F. Stuart "Terry" Chapin III '66
Fifty years ago after graduating from Swarthmore, I joined the Peace Corps. My motivation was to give back to society, but I had no idea how best to do this. Today I’d like to suggest a framework by which each of you can assess your options and take actions to shape the world’s future. Earth’s human population has more than doubled since I graduated. We have entered a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene, in which human activities dominate the functioning of our planet. The resulting rapid global changes create an urgent need to shape a more sustainable and just future for ecosystems and society. In other words, we have a joint responsibility for Earth’s stewardship. The key features of stewardship are active intervention to address problems, shaping constructive changes, and nurturing a mutually supportive relationship among people and between people and nature.
As graduates of Swarthmore, you have unusual opportunities to make a positive difference in the future of our planet because you are smart, know how to work hard, and have the breadth and depth of training to see the big picture and imagine what your role in it might be. There are many ways to enhance sustainability, so each of us can choose issues and approaches that fit our passions, skills, and personal goals. The important thing is to imagine a more positive Anthropocene and bring some aspect of this vision to fruition. Then, don’t just think about it—plan strategically and do something. It is your world and our joint responsibility. I’ll give you three examples of ways that people like you have fostered stewardship.
Bill Dension was an inspirational teacher and botanist at Swarthmore, who showed us how to have fun both intellectually and through companionship in classes and field trips. He also showed us, by example, how intellectual inquiry and environmental commitment can work hand in hand. He was a role model for many of us, and several of his students conducted climate-change research that helped shape national and international policies. How can you inspire others to accomplish things that you think are important?
AlexAnna Salmon is a young Yupik woman who grew up in rural Alaska. Her father, who was a leader in her community, died in a plane crash during her senior year at Dartmouth. After graduation, AlexAnna returned to her community to continue some of the projects her father had begun. Acting through her network of friends from college and rural Alaska, she and her sister brought renewable energy projects to her community, strengthened cultural education, and stopped industrial mining that threatened the salmon run on which her community depends. Each of you also has a unique network of friends and contacts that enable you to do things that would be difficult for others to accomplish. Think about your networks, expand them, and make use of the resulting opportunities to implement your stewardship goals.
Like many Swarthmore students, Robin Bronen wanted to link social concerns with real-world solutions. After college, she studied law, became a human rights attorney, then pursued a PhD in climate-change science and policy. She now advocates for Alaskan communities facing relocation due to climate-induced coastal erosion. She has gained recognition by the White House and UN commissions as an expert in human migration. This enables her to contribute to strategies to address this issue locally, nationally, and internationally. It often makes sense to start locally where you know the issues and key players but keep your eye on the bigger picture and imagine how you might influence the broader context.
These examples suggest four tools for effective stewardship: integrate, inspire, network, and act. I urge you to think deeply and creatively about options for society as you move through life—and help make some of those options flourish. I therefore ask each of you to take this opportunity to make it your responsibility to shape the future of our planet. Each of us must take an active role in seeking solutions, no matter how big or small, rather than assuming that someone else will fix the problems.