitable, and sustainable world is not only the best course, it is the only sane and livable course for humanity. There you have it: a mission. Go out there, define your choices, define yourselves, and define a new and better Modern World.
Congratulations, and Good Luck!
Dr. Thomas Cardoza 2004