Broadly, the topics that interest me are water, wellness and wildlife -- with a healthy dose of wonder in the mix.
Specifically, I'm interested in learning about how others are creating common knowledge and changing conversations - and the world - for good.
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You Are Lovers And Fighters
DePauw University Commencement Address
Wallace J. Nichols
23 May 2010
President Casey, Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, class of 2010, friends and family and, of course, Marvin.
Are we in Greencastle or Costa Rica? What a beautiful day. It’s good to be back. [forecast: 89+ degrees, 80% humidity, full sun]
I was surprised and deeply honored to be chosen to speak to you today.
I thought one had to be a famous alum to be asked to speak at commencement.
Or, apparently, you can be a "sea turtle guy".
I hear turtle guys are giving commencement speeches at universities all across the US this year.
I thought, why would someone who studies the ocean be asked to address the graduates at a university in the heartland?
The first and most obvious reason is that I attended DePauw.
This place is kind of a hotbed for producing sea turtle scientists and NCAA basketball coaches.
The second reason is that we live on an ocean planet, its surface is mostly seawater.
Our actions, wherever we are, matter to the future of the ocean, and the future of the ocean matters to all of us.
Even so, I think it's safe to say that I'm the first "Turtle Guy" to give a commencement speech at DePauw.
But I'll bet I'm not the last.
When I was asked to give this speech, I had to check in on what commencement speeches sound like these days. Giving a commencement speech at one’s alma mater is a very special thing.
I looked back on the dozens of brilliant people who have stood here.
People who made you laugh.
People who made you cry.
People who told you what they think you'll need to know to make the world better.
And people who talked about how they really didn't fit in and weren't sure what they were doing, back when they went to school here.
What I learned from them is that life is sometimes funny, and sad, and no one really knows exactly what the future will bring.
That many people who achieve success and live their dreams often feel like they don't fit in and aren't always sure what they're doing.
But that we’re all here on this beautiful blue planet, figuring it out and fighting it out, together.
My next question was "Who are you?"
Lesson number one in public speaking is "know your audience".
Lesson number two is be sure your speech has a beginning, a middle and an end.
So, for the beginning I’ll talk a little about me, my time here and what it led to.
In the middle, I’ll talk about you.
And at the end, I’ll talk about us and explain why it is that you’re holding a small glass blue marble in your hand.
For four years during the late 80s, I explored the 50 square blocks of this campus and its surroundings, joined by my dog, a black labrador retriever, aptly named "Blue".
I am certain I checked this place out more thoroughly than most students have.
Wearing a mask and snorkel I dove to the bottom and explored the diversity of underwater life in Bowman Pond. Which was only about 5 feet deep, and was home to a shopping cart, a bike, some bottles and cans, and a few pledge pins.
We explored the cemeteries and stadiums and found our way through the tunnels, back doors, and onto the rooftops of most of the buildings on campus.
We played our guitars into the wee hours of the morning to an empty Meharry Hall. That space has great acoustics.
I learned about how music can heal the brain by playing guitar at the penitentiary and giving lessons to a young woman as she regained her memory lost in a car accident.
We learned to scuba dive in the cold, silty rock quarries just down the road and spent many nights camped out on their rims.
I kayaked or canoed nearly every navigable river in the state and camped in almost all of Indiana's state parks.
I learned about the plants and animals living on campus, and off.
I could tell you the genus and species of the weeds that grew in the cracks outside Harrison Hall. Stellaria media, common chick weed, for example.
During winter terms, a group of us trained as Emergency Medical Technicians here at DePauw, I made two service trips to Peru and one to Guatemala with the legendary Fred Lamar, and volunteered for Putnam County Rescue for 3 years.
There's no better way to get to know a place than being a first responder.
I wrote about my adventures in a weekly column in the campus paper appropriately called Wild Life, two words.
Looking back, I may have been a little strange for this place.
But from the look of things now, I know I'd fit right in.
When you get to know a place. I mean, really get to know it. The beautiful flowers, as well as the weeds. You inevitably fall hopelessly in love.
Even so, when it was time for Blue and I to go, we were ready.
Boy were we ready.
In fact, I think Blue was sitting there in the driver's seat of my Jeep, packed and idling at the end of the graduation stage, ready for me to jump in and take off to Mexico right after Dr. Bottoms handed me my diploma and I flipped my gold tassel.
He was a good dog, though not such a good driver.
But during my senior year...I had read “the book”.
In 1989 Bill McKibben wrote his first book, called The End of Nature.
I read and reread it.
Two decades later, what Bill wrote then has come to pass, faster than predicted.
When I read his book I got this feeling like I was falling through some kind of endless Indiana Jones tunnel, with snakes.
Except Indiana Jones knows he's going to end up in a tunnel.
It’s in the script, he always ends up in spooky tunnels or tombs or exploding mountains.
But I was just sitting on a comfortable chair in Roy O. West library one moment, about to get my bachelors degree at a premier liberal arts institution, and the next moment I'm in free fall though a snake tunnel.
