Congratulations, graduates. And congratulations to all those who love and support you and have helped you reach this milestone.
When I asked for advice on what to say today, someone replied: “Just tell the truth. Kids love that shit.” Another person chimed in, “You know who else needs to hear the truth? Their parents.” So this is for you too.
Here we go. The only way out is through.
In the past four years, even if you didn’t do all the readings (same, don’t worry), you’ve learned a lot about the crumbling systems of nature, of government, and of justice. An intertwined morass of crises. Now, you must use those truths to keep a fire in your belly, to fuel all the good you must do in the world.
Moments like today’s celebration are not a foregone conclusion, even for the most fortunate among us. The future is not guaranteed. And, most importantly, the future is not yet written. Every single person here—you—can help shape it.
So, what I want you to hold on to today are two words: transformation and possibility.
To address the climate crisis, the all-encompassing challenge that will touch whatever life and work you will go on to, requires that we not just change or adapt, but that we transform society, from extractive to regenerative. This is a monumental task. And it requires that we focus not on endless analysis of the problem, but on summoning an expansive sense of possibility, on harnessing our imaginations and our creativity. This is not to sugarcoat the horrific scientific projections. I am a scientist; I know what we are up against. And I will spare you that litany on this, your graduation day, and just say: it’s going to hit 89 degrees today, in Vermont, in May.
What this moment in history requires is a tenacious focus on solutions, and a vision of what we are working toward, of what is possible.
Much of college is about parsing literature, pondering details, and wallowing in the sweet mud of nuance. I am here to encourage you to enter this next phase of your life with as much simplicity and moral clarity as you can muster. Some things are simply right and some things are simply wrong. And the devil does not need an advocate.
It is right to steward life and justice on this magnificent planet. It is right to quickly transition to renewable energy. It is right to protect and restore habitats and species. It is right to hold corporations accountable. It is right to ensure a just transition, leaving no one behind. And it is right to enact strong government policies that will accelerate all of this.
On the other hand, it is wrong to make this magnificent planet unlivable. It is wrong for the corporations who got us into this mess to continue to profit while they set the world on fire. It is wrong to drive one million species extinct by changing the climate, destroying habitats, and dousing the planet with pesticides. And it is wrong to leave the most vulnerable to bear the heaviest climate impacts.
Some people might tell you that seeing stark right and wrong is naïve. As you age, it will be tempting to succumb to endless compromise as the norm. Resist. And let’s be clear: moral clarity is not the same thing as naïveté. It is naive to expect that governments and corporations will do the right thing, or that someone else will handle it. It is naive to think we can “solve” or “stop” climate change. It is also naive to give up, when every tenth of a degree of warming we prevent, every centimeter of sea level rise we avoid, every species we save, and every increasingly unnatural disaster we avert all matter so very much.
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King gave a speech against the Vietnam War, and those remarks could not be more apt five decades later:
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time…. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect…. Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world.”
There is one big question that drives my work: What if we get it right? What if we behave as if we love the future?
The truly excellent news is that we already have the solutions we need. We don’t need to wait for some jazzy new technology to save us. We are at the moment where each of us must find our best role in getting it right. So, what can you do? First, let’s reframe that question: What can we do? How can you contribute to an important effort? (As an aside: The absolute last option should be to start your own nonprofit! A lack of nonprofits is not what’s holding us back. Join something, and improve it.)
Here’s one way to think about what you can do. Think about a Venn diagram with three overlapping circles.
- In the first circle is, what are you good at? What are your areas of expertise? What can you bring to the table? Think about your skills, resources, and networks. You have a lot to offer.
- The second circle is, what is the work that needs doing? Are there particular climate and justice solutions that you’re keen on? Think about system-level changes and things that can replicate or scale. Things like composting initiatives, building retrofitting, wetland protection, adaptations for heat waves, energy conservation, and getting climate candidates elected. There are heaps of options.
- And the third circle is what brings you joy? Or perhaps a better word is satisfaction. What gets you out of bed in the morning? There are so many things that need to be done – please do not pick something that makes you miserable! This is the work of our lifetimes, so it’s imperative to avoid burnout. Find things that energize and enliven you.
The goal is to be in the heart of this climate action Venn diagram, where these three circles overlap, for as much of your life as you can. If you’re familiar with the Japanese concept of Ikigai for finding your purpose, you can consider this a simplified version of that.
The quest for this sweet spot is how I ended up co-founding Urban Ocean Lab, a policy think tank for the future of coastal cities—as a marine biologist and Brooklyn native, who is worried about sea level rise, and finds joy in policy change. (Yes, I co-founded a nonprofit—with Jean Flemma, a Middlebury alum—but it was the last resort after years of trying to figure out another way to do that work.) It’s also how I ended up co-editing the feminist climate anthology All We Can Save—I’m a word nerd who knows a lot of phenomenal people who are doing critical work we all need to hear about. It’s how I ended up co-hosting the podcast How to Save a Planet, seeing a need for journalism on climate solutions. And how I ended up co-creating the Blue New Deal when the Green New Deal all but left out the ocean.
In all of these examples, the word “co” is key. Co-founding, co-editing, co-hosting, co-creating. Good collaboration is the exponential. Especially so because the complex challenges we face are inherently interdisciplinary.
