University of California, Riverside

Environmental Sciences

William Jury

UCR Commencement Address June, 2000

Graduate School of Management and School of Education

William A. Jury

Thank you Chancellor Orbach for your kind words of introduction. Let me start by extending my greetings and congratulations to the Class of 2000. I feel so very privileged to be here before you on this momentous day. Your graduation is a tremendous achievement, and in many ways will mark the completion of one phase of your life and the beginning of another. I hope you take some time soon to appreciate what you've accomplished, and to honor yourself for it. You truly are the elite of this nation, our best and brightest, and we will need your leadership and creativity greatly in the years to come.

I suspect that every commencement speaker in history has told the graduates that the world needs their help. But I would like to make it the focus of my talk to you today. In my professional opinion as an environmental scientist, we are at a unique time in history, and whether you like it or not, your generation has been handed an awesome responsibility. Through your leadership, you must prevent our planetary ecosystem from suffering devastating and largely irreversible damage during your lifetime. You are, quite literally, standing the last watch. By the year 2040, when you graduates are just a bit older than I am now, the world is expected to have about 3 billion more people in it. With this many people, we are going to have to become far better caretakers of the world's resources than we are right now. For example, with current trends continuing, many parts of the world could run short of fresh water in the next few decades. Existing supplies of oil and gas probably are not are not going to last beyond this century at best. In just the last 55 years we have damaged nearly 20% of the world's land so badly that we can't grow anything on it. And, we have over-fished and polluted the ocean to the point where many species of aquatic life are in jeopardy. If we keep following these destructive practices, we may not have enough food for everyone even if we develop much higher yielding plants.

Our growing population will continue to expand outward into the remaining undeveloped areas, placing the wildlife, parks, and recreation areas of the world at risk. It is estimated that as many as 1/4 of the planet's species will go extinct in the next few decades. These are very serious problems, and they'll have to be dealt with during your adult life or it will be too late to save a lot of what we all love about this planet.

If you are like most people I've encountered, you've probably thought a little bit about the environmental challenges facing the world, but figured you have no important part to play in managing crises at the global level. Chances are you also figure that technology will come to the rescue with new kinds of crops, new energy systems, and new methods for cleaning up the environment. But most environmental experts have concluded that lack of technology isn't the major problem, and that no conceivable technological innovation by itself can prevent the world from going through a lot of misery and destruction in the next 50 years. What we need more than anything else to make the transition into living in harmony with our planet is a shift in human consciousness, and we each have a role to play in bringing that about. In particular, business and education will to a great extent define how the wealthiest country in the world behaves in the future-either as stewards of the planet and caretakers of its precious resources, or as reckless consumers mindless of the damage being done.

I'm very passionate about these issues, but I didn't always feel the way I do now. Four years ago, I was becoming burned out in my job, something that happens to a lot of high achievers when they hit my age bracket. I was bored with my research, discouraged with what and how I was teaching, and tired of the endless committee assignments. That all changed when I agreed to take over sole responsibility for teaching the two large introductory Environmental Science courses in our department.

Before setting foot in the class I did a lot of reading and for the first time in my life actually looked at the big picture, at all of the environmental trends happening around the world. And I realized that I had a problem - how could I tell the story of our planet in a positive way? I first had to believe that we really could make things better. So I read some more, and finally found the answer. There are amazing things being done all over the world to heal our planet and most of it is happening at the local level, by people like you and me. This discovery gave me the perspective I needed to be an effective environmental science teacher - I could present the facts in a context that wouldn't overwhelm the class or me, and I could present solutions that had a role for everyone to play. I became a believer in a bright future, and a card-carrying optimist.

My optimism is based partly on my knowledge of the incredible advances that technology is making to address our many challenges, but more than that on my understanding of the human spirit. As the stresses on the planet increase, so does humanity's awareness that our very home is in danger, and that it falls on each of us to protect it. No less an authority than Lester Brown, president of World Watch Institute, believes that the world is in the early stages of a major shift in environmental consciousness that could lead to an environmentally driven restructuring of the global economy. This is already happening in many parts of the world. Seven European countries, including Germany, have modified their tax systems so as to reward environmentally friendly practices and tax heavily those that pollute or destroy our resources. I believe this is the wave of the future, and all of you entering business should be aware of it and add your insights to the pool of creative ideas.

In my opinion, there are four critical elements to the plan that transforms us into a state where we live in harmony with the planet's resources.

  • First, we must begin to regard ourselves as a global community. When Chernobyl blew up it spewed radiation all over the world and interrupted food production for thousands of miles. It was hardly just the Ukraine's problem.
  • Second, we need to start incorporating environmental friendliness into every aspect of our commercial, public, and private activities. We can no longer afford to exploit and destroy resources when there are alternatives that will do the same job without damage.
  • Third, we need universal environmental education at all levels. I'm absolutely convinced that ignorance is our worst enemy. People want to do the right thing - they just don't know what role they can play.
  • Fourth, we need a spirit of fairness in managing the world of the future. That means assisting poor countries and allowing them to benefit from the value of their resources. It means sharing water, food, technology, and ideas, so that we all are partners in the effort to build the kind of world we all want. We need to become a global family, one that takes care of all its children.

That sounds like a hard plan. The problems seem so overwhelming that nothing you or I could do could possibly make a difference one way or the other. It's easy to fall into that way of thinking, but it's also a trap because if we all feel that way nothing will ever get done. I agree that no one person is powerful enough alone to change the world and cure its many problems. But what if instead we each just take a little piece of the problem, one with special meaning for us, and work on that? That is the real environmental revolution occurring today, and it's exciting to see. So much is happening at the local level, with people getting involved in thousands of different projects all over the world. And now through the internet we can access all of these creative ideas and use them on our own projects in our own communities. That is the way that little ideas can grow into things that will help heal the entire world.

