Finding Hope Through Action

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Stephen Mulkey at Convocation 2014 Unity College

By Stephen Mulkey, president Unity College - 23 August 2014

Over the course of my career as an environmental scientist, I have sometimes found myself feeling hopeless in face of the litany of environmental woes. Martin Keogh, editor of a remarkable volume entitled Hope Beneath Our Feet expresses his pessimism in this way: 

“….if you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren't pessimistic, you don't understand the 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.”

Many of those people are in this auditorium today, and because of that, I am an optimist. Students in college today face the prospect of living in a vastly diminished world unless we are able to make significant changes in our use of natural resources and rapidly bring carbon-neutral energy sources on line. 

It is clear that we are out of time. Our collective action or inaction within the next decade or so will determine the fate of civilization. Climate change presently driven by historic emissions from burning fossil fuels will affect everything about your lives. It will determine what you eat, where you work, how you get to work, where you can live, the kinds of careers available, how you stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and most of all, your quality of life. Failure to significantly curtail emissions will result in an estimated 4-6˚C global average temperature rise by 2100 and unthinkable consequences for civilization. 

Climate change will amplify worldwide trends in deforestation, freshwater depletion, habitat destruction, species extinction, sea level rise, and human conflict. Because environmental change will be the dominant theme of the coming decades, I believe that this century will come to be known as the Environmental Century. This is a watershed moment for our species, and it could turn out to be our finest hour. 

Despite the utter clarity and unassailable validity of this science, higher education has generally failed to provide students with the tools to address the environmental challenges of the Environmental Century. The vast majority of institutions in the U.S. continue to treat environmental studies and science as niche disciplines and regard sustainability as important only as it applies to operational efficiency. To be sure, institutions of higher learning must lead the way in energy efficiency and sustainable design. Unity College is such a leader – our new residence hall has been built to LEED Silver standards, TerraHaus is the first residence hall in the U.S. built to European Passive House standards, and Unity House is a Net-Zero energy facility. But this barely scratches the surface of this critically important area of learning and research. 

The mission of higher education is not operational sustainability – it is the renewal of civilization through teaching, learning, and research. It is in the classroom and in the field that sustainability needs to be developed and universally adopted as part of teaching and learning. 

The U.S. National Academy of Science has identified the focus of this effort as Sustainability Science, and I believe that sustainability, like writing and basic communication, must be taught across the curriculum. The entire curriculum at Unity College is framed by Sustainability Science and emphasizes transdisciplinary integration of information from the social, natural, and physical sciences as necessary for crafting effective solutions. We build our effectiveness on a solid foundation of the humanities and liberal arts. We think sustainability is part of poetry, and art, and music. We think sustainability is most importantly a social science with deep implications for how we treat the Earth and ourselves. 

Sustainability Science addresses the fact that now, more than at any time in the history of higher education, we must produce leading-edge practitioners able to integrate knowledge from multiple disciplines, and understand social, economic, and resource tradeoffs among possible solutions.

In this century, higher education must have one overarching purpose – providing the sophisticated tools necessary to build a sustainable civilization. 

At Unity College our students and terrific faculty and staff get this. I would like to make three promises to you.

  • We are passionately dedicated to the proposition that the status quo of higher education is unacceptable. To the best of our ability we will provide you with hands-on engagement in environmental problem solving. This is at the heart of transdisciplinary learning.
  • We believe that it is our ethical obligation to you to make available the tools of sustainability, so that you have the ability to thrive in the face of the challenges of the coming decades. To the best of our ability, we promise to help you find your role and to give you those tools.
  • William Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, has written that what students want the most from their education is to be challenged and cared about. In a word, they don’t want teachers so much as they want mentors. In my own education, I remember the mentors, but rarely the instructors. This is where Unity College truly excels. In the truest definition of mentoring, we promise that our outstanding faculty will challenge you and we will care for you and about your future. 

Often someone of my generation will stand at the podium and charge new graduates with creating the change necessary to secure the future. This is, I believe, unreasonable and simply silly. We are all in this together, and the fact that you are much younger does not absolve me of my obligation to foster change. Class of 2014, you may have all the energy, but face it – my generation has all the money. If my generation continues with business as usual and the maintenance of the status quo, then your generation will literally inherit the wind. 

At Unity College we encourage activism. We need you to be in the streets, and we must be there with you. This is why we will be going to NYC at the end of September to participate in the largest climate change rally ever. 

It is deeply satisfying to me that Unity College is, more than anything else, a compelling agent for hope and change. I am grateful and proud that we are leaders in developing what Thomas Berry calls The Great Work of our time.

As I said, I am ultimately an optimist, and I believe that you should be also. My own antidote to hopelessness is action. At Unity College, we will help you take action, and by doing so, we build hope.