Friday, May 28, 2010

Steven Chu's Message to the Class of 2010: "Do something that matters. Help save the world"

A week ago, I was lucky enough to attend the Washington University 2010 Commencement Ceremony. While it was great to see all of my graduating senior friends one last time, the highlight for me was listening to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu's commencement address.

I had high hopes for this speech, and Secretary Chu did not disappoint. Chu, a Nobel Laurette for his work with Bell Labs in 1997, was funny, personable, and inspiring. He used his address to challenge the Wash U graduates to do something meaningful with their lives and to shape their own destiny. I highly recommend reading the full text of Chu's speech or watching the video of his address.

Many of my friends in the Washington University Climate Justice Alliance felt that Chu might use his speech to tout the wonders of "c!*@n" coal, but Chu made no mention of coal whatsoever. Instead, Chu used his speech to educate his audience about the dangers of climate change, and why chose to embark on a "downward spiral from professor to administrator to bureaucrat" over the past six years. Chu explains that, while he had never been much of an activist, the mounting scientific evidence of climate change was alarming enough that he felt compelled to get involved.

Secretary Chu makes two key predictions about the future:

1) In the coming decades, the price of oil will be higher, driven by the laws of supply and demand.

2) Climate change and its risks will become so starkly apparent that we will live in a carbon constrained world.

He then goes on to explain that America needs "nothing less than a second industrial revolution" to confront its environmental and energy challenges in the 21st century. Chu feels that we have an opportunity to lead the world in this clean energy revolution, and he feels that "the development of successful green energy technologies will create personal wealth, new jobs, and will be a cornerstone of America's future economic prosperity." However, Chu warns that if we do not develop our clean energy manufacturing capabilities, we will soon be "importing the new energy technologies developed by Europe and Asia."

Chu claims that President Obama is fully committed to comprehensive energy and climate legislation (although he's been very slow to make the connection between the gulf spill and a climate bill). Chu feels that this legislation must allow America's innovators and entrepreneurs to work with the federal government to completely transform how our society used and produces energy. However, Chu emphasizes that the Department of Energy and the Obama Administration cannot create this policy singlehandedly. As Chu say, "Ultimately, it is the American people that must demand that their elected representatives pass laws that will guide our country to the future."

And who is going to step up and create the social change necessary to pass such ambitious legislation? Well, why not us? Why not the Millenial Generation? Secretary Chu directly challenged us to take on this task and lead the way to a more sustainable future.

"I look to you to engage America to solve the energy and climate problem. It will be your idealism that can give our elected officials the ammunition to overcome the resistance of those who are easily frightened of the future and want to cling to the status quo. It will be your intellectual courage and creativity that will find the technical and policy solutions we need."

Our generation is already changing the global ethic. We are amazingly connected through our social networking tools and have incredible activist power through facebook, twitter, and SMS. We are creating a new, post-material attitude towards our social and economic systems, and are already demanding transparency and accountability from both businesses and our elected leaders. We mobilized and elected Obama; he would not be in office if not for our support. We are already accomplishing great things.
There is clearly more to do. Climate change poses a huge challenge, perhaps the most complex problem our civilization has ever faced. Yet the climate crisis also presents us with an incredible opportunity: our generation can completely reshape society and make it truly sustainable.

I will close this post with Secretary Chu's closing remarks, much of which is courtesy of Carl Sagan:

"In my final comments, I want to leave you with an image captured by Voyager 1 in 1990. As the spacecraft began to leave our Solar System, the astronomer, Carl Sagan, convinced the NASA engineers to turn Voyager for one last, homeward look. In this picture, Earth appears as a pale blue dot of light, one-tenth of the area of a single pixel and embedded in a rainbow of light scattered from the camera lens.

Here is a condensed version of what Sagan wrote about this picture:
'Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives ... Every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals ... every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

'The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena … Our posturing, our imagined self-importance … are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck … in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

'The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

'It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.'

To this narrative, I add a Native American saying about how we should care for our planet, this pale blue dot of light: 'Treat the earth well: It was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children.' My generation is in danger of breaking this sacred trust. Hold us accountable… Do something that matters. Help save the world"

Let's take Secretary Chu's words to heart. It's time for our generation to reshape the world. Earth is our one home, and we have a responsibility to not leave an inhospitable planet to future generations.

Can we have a sustainable future? Yes, but only if we choose to travel that path. Our future is whatever we decide it to be.

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