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Baccalaureate Address: Mark Wallace

Mark Wallace

Audio Transcript

College graduates, family and friends, distinguished guests, and members of the College faculty, administration, and staff:

This baccalaureate is a joyous occasion on a beautiful spring morning. It is fitting for this event to be held in this sacred arbor.

The baccalaureate ceremony has its origins at Oxford University in the 15th century when students were given laurel wreaths to wear in celebration of their imminent graduation. (In those days, speakers gave speeches lasting four hours — don't worry, I promise to keep my comments under three hours!) The term baccalaureate is borrowed from the Latin words for berry (or bacca) and laurel (or laureate). I don't think laurel berries grace this amphitheater — and instead of distributing wreaths to you all today, we will give you roses to wear at Commencement instead — but I know that holly berries are cultivated by the College in this area. As well, tulip trees and white oaks fashion the woody, leafy canopy above, making this site a sort of pagan temple devoted to the reverence of foliage and flowers. Auspiciously, we celebrate this baccalaureate in a green church where trees form the roof overhead, grass and stones are the pews we sit on, birdcalls and other creature sounds provide the music that surrounds us, and the warm wind and floral scents are the sweet incense that wafts about us in this cathedral forest.

Behind this dais is a short path that leads to the Crum Creek, some 200 yards away. On November 15, 1995 a 20-year-old junior at the College, Gabe Cavalleri, hung himself on a tree overlooking a bend in the creek. I didn't know Gabe personally, but many of my students at the time were his friends and classmates. Gabe's death was shattering for all of us. Since that time, I have often returned to the place where the river bends to mourn Gabe's death as I contemplate life at Swarthmore. What pressures do students such as Gabe feel here in their academic pursuits? Does Swarthmore's emphasis on intellectual rigor shortchange the practice of wellness, that is, habits of the head and heart that balance critical inquiry and the life of the spirit? What can I do to help students cultivate their inner sense of well-being along with their wider intellectual and social commitments at the College?

Most recently at the river's bend I encountered a sign of hope in the afterglow of Gabe's death: a large, furry mammal that furiously slapped its fan-shaped tail at my approach, a once ubiquitous but almost extinct species of rodent endemic to this continent, the North American beaver. One whole morning, I watched a beaver dive deep and resurface in the river, groom itself on the riverbank, and slap loudly and furiously its exaggerated tail whenever I got too close to it. The arrival of the beaver to the nearby Crum Creek is a sign of hope. The creek is a marginal watershed daily threatened by industrial runoff, leaking sewer lines, and deforestation. The presence of beavers signals that the creek is healthy enough to support these plant-loving, dam-building balls of flesh and whimsy. Humans do not always love beavers — they eat native plant species, and their dams can cause flooding, but beavers are a keystone species-a type of animal that plays a critical role in maintaining the integrity of ecosystems — and as such they could be important again in the Swarthmore woods for insuring the health and biodiversity of our local biotic communities. Now, when I sit at the river's bend, I feel both despair and hope; it is this mix of sadness and expectation that animates my speech this morning.

If the current scientific consensus about climate change is accurate, then we are now living in an objectively apocalyptic situation in which our planet is teetering on the edge of disaster. Jim Hansen, top climate specialist at NASA, claims we have just 10 years to reduce greenhouse gases before global warming reaches an unstoppable tipping point and transforms our natural world into a "totally different planet." Global warming — the trapping in Earth's atmosphere of greenhouse gas such as C02 from car and power plant emissions — is causing air and ocean temperatures to rise catastrophically to new levels.

The specter of rising temperatures has recently been documented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N.-sponsored group of dozens of climate scientists from more than 100 countries. While Earth's temperature rose by one degree last century, the panel's current predictions are that global temperatures will rise by three to 10 degrees this century, resulting in the widespread melting of Arctic sea ice, mountain glaciers, and perhaps even the Greenland land mass. This mass melting could then raise sea levels, astonishingly, by one-to-two feet or more, causing low-lying shore communities such as the San Francisco Bay Area and lower Manhattan to gradually disappear. Whole island chains, such as the Maldives off the coast of India, or much-loved Venice, Italy, would eventually slip under water. Even now, climate change is contributing to a global die-off of species similar to the last mass extinction event over 65 million years ago when the great dinosaurs were wiped out. Today, biologists conservatively estimate that 30,000 plant and animal species a year are driven to extinction-even the polar bear is now proposed as a threatened species.

Every generation, to borrow historian and futurist Thomas Berry's phrase, has its great work. Every generation has its own sacred responsibility for the welfare of the whole that gathers together people and societies across their cultural and ideological differences. In this generation, our great work will be to fight global warming by re-envisioning our relationship to Earth not as exploiters but as fellow travelers with all the life forms that populate our increasingly fragile planet. The mandate of our time will be to articulate inspired models of sustainable development that promote ecological and climate justice for all persons and the wider natural world. All of our collective economic decisions should be guided by this overarching question, How can we as individuals and institutions today manage the human and environmental capital necessary for achieving our financial goals while also preserving the capacity of future human communities and ecosystems to survive and flourish? For highly industrialized economies like our own, sustainability will be predicated on kicking our habits of dependence on fossil fuels, the primary source of global climate change.

Many of the great social movements in this country's history — the abolitionist groundswell of the 19th century, the suffragist associations of the early 20th century, and, most notably in recent history, the civil rights campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s, and the environmental movement today — were energized by Swatties (or Swarthmoreans in an earlier parlance) enlivened by a moral force for transformation more powerful than any force to stop them. As we must do so today, Swarthmore leaders heeded the call of their generation to change the world.

In the early antebellum period, Lucretia Mott — Quaker minister, organizer of the Seneca Falls Convention for Women's Suffrage, and co-founder of Swarthmore College — was a visionary catalyst in the battle against slavery and made her Philadelphia home an important stop on the Underground Railroad. In the early 20th century, Alice Paul — namesake of one of the College's newest dormitories, militant suffragist, Swarthmore College Class of 1905 — helped to pioneer the passage of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, with the motto, "Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God." In the mid-20th century, Ralph Roy — jailed as a Freedom Rider and pastor of an African American church in Harlem, Class of 1950 — was a fellow laborer with Martin Luther King Jr. in the battle for civil rights in this country. And today, Matt Louis — Rosenberg, Class of 2005, with his "fancy Swarthmore College degree," as one reporter puts it, is a key member of the Coal River Mountain Watch. Matt now has a terrible police record: he has been arrested 125 times for his resistance to the coal-driven mountain top removal industry in the hills of West Virginia.

The bend in the river calls me to both despair and hope. "Expect the end of the world. Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts. Practice resurrection," writes the farmer poet Wendell Berry. I've considered all of the facts, and the prospects of a meaningful human future on our cooking planet are becoming more and more bleak. But let us not give up hope. Let us practice resurrection. We mourn the loss of life in our time, both human and otherkind, but with joy and laughter, like the rambunctious beaver frolicking in the creek, let us go forth from here committed to the great work of our time — saving our planet home for this and all future generations.

Baccalaureate Address: Mark Wallace

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