I teach about “naturecultures” around the globe, a term that disrupts the notion that nature and culture, humanity and nonhumans, science and society are mutually exclusive domains. I teach about both violent and loving social relations between humans and nonhumans; about what is extractive and violent and what is inspiring in science. I teach about the uneven power and material relations between dominant and colonized nations, and the planetary fallout of that. Sometimes I find it hard to say anything more to your generation than “I am sorry,” sorry for the state of things as they are left to you.
But that makes for a terrible graduation speech. And this is what my wise teaching assistant, Jason Morris-Jung, gets after me for. He reminds me that I might try to look at things another more hopeful way. His cautionary note takes me back to some of the very same theoretical lessons that we try to give our students.
If it is not already clear, I teach at the intersections of indigenous thought, feminist science and technology studies, ecofeminism, and queer theory. I believe that those who have been relegated to the margins historically have much to offer in terms of rectifying our relationships between one another and with the nonhumans who have suffered so mightily at human hands. Those who live at the margins suffer more. And often they see more clearly for that. This is what feminist theorists such as Donna Haraway and Sandra Harding remind us of when they call for us to privilege a greater spectrum of voices, situated in very different locales as we produce knowledge, or do science, thus producing a “stronger objectivity.” Those who live at the margins not only see differently than those at the center, but they sometimes channel their suffering and their different visions productively into critical, hopeful, and innovative thought.
And so in my talk today, I want to center a voice from your own generation, not necessarily a marginal voice in the same way that indigenous or women’s voices have been marginal, but one from a generation that has yet to come into power. It’s the voice of a young man, a measured voice, a potentially hopeful voice. I want to share some of what he says because I wonder if his eyes see a path that is closer to what your eyes can see. In spirit then if not in body, I haul your generation up to this podium with me in order to have a conversation about where we might go from here, rather than the usual tired process of having some wise old or oldish(?) elder telling you to go forth, do well, and prosper.
At UC Berkeley’s undergraduate commencement back in mid-May, I was moved and reassured by the words of Eric Olliff, a graduate of my own department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. He is the winner of the 2012 University Medal, which named him Berkeley’s top graduating senior.
One knows what to expect of graduation speeches. Eric Olliff wanted to disrupt that. In trying to find ideas for his acceptance speech, he remarked that: "Naturally, I decided to dig deep into my soul….on Google.com…and when I typed 'valedictory speeches' into that search box, I was pretty disappointed…The results were along the lines of 'tell people to follow their dreams'…'tell a funny anecdote with universal appeal'…pretty standard, run of the mill sort of stuff."
Olliff also noted how the previous year’s winner had it all figured out. He had arrived at Cal knowing exactly what he wanted to do and the courses he wanted to take. Olliff however had a different experience. As a freshman, he had no idea what he wanted to do. He took Chinese language because he wanted one class with less than 500 students. But he ended up doing much at Berkeley. He found close friends. He went to Forestry Camp and learned ecology. He studied abroad in China, took hippie road trips in a rainbow painted bus, longed for a date, fell in love…twice. He had no idea what he wanted when he came to Berkeley but, and I quote, he says “it turned out pretty damn good.”
Yet at the end of his undergraduate career, unlike past winners he is not going to graduate or medical school at Oxford or Stanford. He has a summer research job that pays $13 an hour, and that is nothing to sneeze at in this economy. Although he is not (or not yet) Oxford or Stanford-bound, he loves the environmental learning he’s done and will continue to do, whether that’s in graduate school or whether it will be from a Winnebago and a life on the road for a while.
So why am I telling you this story? Because one would NEVER have heard this kind of speech in my Generation X from a young man with Olliff’s accomplishments. University medalists are judged on grade point—his was a 3.99—and extra-curricular activities. Yet there stood Olliff speaking before a crowd of 16,000 spectators in a football stadium at one of the world’s top ranked university systems, basically saying, “Don’t worry, be happy.” But he was not being frivolous or necessarily even privileged enough to not have to worry. That would have been the quickest response to such a stance among my generation of critical thinkers.
Like many of my own undergraduates in my Society, Environment, and Culture course—and my students are gender, race, class, and sexual orientation diverse—Eric Olliff does so much better what your generation does. He doesn’t have the same expectations as my generation. I don’t fully understand what his/your expectations are. But for many of you, who are tethered to reality, they are certainly not simply the same tired over-consuming, ladder-climbing dreams that proliferated in my day, during the 1980s, and which I have a difficult time letting go of. And Olliff is certainly not certain about how things will turn out. But neither is he pessimistic. I am trying to do what my teaching assistant admonished me to do, to understand how a young undergraduate like Eric Olliff can say “let us not fret or panic, but rather celebrate our accomplishments.” Whatever those are.
I feel my age here in that I have to reach out to one of your own in order to offer you some useful advice. So I stand before you today taking part in a looping form of knowledge and learning. There will be no one way transmission of wisdom here today. I hope my undergraduates learn something from me, but I also learn from them. My hopes and ambitions and dreams cultivated in another century are not befitting for your generation or for this world anymore. We have to find a better way and I trust some of you to find it better.