As I read, I thought to myself, “Holy cow”, except I didn't say cow.
“We are totally in trouble”, except I didn’t say in trouble.
“Why the...heck isn’t everyone talking about this?”
I left DePauw with the feeling that I had squeezed every possibility for experience and opportunity from this place.
And I had figured out what my passion was.
I wanted to help fix what was being destroyed.
I'll tell you, there's no greater gift than to find your passion and to be handed the keys to the ignition and a license to drive.
Little did I know that snorkeling in Bowman Pond, scuba diving in the quarry, writing for The DePauw newspaper, and ravaging Marvin's burritos were ideally preparing me for a career as a marine biologist doing research on sea turtles in Baja California, Mexico.
Fast forward to the next chapter: I'm standing with my father in his living room.
I'm about to begin a PhD program.
He looks at me, and in the voice of a man with a Harvard MBA in business, and the density of every father-child relationship ever formed on earth, he asks:
“Sea turtles, son? What are you going to do with sea turtles?”
Once again, the comfortable rug beneath me gave way and I began falling through that dark, deep, snake-lined Indiana Jones tunnel.
(They say the sequel is never as good as the original)
I'm falling, head first, upside down in the dark when I remember...
The bullwhip attached to my belt.
Remember, Indiana Jones used his bullwhip to get out of any situation?
“Everything”, I said.
That felt good.
So I said it again, a little louder, a little bolder.
“I’m going to do everything.”
“I don't know what that means”, he said
Neither do I, I thought.
But I'd escaped from the snake tunnel and stepped into a fast river I'd never been in before.
And I liked it.
Now, after some years of grad school and advanced degrees in economics, evolutionary biology, and wildlife ecology, my work is to study and protect the ocean, the single greatest living feature of the planet we live on.
Our team has tracked sea turtles swimming across the ocean's widest point, 6,000 miles between Mexico to Japan.
We scuba dive in places with animals a bit more exotic than the carp in Indiana's quarries, and with much better visibility and hospitable temperatures.
We've been challenged to think about how to clean up an area of ocean the size of a continent, polluted by tiny bits of plastic accumulated over one hundred years of poor waste management.
More recently I spend my time exploring the neuroscience behind how the feel, sight, and the sound of the ocean can literally calm, renew, and heal our bodies and minds.
The world’s worst environmental disaster is unfolding in slow motion in the Gulf of Mexico. Right now.
Over the past 20 years, my campus has grown from the 1/4 square miles here in Greencastle to the 65 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean.
And changes have taken place over the past 20 years, here at DePauw.
Back then, the word “sustainability” and the prefix "eco" were NEVER used. Never.
If you said "green", you meant money, you were envious, or perhaps you were taking Bruce Serlin's botany class.
"Organic" was shorthand for the two most brutal semesters of my life; Organic Chemistry I and II.
Al Gore was a moderate senator from Tennessee, Leo DiCaprio was still a punk thirteen year old reading comic books in Echo Park, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska was the first time many of us ever seriously considered the down-side of our addiction to oil.
People actually drank their water from the tap. Imagine that!
Now, our university is a national leader in the subjects of sustainability, environmental ethics and socio-ecological problem solving. Plastic bottles became the rage and are now on their way out. Green is a lifestyle, Green is a TV channel and Green is the new black.
Times have changed.
You are the class of 2010. And you are making that change happen.
I’ve studied you.
As you may know, I friended the entire senior class on facebook.
Except for Alexandra, who repeatedly denied my requests.
You’re a smart young lady Alexandra.
As for the rest of you…
I friended you all for a good reason.
I’m a scientist. It's important that I understand my subject matter. How can I give an adequate commencement speech, without knowing you.
So...I've studied the class of 2010.
Here’s what I learned about you, just by watching you.
College students have much less time for silly computer games like MafiaWars and FarmVille than people with "real jobs" who are being paid to sit in front of their computers.
Exactly NONE of you have poked me or gifted me a virtual strawberry patch. That's a good sign. You're a serious, hardworking bunch.
And while you weren’t sure if you were going to survive that Astronomy final, you did.
You came to DePauw from 32 states and 15 countries.
58% of you are women.
3% were born under the sign of Leo
When most of you were born, Ronald Reagan was president, we all wrote on typewriters, and phones were attached to desks, walls or poles.
You've just spent the past 18 years building your understanding of our evolving world.
A very wise person taught me that understanding is the foundation of love.
But there’s so much more to you than those statistics and what you have learned.
After studying you a bit more, a quote by Ray Davies of The Kinks came to mind: “I'm a lover not a fighter.”
But here’s the thing, you are lovers AND fighters.
You love each other.
You love your university.
You love your planet.
And you love your families. Wow, you really love your families.
The way you love your moms and dads. It’s not in anything you say or write, it’s in the way you look together.
The kind of love you have for your friends and family, you also have for your planet.
You love this planet and the life on it.
You love it so much you’d even consider getting a small sea turtle tattoo in a discrete location.
