As an entrepreneur, strategic communications professional, and policy wonk, I've worked on social innovations in the for-profit and non-profit world, helping to develop campaigns and solutions to social and natural resource challenges.

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Thursday
Feb122009

Speech for Dickinson College's Alumni Sustainability Career Reception


The text of my speech that I gave on February 2nd at my Alma Mater, Dickinson College, one of the Top 25 Green Colleges in the United States. This talk was given as the keynote address for an alumni and student networking reception related to careers in sustainability.


February 2, 2009 | Dickinson College - Carlisle, PA


To my fellow alumni who have come back to campus for this event, I say thank you. I am here, as are you, with the hope that we can grow a deep tradition of alumni returning to Dickinson to plant and sow within the future leaders, and with each other the lessons, the seeds of sustainability that you have procured along your post Dickinson journey.

To the Administration, while I know Dickinson already does an amazing job, I repeat, amazing job, at promoting and enacting sustainability practices, I challenge the school to a relatively simple task. While I am humbly honored to speak today I challenge you to elevate this event to a new level in the next year, and my first piece of advice to you, find an even better speaker. I'll do my best today to set the standard.

To the students, I challenge anyone of you, especially the seniors, to be in the years to come one of the top candidates to return to speak about the new business you've started or the job you've obtained in the sustainability field. Nestled here in this Cumberland valley, Dickinson continues a deep tradition of helping to shape the evolution of progress toward a more sustainable world, and I challenge you to embrace this history with a strong sense of your role in advancing this agenda.

____


Sustainability as a concept is broad in scope and is the type of concept best suited for the debates in Denny and the science labs of this building. In the news over the last two years we've heard a great deal about "going green".  The "green jobs" platform was a major discussion point of the recent presidential campaign and has already become a highlight of the recent stimulus package discussions, and will be a big portion of the upcoming legislation in this year's Congressional agenda. Promises of millions of green jobs, the retooling of industry, and the dawn of a new energy economy are all being flaunted in what many are calling the arrival of "green on main street". And if you watched the super bowl last night, you might have caught an indicator of the new direction "green" will be taking in the years to come with GE's latest Ecomagination advertisement. So the definition of sustainability is constantly emerging and evolving in front of us. We'll get to what that means for your job prospects, where new industries are emerging and how business is changing.

First I'd like to explore how the context of Dickinson as your place to learn about the world can be your most significant asset in a field that is growing by the nano-second to become the most competitive arena in a global economy that is desperately seeking to redefine it self.

In 1783 Dickinson was chartered as a frontier college, situated as the western most and first college in the newly minted United States, the beacon of light beyond the Susquehanna. The same man who founded Dickinson, Dr. Benjamin Rush, was the same man who aided in the scientific training of Meriwether Lewis, prior to this young explorers famous expedition. Twenty years after the charter for Dickinson was established, in1803, Lewis and Clark set out to explore the remaining unofficially navigated regions of the North Americas, Jefferson's play in an ageless race by the Spanish, French, Dutch, and all Europeans for the discovery of a passage for trade and commerce. What they came upon was more than a passage to a place, but a passage to a future of abundance. Or so they reflected. The important lesson that stems from this story, beyond the great explorative glory associated with the feat, is the true purpose our nations desire to expand its resource bank. Lewis and Clark's story is fundamentally a story about the human's race to satiate a growing demand for natural resources, and one that was positioning the new nation for two centuries of industrial revolution.

As change is the optimal word these days, surely, the world, and more specifically the North Americas have changed since the corps of discovery. When Lewis and Clark arrived in the cradle of the Pacific Northwest traveling west, finally on the Columbia River to the Pacific, they found a region not unexplored but already awash with British influence, and in their own words more than a passage to long sought after navigation, but the final frontier in the race for the remaining natural resources of an untamed land.
This comes from their journal entry:

" This country would form an extensive settlement; the climate appears quite as mild as that of similar latitude on the Atlantic coast if not more so, and it cannot be other wise than healthy; it possesses a fine dry pure air. the grass and many plants are now upwards of knee high. I have no doubt but that this tract of country if cultivated would produce in great abundance every article essentially necessary to the comfort and subsistence of civilized man."


The promise of abundance led to the belief in the certainty of progress' rewards. And for it, we are better in many ways, and in many ways, without many of the resources we started with. The simple lesson here, and while obvious, one that is critical to establish, is that our progress has been and will always be tied to natural resources.

"Environmentalism", has been put in a box as a movement, the consciousness of our environ, our surrounding, as labeled during the past 50 years following the resource rich industrial revolution, has been seen as a separate consideration; a condition of morality that comes after the consideration of other notions of progress, commerce, and comfort.

