2004 Commencement Address

The Most Valuable Thing You Will Ever Possess

Denis A. Hayes

Denis Hayes, the National Coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970, was the keynote speaker at Puget Sound’s commencement ceremony Sunday, May 16, 2004. Mr. Hayes is the board chair of the International Earth Day Network, which is active in 184 nations. He also is president of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle, a position he’s held since 1992. The foundation funds projects in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Western Montana, British Columbia, and coastal Alaska that protect, restore, and maintain the natural physical environment for present and future generations.

During the Carter Administration, Hayes headed the federal Solar Energy Research Institute (now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory).

Lauded for his efforts on behalf of the environment, Hayes was given the 1985 John Muir Award by the Sierra Club, and he has also received the highest honors awarded by the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Council of America, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility. He has received widespread recognition for his work. Time magazine selected him as one of its “Heroes of the Planet,” and the National Audubon Society included him in its list of the 100 Environmental Heroes of the Twentieth Century.

President Thomas, trustees, faculty, fellow honorata, threadbare-but-relieved parents—and, of course, the people I’m really here to talk to—all the younger folks with the big grins on your faces:

Walking around this beautiful campus yesterday, I found my thoughts wandering back to my own undergraduate days. I graduated at the end of the 1960s—perhaps the most turbulent decade in American college history.

Every spring at Stanford, like clockwork, the trees would leaf out, the flowers would bloom, baby birds would take their first, tentative flights—and the students would start seizing and occupying buildings.

To President Thomas’s manifest horror, I mentioned last evening that, in the spring of my senior year, we occupied the President’s office, as well as the Admissions Office, the Computer Center, the Applied Electronics Laboratory, and the Undergraduate Library.

At my 30th reunion, I asked several friends, “Why did we occupy the Undergraduate Library?” No one had a clue. By that point, we were just on a roll.

Three decades from now, when you look back on your college years, you too will have forgotten much about your college years. But, certain events will be so deeply etched into your brain that you will recall them with crystal clarity for the rest of your life.

While I was in college, Vietnam exploded into a major war. Martin Luther King, and then Robert Kennedy, were assassinated, with profound implications for the civil rights movement and the peace movement.

Woodstock became an anthem of generational alienation. We thought of ourselves as fundamentally different. We were the first generation raised on television. The first generation with Strontium-90 in our bones, from atmospheric nuclear testing.

Our motto became, “Never trust anyone over 30”—a viewpoint that I personally abandoned some years ago.

There was one thing we knew for sure—we were going to pass on to our kids a far better, safer, healthier, more peaceful, more just world than the one we inherited.

Many of us have devoted much of our lives to those tasks. While we have fallen far short of the great vision, we have not been entirely without success. Focusing for a moment on my own field, the environment:

Thirty-four years after the first Earth Day:

  • The bald eagle is no longer endangered. It is being officially removed from the endangered species list this week.
  • The Great Lakes are returning to life.
  • Air pollution has decreased by more than one-third, even though we now are driving almost twice as many cars more than twice as many miles a year, and even though half of all vehicles are trucks, vans, and sports utility vehicles. If everyone instead drove a Prius, America would import no oil from the Middle East.
  • The Cayahoga River no longer catches on fire.
  • Hundreds of streams, lakes, and bays are now swimmable.
  • Millions of people voluntarily choose to recycle, conserve water and energy, eat lower on the food chain, and limit their family size for environmental reasons
  • The right to a safe, healthy environment—a concept that essentially did not exist before 1970—has become a fundamental American core value, possessing wider, deeper public support than some values enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that all these accomplishments have been local and national. Other than starting to close the hole in the ozone layer, we have virtually no similar success stories on the global level. In fact, virtually every major global threat poses a greater danger today than in 1970.

In the last half of the 20th century, for the first time in the history of the planet, one species took on the attributes of a geophysical force.

Humans are changing the climate.

Human consumption is triggering an epidemic of extinction unmatched since the last time our planet collided with an asteroid.

Our numbers have grown to the point where, in order for everyone on Earth today to have a Swedish standard of living, we would need four more planets.

These global interdependencies are knitting us together in a way that makes old paradigms irrelevant.
It makes no difference to the planet’s climate where a lump of coal is burned or a rainforest is destroyed.

We are all in this together.

Avoiding an irreversible planetary calamity is the primary moral obligation of our era.

This mission—this unique twenty-first century global stewardship—is what makes environmentalism more than “just one more special interest.” As you leave this ceremony today, remember that society has invested at least 16 years educating you. Among the six billion inhabitants on earth, you are part of the elite.

The responsibilities on your shoulders are large.

The twentieth century brought the most astonishing change in history. My wife’s grandmother, who had walked across America on foot behind a covered wagon, lived to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

Today, the pace of that change is actually accelerating. Rapidly! And it’s not all good news.

