The First Coronans

2020 University of Kentucky Environmental and Sustainability Studies Graduation Address
By Shane Tedder

Class of 2020, graduates of the University of Kentucky’s Environmental and Sustainability Studies Program, you are our first Coronans, and you stand on the precipice, between this chapter and your next, facing a world forever changed. Your time here, on this campus with these people, has been forge-finished by the hottest flames and the most intense pressure of this turning point in the history of our kind. The heat and intensity will subside, but this will be a collective campfire for the rest of our lives, one that we will gather around to share stories of what was, what became, and, most importantly, the roles we played.

Your graduation today, in the spring of 2020, also coincides with the intersection of the 50th anniversaries of two formative events in our history as a campus and nation that help frame the stage for the short walk you have been unfortunately deprived of taking today.

You are members of the first class of UK graduates without a May commencement ceremony since 1970. That year, almost 50 years ago to the day, the National Guard... opened fire... on students... at Kent State who were protesting the US’s decision to invade Cambodia as part of the Vietnam War... killing 4. Two days later, more than 500 UK students assembled at the Buell Armory to protest these unnecessary deaths and, as the day unfolded, the armory annex was burned to the ground.

Just two weeks prior to the tragedy at Kent State, two members of the US Congress had organized a “national teach-in on the environment” in response to the unchecked environmental impacts of America’s post-WWII economic boom. And just two weeks ago, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of this: Earth Day.

One of the catalysts for that first Earth Day was Rachel Carson’s historic work, Silent Spring, a cautionary tale about the voices we were no longer hearing in the wild.

We are now witnesses to our own Silent Spring, except this time it has been us who have gone quiet. Quiet, but not gone, Quiet but not lost. Far from it, I would say. I believe that we have been quietly dusting off our better instincts. Connecting with the values and foundations that will give us strength and direction as we embark on the work, and play, that lie ahead.

I want to share with you a poem, one I stumbled across on social media back on St. Patrick’s Day, written by Kitty O’Meara from Madison WI. Her words lit an important candle of hope, imagination, and courage for me and my family as so much of the old world began to fall away.

And the people stayed home.
And read books, and listened, and rested,
and exercised, and made art, and played games,
and learned new ways of being, and were still.
And listened more deeply.
Some meditated, some prayed, some danced.
Some met their shadows.
And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed.
And, in the absence of people living in ignorant,
dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways,
the earth began to heal.
And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again,
they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images,
and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully,
as they had been healed.

Around the world and across our community, we are seeing people and ecosystems respond in incredible ways to this enormous global pause in business-as-usual. The Himalaya are visible from parts of northern India for the first time in years, and families are spending more time together. The earth is literally shaking less, and communities, including the Big Blue Nation, are resiliently supporting local businesses and vulnerable populations. Changes in transportation and energy use are having positive impacts on the climate and air quality everywhere.

We have a unique opportunity - a once in a lifetime opportunity - to acknowledge and embrace the connections between human health and prosperity, the health of the planet, and the gift that a better balance among these would represent for our children.

Make no mistake, This work will not be easy, it never has been, but our recovery from this crisis offers a chance to rebalance, to reimagine, and this is a chance that will not come again. That said, our work must be deeply rooted in empathy, compassion and cooperation, as this crisis continues to take loved ones from families and wreak economic havoc for individuals and communities across our country.

Our work to reinvent, reimagine, and rebalance must be offered for those hardest hit by this crisis and those disadvantaged by the systemic injustices that preceded it...Our work must not held up as some sort of “we told ya so” against the past.

With regard to this work ahead, Julio Vincent Gambuto, wrote an essay last month titled Prepare for the Ultimate Gasligting that offers some important observations. He wrote:

Pretty soon, as the country begins to figure out how we “open back up” and move forward, very powerful forces will try to convince us all to get back to normal. Billions of dollars will be spent on advertising, messaging, and television and media content to make you feel comfortable again. It will come in the traditional forms — a billboard here, a hundred commercials there — and in new-media forms: a 2020–2021 generation of memes to remind you that what you want again is normalcy. In truth, you want the feeling of normalcy, and we all want it.” 

But keep this in mind, familiar is comfortable, even when it is dysfunctional.

Gambuto goes on:

“Smart marketers know how to highlight what brands can do for you to make your life easier. But brilliant marketers know how to rewire your heart. And the heart is what has been most traumatized these last months. We are, as a society, now vulnerable in a whole new way.

What the trauma has shown us, though, cannot be unseen. A carless Los Angeles has clear blue skies as pollution has simply stopped. In a quiet New York, you can hear the birds chirp in the middle of Madison Avenue. Coyotes have been spotted on the Golden Gate Bridge.

These are the postcard images of what the world might be like if we could find a way to have a less deadly daily effect on the planet. What’s not fit for a postcard are the other scenes we have witnessed: a health care system that cannot provide basic protective equipment for its frontline; small businesses — and very large ones — that do not have enough cash to pay their rent or workers, sending over 16 million people to seek unemployment benefits; a government that has so severely damaged the credibility of our media and experts that 300 million people (may have doubts about) who to listen to for basic facts that can save their lives.”

Since we have broached the subject of normalcy, let’s go there next.

Sonya Renee Taylor, founder of the Body is not an Apology, offered this critique:

“We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was never normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, My friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”

That was 4 weeks ago. Four days ago, our president, Dr. Eli Capilouto, concluded one of the most important board of trustee meetings in the history of our University with these words:

“We will not just return to normal, we are going to use this opportunity to refine and reinvent how we better serve our Commonwealth and strengthen our promise as the University of, for, and with Kentucky. When we do, and in this I have my greatest confidence, WE WILL THRIVE.”

Folks, Family, Faculty...Graduates this is the work, and the world, ahead of us.

Gambuto wrote a follow up on his Gaslighting essay last week. He concludes by asking a question very appropriate for the commencements happening across this beautiful continent this month:

“What is your next act? And what is the next act for America? How do we as a country look inside, find the truth, and reemerge to create a new chapter — one that is fairer, more just, more dignified, and more aligned with who we are as a truly good people? I assure you that if you use this Great Pause to look inside — at yourself, your fears, your dreams… and your calendar, your checking account, your social media — and if I do the same, and we both find our truth, we can both emerge a purer version of ourselves. The actions we take as our better selves and toward our own better future will spread. Others will follow. Our new behaviors, rhythms, and spending habits will get multiplied. It will all scale up. It will all go viral. And we will harness our new understanding of how this all works to do some good in this broken world.”

Along these same lines, Arundhati Roy, the Indian author best known for her novel The God of Small Things, said this:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

Today, as we honor your graduation, I am proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with each of you, not as an advisor or leader, but as a friend and colleague welcoming you to this work, our work. But I want to leave you with one final paragraph of advice. One that helps me jump out of bed each day ready for this fight and eager to climb the stairs two at a time with my eyes firmly fixed on the scale of the challenge. It comes from Edward Abbey:

Do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am - a reluctant enthusiast....a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive

On behalf of the University of Kentucky, and your ENS family, we are here for you and we always will be. Thank you for your commitment and congratulations on this accomplishment.

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