Here's an example that I use each year in my class. In 1973, 18-year old Andy Lipkis and his teenage friends became known as "the tree people" when they began planting trees to restore a dying forest in Los Angeles. That simple and very specific idea started a program that has grown into something truly remarkable in the last 27 years. TreePeople has trained thousands of students and volunteers in neighborhood renewal and community service throughout Southern California, and they have planted over 3 million trees. After the devastating Los Angeles riots, over 3,000 local residents joined TreePeople in a work project and planted thousands of trees along a 7-mile stretch of Martin Luther King boulevard in South Central LA in one single day. It was a powerful, healing act that started reversing the feelings of despair that arose from the destruction of the riots. Today, TreePeople is at the forefront of the urban forestry movement, and they have very big and exciting ideas. Beyond just adding beauty, trees prevent flooding and can actually help LA save significant amounts of water that otherwise would rush to the ocean during storms. Trees also cool the city, which decreases air pollution and enhances living conditions. TreePeople just got a huge grant from the government to design and demonstrate ways in which LA can become a world model of an environmentally friendly city. If their demonstration works, and there is every reason to believe it will, then their plan will begin to be implemented in building and remodeling plans for the future of the city. Imagine that, LA as an environmental model for the world, created by a bunch of kids.

Another story I like to tell about making a difference is my friend Connie, a retired optometry assistant living in Seattle. After she retired she got to thinking that a lot of people just throw away their old eyeglasses when they buy new ones, and surely someone could use the old ones. So she started a collection drive, with the assistance of the professionals she used to work with. They were able to send thousands of eyeglasses to poor areas in Central America, where they gave the gift of clear sight for the first time to people who could not afford their own glasses. She had the chance to go to Costa Rica a few years later, where a grateful village honored her for her service. There's a terrible misconception in this country about the elderly having nothing to contribute anymore to society. Don't tell that to my friend Connie, who's found a way to help thousands emerge from the shadows into the beautiful light of the world.

In 1975, a young man named Jaime Lerner became mayor of Curitiba, Brazil a medium-sized city with problems typical of cities all over the world--slums, poor transportation, pollution, crime. But he and others with him had a vision that the city could be redesigned in a way that made sense, and they did just that. Beginning with a big contest with a prize for the best ideas, Lerner set out to fix what was wrong by working with the people and getting them to buy into his vision. He gave 1.5 million tree seedlings to citizens to plant in their neighborhoods. He solved the city's flood problems by diverting water from lowlands to form lakes surrounded by parks and nature areas. He hired teenagers to keep the parks clean. Next, he turned the downtown shopping district into a pedestrian zone lined with gardens tended by street children, who were sponsored by businesses and given food and a wage. Curitiba's citizens also have the most innovative and affordable mass transit system in the world, designed so that there is no inner city core, and hence no snarling traffic jams. They also an effective recycling system practiced by both industry and the public. Curitiba is truly a city of the future, a widely copied model for how we can live in comfort and harmony with the planet, and it sprung largely from one man's vision.

These are just a few stories of what happens when one person taps into his or her creativity and desire to make a positive difference in the world. I have discovered enough of these stories to keep us here all night, but I think you get the idea. We each can make such a positive difference, no matter what our profession.

I received a wonderful email the other day that really got me to thinking. It was a two-part quiz, and the first part consisted of questions like: Name the five richest people in the world; Name the last five winners of the best actor award; and stuff like that. I bombed it, and so I suspect did most everyone else who took it. But I did really well on the second part of the quiz. It asked questions like: List a few teachers who aided your journey through school; Name three friends who have helped you through a difficult time; Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile. In answering those questions I realized that my life has been affected in so many positive ways by the kindness, dedication, and wisdom of people I have encountered during my life. Without their inspiration and support, I guarantee you that I would not be standing here in front of you today. I like to think that I have sometimes played a similar role over the years to younger people whom I have gotten to know. Nothing makes me prouder or happier than to hear from a former student who is out there in the world making a difference.

So I guess the great lesson that I have learned which I want to pass on to you is that the world will become the place we want it to be when we each agree to take responsibility for making everything in our sphere of influence as good as it can be, and sharing our time and our talents unselfishly with loving service. Mahatma Gandhi said it best in his quote: We must become the change we want to see. The act of giving carries rewards for you beyond your wildest imagination. As Curitiba Mayor Jaime Lerner says, "There is no endeavor more noble than the attempt to achieve a collective dream." Can you imagine what it is like to feel part of a noble endeavor that is making a positive difference? I hope all of you find out, and soon.

Let me conclude by sharing with you an exercise that I use to end my Environmental Science classes each quarter. I give the students a quiz, one in which they will give themselves a grade. It's called Who are you? And it has five questions.

  • What is your unique talent that lights the fire of your creativity?
  • Who and what are in your personal community?
  • How can you make a positive difference within it?
  • What is the role of service in your life?
  • Are you happy?

I hope that you are all happy, but in case you're not, you might think carefully about the other four questions on my list because they have made all of the difference in my life. Whatever your profession, whatever your interests, I encourage you to find a personal garden to tend, and add to the beauty of the world.

So, let me once again congratulate you and welcome you to a world that eagerly awaits the expression of your talent, creativity, and commitment. Let me also thank you, as representatives of all the students I have been privileged to know and interact with in my 26 years here at UCR. Life has been very good to me, both professionally and personally, in no small part due to the continuous infusion of energy, idealism, and inspiration I have received from working with you. I have many roles I play here on campus, but I have always known which is the most important: I am a teacher, and proud to be one.

Thank you and the best of luck to all of you.

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