Dave Pollard's environmental philosophy, creative works, business papers and essays.
In search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.



July 2, 2008

What If You Had 30 Minutes to Teach a Graduating Class?

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 21:38
us emplyment change

Every year at this time we get to read/hear/see some of the best commencement speeches to graduating classes. Some of them are quite inspiring, but what interests me is that, after years of supposed ‘education’, graduates get to hear advice, rather than information or knowledge.

If I had 30 minutes to address a graduating class I would resolve to actually try to impart some knowledge, rather than advice. Personally, I only take advice from people who know me, and who I trust, so I don’t think giving it to a bunch of restless strangers is, in the long run, very useful.

When I mentioned this to a friend, she asked me:

If you had 30 minutes to teach (rather than preach to) a graduating class, what would you teach them?

In the past year I have learned so much that I would answer this question much differently today than I would have at any previous point in my life. What I would do would be to show them how the world really is, and I would do it entirely with data presented in graphical format. I would not interpret it, or tell them what it meant. I would let the facts speak for themselves, and trust them to be smart enough to figure out how to act on it. My objective would be to infuriate them, provoke them to say (as graduate students have told me on more than one occasion): Why didn’t anyone tell me this before; why don’t they teach this in school?

Here are some of the data I would show them:

  1. Large corporations have, for years, been eliminating more jobs than they have created, and this trend is accelerating. The data supporting this (for the US) are shown above. Just to keep even with growth in the labour force, the US needs to create 150,000 net new jobs per month, and Canada needs to create 20,000. 
  2. Virtually all the new jobs that will be created in the next decade (all by small to medium sized employers) will be low-paying clerical, administrative, and retail sales and service jobs. The data supporting this (from the US Department of Labor) are shown below.

DoL growth industries

  1. Since 1970, the top 5% of income earners have more than doubled their real incomes and net worth. For the other 95%, real income and net worth have decreased. If home prices and stock prices dropped a mere 30%, the majority of the population of affluent nations would have a negative net worth. We have more assets than ever before, but far more debts, and average spending is now 4% more than average earnings. This is despite the fact that, during this period, most families grew from one-income to two-income families. The income inequality curve (below) is so steep it’s almost invisible. And for 99.9% of families, the chances of significantly improving your economic status (the second chart below), no matter how hard you work, are negligible, much less than the chances of your economic status significantly falling.

US Income

US Income 2

  1. Then I’d show a chart showing what Fortune 500 executives think are the biggest risks facing their companies and facing the economy in the next generation, and the 10 things they say currently keep them awake at night. Hint: global warming and talent shortages are not on these charts; consumers slowing down their rate of ever-increasing consumption is.
  2. Next I’d show charts of how our governments spend their money, in both affluent and struggling nations: How much goes for military, defense and ‘security’ spending, how much for corporate subsidies, consulting fees, tax breaks, debt repayment and ‘pet’ projects, versus how much goes for health, environmental protection and education. And with them I’d show charts of average de facto tax rates for different income levels (pretty much flat lines). And I’d show the trends of US government debt levels and trade deficit levels, which affect everyone in the world. I’d show what would happen to debt repayment costs if we get another interest rate spike like in 1980. And I’d show the trends of how much of our ‘wealth’ is generated by ‘financial’ activity versus activity producing real goods.
  3. After that I’d show the simulation of the human cost in deaths and disability (significant but manageable) and the economic cost (staggering) of a global influenza pandemic, alongside health experts’ cumulative probability chart of such a pandemic occurring over the next 50 years.
  4. Next I’d show maps of deforestation, fresh water and air pollution, and soil degradation around the world, alongside violent death and suicide rates where these problems are the worst, and life expectancy charts in AIDS-ravaged countries and in the former Soviet republics.
  5. Then I’d show Hubbert’s Peak Oil chart, and a supply/demand chart showing what happens to prices when demand for a product is rising in some places by over 20% per year while global supply is in long-term, permanent decline. Beside it I’d list all the products that currently depend on cheap oil.
  6. After that I’d show charts of life expectancy, disease rates, suicide and murder rates, poverty and bankruptcy rates between 1929 and 1939, alongside economic data for 1920-1928 and 2000-2008, and a couple of the historic 80-year-cycle curves in The Fourth Turning.
  7. Next I’d show a map of the world highlighting the area with a current population of a billion people who will be underwater if the Greenland ice cap and Western Antarctic ice sheet both melt. Superimposed on it I’ll show global population since ‘prehistoric’ times, and the ‘normal’ population curves of the six most-studied previous civilizations.
  8. Then I’d show the charts of biological and biodiversity loss in the past five great extinctions in history, and the data to date for the current, sixth great extinction.
  9. Finally, I’d show the famous scene (below) from Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth showing average Earth temperature (blue line) and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration (red line) for the past 650,000 years (with Gore on the forklift at right)..

inconvenient truth

My ‘speech’ would contain no pleas, no exhortations, no wise counsel, no clever quips. Just enough information for them to think, just for a few moments, about what they intend to do with the rest of their lives. Andthen I’d sit down.

