Action Plan for the End of the World
Wofford Commencement Address 2009
Under normal circumstances, I would urge you graduating seniors to set out today to “save the world.” But the difficulty for us all in purported end-times like these is not that our eagerness to change the world is in any way curtailed, but that our capacity to do so seems so strikingly diminished. Our country is currently demoralized and riven by factions. Cynicism and corruption are rife, both at home and abroad. Our institutions are beleaguered and short of cash. And we as individuals feel helpless to stem a tide that seems to be sweeping us all irresistibly towards disaster. The end is surely nigh—or, if not the end, an inflexion point on the other side of which nothing will ever be the same. . . least of all those of us who thought we were going to be agents of change and find ourselves instead mere flotsam in this unexpected tsunami.
So what are we to do?
I had a disconcerting conversation several weeks ago with one of you graduating seniors. I won’t identify who she was—except to observe that she’s a very bright and energetic pre-med student who, even as one of your classmates, founded a clinic to provide medical care in a remote and destitute part of Africa. I know of no one more likely to alleviate human suffering or more determined to do so. And yet, in a conversation about such issues as global warming and its catastrophic potential, she said very calmly that, although she hopes her fellow human beings can somehow learn to curb their selfishness and greed in time to address the problems that confront us, she does not think they can or will. When I asked if she thinks life as we know it can be sustained through the present century, she shook her head and said no. It will be regrettable, she said. She will do everything in her power to avert such an outcome. But she thinks that, in all probability, our time as lords of creation is coming to an end.
That’s fairly sobering for someone like me who’s inclined to be optimistic in the worst of times. I grew up with a friend whose mother was fond of saying in difficult situations, “Things are never so bad that they can’t get worse.” That point of view, based on her own experience of the world—including the Great Depression—was really in its mordant way a form of optimism, a wry assertion of resilience that, if we were to adopt it amidst our own confusion, might help us gain a little more perspective.
But things can indeed get worse and almost certainly will.
That’s an opinion I’d already encountered last summer while conducting a seminar out in Aspen for various masters of the universe, one of whom ducked out of a session only to reappear in less than an hour to apologize by saying he had run into a glitch in developing his 9 billion-dollar plan to provide high-speed internet access to virtually everyone on this planet in a cheap and convenient way. The glitch had involved a partner backing out of the project to the tune of six billion dollars, but, with a couple of well-placed cell-phone calls, more than half that amount had been restored. The others at the table hardly blinked, and there was a scattering of applause.
Two days later, in a very intense discussion about the direction in which the global economy was headed, the same participant suddenly blurted out that we were in a non-sustainable trajectory. “In less than 20 years,” he said, “comes the end.” The end of what? he was asked. “The end of life as we know it. All this. . .” He swept his arms outward in a gesture indicating not just his fellow masters of the universe, but Aspen with all its conspicuous excess and, beyond that, the revved-up road-runner sort of economy that had so many pursuing elusive goals while apparently suspended in mid-air.
A few weeks later, at Wofford’s opening faculty session, I quoted those remarks, adding that, if such predictions had any validity at all, what we were doing in higher education would be more important than ever. Afterwards, at lunch, I heard several references to Chicken Little and realized, first, that some had supposed I was prophesying on my own, and, second, that some of the scoffers were true believers in the Ebbers-Lay-Koslowski magic kingdom—a.k.a. the “new economy.” After all, our giddy ride had by that point lasted long enough for the credulous to suppose we’d somehow perfected a way of sustaining ourselves economically and ecologically with no visible means of support. The only threat to our Emerald City of Oz was from negative thinkers who might undermine our confidence in the system.
In just a couple of months, all that had changed, of course. And now, nearly half a year into the meltdown, nearly every reasonable observer is willing to concede that what was business as usual a year ago will never again be the same for either the economy or the environment. We differ on who’s at fault and on which mistakes will have to be corrected. There are some who say we can’t afford to address the bigger problems such as climate change or energy dependence, or the restructuring of our fiscal operations, or that they’re the products of a complex combination of factors, not all of them man-made and many best left to the guidance of an invisible hand, so, really, there’s not much point in jumping to conclusions or engaging in hysteria. But nobody disputes that unbelievable sums of so-called wealth have evaporated, that hundreds of rip-off artists and scoundrels have cheated millions of trusting dupes, and that our environment is rapidly changing in ways that will have profound and possibly catastrophic consequences. It’s in just such a situation that passengers in the midst of a high-stakes poker game aboard the Titanic might have argued about what precisely that great thump had been and whether there was any reason for concern about the new angle at which they seemed to be sitting. Indeed, since there was in any case nothing much that they could do, they might as well finish out the hand and grab the pot if they could. Let me say, that sort of bravado is an altogether understandable response to the unwelcome news that our world’s about to end.
On the other hand, when I attended the TED Conference out in Monterey year before last, one of its presenters was the inventor Dean Kamen. He used his allotted time to describe a trip he had made to Walter Reed Hospital, visiting with those who’d returned from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan minus one or more limbs. You may remember that President Bush also paid a visit to Walter Reed without discovering much amiss, though others would shortly expose the results of serious underfunding there and at other veterans’ facilities. Dean Kamen’s response was somewhat different. He went back to New Hampshire where he has his corporate headquarters and, calling his top inventors and technicians together, described what he had seen. He told them he wanted to drop everything they were doing in order to develop a new prosthetic. He said he wanted the wearer of the artificial arm he had in mind to be able to reach out and pluck a grape from a plate, transferring it to his mouth without breaking its skin. “That’ll be tough,” said one of his technicians, “but we can probably do it.”
“No, that’s not the problem,” Dean Kamen said. “I want him to feel the grape.”
“But that’s impossible!”
“Right,” Kamen replied. “So let’s get started.”
He used his allotted time at TED to demonstrate his prototype. And, since that presentation, the new generation of prosthetics has become a reality, using nerve cells in the wearer’s chest to generate an actual sense of touch.
That’s a response to the sort of insoluble problems we face that makes me proud to be a human. If our species is doomed, let’s go down with that sort of attitude.
My own entrepreneurial inclination is to create a new sort of cemetery, one that would use lasers and electric eyes to engage the visitor as he passes each memorial plaque, activating a holographic projection that would enable the deceased to carry on an everlasting colloquy with anyone willing to listen. “Hiiii!” the holograph would smile and beckon. “What’s your big hurry? Here’s what I’ve got to say: we’d have liked to save the world, but the difficulty for us all in end-times like our own was that. . . yadda yadda yadda!” In a stroll through that high-tech interactive graveyard, a whole cacophony of voices could be triggered, summoning bits and pieces of their lives, speaking but never hearing. . . more or less like Chicken Little, yes, but the plea they’d be uttering to posterity is not just that their world was ending, but that there was nothing they could have done about it. Even if we’re speaking to the void, is that what we want to say?
In 1977, NASA sent two Voyager spacecraft out into the cosmos, bearing messages from earth—who we are as a species and what we’ve accomplished. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach had been recorded on a gold-plated copper disk, and so were the sound of rain and the singing of whales. But what would you have put on that disk? If a successor spacecraft should bear a message from you, what would you say to the cosmos?
A friend of mine who went on to become a famous wit and commentator once asked me what I’d do if I knew for sure that, in five minutes time, the world was coming to an end. I said I wasn’t sure, so he supplied his own answer, which he’d obviously thought about: “I’d sit on the beach with the woman I love and watch the sun explode.”
That wasn’t bad, but I think there’s a better reply.
We had a senior at Wofford last year who tried out for Teach for America, which, as you know, is a highly competitive program. He did very well. In fact, he was his regional committee’s top choice, and I know that because the chairperson of his committee told me so. That was significant, she said, because the top choice uniquely gets to choose his or her destination. When this was explained to the student, whose name is Nathan Madigan, he answered with a question: “What’s your toughest assignment?”
“Well, that would be Newark,” he was told.
“Then that’s for me.”
The committee member said they’d never gotten that response, but they gave him what he asked for and Nathan is teaching middle school in downtown Newark. It hasn’t been easy, and I learned just recently that he’d been living in a run-down apartment with nothing but a mattress on the floor and a lamp and end table left behind by the previous occupant. That was repeated to one of our trustees, and, one day after school, Nathan went back to his apartment to find it had been miraculously furnished with tables and chairs, a sofa and a TV. The trustee didn’t claim credit, but eventually the story got out, and I called Nathan up to ask him about it. In the course of our conversation, he told me what his job was like.
“Each day is the toughest day of my life,” he said. “And it’s so cool!”
So, okay, Nathan! I want you to know there are two members of this year’s Wofford class who’ll be joining you in Teach for America. So the three of you. . . and Dean Kamen. . . and, if there’re four of you, there must be others. Maybe there’re lots of others. Maybe some of them are here, listening to me blather on. If you are, please accept my admiration. I don’t know what comes next. Nobody does. If this crisis is a hoax, there’ll be another soon enough. It’s all a matter of what truly matters and whether you live your life in accord with what you believe.
Achini, you really made me think, but I believe in what you’re setting out to do—which, in a way, reminds me of what the heroes in Valhalla are waiting for as well: a chance to weigh in with the powers of light even as darkness floods in. In the end—and, for all of us, sooner or later there’s an end—it doesn’t matter whether you won. It matters what you fought for.
That’s surely what St. Paul must have had in mind when he urged us to put on the whole armor of God—in order, he said, to contend with the rulers of the darkness of this age. “Fight the good fight,” he urged, by which he meant the fight of faith—which we, in turn, have all too often understood as faith of a narrow and sectarian sort. But I believe there’s a broader sense in which we fight for what is right and good regardless of outcome, indifferent to reward, unperturbed by what might happen in the end.
But this is a commencement—a beginning—so let me say that, the older I get, the more appealing I find those fatalistic sagas of the Norse. I believe in what the indomitable spirit can achieve, even amidst disaster and certain defeat. . . and, for the record, I want to add that defeat is by no means the only possible outcome. I believe in the constant thread of a Wofford education, that you graduating seniors do indeed belong to an Army of the Just. I believe in what you can do and what many of you are doing—and, just to get it off my chest, I believe in the poetry of Dante Alighieri and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
My parting admonition—for myself as well as for you—is as old as the author of Ecclesiastes, who may or may not have been as wise as Solomon: “Whatsoever thou findest to thy hand, do it with all thy might.” Do it because you want to. Do it because you can. Do it because, for whatever reason, you think it’s worth doing. Do it because nobody lives forever. Do it because whatever you do is needed in this world. Do it because it makes you happy. Do it because one day, sooner or later, the world will come to an end, and what you did will be all you have left behind. Do it because you plan to save the world.
So, there: I’ve said it after all—and it sounds pretty good. There’s no better reason than that: do it because you plan to save the world. Yes, that’s reason enough.
Goodbye, you graduating seniors, and God bless.