Life on a small planet

The Baccalaureate Address

Rick Levin ’74PhD is the president of Yale University. This speech was delivered three times, to three different groups of graduating seniors and their families, May 24–25 in Woolsey Hall.

I graduated 40 years ago and three thousand miles away, in 1968, a year marked by urban riots, two tragic assassinations, an unpopular war in Vietnam, and defeated revolutions in France and Czechoslovakia. In the wake of this turmoil and strife, there appeared at the end of that year images so astonishing that they remain imprinted in memory. They were straightforward photographs, taken with a Hasselblad camera, neither edited nor manipulated to achieve emotional effect. Yet they elicited the most powerful emotions. They were stunningly beautiful, hopeful, and profoundly humbling all at once.

I refer to the first photographic images of the earth taken from the vicinity of the moon by the crew of the Apollo 8 spacecraft, one of which is reproduced as an insert to your program.

Here we were in a world torn by conflict between two warring ideologies, led by nations with nuclear arsenals sufficient to destroy each other many times over, our security in the hands of leaders on both sides who preached and practiced the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Forty percent of the world's inhabitants were in poverty, major cities were choked with air pollution, and the opportunities available to women and people of color were starkly limited. And yet here was this extraordinary image reminding us that we all lived on one small, fragile planet -- a beautiful, pristine jewel from the distance of 240,000 miles, as Milton somehow imagined three centuries earlier when he described "this pendant world, in bigness as a star of smallest magnitude."

We have come a long way in 40 years toward making this fragile planet a better place. The Cold War is over. The fraction of humanity in poverty has declined from 40 percent to less than 20 percent. Through strict controls on the emission of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, and particulates, we have dramatically improved air quality in the cities of Europe and the United States. And the opportunities for women and people of color, in this country at least, have increased to an extent barely imaginable 40 years ago. Certainly, no one in 1968 was imagining that a woman and an African American would be among the leading contenders for the presidency of the United States.

But most of these results -- the collapse of the Soviet Union, the abatement of pollution, and the advancement of the rights of women and minorities -- were achieved by work within nations rather than through cooperation among nations. A major exception is the reduction of global poverty, which is in substantial part a consequence of the steady liberalization of international trade and investment through global agreements in the Tokyo and Uruguay rounds.

Small as the world appeared in 1968 from 240,000 miles away, today the world is much smaller. The revolution in communications technology has brought us closer together. Information, images, and capital flow instantaneously across national borders, and the flow of people and products is faster and more voluminous than ever before. Our economies have become much more interdependent, and, increasingly, the problems that beset us will require global rather than national solutions. A simple case in point is the current crisis in credit markets. A generation ago, the U.S. government could have managed the situation in isolation. Today, to be successful, the Federal Reserve Bank needs either tacit or explicit cooperation from the European Central Bank and the Chinese government.

As you go forth from this place that has been your home for four years, you will inherit this shrinking planet. It will be yours to take care of for the next 40 years and more. You are, fortunately, far better prepared for this task than my generation was. The Yale College Class of 1968 had only 19 students from outside the United States; they represented 13 countries. Your class has 106 students from outside the United States, representing 41 countries. As best we can tell, fewer than 100 students in the Class of 1968 benefited from a Yale-sponsored experience overseas or an independent junior year abroad program. In your class, nearly 700 have had such an experience. You have also had access to a curriculum far richer in its coverage of the languages, culture, society, politics, and economics of other nations.

Yale has offered you this richer curriculum, increased the representation of international students, and created hundreds of new opportunities for overseas study, research, and work internships because the demands of twenty-first-century citizenship compel these initiatives. Like generations of your Yale College predecessors, you have developed a capacity for close reading, critical and independent thinking, clear and effective writing, and quantitative and scientific reasoning. But a complete twenty-first-century education requires one essential new skill: the capacity for cross-cultural understanding. To be adequately prepared for life in a highly interdependent world, you need the ability, which I trust that you have begun to develop here, to recognize and appreciate that those from other nations and other cultures see the world differently, hold different assumptions, and often reach different conclusions even when presented with the same facts. Only with this capacity for cross-cultural understanding will you achieve your full potential in the inevitably global careers you will pursue and in the contribution you will make to the greater society.