I wouldn’t expect any applause.

21 Comments

  1. I would also recommend Prof. Albert Bartlett’s lecture on Arithmetic, Population and Energy. http://nz.youtube.com/watch?v=u5iFESMAU58But judging from the profound lack of comprehension on the faces of his audience, it appears that his presentation (and therefore yours too, probably, would) fly(ies) over their heads.

    Comment by William Lucas — July 2, 2008 @ 22:45

  2. There might be no applause, but it’s a presentation I’d go to again and again, if for no other reason that there would always be something I’d missed (or missed thinking about) the last time around.Brilliant!

    Comment by Bruce Stewart — July 2, 2008 @ 22:55

  3. Wow. My expectations may be limited, but I’d expect a suicide.I just convocated myself in June, and the director of my program addressed the students graduating on my day of the ceremonies. In the Communication program, almost everything you mention (with, perhaps, some minor exceptions in the climate change statistics) is covered in the mandatory second year classes in our program. I affectionately refer to that year as the Second Years Blues. In third and fourth years, we learn about – and, especially in fourth year, engage in – the mechanics and methods of social change (either through direct advocacy or public policy), and feel much more empowered to analyze and act towards making a difference and much less like killing ourselves. Of the graduates I know, some of us carry our commitments into our jobs, while others carry this knowledge into the projects we do in our free time while maintaining day jobs. And others still work the jobs you describe, grateful to work at all, having internalized that Communication has been derided as a field with no tangible applications or job prospects.Even during that convocation address, I had the distinct feeling that the convocating computing scientists were all, “Why is he stuck talking about social change?” (His speech incorporated a lot of his experience working with HIV/AIDS programs.)My point being that I would not take your presentation as an eye-opener. I would take it as a reiteration of everything I spent my university career learning about, and I would think, “So let’s get on with it. *What do we do about it?*” Perhaps that is unique to my discipline. (I think the Resource Environmental Management grads might also fit that profile.)

    Comment by Karen — July 3, 2008 @ 00:18

  4. I would agree with Karen, and I’m nowhere near her discipline (Creative Industries). When I saw your post, I thought “too many charts.” It will all gloss over, we will NOT remember a thing, it would just be “What’s the point of that?”. To say it crudely, it’d be “wanky”.I went to a Youth Conference in the UN last year. Like your suggested presentation, it was full – TOO full, in fact – of information overload. Stats of this, that, and the other. Numbers, figures, lines. Endless stories about pretty much the same thing. There was no context. There was no connecting factor with the audience. Just information. Actually, more like data, because information actually means something.Here’s the thing: we likely know this already. We know the world is changing. We know things needs to be done, fast. That’s why we were at the conference to begin with! That’s why we were at uni! What we want to know is – how can we help? What can we do? How can we best utilize our talents and knowledge (in my case, the creative industries) to work things out. Also: WHY? Why is it important that we make these changes? What are the impacts? What if we are wrong?As an international student, I’d also be slightly miffed at the local-centric stuff about job prospects that you have as the first few slides. I get enough local-centric stuff in a supposedly “global university”. Again, none of the slides on their own show me how this applies to me, why should I care (indeed, why should I care about what jobs are out there? I START stuff), how does this impact the world around me. You may call this self-centered, but when you don’t make it personally relevant, people will fail to see why they should care.We already get this information from everywhere. So much that we become paralysed – so many problems! What we need is not to be banged again on the head with the problems as though we’ve never heard of them before, but to be given opportunities to develop solutions. Solutions are what the world needs.

