Even under the best of circumstances – or presidencies – the outlook for our environment can appear dire. Across the globe, habitat loss and species extinction are increasing; and natural resources such as water and forests are being depleted faster than they can be replenished. And of course, looming over all of it – and us – is the grim specter of climate change.
Almost 30 years have passed since climate change and its origin first entered into public awareness, yet today greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Moreover their effects are increasingly common around the world today: “global weirding” events such as the January snowfall in the Sahara desert and the fact that for the third straight year Earth has set a temperature record remind us that the stable climate conditions under which humans have flourished for centuries is destabilizing.
And all that was the stage before our recent election. Now we have a president and Congress who blatantly disdain even the token regulatory efforts to balance out environmental protection with economic development. The fervor with which Trump and his oil-slicked allies have attacked our environmental laws have made their priorities clear. On top of it all is veritable Greek chorus of media shrilly extrapolating every Trump word and action into dire auguries of every possible (and many impossible) worse case scenario imaginable in order to fill their insatiable need for content.
You’d think with this deadly combination of a very real need for immediate climate action, combined with the media’s fervent sales of negativity and gloom, that there’d be little room for hope for the environment. However in honor of Earth Day, I’m here to convince you – and myself – that there IS hope for the environment. And here are just a handful of reasons why.
Reason for Hope #1: A majority of ALL Americans understand that climate change is caused by human activity, and needs to be addressed. And the numbers are growing.
Despite the well-funded and documented misinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industry, the number of people who understand climate change is rising. And after each superstorm, record heat wave, and extreme flooding event these numbers increase across the political spectrum. Even Rex Tillerman, our new Driller of State, was forced to acknowledge climate change on record while he was the president of Exxon, after fierce public criticism. Prominent conservatives who have publicly called for action on climate change include senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, as well as James A. Baker III, Henry M. Paulson Jr., and George P. Shultz to name a few. Even Pope Francis has placed the Catholic Church to the side of climate science, with his 200-page encyclical on climate change released in 2015.
More importantly, a growing number of all types of people understand climate change is happening and is a product of human activity: the number of conservative voters who acknowledge climate change has doubled in the last two years, with only 9 percent believing that the climate isn’t changing at all.
And a large and increasing number of people support action. A Yale post-election survey last November found almost 70 percent of Americans support the United States adhering to the Paris climate treaty signed last year. Over 50 percent of Republicans support strict carbon limits, a carbon tax, and a tax-credit for renewable energy.
Perhaps the only population segment that doesn’t show increased understanding of climate change and support for solutions are politicians, who after accepting fistfuls of political donations from the fossil fuel industry either choose to remain silent on the topic or publicly spread misinformation and lies. However it’s only a matter of time before the growing disconnect between the rising support for climate action in the general population, and the steady numbers of politicians opposing it, ends up hurting politicians in the polls.
Reason for Hope #2: Meaningful emission reductions are still being achieved at the state and subnational level.
No matter what happens at the national level regarding climate, existing state and subnational climate agreements are already producing significant reductions in global carbon emissions. California is still on target to reduce its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and reach 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. In 2015 Governor Brown set a target for over 50 percent of California’s electricity to come from renewable sources. Other states such as Florida, Arizona, Michigan, and almost 20 in total have binding carbon emission reduction targets. And the more states that enact their own, separate carbon regulations the more pressure the fossil fuel industry will feel to cave into a unified national standard instead of having to adhere to multiple state standards.
But we aren’t just limited to state action. Groups of states have entered their own regional carbon trading markets and emission reduction pacts; including the Western Climate Initiative and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeast. And states are even taking international action into their own hands as well, entering so-called “sub-national agreements” with foreign states and territories. One of the largest of these sub-national agreements, called the Under2 Coalition, is composed of over 170 jurisdictions spanning 33 countries and six continents – all of whom have pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to 80-95 percent below 1990 levels. Altogether, this legally-binding agreement cover 1.08 billion people around the world, and over one-third of the global economy.
Reason for Hope #3: Environmental activism works, and is getting increasingly creative in engaging diverse groups to act on climate change.
Let’s be clear: the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines were not stopped by the Obama administration – they were stopped by activists who rallied enough people and attention that it forced Obama to delay the projects. Particularly impressive was how the climate activist organization 350.org – led by environmental writer Bill McKibbon – practically single-handedly halted the Keystone Pipeline and altered the national debate regarding the project.
In addition to throwing a wrench into climate damaging projects, environmentalists are getting particularly creative in other venues as well. Conserving our planet for future generations has long been a moral (and fairly convincing) argument – that those who will inherit the earth have the right to inherit one with resources instead of a ravaged and pillaged earth. Last year this ethics theory was tested in a court of law, as 21 youths sued the federal government, arguing that a stable climate is a fundamental right, and politicians who knowingly allow polluters to destroy the earth’s atmosphere infringe upon the future well-being of all young Americans. An Oregon federal district judge ruled in favor of the youth movement, meaning the case will go to trial in 2017.
On the other end of the spectrum, the increase in climate change art and performance can influence and motivate another demographic who may not feel the impacts of climate change, but can play a big role in pushing for action and financing it. A recent example of art activism is the New York Museum of Modern Art, which protested Trump’s Muslim ban by replacing their traditional artwork with contemporary art from Iran, Iraq, and Sudan. These creative engagement methods offer a fresh approach that complements and supports the necessarily gloomy task of educating people about climate change impacts.
Additionally, social media is offering climate activists a new platform to creatively access a wider range of audiences. This marriage between technology and climate activism is nascent, yet offers a way to engage many more people in the national and global climate debate. Several recent examples highlight how the power of social media could be harnessed to help the environmental agenda push back against politicians and industry. When a National Park Service Twitter account was criticized and silenced by the Trump administration apparently for the simple act of tweeting scientific facts regarding climate change, within 24 hours hundreds of thousands of people had liked, retweeted, or followed the account – in other words, perhaps around the same number of people who attended Trump’s inauguration.
With more information at our fingertips than any other generation in history, we have just begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible for social media and activism. Smartphone apps such as BuyPartisan can scan a barcode and identify the political affiliation of the company via their political donations; and the recently launched Great Company website, which acts as a giant index of which companies are for or against Trump’s Muslim ban, are a few early examples. Now more than ever, we have the chance to make informed purchases and use our dollars to deliberately support or avoid companies whose values align or don’t with ours.
Even the act of simply downloading or deleting an app can be political, as evidenced by the millions of people who deleted the Uber app in part due to the CEO’s willingness to work with Trump. Likely sensing the winds – and acknowledging their bottom line is more important than politics – recently more than a thousand tech workers signed an open letter against Trump’s Muslim ban, including more executives, vice presidents, and directors of major companies.
In the digital age, one of the benefits is that a product or company boycott can happen at warp speed – and at staggeringly high enough numbers to give companies’ pause. How likes and tweets and apps can translate into lasting change remains to be seen, but their potential reach is immense and offers tantalizing hope for growing and unifying climate change and other eco-social movements.
Reason for Hope #4: A little perspective can go a long ways
Trump is not the first president to attack our environmental laws. It seems so distant today, but many people forget that in George W. Bush’s first 100 days in office he not only reneged on a campaign promise to regulate carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants, but also announced that the U.S. would not implement the Kyoto Protocol treaty signed by over 160 nations. Dubya’s administration opened millions of acres of wilderness to mining, drilling, and logging; removed species from the endangered species list; endorsed commercial whaling; and approved mountain-top removal for coal-mining. Bush tried to weaken the Endangered Species Act, and rollback car emission regulations – and failed.
