May is always a month of milestones at our university. Diplomas, awards, and promotions recognize accomplishments and break new ground in the lives and careers of our students, staff, and faculty. Graduation is among the most memorable of May milestones, and this year’s 211th UVM Commencement presents to the world over 3200 graduates from 47 states and 17 countries.
Every graduating class hears how they are entering into a brave new world. A world unlike their parents, filled with new challenges and opportunities. This May’s class is no different, with one major exception. On May 9th the planet officially crossed the milestone of 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The last time the earth hit this mark was in the Pliocene, over 3 million years ago, when as National Geographic notes, “horses and camels lived in the high Arctic [and] seas were at least 30 feet higher.”
The Class of 2013 graduates into the Anthropocene, the unofficial geological epoch marked by the beginning of the industrial revolution and measured by the ticking of the parts per million clock. At 280 ppm, the Class of 1813 graduated into a young country still warring with colonial powers and rapidly expanding westward. At 300 ppm, the Class of 1913 entered a society on the brink of the first of two World Wars and a globalizing economy. At 400 ppm, this year’s graduates step beyond human-made boundaries of country and economy, and into an uncertain future of surpassing planetary thresholds. At current rates of emissions we’ll be at 450 in two decades, a level with a 50/50 chance of stabilizing global temperature increases to 2oC, a climate thought to be within our abilities to adapt. If we blow past 450, all bets are off.
How are we preparing our students for this future? As passive observers or active change agents? As 19th century foot soldiers, 20th century factory workers, or 21st century consumers? Or will the Class of 400 write a new, post-industrial narrative? A narrative that leads to an age of action that bends the curve and redefines progress. A story that moves away from exploitation and externalization, to one rooted in restoration and resilience.
The famed science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin wrote, “There are no right answers to wrong questions.” We have the responsibility to ask the right questions, even if they lead to answers that no one wants to hear. Our University’s land grant mission demands an education with social purpose. Our School’s environmental ethos compels us to practice what we preach. Graduating the Class of 2013 is a milestone in our evolution, not an endpoint in our advances in education, research, and service to society.
I hope to see many of you this weekend to celebrate our May milestones together, and I look forward to right questions, brave answers, and new milestones in the school year ahead.
Jon D. Erickson
Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources