My speech for Sustainability Week

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak at the Sustainability Week kickoff event at the Inn on Monday. Here’s the speech that followed President Steger, Mayor Rordam, Sustainable Blacksburg’s Pat Bixler. (Remember, Sustainability Forum is Thursday, October 15th at 5:00 in Commonwealth Ballroom.)

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children,” says a Native American proverb.

Besides the earth, is there anything else we actually borrow? We live in a throwaway society and I can’t see my child wanting my rubber duck from Walmart, which will cost be more to store, than to buy another one again, in ten years. In fact, the packaging alone for the duck is part of the 1,242 pounds that the average American disposes of each year, which is up tenfold in the last 100 years. If we were to keep something like the rubber duck, it would be for sentimental value, because those emotional associations are worth more than any monetary value.

The emotional associations are worth more than the monetary value? How can the $1.99 duck have more sentimental value than the planet where I live?

I spend most days staring down at my iPhone typing an e-mail, losing all visibility of where I am and where I am going. I feel my rubber-soled shoes hit the pavement for the hundredth time of the day, losing all feeling of connectedness with the earth below me. I am reaching for my ham and cheese sandwich in my backpack, the one I think came from Kroger, but really contains meat and cheese that originated thousands of miles away. My point: We’ve lost all connection to what we do and how we do it. We are on this Earth for such a short period of time and we aren’t living in the present with the goal of protecting the future.

Do you desire to positively change the world and leave a legacy? Most of us do, but why aren’t we doing it right now? Maybe it’s because this concept of “changing the world” is perceived as so grandiose that it must be impossible.

Let us break down this abstract concept with the infinite amount of time it would take to do it, into a concrete and finite piece of time. If we break down that phrase from an insurmountable task into tiny little pieces, like the time it takes to change the world, it becomes much more realistic. The way I see it, every action, every second of the day, is an opportunity to change the world.

And during this Sustainability Week, you have opportunities, at just about every hour, to not only learn, but to actively participate in the process. The Open Forum: Campus Sustainability Progress Report is Thursday, Oct. 15 at 5 p.m. in the Commonwealth Ballroom. I urge each of you to find your voice and help us make this school the best it can be.
This is an exciting time at Virginia Tech because each one of you plays an essential role in that process. College isn’t just about sitting in a classroom, but rather tackling real world issues. Yesterday, I was on the Mall in Washington, D.C., staring at the Lumenhaus, Tech’s Solar House entry in the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon contest. It is one of the many examples where Tech students are solving real world problems. This week is about raising awareness, but it’s up to each of you to be aware and conscious in every decision you make here at Tech, so we can solve our problems as well. So take the little actions: Turn off your lights, choose the more eco-friendly product, and you will be part of the change.

Many of us will leave Tech and Blacksburg someday. While we will leave behind the orange and maroon leaves of an autumn tree, the all too familiar Blacksburg rain, and the clearest view to the summer stars, we will not leave a negative impact. Each one of you is here today, because you understand that this moment in time is your moment to be one of the many maroon and orange leaves on a tree, a single rain drop from a spring shower, or the North Star among constellations. When we all contribute our individual actions they add up to a massive, collective effort.

We have all heard the phrase, “Think globally, act locally.” Local leaders like Mayor Ron Rordam and the 1,000 other mayors across the country who have signed the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, have come to see that our individual and collective actions at the community level are both powerful and positive. Tech is also a community like the town of Blacksburg where we can do more to promote sustainability. President Charles Steger signed into action a personalized sustainability plan, known as the Virginia Tech Climate Action Commitment, to lead our school and Hokie community for a better future.

Each one of us has an impact like a leaf, a rain drop and a star, and just like those elements of nature, our consequence becomes visible when we look at the big picture: the whole tree, a torrential down pour, or the cluster of stars. This team is among you today, with our occupations, educational background and values aside, each one of us has the exact same opportunity to leave an impact. But why aim for “no impact” when we can all leave a positive one?

I have never been so honored to be part of such a special team of students, administrators and staff, faculty members, elected officials, nonprofit leaders and citizens, because together, this team can raise our ecological intelligence and invent the right future.

A few weeks prior, I was asked to give a speech at a Sustainability Rally. Below is that speech, which was geared towards a student audience. In addition, some of these words are not mine, but rather the best of the best in their respective fields.

Sustainability Rally Speech

When I was asked to give this speech, I immediately started running in the opposite direction. It wasn’t because I saw a University of Virginia student approaching or a gas-guzzling SUV about to hit me. It’s because I knew I didn’t have the words of wisdom, the words full of passion, and motivational enough to change the behavior of those around me. But as I reflected, I realized it takes more than one person’s words to make change. In fact, it takes more than just words to make change, it takes a commitment and a series of actions from all of those around us to really change the world. Since it takes each of us to do our part for a greener world, each part of my speech will be the words of others. The words of this speech are a combination of a Native American proverb, SGA President Brandon Carroll’s remarks, Environmental Activist Paul Hawken’s Commencement address, and my personal reflection.

Last Friday, Lyndsay from the Environmental Coalition gave me a ring on my cell phone, “Hey Shane, I need you to give a speech on sustainability, but we need passionate, direct, electrifying, unique, and basically all-around amazing.” No Pressure.  Well, here is my attempt at what seems to be the impossible.

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children,” says a Native American Proverb.