You join organizations and groups, you start organizations and campaigns, you discuss and analyze, and then you ACT.
Because you are also fighters.
You also know in your gut that there isn't time to mess around.
That's why you are lovers AND fighters.
That means that you know how to both love and fight, at the same time.
Talk and walk at the same time, vote and hope at the same time, think and act at the same time, sing and march at the same time, swim and smile at the same time.
It doesn’t surprise me that once again, DePauw is best all around in sports in the conference.
On campus, in the classroom, on the tracks, the courts and playing fields, as you travel the world, you fight for what you believe. For what you want.
You fight for what you love.
And I really admire that about you.
You’ve fought hard to reach this day, to graduate from college after 18 years of schooling.
You’ve successfully fought to make your campus cleaner and greener and your world more just.
So, what are you going to do with all that love and fight?
Well, if you recall, the shortest and best bullwhip of an answer is "everything".
But we are in the age of crowd-sourcing, hive-minds, flash-mobs, swarm-mentality, and hyper-networking.
So I put the question to some of the most interesting thinkers I know.
I asked them, what's your burning question for the 2010 class of Lovers and Fighters?
I received lots of good responses from scholars, poets, artists and futurists but I’ll just share ten of them:
Q1. Why did the Supreme Court say that corporations are persons with Constitutional rights like Free Speech, and what can we do to mitigate the damage of that decision?
Q2. Can our current systems of government adequately address the challenges of climate change, the end of cheap energy and our economic house of cards?
Q3. Is there any real relationship between how hard I studied and how well I will do in the world?
(That one was from Billy Collins, former poet Laureate of the US. You should read all of his poems.)
Q4. Can Democracy Survive Complexity?
Q5. At a moment when our challenges seem so big and our politics seem so small, how will you keep our democracy alive and well in this century?
Q6. Where does all the plastic go?
Q7. What are the impacts of our decisions on those who will be alive in 100 years?
Q8. Why is it morally acceptable to act immorally toward the next generation?
Q9. How do we love all children of all species for all time?
Q10. If it’s we.
The last one came from my eight year old daughter, Grayce. She wrote it on the back of an envelope and handed it to me while I was writing this. It’s sort of a question and an answer at the same time.
If it's we who...will renew our democracy;
If it's we who...will discover a new way to live on the earth;
Then we must get past the “us vs them” mentality that divides us
And focus on the idea that we all love the children, our parents, our friends, and our special places much more than our things and the ideas that separate us.
When you fight for what you love, you are an activist.
And like it or not, we are all activists now.
And right now, our ocean is burning.
Like it or not, we are all ocean activists now.
You are well on your way to finding your life's passion and it's my hope that it has something to do with healing what is broken on our planet today, whether your focus is on the environment we depend on, or our fellow human beings in need.
To do that, feel. Emote.
Don't rely so heavily on your reason and logic.
It may seem funny that a scientist would come and tell you that.
In fact it's neuroscientists who taught me that without emotion there is no reason and that all of our decision are in fact emotional.
Understanding how your own brain works, in the context of human evolution and the history of the universe as it unfolds will deepen our love and empathy for each other and all of life.
This is at the core of the fight for our blue planet.
And the fact is we have a State of Emergency in our country and on our planet on several environmental fronts.
I traveled to Indiana from the west coast by train. The trip took 62 hours.
If you traveled by space shuttle at maximum speed, straight away from the earth, in the time it took me to take the train here from California, you’d be 1 million miles away.
In just 2 and a half days.
From there, looking back, our home would look like a small blue marble, the size of the marble in your hand held at arm’s length.
At a billion miles away our blue planet looks like a tiny blue dot, an almost unnoticed speck of dust on the camera lens.
Carl Sagan points out that "all of human history has happened on that tiny pixel, which is our only home".
Consider that blue marble in your hand. That's our home, that's where we live.
As the biologist Richard Dawkins said, If you go back far enough everything lived in the sea: it’s the watery alma mater of all life.
To paraphrase Sagan. On this blue marble, every being who ever was, lived out their lives.
Every mother and father.
Every hopeful child and college graduate.
Every oil executive and environmental activist.
Every dinoflagellate, every dinosaur, every sea turtle, every mountain lion.
Every single burst of passion to fight for what we love has happened on this small blue marble.
This Earth, our one and only blue marble, is where we make our stand.
So while we're here together for a short while, we may as well fight for what we love about this small blue marble because as far as we know, it's the only one.
My hope is that you hold on to the passion that keeps you awake at night, sits you bolt up in bed in the middle of the night exploding with exciting ideas.
My hope is that you continue to fight for what you love.
And I've given you this simple gift, a blue marble, to remind you of what you already know. That the best things life has to offer are worthy of all the love and all the fight you can muster.
Don't be afraid, don't be scared of the challenges.
Just continue to love and fight.
Keep your cool, keep your center, your deliberate calm.
But love and fight, fight and love, and love and fight.
With everything you have.
You are lovers and fighters.
Thank you and congratulations.
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