For you, I advise even with your existing understanding, to think outside the box, explore the concept that for the entirety of human civilization natural resources have been the fundamental consideration of society.

Wars have been and will be fought to secure them. Leaders made and broken in their management of them. Colleges established to better understand our approach to them. Water, land, minerals, food, forests, oceans, biological life, and this precious thing called air, and as we are learning as never before, even the most basic element, our relationship with carbon – are integral parts of existence – without them we would not be.

I believe in this new century it is critical for you to carry into any professional pursuit, whether it be a green job or not, to remember that you as a citizen have a fundamental relationship with natural resources. In a way, every job in our society, is a "green job". There is no separation between humans and the earth. This is not the creed of an environmental sect, but the engrained truth of our nature as human beings. We subsist -- we must sustain on these resources. In recent time we have increased the pace of borrowing from our future resources, in hope that the risk of losing these fundamental principals is worth what might be gained in interest earned. In President Obama's inauguration this new era was symbolically sworn in and in his speech he eloquently reaffirmed our pledge to recognize our fundamental tie,

"And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it."


Dickinson may no longer sit on the frontier, at the gate of western expansion, but it does sit on the frontier of the redesign of the western society, an era when we must see our existence as multidisciplinary and wholly interconnected. This is why Dickinson is a Top 25 green college. One fundamental truth has held strong here, one that you should pay attention to as you move forward into the new economy. No matter your course in life, you will find our human perfection and imperfection is natural, and we must constantly strive to understand how to become more efficient, leave less of an impact while increasing the state of our humanity.

The concept of sustainability is an integral principal, and the practice of it is one that demands we approach the complexity of supply chains, human rights, resource demands, ecological systems, and basic needs with a curious and reverent approach to balancing our systems of civilization. Here you have that as your basis – and I believe this will be your greatest tool going into this new world.

Since Lewis and Clark left the Columbia basin and its ecosystem their footprint has not receded, but grown, leaving a lasting impression beyond their own comprehension. The fisheries of the Columbia Region and the Pacific, and for that matter the world, have been in rapid decline, the lands which were fiercely protected and vied for amongst tribal adversaries, have been parceled out for agriculture, corporate, individual, and government interest. Forests have been plowed by the demand for paper and home building. Dams of concrete stop the gravity of the once fierce Columbia to supply water for farms and homes and electricity for the region. The contested rights to water access for farmers and fish have reached the level of a national crisis. Municipal waste, urban growth boundaries, and traffic all burgeon beyond the region's ability to facilitate it. This story can be repeated across the nation, and the world, as we've tested the limits of abundance.

Of course, there are always two sides to the story of progress. As has been stated by a petroleum company recently in the media, "humans are also a natural resource." In the Pacific Northwest, I encountered a place where natural resources were from the beginning the foundation of society. Yes, the story of the west is one of paradise lost, but it also transforming right now into a story of rediscovery. The west is a microcosm of the change that is happening across this country, one of ingenuity, resurgence, and the fertile ground for the world's leading sustainability practices.

Landfills have been turned into methane burning electricity generation facilities. Windfarms and biodiesel coops owned by farmers and tribal governments help turn fallow land to new revenue. Organic farms have replaced the pesticide rows that once contaminated salmon bearing streams into healthy contributors to the ecosystem. Forests have been restored as sustainable forestry practices are backed by international paper and forest product companies. Smart grid technologies designed by the leading minds at Microsoft that will manage the efficiencies of the electric grid and peak demand from homes and business. Fisheries are built to be part of sustainable supply chains that lead to to sustainably caught fish being brought to local markets. Solar installers and engineers are building regional business to retrofit homes reducing the demand for new coal plants and creating strong local economies. Architectural firms are building LEED certified buildings and energy efficient residential standards, rail systems for cheap alternative transportation, and ports are restoring river banks and ecosystems employing urban workers. The list goes on.

The west is not perfect by any means, we are not perfect. There will continue to be the cost to our lives, and it will be natural resources. In the discussion of sustainability and the environment, there is a great deal of complexity. Sustainability, much like a perfect union, is something that we constantly strive for, and that pursuit will be an everlasting promise that we hope to live up to. We will constantly be chasing our natural resource dilemma, but we will do it with a ripe awareness.

The perspective you bring from your time here will be the most critical as you learn how to grasp the complexity. I assure you this is the most important lesson to take into any position that requires you to problem solve. In your lifetime this is the legacy you have inherited, it is true, we have both the limitation of our resources and the limitlessness of our capability, and while it requires hard work that only means there is work to be done.

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