    Comment by Tiara — July 3, 2008 @ 01:52

  5. I would agree with Karen (if this comment double posted, I would have said I’m nowhere near her discipline, but I misunderstood the line about the computer scientists). When I saw your post, I thought “too many charts.” It will all gloss over, we will NOT remember a thing, it would just be “What’s the point of that?”. To say it crudely, it’d be “wanky”.I went to a Youth Conference in the UN last year. Like your suggested presentation, it was full – TOO full, in fact – of information overload. Stats of this, that, and the other. Numbers, figures, lines. Endless stories about pretty much the same thing. There was no context. There was no connecting factor with the audience. Just information. Actually, more like data, because information actually means something.Here’s the thing: we likely know this already. We know the world is changing. We know things needs to be done, fast. That’s why we were at the conference to begin with! That’s why we were at uni! What we want to know is – how can we help? What can we do? How can we best utilize our talents and knowledge (in my case, the creative industries) to work things out. Also: WHY? Why is it important that we make these changes? What are the impacts? What if we are wrong?As an international student, I’d also be slightly miffed at the local-centric stuff about job prospects that you have as the first few slides. I get enough local-centric stuff in a supposedly “global university”. Again, none of the slides on their own show me how this applies to me, why should I care (indeed, why should I care about what jobs are out there? I START stuff), how does this impact the world around me. You may call this self-centered, but when you don’t make it personally relevant, people will fail to see why they should care.We already get this information from everywhere. So much that we become paralysed – so many problems! What we need is not to be banged again on the head with the problems as though we’ve never heard of them before, but to be given opportunities to develop solutions. Solutions are what the world needs. You need to inspire, not scare. We’ve got enough of the scaring.

    Comment by Tiara — July 3, 2008 @ 01:54

  6. Thanks, Dave. I find myself “profoundly peaceful and sweetly agitated” by this post. Tiara’s distinction between data and information is a good one, and may live in the experience of the person taking it in. This post seems like information to me–past the line of data. The difference for me, post graduate school a long time, is that data hits me in the head, and information hits me in the gut or the heart. And for whatever reason, this post hit me in the heart. These days, when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the immensity of the problems facing us, I do something ancient and counter-cultural: I build a fire and invite people to come and warm their hearts. From that space of sweet connnection and recognition of each other, we can go back out into the world to do what we’re called to do–not with anxiety (which I’m positive only fuels the spiral of disintegration) but with courage and the sure knowledge that ‘somebody’s home’.And then, as Dave’s alluded to in other posts, the disintegration is right on time, and absolutely necessary. Hegel would agree with you.

    Comment by Beth Patterson — July 3, 2008 @ 08:52

  7. i also agree.I would include a 2-5 minute montage of all of that information and put up a great big url to your blog with the links.Then i’d go into your much more inspiring thoughts on dynamic organsiations so they some of them might be inspired to actually be dynamic and responsible.

    Comment by steve black — July 3, 2008 @ 08:55

  8. Sounds like a great presentation/slideshow. Is it coming to a blog near me?

    Comment by Ashley Johnston — July 3, 2008 @ 10:36

  9. You’re absolutely right, Dave, that it’s important for people to be informed about the challenges of the world. But it’s just as important to provide them with positive solutions. Telling people all the horrible things that are happening (even if done with factual information and charts) and then not giving them the tools, empowerment and inspiration to do anything about it means another generation of young people who feel hopeless and helpless. Many people already know about some of the challenges, but they don’t feel like they have the power to do anything about it. We need to focus on what’s needed to transform our world into a healthy, just, sustainable, compassionate one. That’s why education others about the power of their daily choices is so important. That’s why humane education is so important. If I had 30 minutes, I’d talk about the challenges of our world and share what people and groups and communities are doing to creatively and sustainably solve those problems, and then I’d talk specifically about what we all can do to help create a better world.

    Comment by Marsha — July 3, 2008 @ 12:17

  10. One of your best DaveI wonder if many young “know” this at an energetic level?

    Comment by Robert Paterson — July 3, 2008 @ 18:55

  11. Amazing response — thanks everyone. Interesting the different perspectives of those who have, or don’t have, a CONTEXT to understand what this information MEANS, and who know, or don’t know (either intuitively or because of other research and reading) what to DO about it. A great reminder that in any presentation you need to know your audience. I will put this together into a Slideshare Slidecast, but it’ll take me awhile, so please be patient. And thanks for all the ideas.

    Comment by Dave Pollard — July 3, 2008 @ 22:59

  12. I would point them to Gaspminder (www.gapminder.org) and let them explore themselves.

    Comment by EJ — July 3, 2008 @ 23:55

  13. Dave- you should actually give this presentation/ , or at lest do a mock one and film it or make a presentation. I think it would be amazing to see and it would teach us more by seeing their reactions and hearing their comments during the lesson. PLEASE DO IT!

    Comment by Melisa Christensen — July 4, 2008 @ 10:09

  14. Sorry – its Gapminder (not Gaspminder). This site has very interesting and interactive statistics/graphs. Gapminder WorldGapminder World lets you explore the changing world from your own computer. Moving graphics show how the development of all countries of the world by the indicators you choose.Also, Human Development Trends and Energy and Emissions trends.

    Comment by EJ — July 4, 2008 @ 12:44

  15. Yeah, Gapminder would actually be pretty cool. All the info’s there, and users can work out for themselves how world events have presented themselves in the passage of time. Seeing how things have changed would add a TON of context.

    Comment by Tiara — July 5, 2008 @ 02:23

  16. Dave,Terrific idea regarding the speech. Your list of facts is devastating. One small quibble regarding your interpretaiton of the table in #2. You say this supports the argument that future job growth will be in the “low-paying clerical, administrative, and retail sales and service jobs.” I see this list, in its entirety, comprised of two types of jobs: 1) those that are human (or animal) body-based, therefore very difficult to outsource via the internet to labor based in other places (e.g., home health care, dental hygenists, physical therapists, and some of the body-based technology they use);2) those that are supportive of infomation storage/retreival, therefore driven by the exponential growth in demand for such info storage/retrieval.It remains to be seen just what happens regarding the wages in these fields, but i expect sustainably-human-body-based labor to outperform in terms of growth in wages many other fields in the next decade, because it is very difficult to outsource even within the country to say nothing of international outsourcing. As i said, small point in the context of your larger and quite impressive point.

    Comment by Daniel — July 5, 2008 @ 13:43

  17. If I were in my early 20s (which, granted, was about three years ago) I do not think I’d take well to such a presentation. That said, I don’t think I’d take well to being given advice for an hour, either. (Do people forget so easily what it’s like to be 21?)If I were to deliver a convocation address, I would make it consist wholly of questions–the most interesting, vision-inspiring, creative, thoughtful, and provocative questions I could think of. I’m not sure how popular the talk would be, but I think it would be good preparation for the future.

    Comment by Siona — July 5, 2008 @ 18:26

  18. Thank you all for the encouragement. I will put together a Slidecast in the next little while, with the full text of what I would say, without preaching or interpreting, to make the charts a bit more accessible to those who are not yet familiar with many of these issues. I’d also love to hear Siona’s, and your, thoughts on how a commencement/convocation address might be assembled that consisted entirely of questions. I think it’s a great idea, but would be a formidable challenge to make work, when such addresses are traditionally one-way. I’m not sure the silences in such an address would not be… excruciating?

    Comment by Dave Pollard — July 5, 2008 @ 22:56

  19. This is a brilliant post. I must say that the idea of not advising young grads is refreshing.But I would do it slightly differently:- Take any four of the points you mentioned- Research about what people (especially young people) have done to improve the situation in those areas e.g. a young graduate working with Al Gore and not Al Gore himself- Just tell what those people have doneAnd in the deepest of my heart I know that if I don’t get any applause, I won’t like it!

    Comment by Mark — July 7, 2008 @ 00:05

  20. Nice post.Shockingly, for too many, this will be the first time they hear any of these fact or give them any consideration. Schools continue to prepare students for an economic system that is at war with itself and few seem to have notices.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HR2HrHXSuYM

    Comment by Bill Farren — July 8, 2008 @ 13:52

  21. I’ve seen similar talks – as part of the Transition Bristol initiative – in the city I live in here in the UK. As well as the cold facts and depressing stuff, we got a chance to talk to each other about simple things we could do to make things better, about how it felt to hear this etc. We then wrote our thoughts in post-its and these became the content of the afternoon sessions, and then we got a talk from an addictions counsellor – who was a very apt person to help wean us off our addiction – in this case the addiction to believing modern life will continue as it has in these boom times. So although transition bristol and other things are a bit peak oil-centric, they try and be holistic at least, and all in all I recommend the transition initiatives and the stuff behind it, at least to inform other initiatives around the world. Lots of this is explained in a recent book by the founder of the first one – such as how to run a meeting that presents depressing, inconvenient stuff, but leaves people feeling elated at the end and ready to do something about it. It’s called “the transition handbook”, by Rob Hopkins. http://transitionculture.org/shop/the-transition-handbook/

    Comment by Ale Fernandez — July 11, 2008 @ 11:03

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