So I circle back to what Eric Olliff might call a “run of the mill” truism. You are the future. But I don’t say that for your own good or inspiration. I say that, selfishly, for myself and for my generation and my parents’ generation. We need you. We need you to see the possibilities that we cannot see because our eyes are turned with regret towards the past and trying to figure out what happened and what we are to do about it. But I doubt that WE will do much about it when all is said and done. The more pessimistic or aggressive and stuck-in-the-past amongst us will continue to wage war with weapons, with extractive and polluting technologies, and unfettered market mentalities. The centrists among us will commission more research and policy analysis, or attempt to reorganize and downsize outmoded and broken systems. The more liberal among us will lament the supposedly more democratic past and call for a return to that—a greater inclusivity that only some of us really ever had access to anyway. What will we do but bomb, extract, plan, analyze, and lament?
Will all of you help us figure out how to live differently in the 21st century and beyond? What will our homes, our towns and cities, our transit and energy systems, our food and educational systems look like in the coming decades? What will become of the planet?
There is a work of fiction, later a film, called Children of Men that I think signifies why you should take caution and develop a healthy skepticism for the visions of your elders. It portrays the last generation of youth on Earth after a suddenly infertile human race as “Omegas,” as roving bands of nihilistic young adults who with no future roam the countryside committing murder and violence. Cormac McCarthy wrote a novel, also later a film, called The Road, in which an unexplained apocalypse has happened this time leaving the earth and not humankind infertile. Nothing grows and humans have again taken to the roads and countrysides raping, pillaging, and cannibalizing. These are hopeless and violent visions that see our world as ending. There is a proliferation of such films these days and I confess to watching them all with a sick kind of craving, wanting to see and think about how I would respond to such possible futures. I think my teaching assistant was in a gentle way calling me out for standing too much with the purveyors of such visions.
I hope you have something to learn from us. In my own Dakota culture, and through my 43 years of life experience I have learned to respect my elders. Our elders after all of their mistakes and lessons can especially teach us about patience, forgiveness, and letting go of purist, unrealistic ideals. But at this point in history most of them/us have little to teach you about how to live better and more responsibly in relationship with this planet. As best as I can see, many of you, on the other hand, are in the midst of figuring something out. We need you, and we need to support you in the collaborative, democratic, less hierarchical, more sustainable community and technology building that you do. Whether it is just your naturally youthful energy, creativity, and optimism, or whether it is where you are situated geographically (there is so much good thinking on this front in northern and central coast California), or where you are situated in relationship to another century that you were not so much privy to and probably do not lament the passing of its standards and aspirations, we need to support you. We need to honor what your eyes can see, and ours cannot. We need to give way to your ideals and visions for what the world can look like.
On that note, and also helping to keep my own pessimism in check, I want to highlight a different type of work and living that I think promises something better in our future. There are projects going on in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest—multi-generational, multi-disciplinary, and multi-cultural projects in which Native peoples, their youth and elders, their planners and traditional people, environmental scientists, engineers, and architects are working together to develop environmentally and culturally sustainable housing, land and resource management practices. They are breaking down barriers between fields, between so-called “traditional” and “scientific” knowledges, and between the generations. They are learning from one another in albeit difficult processes of exchange in which everyone and no one is an authority. One of the most interesting developments I’ve seen is a tribe that is building both culturally and environmentally sustainable housing that stretches the notions of “green” and “sustainability” to accommodate culturally-specific housing uses, i.e. houses that need to accommodate extended and not nuclear family structures and collective cultural activities, houses designed structurally with knowledge about how spirits might inhabit those houses, and with an attention to how morning prayers need to be performed. In this case, green housing is defined in ways that are less market-tied than our current national green building standards. Ideally, such houses are built by a community of citizens and not by contractors operating within a capitalist system. Again, where you live in California is a hotbed for this type of thinking and work. It’s not only Native Americans who are doing this. Lots of local folks are getting in on this type of living. Being in an environmental studies program, I see many young people living matter-of-factly with this less top down learning and working style and less market tied networks and institutions. This way of working is not a revelation for them like it is for my generation. It is an expectation of how things must work differently.
So I want to say not just congratulations but thank you for working so hard to be here today as graduates. Thank you for believing in yourselves. I know you don’t always feel that way. We all struggle with self-doubt. That never ends, unless you’re pathological and you don’t want that! The trick is to always walk that line between humility and self-confidence. And thank you in advance for the good work you will do throughout your lives. Finally, thank you for the honor of asking me to speak to you today. I look forward to our continuing conversation and our mutual learning.
Congrats to the following graduates!
Devan Amaral, B.S. Health Sciences
Madana Cast (Ojibwe), B.S. Human Biology
Christopher Chavez, B.A. Latin American/Latino Studies
Kirsten Courtney Concha-Moore (Taos Pueblo and Jemez Pueblo), B.S. Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology
Jessi Felix, B.A. Latin American/Latino Studies and Intensive Literature
Gemma Givens (Kaqchikel), B.A. American Studies
Chelsea Hawkins (Duwamish), B.A. English-Language Literatures
Cristal Yeucatzini Cadenas Olivas, B.A. Latin American/Latin@ Studies and Spanish Literature
Lucio Cloud Ramirez (Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe), M.S. Social Psychology
Carolyn Rodriguez (Amah Mutsun), B.A. Literature (Modern Literary Studies)
Tiffany Williams (Yaqui), Feminist Studies/Sociology