Long before Dubya, Reagan tried to weaken the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act; but was thwarted by Congress. He did succeed in cutting funding for Carter’s renewable energy program – cuts which some attribute to setting the solar industry back a decade in the U.S. Though today’s booming solar industry appears to have rebounded nicely.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in particular has long been targeted by industry-friendly presidents. Reagan cut the EPA’s budget by 25 percent, and its staff by 20 percent in the 1980s. George W. Bush reduced EPA’s staff by 4 percent. And when budget cuts and staff reductions failed, both presidents tried to gut the agency from within – EPA enforcement cases dropped by almost 80 percent under Reagan, and 40 percent under George W. Bush.
If a lot of that sounds familiar, it’s no coincidence. Trump has many of the exact same targets as Reagan and George W. Bush – EPA budget cuts, rolling back environmental laws, pulling out or ignoring international climate promises. It’s clear that these proposals have nothing to do with Trump, George W. Bush, or any other president – they are simply the fossil fuel industry’s laundry list of chores for the politicians that they funnel millions of dollars to. Presidents and members of Congress on both sides have been assiduously trying to please their donors for decades – Trump just appears to be much more inept at couching the fossil fuel industry’s demands in politico-speak.
Yet despite the industry’s best efforts – despite the 3 fossil fuel lobbyists deployed per member of Congress, despite the $300 million spent every year – the EPA is still standing and enforcing our nation’s laws against polluters and developers. The Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and Clean Air Act all still exist, and have been shrewdly used by activist NGOs like the Center for Biological Diversity to halt industry from damaging the air, water, and environment that we all share. One of the unintended consequences of George W. Bush’s administration’s lack of climate change action was the rise of state initiatives to form individual emission reduction targets, regional cap and trade networks, and renewable energy mandates.
This is not to say we can be complacent – we have to fight like hell to retain these modest tools that we have. Hope predicated upon the sense that “things have been this bad or worse before” is not truly inspiring hope – yet it is hope based on the fact that we have survived this, and worse. Failing to lump Trump into the same attacks that have come before him gives him a powerful status that he neither deserves nor has earned. Many of the things that Trump proposes he cannot do alone – yet our passive resignation and failure to understand the context is the first step towards us letting him do it.
Although it’s not in the news, there is hope and progress every day at local to international levels. The media’s toxic fascination with Trump, and their failure to distinguish between what the Trump administration says it can do, and what it actually can do, creates a dangerous attitude of helplessness. But lets not forget that our environment has survived attacks before – and better organized ones, at that – and that we as individuals can take daily actions like choosing to spend our hard-earned money on companies and products that support the earth. Punishing polluting companies; bottom lines by choosing not to spend money on their products – and using social media to influence our networks to do the same – is one of the only tools we as individuals have, but it has the potential to be a powerful one. On a larger scale, states and sub-national agreements have the opportunity to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a scale that puts our federal government to shame.
The world recently celebrated the 47th annual Earth Day, and it’s important to remember that the now international tradition of celebrating the earth came about in response to a local environmental disaster. The calamitous environmental actions that Trump and Congress have proposed have already catalyzed more and more people to the streets and to environmental causes. In addition to the millions who will march for science on Earth Day in the United States, on April 29 millions more representing all races, ages, and orientations from around the world will take to the streets in what will most certainly be the biggest climate march in history. And that power the fossil fuel industry and Trump will never have, and can never match.
 In 1998 NASA scientist James Hansen testified before the Senate Energy Committee what scientists had long known – that manmade climate change is occurring and action is needed to stop it; thus raising the issue to the public eye.
 Note that I purposely avoid the phrase “believes in climate change”. A believer (in a religion, for example) believes in something that cannot be proved nor disproved. Climate change is a scientific fact, like gravity, evolution, or that the earth orbits the sun. It can be overwhelmingly proved by evidence, and alternative explanations can be disproven by facts and evidence to such a degree that there is less than a one percent chance that anything else besides fossil fuel emissions are causing the change in climate. One can be ignorant of these facts, but that person is simply uneducated. So please, let’s stop using the phrase “believes in climate change”. Nobody says “I believe in gravity”.
 Referring to the scientifically accepted goal that limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius is needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. As of 2012, the world had already warmed 0.85 degrees Celsius.
 Or limit to 2 metric tons of CO2-equivalent per capita, by 2050.
 Provided the company is publically traded.
“Thank you for being here today,” began Judge Andrew Sweet to the twenty-five of us assembled in the courtroom. After several hours of waiting, we had each been randomly selected and marched through airport-style security to Courtroom D of the Marin Civic Center. After another fifteen minutes of waiting, the bailiff came out and brusquely ordered us to turn off our cell phones and enter the courtroom. We filed in to the sight of Judge Sweet behind the bench in his black robes, and the prosecuting and defense attorneys stiffly standing and watching us file in with plastic smiles. The defendant sat at the table and looked down.
After welcoming and thanking us for obeying our summons (“Not that you had a choice” said Judge Sweet, chuckling politely) the judge reminded us of our civic duty, and then finally told us why we were here. “This is a criminal trial,” he informed us. “The charge in this case against the defendant is –” Judge Sweet hesitated a second, “ – prostitution”. Someone behind me gasped, and we all looked at the woman sitting next to the defense attorney, who kept her eyes down on the table in front of her. Though it wasn’t even noon yet, the judge then dismissed us for the day and told us to come back tomorrow for the voir dire, or the process of questioning and selecting twelve jurors from the pool of twenty-five of us.
I was pissed off as I drove back to Oakland. Pissed off that I would have to go back to San Rafael the next day, pissed off that the judge didn’t at least start the selection process and eliminate some people, and most off all pissed off that the Marin County’s District Attorney’s office was wasting taxpayer dollars and all of our time by prosecuting a minor prostitution charge. Of all the complex and systemic problems and injustice facing our society today, to pursue a case against a woman for prostitution seemed ridiculous. Didn’t they have more important things to do? The fact that the accused was a minority woman only indemnified the whole system even more, as the cynic in me wondered bitterly whether a white woman would have found herself in the same place.
I was conflicted as to whether I wanted to be selected for the jury or not. A significant part of me wanted to object to the whole stupid system and get out of having to serve. Another part of me thought of all the post-election conversations about the importance more than ever of everyone strongly participating in our civic duties and institutions in the new Trump era. If I were selected, I decided, I could at least help ensure that the poor woman would get every chance in the world to be found not guilty.
The next day at the beginning of the trial, Judge Andrew Sweet kindly gave us some advice as the lawyers prepared their questions to determine whether they wanted to kick us off the jury or not. “We all have biases,” Judge Sweet said, making sure to look at each of us in turn. “The question is, can you set aside your bias and judge whether or not the accused committed the crime based on the facts of the case or not?” If you cannot then that’s okay, he said, but you must acknowledge that now and be excused.
Several people exercised the right to retain their biases. “I don’t believe prostitution to be a crime,” bluntly stated an 18-year-old girl with mascara-caked eyes, in response to the prosecutor’s first general question to the group asking us how we felt about the charge. Yet when the judge asked if she felt able to determine if the defendant broke the law, whether she believed in it or not, the young woman quickly backed down and said “yes”. She was one of the first jurors excused. The man sitting next to me, in response to the question of whether he could be impartial given the fact that the defendant chooses to not take the stand, scratched his head and said “Well, that troubles me … I mean if you’re innocent why wouldn’t you testify and fight for yourself?” He was dismissed by the defense. Another man was dismissed since he regularly interacted with the Novato police through his work, and we were informed that the central witness would be a Novato City police officer. Another was dismissed because he sat on the same board as the judge.
And then there was the only potential juror dismissed by the judge himself. The man was a lawyer, and like the 18-year-old girl he said he did not believe prostitution should be a crime. Yet unlike the young woman, when pressed he did not back down. “I do not think I can in good conscience set aside the grey area of the law”, he said in lightly accented English. It would … be very hard for me to judge someone guilty of something I don’t believe in, he continued softly. I tried to imagine a job and life where he had the luxury of choosing which laws to believe in, and came to the snide assumption that he probably worked in patent law for a tech company. After the judge called both lawyers aside for a consultation, he returned to the bench and thanked and dismissed the lawyer.
“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is the phrase that kept resonating in my head, as myself and 11 other jurors sat in a tiny deliberation room behind the courtroom. Judge Sweet’s jurors room held a conference table with twelve chairs crammed around it, a tiny men and women’s toilet, a mini fridge, and a nearly empty cabinet with a few sad small packets of tea, coffee and sugar. For two days the twelve of us randomly selected strangers had sat through numerous breaks and waited for court to begin in the cramped jurors room, patiently abiding by the judge’s edict to not discuss with each other the one thing that had brought us together. The first day and a half, we obeyed the edict by remaining silent and absorbed in our phones throughout our 15-minute breaks. Finally out of sheer boredom we began discussing the weather, reporting to each other from our phones which local roads and areas had been flooded by the latest storm. By the last day, we were asking each other what we did and relating stories about work, family, and the like as if we were old friends. One woman upon learning my profession asked if I happened to know a Russian water rights activist. “He died last year,” she said sadly. A younger juror told me his construction company was working on the new Apple campus in Cupertino. “168 acres,” he chuckled, shaking his head. It was so big, he explained, the company was going to put in a transit center for their private buses, but would also need a separate shuttle just to get people from the parking lot to the main building. The new campus would definitely increase the traffic, he concluded, “which sucks for locals but it doesn’t matter though – Apple owns that town.” A physician and retired health care practitioner rattled off names of people they knew in common. “He’s still working?” asked the physician, surprised. “I swear he was close to retirement when I was working there.” There was a sense of camaraderie, an acceptance of each other and our task despite the wide range of differences in our age, ethnicities, and professions. The opportunity to be in a room and interact with a variety of people from different backgrounds is increasingly rare today, as we slip deeper into our homogenous social circles and online lives. As jurors young and old chatted with each other around the table, I wished that this type of respectful acceptance and collaboration could have been highlighted during the last election, instead of the media’s propensity to focus on (and perpetuate) the vicious polarization that instills fear about our country and its direction. But the thought was interrupted by the bailiff, who entered to inform us that the lawyers, defendant, and judge were awaiting us in the courtroom.
In the end the trial was not great. Both lawyers, from the district attorney’s office and the defense, were young, inexperienced, and made numerous mistakes. The defense attorney tried to dismiss a potential juror who had been interviewed but wasn’t yet even in the jury box. The prosecutor, annoyingly referred to as “the people” – though I don’t recall the people of Marin asking their local government to devote scarce and valuable resources to arresting and prosecuting a poor woman for trying to make money – awkwardly shuffled through and mixed up the order of her 36 items of evidence, which consisted of photos of the defendant’s cell phone messages. This required the other attorney and the witnesses to laboriously shuffle through their copies as well in order to find the page the prosecutor referred to. The prosecutor also stumbled over several “incomplete hypotheticals” in her enthusiasm to lead her expert witness outside his expertise to the world of the conditional (“If these items were to be found together on a person would you…”). She lost several objections by the defense until the judge kindly advised her to give up her line of argument. There was a grainy and shaky video from the arresting officer’s body camera, which consisted of several minutes of silence where the audio had been redacted and only about a dozen seconds of actual sound that we were allowed to hear.
Back in the jury room, once deliberations began there was silence at first. We quickly agreed that due to the confusing nature of the evidence – multiple texts from multiple people over multiple days which we heard in bits and pieces as the lawyers asked witnesses to read certain texts, or highlighted during the lawyers’ powerpoint presentations as they made their closing arguments. We laid out the 36 pages of evidence, separating them into distinct conversations. It became quickly apparent as we discussed the evidence that several people were already vocally leaning towards voting guilty.
Now that we were allowed to discuss the case, biases came out in the open, and some were ugly. “That woman must be on drugs,” sniffed an older woman. “Did you see her shaking?” “She seemed sleepy,” said another, “of course who wouldn’t be if you’re working the streets all night?” I was appalled – as if the poor woman had been prostituting right up to the minute the trial began! Several others, including me, were obviously on the defendant’s side. We gently and politely reminded everyone that we needed to stick to the evidence presented and the charge she was accused of – other opinions and observations were not allowable for consideration.
It was quickly established by all of us that there was little question that the woman had engaged in “sex acts”, as the lawyers put it. The multitude of texts from unknown numbers asking how long, how many “kisses” or “roses” per hour – standard lingo for pay rate, according to the expert witness – and text conversations negotiating the location of late night meetings cast little doubt. The second part, however, was much more difficult – and that was determining “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant had received money for the sex act. There was no direct evidence, since the police officer had neglected to photograph the text which talked about payment. However the officer testified that he saw a text indicating that the cost of the oral sex the woman was giving the guy when they were caught was $60. And exactly $60 was found in her purse, right next to the hatchet that she was carrying for protection.
As the jurors’ conversation slowly started circling towards a conclusion of “guilty”, I felt frustrated. From the instant the judge described the charge at the beginning of the trial I had leaned towards “not guilty” – an admitted bias against a system that finds a single woman guilty of receiving money for sex acts yet makes no attempt to understand or care why. Judge Sweet from the beginning clearly and deliberately instructed all of us that the scope of our job was to simply determine whether the woman was guilty or not of the crime she was charged with – that we were not to consider other factors such as why the man soliciting the sex acts from her wasn’t being charged, or why her pimp wasn’t arrested. Justice, it seemed from our instructions, is supposed to exist in a vacuum – however I struggled to see how justice with no context could be justice at all.
It also deeply bothered me that what could be up to six months in jail for the defendant was likely for the young prosecutor a notch in her belt, perhaps even a platform for a future political career. I hated the fact that although I tried as hard as I could to find one, there was no other reasonable explanation for the evidence presented. But most of all I hated that we could not find out the context of the crime. We the people put this woman on trial yet we also loaded the dice against her – holding her to laws written and enforced by privileged people existing far, far away from the harsh reality that she faced daily. A high-end escort service, which I imagine are not hard to find, would likely never find one of its escorts in a courtroom charged with prostitution. This woman in front of us was here not because she broke the law against prostitution; but because she happened to be caught, and didn’t have the resources or knowledge to avoid the charges.
Yet we were repeatedly instructed that none of that mattered, that we didn’t have to agree with the law – we just had to decide whether she had broken it or not. We were to judge her, but who puts society on trial and judges it for rigging an unfair system? Or judges a process that asks people who have mostly benefitted from the existing unfair system to close our eyes to the root causes of prostitution, and ignore the why but simply focus whether she did it or not? It’s as if we began watching a race at the end and looked up to see the runners flash across the finish line. ‘Why, it’s easy to see who won,’ we say to each other nodding sagely. It’s obvious who crossed the finish line first. But how that person happened to be in position to win when we looked up, the sum of the events that put them in that position – those details apparently don’t matter, according to our sacred and hallowed institutions of law and justice. Just the end result.
The end result was we found her guilty. While the judge’s aide read the verdict, and as the defense lawyer made us each affirm that we had voted guilty, I kept my eyes on the judge. I felt too ashamed for my participation in an unfair system that shamelessly calls itself justice to look at the defendant. After we were dismissed I glumly trudged to my car to begin the long drive back to Oakland, and fell in step with another juror who was walking out – the young construction worker building Apple’s new campus in Cupertino. “She looked shocked when they read the verdict,” the person I only knew as Juror #6 said conversationally. I told him that I didn’t look at the defendant; I hadn’t wanted to see her reaction. Juror #6 didn’t seem bothered though.
Over the next week when co-workers, neighbors, and friends asked me how jury duty went I expressed my frustration with the system, and vented about my forced role in perpetuating a system that can find a person guilty of a crime and completely ignore the circumstances leading to the crime. I suppose the defendant could have testified, and she might have talked about being poor and having no choice but to make money the only way she knew how. She might have talked about needing to feed kids at home, and not being proud of her profession but doing it to take care of her family. She could have talked about why she had to carry a hatchet for protection, about the very real physical danger she faced every night while working – imminent dangers which likely make the long-term consequences of being found guilty of prostitution seem like nothing. She could have talked about wanting to leave the profession, about preferring to do anything else but having no other options. She could have talked about facing intimidation from her pimp (named “Daddy Koolpad” on her phone, as we discovered during the trial) for not working. She could have pointed out the injustice of the fact that she was being charged for a crime, while the man soliciting her services and the man pimping her were both out free.
She could have talked about any or all of those things. However, in our system of “justice”, not a single one of those details would have mattered. Which is perhaps why she chose to remain silent.
And so here, at the end, at graduation, at the time when my education comes to a screeching halt in its tracks, I suppose its only fitting that I start with the beginning. This is to be a speech about education, so the program says, specifically about my own. Speak to the audience, my advisor said, after much beseechment on my part; speak to the audience and tell them the truth of it; impart wisdom to the young college hopefuls out there in the audience, and stir up old memories for the mothers and fathers of the young college hopefuls out there. Ah, I said, no problem, and it wasn’t until I was already out the door when I finally thought about it, and by then it was too late for my advisor had retired for the day. But since it was only early afternoon, so I decided to stroll around the campus I’ve been tied to for the last five years and let my mind turn over the task in front of me, examine it from all sides, like a child turns over a rock in order to see what creatures he can find underneath. Or perhaps, I thought idly, oddly, languidly, perhaps I ought to let the task in front of me turn over my mind and see what happened.
For starters, I must apologize because you see I never really learned how to talk. For when I arrived at college I quickly learned that education isn’t about talking, although most every professor assured the hushed multitudes of wide-eyed freshmen that offices are great places for talking, all one had to do was show up at room 1671 on the fourth floor of Engineering complex I (not II!) between the hours of eight and nine on Friday mornings. I marveled at the ease in which I could have a conversation with a real, educated, college professor; why it seemed so simple. However in the midst of pondering how much Mr. Engineering must have donated in order to have not one, but two complexes named after him, I had missed the part where the professor had said to make sure and ask questions to the teaching assistant first and then bother him if it still weren’t clear. And so it went, and while other classes did indeed encourage speaking – in fact some mandated it in which points were proffered for pearls of wisdom such as restatements of last week’s lectures, or thoughts clever enough to be so broad and sweeping such that they could not possibly be wrong for they didn’t really say anything in the first place. At first I must confess I was very intimidated by all the smart people around me; I mean these people talked so much and it was quickly obvious that the more one talked, the more intelligence one had; and all I had were dull and tangent thoughts that did not restate, that did not simplify, that did not make the professor sigh with relief when a hand was finally raised to puncture the silence of the desperately broad question asked a good dozen seconds ago. But the talking was the important part, and so it was necessary each class period to come up with something to say; anything, and like wise politicians we went around the room and offered our hoarded responses, each person contributing a brick that together made a fine floor. I think the class was Creative Writing, and of course structured so to maximize the creativity and to maximize the writing.
But all that is really here nor there, and so I tried to pull my errant musings back to the topic of education. If I should sit and think of all my classes and what I had learned, and what I had been tested on, and what had changed my life, and what hadn’t, why it should take volumes upon volumes; although oddly enough I couldn’t really think of anything right now. One could really ponder all day, sitting in ponderous, resplendent repose like Rodan’s statue, thinking of great big issues well suited for that famous thinking pose, issues such as the nature of truth and beauty, justice and peace; philosophies of life could swirl in one’s head, the ills and wills of society, the trials and travails of historical peoples, poverty, all the flaws in the world today and how to fix them – one could really sit and ponder all day, but then one should not get one’s homework sets done and never learn how to recite in essay form chapters from great books, never learn how to repeat by rote memorization the study guide of the professor, never learn how to plug in different numbers into the same mathematical and physics models that approximate reality with such resolution and firmness one should think they were gods in their own right. And then one would have to drop out, and that would be disastrous for one’s education – imagine it; having no set structure, no boundaries with which to bump into in order to console oneself that there is a limit, that one won’t fall into the bottomless pit; it wouldn’t do at all really, having the time free to pursue knowledge as it comes, to be able to investigate every thought that pops into one’s head, such as why soda is cheaper than water, why gasoline in America is half as expensive as it is in Britain, why institutions seem to stifle creativity and original thought instead of cultivating them. No, such expansive freedom wouldn’t do at all, one needs a safety rope to follow, as frayed and worn as it may be from the many who have climbed it before, at least it has been proven that it safely goes in a direction. No, no, give me the Bernoulli effect of fluid dynamics any day of the week, because that’s real, tangible, substantial. Why Bernoulli’s all around you, a professor loved to say, it’s in your shower, on your streets, in your oceans and lakes; and it was thanks to god this solid piece of physics was there because think about it, if those other issues mentioned above, say corporate liability and greed for instance, if those issues had the same kind of proximity to our lives than Bernoulli why, why its not even imaginable what should happen. No, no, no the more I think about it, the more I’m sure that that had to have been what Rodan’s statue was thinking – I’m almost positive it was Bernoulli.
But again my thoughts were off track, and I did my best to bend them towards more meaningful directions. I have learned all questions have answers, and all questions have quick answers, and all questions have quick, easily attainable answers that once found end the question; and so I focused my best effort towards the question in front of me, because it bothered me that it hadn’t ended yet, that it was sticking around; questions aren’t supposed to do that. Inspiration struck as I looked up and spotted the library, its unique form a comforting view in the midst of my scattered wonderings and wanderings. When I had first seen it, I had thought it appeared like a Rubix cube, standing on one corner; but that was when I was a stupid freshman. Now of course I can see that it has history, and indeed the man who paid a lot of money for it has his statue on the top of it. However it represented salvation for me, the lifesaver for those drowning at sea – for what better place to answer questions than at a library?
However it was not meant to be, for the day had extended almost into dusk now, and the library was closed early since it was a Saturday, and of course no one (especially students who really just need expensive textbooks for the pursuit of the knowledge most necessary for them) can study in a library past five o’clock on a Saturday. It was amusing, I thought, thinking of the time before I was in college and was simply one of the millions of uneducated clamoring to get in the hallowed halls of academia in order to learn, in order to learn and in order to use that learning for the benefit of society and human race – for isn’t that why everyone wanted a college education? And it was somewhere along the way that I was able to do it, to get past the hordes on the outside beating against the walls of academia, those that crashed against its gates like waves against the cliffs a few hundred yards away. During one of those high tides, I stepped over, stepped past, stepped on a few of the horde and on their backs lifted myself over the gates, I pushed off and made it onto the ark, where I imagined finding two of every type of intellectual, of finding white sails to billow out with the breeze of my studious exertion, of finding philosophical mysteries embedded in the very sap holding the planks of the institution together; however it was only to find a closed library at five o’clock on a Saturday, and a talking tree in a forest.
Fortunately though the food court was still open, and its cheerily lit signs, bright menus, spotless counters made the restaurants look as if they were the newest entities on campus, which they may very well could have been. As I ate I reassured myself that these thoughts, while not new to me, were only temporary, and should soon die out to the murky recesses of my mind. That worn and frayed rope always got me past these moments, and I concluded that in the end it simply meant that I had failed my education, and wasn’t fit for giving this speech.
Note – this was written in 2005, the year I graduated college from UC San Diego and is written in the literary style of author Virginia Woolf.