This last point is particularly salient for those of you who are Americans. This nation has suffered through much of its history from isolation and insularity. Too often, our leaders have been insufficiently aware of the effects of America's actions on the rest of the world, and insufficiently mindful of how America is perceived throughout the world. Your generation will have an opportunity to remedy this historic deficiency, in an era in which international cooperation is needed more than ever if we are to continue to make progress toward a better life for all.

Stepping up to the responsibilities of global citizenship is probably not the first thing on your mind this weekend, as you reflect upon the passage of these four years, as you think about the friendships you have made, the teachers you have encountered, and the good of this place that you will take along with you. At this moment, your thoughts of the future are probably a mix of excitement and anxiety as you contemplate the next step in your education, or your first job, or whether you will get a first job.

But your Yale education has equipped you for more than your next step; it is yours for a lifetime. And its aim has not been merely to prepare you for successful careers and personal fulfillment, but to prepare you for lives of service. Your service might begin with private acts of generosity and kindness. But it extends to the practice of civic virtue that was identified as the purpose of a Yale College education in our founding charter of 1701. And civic virtue, envisioned as distinctly local three centuries ago, must embrace the global as well as the local in the shrinking world we inhabit today.

The challenges of global citizenship are many: to extend the benefits of health and prosperity to those without them, to reduce the threats from terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and to preserve the capacity of the earth's resources to sustain its inhabitants in peace, health, and prosperity.

I want to elaborate a bit on the challenge of sustainability, because I believe that it is a challenge that will be uniquely pressing for your generation. The challenge of extending the benefits of health and prosperity to a wider number, and the challenge of preventing war, have both been with us for many generations. But it is only in recent years that the limitations on the earth's capacity to sustain us have become starkly apparent. And we are running out of time.

Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, consisting of 2,500 leading scientists from around the world, concluded that the evidence for global warming is now "unequivocal." These scientists determined with "very high confidence" that human activity has been the major cause of rising global temperatures since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-eighteenth century. According to the panel, in the absence of corrective measures, global temperatures are most likely to rise between two and four degrees centigrade by the end of this century. Even a one-degree increase in temperature will limit fresh water availability and cause coastal flooding in much of the world; economic, social, and environmental damage and dislocation will become much more consequential if global temperatures increase by more than two degrees.

There is a way to avoid catastrophe, and here at Yale you have been helping to demonstrate this. During your sophomore year, Yale committed to the ambitious goal of reducing by 43 percent its emission of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. You have helped us get one-fifth of the way toward our goal in just two years, by replacing the incandescent bulbs in your rooms with compact fluorescents, and by switching off lights and computers more conscientiously.

Yale will continue to do its part to prevent global warming. We will continue to retrofit our existing buildings with efficient windows and effective controls, upgrade our power plant equipment, and use biofuels where appropriate. We will build all our new buildings to the highest standards of energy efficiency. And we will even install micro-windmills on Science Hill this summer. We are determined to prove that we can reduce the university's carbon footprint by more than 40 percent, even as we expand, at a cost of less than one percent of our operating expenses.

You need to do your part as well. As you leave this place, I hope you will carry with you, as part of your commitment to global citizenship, a recognition that the burden of ensuring the well being of future generations falls on you. In your homes, workplaces, and communities, as well as in your involvement in public life, I hope you will remember to seek an appropriate balance between present and future. I urge you to live in better harmony with this small planet's resources than prior generations have. And I urge you, as global citizens, to promote the prosperity and improved health of your own generation in a manner that is sustainable, in the sense that future generations will have at least as much opportunity to enjoy the fruits of the environment and the fruits of their own potential as we ourselves enjoy.

Women and men of the Class of 2008: as you leave here, I congratulate you on your achievements. I share with your proud families and friends the confidence that you will find expression for the extraordinary talent and potential that you have exhibited these past four years. This small planet is yours to make better. In the words of the prophet Isaiah: may you go out in joy and be led forth in peace. And, if you serve, as I trust you will, as faithful stewards of this small and fragile planet, may the mountains and hills burst into song and may all the trees of the field clap their hands. 

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