To borrow means — to receive with the implied or expressed intention of returning the same or an equivalent.  Interestingly, it also means to return the same with interest. I think we can all agree that

Besides the earth, is there anything else we actually borrow? We live in a throwaway society and I can’t see my child wanting my rubber ducky from Walmart, which will cost be more to store than to buy another one in ten years anyway. In fact, the packaging alone for the duck is one of the 1,242 pounds the average American disposes of each year, which is up ten fold in this century. I guess we keep something like the rubber duck for sentimental value. You know, because its emotional associations are worth more than the monetary value. Hum, emotional associations are worth more than the monetary value? And you wonder why I don’t think the duck has sentimental value, because the earth, has lost its sentimental value as well. Where has our emotional connection or any connection for that matter to the earth gone? You see me walking across campus, but let me tell you what my experience has become. I am staring down at my iphone typing an email, losing all visibility of where I am and where I am going. I feel my rubber-soled shoes hit the pavement for the thousandth time of the day, losing all feeling of connectedness with the earth below me. I am reaching for my sandwich in my backpack, the one that I think came from home, but really has meat from thousands of miles away and bread so processed we might as well call it WONDERfully stale bread. My point: we’ve lost all connection to what we do and how we do it. We are on this earth for such a short period of time and yet, we aren’t living in the present to protect it.

The arctic is melting, sea levels are rising rapidly, hurricanes, droughts, and flooding are the norm, and the greenhouse effect is amplified.

I started to think about the future. I am forty years old and still alone. Yeah, I am still speed dating, because my fast-paced career means more to me than my personal relationships anyway. After a few conversations and constant failure with these women, I bring out the line. “How much does a polar bear weigh?” Enough to break the ice, I respond. It seemed like the best of both worlds: a pick up line and an ice breaker, but she gives me a look of disappointment, because I am just as lame as she had expected. I thought to an even more distant future when I get to share this pickup line with my son and then it hit me. I realized he would express the same look of disappointment as the speed dater, but not because it’s a terrible line, but because he doesn’t know what a polar bear is. His only knowledge comes from pictures on the internet, old coca cola advertisements, and our annual trip to the Smithsonian. Let’s not simplify this to the loss of a pick up line, or even an animal, because in reality, we are losing much more; we are losing our world.

Each of you is going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating.  Kind of a mind-boggling situation – but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that statement.

Basically, the earth needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.

This planet came with a set of operating instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them.  Important rules like — don’t poison the water, soil, or air, and don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat — have all been broken.  Buckminster Fuller said that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no need for safety belts, lots of room in coach, and really good food – but all that is changing.

When you leave Virginia Tech, you will find that there is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: YOU ARE BRILLIANT, AND THE EARTH IS HIRING.

The earth couldn’t afford to send any recruiters or limos to your school.  It sent you rain, sunsets, orange and maroon leaves, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating.  Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.

When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data.  But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. You see, your joining a multitude of caring people.  But, caring isn’t enough, we need to actively care. Actively requires an action; we have to do something to show that we care. No one knows how many groups and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day:  climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more.  This is the largest movement the world has ever seen.

Rather than control, it seeks connection.  Rather than dominance, it strives to disperse concentrations of power.  Like many of you, it works behind the scenes and gets the job done.  Large as it is, no one knows the true size of this movement. It provides hope, support, and meaning to billions of people in the world.  Its clout resides in idea, not in force. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants, businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government workers, fisherfolk, engineers, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without borders, street musicians, the President of the United States of America, the citizens of Blacksburg, and the students of Virginia Tech.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years.  No one would sleep that night, of course.  The world would become religious overnight.  We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead the stars come out every night, and we watch television.

This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years.  Each of us is as complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe.  We have done great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring creation.  Your opportunity lies in the most amazing, challenging, stupefying challenge ever bequested to any generation.  The generations before you failed.  They didn’t stay up all night.  They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side.  You couldn’t ask for a better boss.  The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer.  Hopefulness only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful.

“We are the world” was sung by some of the best prominent musicians in 1985 to help those in Africa, but don’t the same words apply to sustainability now?

We are the world

We are the children

We are the ones who make a brighter day

So let’s start giving

There’s a choice we’re making

We’re saving our own lives

It’s true we’ll make a better day

Just you and me

I hope you took something away from these words and if you didn’t then at the very least you can go around campus tomorrow and spread the word that the SGA Vice President is going to be single and alone at forty years old. For those of you that picked up on a few things, but want the sparknotes version, here they are:

The earth’s on a timer and unlike the show 24, there isn’t one person who can do it all. It’s going to take each of you, your talents, knowledge, and your passion to save the world.

I want to thank the Town of Blacksburg for their leadership on sustainability.

As a leading institute in research and technology, Virginia Tech students are leading the way in sustainability. Last spring the Virginia Tech President’s Climate Action Commitment was signed into University policy by President Steger. This year your new Student Government has made sustainability a major platform after hearing feedback from the SGA4you campaign. It is obvious that fighting against climate change has become a priority and source of new energy as Hokies strive to invent the right future. With the Senate to consider comprehensive cap and trade climate legislation this fall, I encourage students to take part and take action in as much of the conversation as possible. The international climate negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark this December will determine if humanity really will make a serious commitment to preserving our planet for future generations, for our kids. As part of Hokie nation, we are all part of this picture and can help America lead the way in curbing the worst effects of global warming that are upon us. We need this clean energy bill and we need it now.

My speech started with me telling you about my intention to take the easy way out and run in the opposite direction. But, we can no longer run in circles around the world and around this problem.

This is your century.  Take ownership and run in the right direction as if your life depends on it, because it might. My question to each of you: “which direction will you choose to go?”

~ by shanemccarty on January 24, 2010.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: