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ph6509I don’t remember the commencement addresses I heard in college, but I’ll bet the University of Portland Class of 2009 will remember theirs.

Part of the problem for my grad speakers was that UC Berkeley is huge, so it holds separate commencements by department. I was a double major, so I had not one but two forgettable events – one for music, one for anthropology. The speakers spoke as and to musicians and anthropologists, I’ll bet, not as and to humans with their toes at the edge of a cliff and a hang glider on their backs.

When it comes to commencement addresses, specialization murders inspiration.

The University of Portland is about a tenth the size of UC Berkeley, so it makes sense that they got ten times the speech – this year, at least. The speaker was Paul Hawken, author, environmental activist, and co-founder of Smith & Hawken, as well as Erewhon and several other environmentally progressive firms.

Though the speech is peppered with religious terminology and ideas – unsurprisingly, since University of Portland is a Catholic institution — I’m struck by the similarity between his ideas and mine. Some excerpts:

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: YOU ARE BRILLIANT, AND THE EARTH IS HIRING.


When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on Earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.


The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries ago, and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams. Literally you are breathing molecules this very second that were inhaled by Moses, Mother Teresa, and Bono. We are vastly interconnected. Our fates are inseparable. We are here because the dream of every cell is to become two cells. In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours.

Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe – exactly what Charles Darwin foretold when he said science would discover that each living creature was a “little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars of heaven.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would become religious overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead the stars come out every night, and we watch television.

I respond differently to the religious bits than I once would have. In my thirties, while teaching at a Catholic college, my high wince-factor at lines like “The world would become religious overnight” would have blinded me to the incredible insight of the lines around it (“Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course…Instead the stars come out every night, and we watch television”). I might also have failed to notice that he was doing no harm – in fact, that his speech was a call to positive action in perfect alignment with my own values.

Now I’m more inclined to notice that Paul Hawken and I agree on the painting rather than fussing quite so much about the frame.

Full text of the Hawken address

(Hat tip to Facebook friend Debra Hill Frewin for bringing the Hawken talk to my attention!)

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.