|Last year I republished a wonderful commencement address by Tony Kushner. It’s that time of year again, so I went looking for the best of this year’s crop. I read a lot of commencement addresses, many by famous people — Bono’s is not bad, and Jon Stewart’s has been bandied all over the blogosphere. I even found a few by writers — of which my favourite is Ursula LeGuin’s. But I found nothing of the calibre of Kushner’s moving speech. So I’ve written my own. Since I am unlikely to be asked to actually deliver one, any writer who has such an opportunity is welcome to steal it. It’s too long, so you’ll have to do some editing. I just ask that, unlike the US Presnit, if you can’t write your own commencement address, at least have the honesty to acknowledge those who wrote it for you.
You have probably learned that most good speeches start with a story. So let me tell you a story. During World War II, many of the prisoners of the concentration camps tried to dig their way to freedom by building tunnels. The odds against them were enormous: They used rudimentary tools or their bare hands to scrape out channels inch by inch. If they were caught, they would be immediately killed, or suffer a fate worse than death. And they knew that they would probably be caught. And if not, the chances were overwhelming that their number would come up, and they would be sent to the gas chamber before they scratched their way to freedom. The Nazis planted spies in the camps, and publicly rewarded those that turned in tunnel-builders. They made a spectacle of murdering those caught building tunnels, and of filling in the tunnels that they found — a warning to others. But a few succeeded in escaping. The ones that escaped were generally the new prisoners who channelled out the last few feet. In many cases they did not even know the long-dead prisoners who had built the first 95% of the tunnels that allowed them their freedom. But they honoured them with the rest of their lives. They were thankful that the prisoners who clawed and died before them showed that rarest of all human qualities, true self-sacrifice.
Although most of you do not yet know it, you are in the position to volunteer for a self-sacrifice no less noble and no less anonymous than those brave prisoners. The reason you do not know it is that the wardens of the prison in which you live — in which we all live — have gone to great pains to make sure you know of no life other than the one you are living, and to make life in this prison sufficiently bearable that you won’t rise up and riot. They don’t tell you about, or show you on TV, the hopeless squalor, disease, death and terror that most of those in the southern and eastern parts of this global prison struggle with every day. They lock up, behind closed doors so you will never see, the victims right in your neighbourhood — beaten spouses and sexually abused children and animals in factory farms and the inmates of institutions — who suffer unimaginable indignities and constant, unbearable pain for their entire, pitiful lives. And they pay you to keep the prison looking as clean and tidy and running as efficiently as possible. And until recently they even promoted some of the most loyal and hard-working inmates to warden status. Unfortunately, due to cutbacks in resources, there are really no openings for new wardens anymore, unless you happen to be the child of someone who is already a warden.
You put up with this, and even bring more children into this terrible world, because you have all lived — we have all lived — in this prison for our whole lives. It is the only life we know.
Recently, our local TV news told the story of Lucky, a dog whose life started out badly, but turned out just fine. Lucky (so named by the Humane Society when they rescued him) was left behind when the family of an alcoholic and abusive man fled to a social services shelter, a ‘half-way house’ that didn’t allow dogs. Neighbours say Lucky was beaten several times by this man, and left outside in all weather, but steadfastly refused to run away, and even came back to more abuse after the man told neighbours that he’d driven the dog a mile away and abandoned him. What earned Lucky his name was his discovery, a month later, flailing weakly in a country ditch fifty miles away, by a caring couple who found him, bruised, emaciated, feet tied together and nearly dead. Nursed back to health by the Humane Society with the help of an outpouring of local donations from citizens, Lucky had over a hundred adoption offers.
The reporter covering the story raised the issue of why Lucky didn’t run away, and kept coming back for more abuse from this man. They used the words ‘brave’ and ‘loyal’ to describe this behaviour. It obviously didn’t occur to the reporter that Lucky came back for more abuse because that’s the only life he knew. He couldn’t have survived in the wild, and couldn’t have known that another, better life could be had in just about any other house, as part of any other family.
We are all, in a real sense, like Lucky. Compared to the hunter-gatherers who lived for millions of years before modern civilization, we work much harder and longer to make a living, we face much more physical and psychological violence (in our neighbourhoods, in our workplaces, in our war-torn world, and sometimes even in our homes), we suffer from many more physical and psychological diseases and illnesses, we live in crowded, polluted, mostly run-down communities, in constant fear (of an infinite number of things, most notably not having enough), and we are oppressed with hierarchies, laws, rules and restrictions that would have driven our ancient ancestors quite mad. We invented civilization because, after the last ice-age, we faced a sudden and terrible shortage of food. It was a well-meaning response to such a crisis, but now, like Pandora’s box, it is out of control. We have become its prisoners.
This situation is growing worse, steadily and almost imperceptibly, each day. Unlike the POW camp, our civilization, our prison is not sustainable. We have run out of room to build new cells. We already consume over twice the resources our planet can sustainably produce even with the most advanced technology. By the end of this century — after your deaths, but within the lifespan of your children and certainly your grandchildren, our population, even with a steadily decreasing growth rate, will more than double again, and by the most conservative estimates the per-capita resource demand will more than double, so we will be consuming more than eight Earths can sustainably produce. Your parents — my generation — have already drawn heavily on your share of the Earth’s nonsustainable resources, most notably petroleum and forests, and depleted the Earth’s arable land to the point it needs huge amounts of oil-based fertilizers and chemicals to produce what it produced naturally just a generation ago. And we have poisoned the water to the point drinking water will become a staggeringly scarce resource for your grandchildren, and poisoned the air sufficiently to propel our world into unpredictable and catastrophic climate change that may make your descendants’ lives horrific. To even live in a life-style comparable to what we have lived, your grandchildren will need to use up every scrap of the Earth’s land, forests, plant and animal matter, both surface and underground hydrocarbons, in this century.
So your generation is in a double bind. You have been born into a vast and terrible prison that you think of as the only way to live, and nothing has equipped you to even see the need to escape, let alone the means. And the ecological, and hence human, crisis that the astonishing growth of this prison is precipitating will only be felt in your children’s, perhaps even your grandchildren’s lifetimes. How can anyone expect you to do anything under these circumstances?
The truth is, no one expects you to do anything. The only ones who will, have not yet been born, and while they will curse both my generation and yours, they will appreciate the double bind that led to our, and your, inaction.
But if you do decide to do something, for some inexplicable reason, perhaps because some instinct (something much more powerful than my feeble arguments and inadequate stories) tells you you have to do something, let me point out three tools you can use, and show you where we have begun digging a way out.
The first tool is knowledge. The Internet is the equivalent in our prison to the grapevine, the code used by POWs to pass on knowledge of ways and plans and actions to escape. It is the new Underground Railroad. During your lifetime, those with wealth and power will recognize its subversive capacity and try to either take it over or shut it down. Don’t let them. It’s your lifeline, your tunnel out. Read, learn, talk with others. Foment awareness, understanding, discontentment and dissent.
The second tool is instinct. Our culture, including the education system you have hopefully survived, has tried to sublimate it, to ridicule it as animal, illogical, unreliable, mythological, even immoral. But we survived on instinct, and lived free and in balance with nature for three million years on Earth before civilization and its politics and laws and technology and ethical codes started teaching us that human reason and human morality were better survival tools. We’re finally learning that they’re not. So exercise your instincts — spend time in nature, listening and learning, open up your senses and see how powerful and strong your instincts really are. And then trust them. They will not let you down.
The third tool is imagination. The most important sentence I ever wrote was a double-entendre: If we can’t imagine, we can do anything. If we can’t imagine, we can turn paradise into a prison, and convince the prisoners they are free. We can allow billions of people and animals to live in unbearable squalor, misery and suffering, keep it all out of sight, and take no action, no responsibility to fix it. We can convince ourselves there is nothing we can do, no better way to live. We can end the world. If you regain your imagination, despite the efforts of our society and its systems, like this university, to squelch it, then you will see the world for what it is, and also see what it could be, can be. And once you imagine what it can be, you will know what you must do to make it better.
When I told you I would show you where we have begun digging I lied. My generation hasn’t begun — we have been too selfish. I didn’t want you to give up hope. Because hope is the fourth tool, and perhaps the most important one. The POWs assuredly had the knowledge, instincts, and imagination to claw their way to freedom, but without hope they would not have tried. My generation ended the war in Vietnam but then, when the world started to backslide, we gave up, and now most of us just sit in our cells writing, on a kind of perpetual hunger strike, sticking to our ideals but not really doing anything. We are, in every sense of the word, hopeless. Somewhere along the way we lost our courage.
Breathe easy. I’m almost done.
