Today we had commencement ceremonies at UMF as the class of 2011 graduated. Jeffrey Lees, the student speaker, had an edgier than usual speech. Rather than just “what great times we have had and now we are ready to face the challenges ahead,” he defended his generation from critics. Noting that the critics are usually from the generation that has created a massive economic crisis, been involved in countless wars, and who say love is what matters most but want marriage to only include a man and a woman, he vowed that his generation could change the country’s course.
Breaking from the usual generalities, he praised fellow graduates Nancy Varin and Benjamin Engel (both of whose honors defenses I attended this week), citing their work, motivated by a sense of principle, to improve Maine. He said that if we all work together and pledge each day to do something to help someone else, his generation could help the country back to prosperity, and move forward to expand freedom, democracy and human values.
His speech was a perfect segue into the main commencement speaker, William McKibben. McKibben is known as one of America’s leading environmentalist and strong advocate for action to fight global warming through improved community efforts. Yet his focus was not global warming, but community — and in such his address complemented Lee’s call for action.
McKibben is most known for starting 350.org, a grassroots network devoted to trying to counteract global warming. CNN called the organization’s “day of action” on October 24, 2009 the largest global day of political activism in the history of the planet, as events were held in 188 countries drawing millions of participants. He didn’t talk about the issue of global warming, but rather how that organization operated. It started with seven students working with him to try to do something significant — and by reaching out to others and making connections they succeeded beyond what anyone expected.
He also noted a rather alarming statistic. An organization (I forget which one) polls people annually about how happy they are with their life. The number answering “Very satisfied” peaked in 1956. Since then the trend has been downward to below 25% today. Yet during that time period we’ve had a massive growth in economic well being and prosperity. If individual wealth and consumption were the key to happiness, we should be euphoric. Instead, people are more anxious and stressed than ever — with true happiness more elusive than ever.
The reason, he argued, is our focus on individual wealth and consumption over community and shared values. As a society we’ve become far more fragmented as we’ve become wealthier. He noted that a study was done in which shoppers entering supermarkets were compared to those at farmers’ markets. At farmers’ markets the average patron engages in ten times more conversation than in supermarkets. There is more community.
If we worked closer as communities we could not only create sustainable economies, but have more connections and be able to work through problems better. We’d also be happier, and we could make choices that aren’t so harmful for the environment. McKibben noted that recent years have seen a dramatic growth in movements built around community, such as farmers markets, and efforts to produce and consume locally. This gives him optimism that we’re starting to recognize (perhaps forced to by economic reality) that we need a sense of community to give us the connections required for a satisfying life.
Nancy Varin’s honors thesis (she was one of the students praised by Jeffrey Lees, the student speaker) was about social welfare reform. She compared the “collectivism” of Rousseau to the “individualism” of Locke, and said that our political debates are too often defined by those extremes. Offering an alternative of “communitarianism,” she said that a focus on community is the answer. Communities do not exist without individuals, but individuals are defined by and in part even constructed by their community. The extremes are unrealistic “ideal types,” easy to build an ideology upon but not reflective of reality.
She noted that such an approach to welfare reform could yield pragmatic compromises, and would move decision making closer to those impacted. Moreover, the receivers of aid would have to give back and learn how to be active in the community rather than just consume tax dollars and focus on getting their individual lives in order. Some of the most important work in the future could be what is done by community organizers rather than government bureaucrats.
It strikes me that the tea party movement, as much as I disagree with much of their politics, is driven by this sense that community has been lost. Often that gets channeled into nostalgia, memories of what communities used to be like, and thus fear that Muslims, immigrants and others are the cause for having lost what America used to be. The reality is that our lack of community is not because of people who are “different,” but because of the path our culture took towards radical individualism and consumption as an end itself. Meaning became defined in terms of material success in a way that almost guaranteed psychological failure.
Lacking that nostalgic yearning for what’s been lost, the up coming generation is in a position to change the world. The idealism Jeff admitted he was espousing is not misplaced and in fact necessary. Driven by a desire for more consumption and the capacity to fulfill our material wants, my generation has become addicted to oil, reckless about the environment, and has come to see war as akin to an interesting reality TV show. We say we support the troops as long as the President tells us our patriotic duty is to go shopping and keep consuming. Soldiers suffer the pain and pay the price (as do their families) and we cheer them on, insensitive to the demands we through our government place on them. We’ve been “living high and living fine on borrowed time” and the price is coming do.
The next generation isn’t afraid of people who are different, understands that globalization changes everything, and has the potential to embrace the idea of community. Communities can be global (like 350.org) or local, they can be virtual through facebook or real as in town meetings. They let us connect; they empower without relying on the bureaucratic state to solve problems. And students are active. Back in the sixties they protested while young and then become yuppies seduced my material prosperity when they matured. This generation doesn’t protest as much, but is more activist than any I’ve seen since I started teaching over twenty years ago.
At some point as McKibben’s short but powerful defense of community was ending I felt myself tear up. I realized I was really moved not just by his speech, but by the sense of optimism that we weren’t stuck in a downward spiral, doomed to what Stephen Kahn calls the “collapse of civilization.” There is a solution, and we have a generation emerging that not only is dissatisfied with what conditions they inherit, but also with the mode of thinking being passed down. They are starting to embrace a new thinking centered around community, a sense of ethics, and a need for practical action to solve problems and make the world — or at least the community in which they acting — a better place.
So congratulations to the class of 2011. You are graduating in some of the most difficult economic times since the Great Depression, with traditional jobs fading, as well as careers that are likely to shift numerous times during your working life. You’ll face energy crises, environmental crises, and challenges to our lifestyle that we can only imagine. Yet you may well forge a new future based on thinking that rejects 20th century ideological dichotomies and recognizes that the individual without the community is meaningless. As communities we can not only solve problems, but can live much happier and more satisfying lives.