BAR HARBOR, Maine — Graduating College of the Atlantic students were urged Saturday afternoon during commencement exercises to learn from the mistakes previous generations have made — especially when it comes to the environment.
“Looking at the Gulf of Mexico, I have to wonder if anybody of my generation should be allowed on podiums like this to pass on wisdom to your generation,” said speaker Carl Pope, who recently stepped down from serving as the longtime executive director of the environmental advocacy group the Sierra Club. “Your generation is going to have to do things differently, because you won’t actually have any other choice.”
In a speech that was enthusiastically received by the 70 graduating seniors and others in the audience, Pope expressed the thought that the country is at a turning point similar to one that occurred in the 1890s. At that time, U.S. Census figures determined that the American frontier had essentially closed. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner asked what would become of Americans after the “closing” of the frontier.
“Teddy Roosevelt and his generation answered that question,” Pope said, adding that the president responded with a heavy emphasis on conserving public lands.
But the newly minted college graduates will have to find a different response for a different turning point, he said.
“The fossil fuel frontier has closed,” he said. “What will America become now? If my generation knew that answer, we would not today have to witness the specter of pelicans drowning in crude oil off the coast of Louisiana.”
Pope asked students to make decisions about the planet based on common sense and moral clarity, and encouraged them to avoid falling in line with what he described as “tribal” and “priestly” knowledge.
Tribal knowledge is believing something because like-minded people believe it, too, Pope said.
“It’s probably a good way to pick music,” he said. “But as a form of problem solving, it’s likely to be misleading.”
Priestly knowledge is making decisions based on conventional wisdom, he explained.
“I think what we need a lot more of in the next generation is common sense,” Pope said.
Had the country followed common-sense ideas, the Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico might not have been drilled 5,000 feet below the waterline with equipment proved to work well to just 500 feet underwater, the environmentalist said.
Pope also suggested that Americans are making a mistake by embracing “the impossible” when there are better solutions. He asked what was so impractical about electric cars, or railroads as good as the ones in China, or neighborhood sidewalks.
“Yet that vision is widely seen as an impossible dream, and drilling a hole in the Gulf of Mexico is a practical solution,” he told graduates. “May our folly be your wisdom.”
The graduates, who each received a degree in human ecology — the only degree awarded by the college — sounded undaunted by the challenge set by Pope.
Student speaker Margaret Longley of Friday Harbor, Wash., talked about what she had learned through her studies.
“Everything in our world is inextricably intertwined with everything else,” she said. “As human ecologists, we refuse to see the world in simplistic terms. We have all known things in this world that bring our hearts to tears … yet tears are shed as often for joy as for despair.”
Pope, who now is chairman of the Sierra Club, was awarded an honorary degree by the college. He was joined by Ambassador Bo Lidegaard of Denmark, the chief adviser on climate change to the Danish prime minister; Ambassador Janusz Reiter of Poland, the former special envoy for climate change; and Samuel Hamill Jr., the former chairman of the board of College of the Atlantic.
College president David Hales said afterward that the ceremony was special for him.
“This is my first incoming class that graduated,” he said. “It’s incredibly happy and a little bittersweet.”
Although the students are heading into a world beset by both environmental challenges and an economy struggling to pull out of recession, Hales said he’s not worried.
“They have such incredible diversity,” he said. “The difference in the human ecology degree — and there really is a difference — is that they’re accomplished problem solvers by the time they leave here.”