You Are Brilliant and the Earth is Hiring!
Lacking some inspiration in your life? Read this amazing speech delivered by Paul Hawken during his commencement address at the University of Portland.
“When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked if I could give a simple short talk
that was ‘direct, naked, taut, honest, passionate, lean, shivering, startling, and
graceful.’ Boy, no pressure there.
But let’s begin with the startling part. Hey, Class of 2009: you are going to have to
figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system
is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation…
but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that
statement. Basically, the earth needs a new operating system, you are the programmers,
and we need it within a few decades.
This planet came with a set of operating instructions, but we seem to have misplaced
them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, and don’t let the earth
get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken. Buckminster Fuller said
that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on
one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no need for seatbelts,
lots of room in coach, and really good food, but all that is changing.
There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you
didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: YOU ARE BRILLIANT,
AND THE EARTH IS HIRING. The earth couldn’t afford to send any recruiters or limos to
your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that
unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that
this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by
people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it
was impossible only after you are done.
When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the
same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic,
you don’t understand 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. What
I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and
incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to
this world. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot
with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the
world.” There could be no better description. Humanity is coalescing. It is
reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles,
villages, campuses, companies, refuge camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums.
You join a multitude of caring people. No one knows how many groups and organizations are
working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation,
peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more. This is the largest movement
the world has ever seen. Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance,
it strives to disperse concentrations of power. Like Mercy Corps, it works behind the
scenes and gets the job done. Large as it is, no one knows the true size of this
movement. It provides hope, support, and meaning to billions of people in the world. Its
clout resides in idea, not in force. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants,
businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government workers, fisherfolk,
engineers, students, incorrigible writers, weeping Muslims, concerned mothers, poets,
doctors without borders, grieving Christians, street musicians, the President of the
United States of America, and as the writer David James Duncan would say, the Creator,
the One who loves us all in such a huge way.
There is a rabbinical teaching that says if the world is ending and the Messiah arrives,
first plant a tree, and then see if the story is true. Inspiration is not garnered from
the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore,
redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. “One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad
advice,” is Mary Oliver’s description of moving away from the profane toward a deep sense
of connectedness to the living world.
Millions of people are working on behalf of strangers, even if the evening news is
usually about the death of strangers. This kindness of strangers has religious, even
mythic origins, and very specific eighteenth-century roots. Abolitionists were the first
people to create a national and global movement to defend the rights of those they did
not know. Until that time, no group had filed a grievance except on behalf of itself. The
founders of this movement were largely unknown Granville Clark, Thomas Clarkson, Josiah
Wedgwood and their goal was ridiculous on the face of it: at that time three out of
four people in the world were enslaved. Enslaving each other was what human beings had
done for ages. And the abolitionist movement was greeted with incredulity. Conservative
spokesmen ridiculed the abolitionists as liberals, progressives, do-gooders, meddlers,
and activists. They were told they would ruin the economy and drive England into poverty.
But for the first time in history a group of people organized themselves to help people
they would never know, from whom they would never receive direct or indirect benefit..
And today tens of millions of people do this every day. It is called the world of
non-profits, civil society, schools, social entrepreneurship, and non-governmental
organizations, of companies who place social and environmental justice at the top of
their strategic goals. The scope and scale of this effort is unparalleled in history.
The living world is not “out there” somewhere, but in your heart. What do we know about
life? In the words of biologist Janine Benyus, life creates the conditions that are
conducive to life. I can think of no better motto for a future economy. We have tens of
thousands of abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned people
without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed regulators on how to save failed
assets. Think about this: we are the only species on this planet without full employment.
Brilliant. We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real
time than to renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but
you can’t print life to bail out a planet. At present we are stealing the future, selling
it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an
economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it. We can either create
assets for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the
other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people and cause untold
suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich.
The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries ago, and its direct
descendants are in all of our bloodstreams. Literally you are breathing molecules this
very second that were inhaled by Moses, Mother Teresa, and Bono. We are vastly
interconnected. Our fates are inseparable. We are here because the dream of every cell is
to become two cells. In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are
not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other microorganisms you
would perish in hours. Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of
processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is
staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after
it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are
stars in the universe exactly what Charles Darwin foretold when he said science would
discover that each living creature was a “little universe, formed of a host of
self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars of heaven.”
So I have two questions for you all: First, can you feel your body? Stop for a moment.
Feel your body. One septillion activities going on simultaneously, and your body does
this so well you are free to ignore it, and wonder instead when this speech will end.
Second question: who is in charge of your body? Who is managing those molecules?
Hopefully not a political party. Life is creating the conditions that are conducive to
life inside you, just as in all of nature. What I want you to imagine is that
collectively humanity is evincing a deep innate wisdom in coming together to heal the
wounds and insults of the past.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every
thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would become
religious overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God.
Instead the stars come out every night, and we watch television.
This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers
that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a thousand years, not in ten
thousand years. Each of us is as complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe.
We have done great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring creation.
You are graduating to the most amazing and stupefying challenge ever bequested
to any generation. The generations before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They
got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your
existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. The
most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hopefulness only
makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and
run as if your life depends on it.”