Most of you probably think I am angry, nostalgic, bitter, and insane. That may be true. When you live with terrible knowledge for most of a lifetime, it starts to eat your soul. You start to babble, to repeat yourself, to get impatient with those that don’t understand you. You start to see conspiracy where there is none. This is a terrible world, but it is no conspiracy, it’s nobody’s fault. And if we — you — don’t escape from the prison and save the world, nature, who always bats last, will save it her own way. What she leaves behind may not be recognizable, and it may be grim for a while for homo sapiens unused to living free, but it will work for the rest of life on Earth, or at least what’s left of it.
And if you do start to build the escape tunnel, and allow your grand-children to build a new, healthy, free human culture, in harmony with the rest of life on Earth, to replace our civilization’s prison, those grandchildren will thank you and honour you, but only after you’ve gone. For your knowledge, your instinct, your imagination, your hope and courage, that’s the only thanks you’ll get. Not enough of a motivation for most of us to sacrifice ourselves and our lives.
If you have that motivation, it will come from inside. And you will know that, of all the people in this crowd of restless graduates, I have really only been talking to you. So let me, at least, thank you in advance.
Brave and unsuspecting pioneers — Thank you.
The Hanged Man in the Tarot deck represents self-sacrifice, a giving up of accepted wisdom and putting faith in nature, instinct, higher forces. In the three Tarot readings I have had in my life he has always shown up.
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My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2023)
--- My Best 200 Posts, 2003-22 by category, from newest to oldest ---
Hope — On the Balance of Probabilities
The Caste War for the Dregs
Recuperation, Accommodation, Resilience
How Do We Teach the Critical Skills
Collapse Not Apocalypse
'Making Sense of the World' Reading List
Notes From the Rising Dark
What is Exponential Decay
Collapse: Slowly Then Suddenly
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Making Sense of Who We Are
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Post Collapse with Michael Dowd (video)
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Requiem for a Species
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
If We Had a Better Story...
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Hard Part is Finding People Who Care
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
A Short History of Progress
The Boiling Frog
Our Culture / Ourselves:
A CoVid-19 Recap
What It Means to be Human
A Culture Built on Wrong Models
Our Unique Capacity for Hatred
Not Meant to Govern Each Other
The Humanist Trap
Amazing What People Get Used To
My Reluctant Misanthropy
The Dawn of Everything
Why Misinformation Doesn't Work
The Lab-Leak Hypothesis
The Right to Die
CoVid-19: Go for Zero
The Process of Self-Organization
The Tragic Spread of Misinformation
A Better Way to Work
The Needs of the Moment
Ask Yourself This
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
May I Ask a Question?
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
Learning From Nature
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
Making Sense of Scents
An Age of Wonder
The Truth About Ukraine
The Supply Chain Problem
The Promise of Dialogue
Too Dumb to Take Care of Ourselves
Republicans Slide Into Fascism
All the Things I Was Wrong About
Several Short Sentences About Sharks
How Change Happens
What's the Best Possible Outcome?
The Perpetual Growth Machine
We Make Zero
How Long We've Been Around (graphic)
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
Collective Intelligence & Complexity
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
Loren Eiseley, in Verse
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self, and Free Will:
No Free Will, No Freedom
The Other Side of 'No Me'
This Body Takes Me For a Walk
The Only One Who Really Knew Me
No Free Will — Fightin' Words
The Paradox of the Self
A Radical Non-Duality FAQ
What We Think We Know
Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark
Healing From Ourselves
The Entanglement Hypothesis
Nothing Needs to Happen
Nothing to Say About This
What I Wanted to Believe
A Continuous Reassemblage of Meaning
No Choice But to Misbehave
What's Apparently Happening
A Different Kind of Animal
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
How Our Bodies Sense the World
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
Mindful Wanderings (Reflections) (Archive)
A Prayer to No One
Frogs' Hollow (Short Story)
We Do What We Do (Poem)
Negative Assertions (Poem)
Reminder (Short Story)
A Canadian Sorry (Satire)
Under No Illusions (Short Story)
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
The Fortune Teller (Short Story)
Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
A Thought-Less Experiment (Poem)
Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
The Only Way There (Short Story)
The Wild Man (Short Story)
Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
The Horses' Bodies (Poem)
Distracted (Short Story)
Worse, Still (Poem)
A Conversation (Short Story)
Farewell to Albion (Poem)
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