A lesson I learned early on was: don’t work with jerks. The positive inversion of that is: find your people. Someone asked me the other day, “Who are your people?” And somehow, without a moment of hesitation, directly from my soul came the words: My people are conjurers. They dream things up, make something where there was nothing, something the world needs. They don’t stop at dreaming, they make magic in the real world.
It gives me goosebumps to think how lucky I am to get to say that sincerely. It may take time to find your people, and those people will probably change over the decades. But when you find them, hold on. Support them and love them. Lean into possibility together. Have a blast together doing big things that make the world better. Help reel a new world into existence.
The thing at the center of your Venn diagram can also change. It certainly has for me. And you can have multiple diagrams at once. I certainly take a portfolio approach to my work. But keep going toward where you see a need, where there are gaps you can fill. Keep conjuring.
My resume only seems like a reasonable path in hindsight—there was a lot of bushwhacking and a lot of trial and error. Trial and error is a very valid way to approach life and career! But you have to really try, and then really learn from the errors.
I have a feeling a lot of you will end up as trailblazers, not because you went to a great school and should be showing others the way, but because the natural world is changing so fast that a lot of the work that needs doing involves career paths that are unpaved at best.
As climate journalist Kendra Pierre-Louis puts it: Because of climate change, we are stepping into the unknown. So, yes, study the past, and learn from it, so you can avoid reinventing the wheel, but recognize that more than ever the past is an imperfect template for what we are facing.
An anecdote for those of you going on to graduate school, now or later. When I went off for my marine biology Ph.D, I told my mother it would take five or six years, and she said “Oh no!” Because the world did not have 5 years for me to hang out and take classes—it was important to be doing real things out in the world ASAP. I ended up designing a dissertation in collaboration with the fisheries department of the Caribbean Island of Curaçao. I did hundreds of SCUBA dives. I drove around for months with a cooler full of beer in my trunk, conducting hundreds of stakeholder interviews. (Basically, I have a PhD in drinking beer with fishermen.) And I collected data the government then used to put in place new regulations to make fishing more sustainable, data they otherwise would not have had. Escape gaps are now required in fish traps, and gill nets are banned.
Another way to put all this is: be a problem solver. Regardless of the field you choose, whether it’s climate finance, engineering, urban planning, environmental law, teaching, or transportation. There is nothing sexier than a problem solver. And be an influencer—not in the sexy Instagram model way, but in leading by example. There is a soft power in how you spend your time and money, how you look out for each other, how you contribute to making solutions happen.
I did not use AI to help me write these remarks. But I did ask social media what I should say to you, and got some excellent replies. Let this be a lesson in the wisdom of the human collective.
- The people in power do not always do the important work. Often, important work is left to regular people like us.
- There is no “formula” for what your life or career path looks like. Failures are your fertilizer.
- Be kind, to yourself and others. Give a shit. Always vote.
- Every job can be a climate job! No matter if you studied econ or were premed.
- You do not need an opinion on every topic. If you don’t know enough to form one, have humility. And ask questions.
- Go outside, and don’t come back in until you’ve fallen in love with the Earth.
- From Middlebury distinguished scholar Bill McKibben, who co-founded climate organization 350.org with Middlebury students. It’s actually more fun to try to change things than just to go along.
- And last: Don’t graduate, commence.
Excellent advice. And there were a hundred more. People are so excited to welcome you into the “real world.”
There’s a piece of advice I’m not going to give you. I’m not going to tell you to follow your heart. In part because I have no idea what’s in your heart, so that feels a bit reckless, to be honest. But also because we live in a pivotal time for preserving life on this magnificent planet. So I can’t in good conscience tell you to “follow your passions and then everything will magically fall into place”—I mean, who comes up with that stuff?! Instead, I suggest: go where there is need and where your heart can find a home.
Honestly, it feels much conventional wisdom doesn’t apply. Like, it’s okay to sweat the small stuff. Details matter. Especially early in my career, much of my success was due to being assiduous about the quality of anything I put my name on. And, FYI, you may have gotten good grades in college, but no one will care about your GPA after today. You will have to earn your professional reputation from scratch.
For the last four years, you’ve had a gorgeous liberal arts education, you’ve been training your mind and your social abilities. Maybe it’s been individualistic, and today is about celebrating your achievements. But even today, you are part of a whole. So when the dust settles on this big occasion, thank the people who got you here today. Actually go write thank you notes, on paper, or pick up the phone. It will be cherished. Sometimes a text simply will not do.
And then, for the rest of your lives, you must find ways to be part of something meaningful, something beyond yourself. The grand goal, as I see it, is to be useful. Making useful contributions to the world, to solving important problems, is so deeply gratifying—and punctuated with joy and delight!
You have sooooo much more to learn. It’s going to be fascinating. So, respect your elders, they have a lot to teach you. But also, grownups clearly do not have it all figured out. Not by a long shot. So we need your help.
What you do matters
How you show up matters
That you show up matters
How you live matters
How you love matters
What my parents said to me repeatedly, as I was initially charting my path, I will now say to you: To whom much is given, much is expected. You must give back.
Be tenacious on behalf of life on Earth.
You were made for this moment.
This is a lightly edited version of Ayana Elizabeth Johnson’s commencement address at Middlebury College delivered last week
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