To focus again on the environment, let me bluntly state a stark fact:

20th century America is not sustainable in its current form, and it cannot be broadly replicated. Last year, the 5 percent of the world’s population in America consumed 43 percent of all the gasoline in the world.

I will fly to Shanghai next weekend on a Boeing 747. That airplane will consume more petroleum this year than the nations of Chad and the Central African Republic.

One airplane/two countries.

We can debate drilling in the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge till the caribou come home, but there is one underlying fact: No one is “down there” making more oil.

If the whole world is ever to enjoy prosperity, we need a different model of what prosperity means.
One can envision an attractive world in which:

  • The recycling of basic metals approaches 100 percent
  • All paper is routinely recycled several times before being consumed as fuel;
  • All energy is derived from renewable sources powered directly or indirectly by the sun, and transported as electricity and hydrogen;
  • Healthy, low-meat diets are within the biological carrying capacity of the planet;
  • Information-dense, super-efficient, pollution-free technologies guide commerce and industry;
  • Interesting, challenging, living wage jobs—meeting private or public needs—are available to every person who wants them.

But no such model yet exists, or is approximated, or is even seriously contemplated, anywhere.
That is your generation’s challenge, and your opportunity.

Here comes the tough part. Every commencement talk has to end with some advice. I have three quick thoughts to share:

  1. Stay young forever.
  2. Nobody passes torches.
  3. Don’t wait.

Stay Young Forever.
I am not suggesting that you should still wear nose rings, purple hair, and mid-thigh cargo pants when you’re fifty. As some of my friends have learned, tattoos look really silly when the skin starts to sag.
What I’m talking about is your attitude.

Samuel Ullman caught the essence of what I’m trying to say in this passage in From the Summit of Years.

“Youth is not a time of life -- it is a state of mind. . . . It is a temper of will; a quality of the imagination; a vigor of the emotions; it is a freshness of the deep springs of life.

“Youth means a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over a life of ease. . . .

“Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years; people grow old by deserting their ideals.”

Don’t expect anyone to pass you a torch
John F. Kennedy's inaugural address left us with many vivid images—none more arresting than the picture of one generation passing the torch to a new generation.

It never happens.

Power is an aphrodisiac. People and institutions that have power will move heaven and earth to hang on to it, and expand it, as long as they are able.

In all likelihood, no one will ever pass you a torch.

My generation seized a torch in 1968, and mounted what the press denigrated as the “children's crusade” in the Presidential primaries. With the slogan, “Get clean for Gene,” young men cut their shoulder-length hair and shaved their beards and walked precincts for Gene MacCarthy. And we drove a sitting President from the White House.

No one empowered us to do that. We just rose up and did it.

At the risk of introducing a somber, and probably controversial, moment into this celebratory occasion, I will note in passing that the Presidential election of 2004 is of incomparably greater importance than the election of 1968.

That election was, at its heart, about a vastly unpopular war.

This election is not just about a war, or just about some scandalous behavior in distant prisons, or just about the state of the American economy.

Fundamental elements of the Great American Experiment—the separation of powers, the Bill of Rights, the commitment to a community of nations—are at stake.

It is easily the most important election of my life. And it may well be the most important election of your life.

If I were your age, I would spend this summer just the way I spent the summer after my junior year in 1968.

The broader point though is this: Every one of you has a torch out there with your name on it.

Don’t expect anyone to pass that torch to you. It will be up to you to find it, and seize it, and carry it to your destiny.

Don’t Wait.
As you sit here this afternoon, time must seem like your most bountiful resource. Like most college graduates—at least those who aren’t movie stars—most of you don’t have much money, or power, or fame. But you have your whole life stretching out ahead of you. It is only natural to feel you have time in such abundance that it can be squandered.

But time is the most valuable thing you will ever posses. Most of us don’t really come to terms with that until most of our time is gone.

There is not one 90-year-old millionaire in the world who would not eagerly trade everything he owns to be your age again. That is how valuable your time is.

You will almost certainly have more money thirty years from now than you have today, but you will certainly have less time left. Your time is fixed and declining. And as you get older, you will discover to your alarm that it begins to slip away faster and faster.

I’m not saying you should become a workaholic drudge. In fact, just the opposite. I once took off and spent three years hitchhiking all over Africa and Asia, and I don’t regret a moment of it.

What I am saying is simply this: Live every day to the fullest. Time is not a free good.

150 years ago, Dickens famously wrote: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness."

Standing here, addressing this sea of eager graduates, I don’t know whether you are heading into the best of times, or the worst of times, or both.

But I know one thing for sure:

This is the only time you’ve got. Use it well.