Jon Foley in a screen shot I edited from his PBS NewsHour video.
Today Foley shared the graduation address he gave for the University of Minnesota’s College of Continuing Education and gave me permission to publish it here.
) is the Director of the University of MN's Institute on The Environment (IonE). Below his address, see my thoughts...
Thank you all for the opportunity to share this day with you. I
especially want to thank Dean Mary Nichols, who asked me to be here
It’s really an honor to speak at the graduation ceremony
of the University of Minnesota’s College of Continuing Education. You
are an extraordinary group of students. Some of you have created your
own degree programs, others have finished advanced degrees; many of you
did this while working or raising a family. You have shown us how to
work harder, be more committed, and be more creative. You have shown us
the best of the University of Minnesota, and we’re all extremely proud
I’m not exactly sure what Dean Nichols had in mind when
she asked me to speak at your ceremony. Normally, I speak about global
environmental issues and international affairs. But I really don’t
think that you want to hear a speech about the greenhouse effect or
tropical rainforests today. Instead, I’m guessing you want to hear
something more inspiring.
I’m probably not qualified to do that, but I’ll see what I can do.
Part I. Ordinary People
To start off, I want to tell you the stories of ordinary people – ordinary people who did extraordinary things.
The first person I want to tell you about was named James Edward, or J.
Edward for short. He was born in 1878. His father was an
Irish-American bricklayer who worked himself to death at the age of 32,
when J. Edward was only a little boy.
Even though he was only
a child, he had to start working to support his mother and siblings,
and he worked every day of his life until he turned 90. His story is
the quintessential American story: He started with nothing – no money,
no connections, and no education – but he worked incredibly hard,
focused on helping his family and his community, and eventually became a
successful businessman and community leader.
Years later, as
he lay dying, his family got a little bigger: two days before he died,
he became a grandfather one more time. His daughter-in-law was giving
birth in the same hospital, one floor away.
Now I want to tell
you the story of the mother. Her name was Joan, and she gave birth to a
little boy. But there was a problem: The boy was born with a severe
bacterial infection that covered his entire body, and he was not
expected to live through the night. But Joan refused to accept that,
and she took the boy home to take care of him, knowing that leaving him
at the hospital was a death sentence.
She went without sleep
for days, popping every blister on the skin of that screaming infant,
boiling every scrap of fabric that touched his skin, and managed to keep
the infection at bay. The boy lived. For years afterward, doctors
told her that she saved her son’s life. Without her determination,
there was no chance he would have survived.
father-in-law, she stood up when the chips were down, and gave
everything she had for someone else. And that boy grew up knowing that
he owed his life to his mother.
Unfortunately, his story was going turn out differently.
He could not help his mother when, 15 years later, she was diagnosed
with ALS (or Lou Gerhig’s disease) – a fatal, degenerative neurological
disease. He could do nothing while she was in agony, slowly dying in
front of him. Here was the woman who gave him his life, and then against
all odds saved it, and he was completely powerless to help her. That
feeling of helplessness still haunts him to this day.
thing his mother told him was that she was ready to die – it would
release her from the incredible pain she was in – but she “wasn’t done
yet” being his mother. Her last words to him were, “I can’t be there
for you any more, so I need you to promise me something. I need you to
be the best person you can be.”
She gave him one last gift: the
gift of setting a lifelong direction. And that boy swore that he would
do everything he could to follow it.
She died the next day. And he has been trying to figure out how to live up to that promise ever since.
As you might have guessed, I was that boy. (Forgive me for being a
little choked up, but I have never spoken publicly about this before
My mother, Joan, and grandfather, J. Edward, were ordinary people, but they did extraordinary things.
When things became difficult, they didn’t wallow in their sadness or
self-pity: They rolled up their sleeves and did something for those
around them, and for those that would live long after them. In short,
they lived good lives, and they gave something to the future.
bet you all have stories like this in your family too. Mine isn’t
unique or special at all; it’s just the one I happen to know. You all
have other versions of the same story – of ordinary people who did
extraordinary things. And I think we should all give thanks to them
today, on the occasion on your graduation.
Part II. The American Dream
What did these people – in your family and mine – all have in common?
They all lived according to a dream – something we used to call the
Unlike the current so-called American Dream –
which seems to be about getting rich quick, without working very hard,
having a fancy house and car, and living like there’s no tomorrow – the
old American Dream is about building a better future for our families
and our communities. It’s a dream that I still believe in, not out of
some dopey sense of patriotism, but out of a sense of awe.
a dream that says we should work hard, play by the rules, give
something back to our community, and make sure our children have a
better life than we did.
It’s a dream that says creating a
better future for our families, our community, and our world is more
important than living comfortably in the present.
isn’t uniquely American, of course. Many people and cultures around the
world share the values of hard work and building a better future for
our children. But it’s the dream that built this country.
lately many of us seem to have forgotten that dream. In fact, today we
hear people say that we should try to live “in the moment”, as if that’s
the secret to a meaningful life.
I don’t believe that.
The lesson our ancestors taught us is that the most meaningful life is
not the one lived for ourselves, but it is the one lived for others.
They taught us that the key to a great life is to live for people that
you, yourself, might not even live to see.
Why have we forgotten this important lesson?
Part III. Inflection Point
Today, it is critically important for us to remember the lessons of our ancestors.
In fact, in the whole sweep of human history, there has never been a
more crucial moment to live up to their example. Why is that? It’s
because the world is under more pressure now than it has ever been.
Consider the following. Between 1960 and 2010, a period of only 50
years (roughly the lifetime of many of us in this room), the world’s
population more than doubled, and the world’s economic output increased
by seven fold. Imagine that: Twice as many people, with an economy
seven times bigger! That growth required a three-fold increase in water
use, a three-fold increase in food consumption, and a four-fold
increase in global energy use.
Not only did this period of time
see more change than any other in history, it has changed more than all
human history combined. In short, we are living through an inflection
point in the history of our civilization.
In many ways, the
world has been getting better. We are living longer, more prosperous
and safer lives than anyone else in history, largely thanks to the hard
work of previous generations.
But we still face the specters of
poverty, inequality, disease, environmental degradation, and climate
change. We need to start changing our ways and remember the lessons of
our ancestors, or we will leave behind a degraded and more impoverished
world for future generations.
Whether we like it or not, the
fate of the world depends on what we do now. What we decide to do with
this time – our time – in history will not only have impacts on the
lives of our children, it will shape the world for thousands of years to
You and I didn’t ask to be here. But here we are. And
we are in the drivers seat in the most important moment in human
So what are we going to do with it?
Part IV. Hope and History
As we look to the future, what lessons should we follow to help guide us along the way?
First, I think we should be guided by hope. Not a blind optimism that
everything will work out somehow, but rather a rock-solid faith in
humanity – a faith built on knowing that, at our best, we can be an
And I think we need to be guided by a sense of
history. We are at our best when we see that we are connected to those
who came before us, those we share the world with today, and those will
come after we are gone.
I think we’re supposed to play a part
in the great, unfolding drama of human history. We are only here today
because of the sacrifices, hard work, and accomplishments of countless
generations before us. And I believe that we have a moral
responsibility to take our turn at the wheel, and play our part of this
Of course, we could view this as a burden,
but I see it as an incredible gift – a way to be part of something so
much bigger than ourselves.
And have no doubt: What we do with our lives can have a real impact on the world, today and for generations to come.
Part V. Final Wish
So, what will you do as you move into the next chapter of your life,
with your new knowledge, your new skills, and your new degree?
My hope for you is that you do something great, to live a good and
meaningful life, and to make sure you give something to the future.
And I hope one of your children or grandchildren will be on this stage
in 2078 – 65 years from now, 200 years after my grandfather was born –
telling stories about you, and the great things you did for the them and
for the world.
I’m sure they will be incredibly proud of you. I know we all are.
Thank you for the chance to speak to you today.
And congratulations to the Class of 2013!
My thoughts on Foley's address
The graduation of the Class of 2013 is on my mind, as here in Blacksburg, Virginia Tech graduated yesterday.
I "met" Foley on Facebook, when he sent me a "friend invite." Usually, I only respond to folks I know either through interaction in life or correspondence, but I found Foley's work interesting and was flattered he'd want to connect.
The IonE, which he directs, participates in the Natural Capitol Project
with Stanford University, The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund,
several government agencies and others "to develop new approaches
to integrating economics and ecology—with a focus on how to assess the
value of 'ecosystem goods and services.'"
In the video from which I took the screen shot, Foley
talks about how farming is "canary in the coal mine" for climate change
and that long term we need to do more than adapt. W