Global Environmental Politics

Master's Degree Programs in Global Environmental Policy and in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development

2014 GEP/NRSD Commencement Addresses

Below are transcripts from the 2014 GEP/NRSD Commencement Speakers: Ken Conca, Joe Thwaites, and Cassie Mullendore. The commencement ceremony took place on Saturday, May 10, 2014, in the Abramson Family Founders Room at American University’s School of International Service. 

From Program Director, Ken Conca:

Thank you. I really feel honored to be asked to speak! I will try to be brief and lively. Early in my teaching career, a student wrote on a course evaluation “If I had 10 minutes to live, I’d want to spend them with Dr. Conca—because Dr. Conca can make 10 minutes seem like 2 hours.”

Every graduating cohort is different. I would describe this one as capable, energetic, humorous, tightly knit, and definitely not whiners. You’ve been a great group, and I thank you for all that I’ve learned in my two years with you.

Commencement addresses are supposed to give advice. I’ve heard a lot of them, and I can tell you, the advice usually sounds clichéd (“stay true to your dreams”), or impossible (“save the world”), or trivial (“remember to wear sunscreen”). I’m supposed to say you’re the best-prepared generation ever…and that the world’s problems are really big…but, with enough pluck and determination, and a little sunscreen…et cetera.

Now, I do want you to be true to your dreams, and to save the world, and I’m even good with the sunscreen. But I’ve already been giving you advice, for two years now. So, instead, I’m going to ask for a favor. I want you to change how you think of yourself. As you go forward with your life, I’d like you to think of yourself as a teacher.

I realize this may seem odd, in light of all the time, money and effort you just spent to be with people like me, who are supposed to do the teaching! But what, exactly, is a teacher? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, so I did the natural thing–I looked it up on Wikipedia. It says “A teacher is a person who provides education for students.” Not much help there.

Next obvious step—I did a Google Image search. 41 of the first 43 images showed a smart-looking person (almost always wearing eyeglasses) in front of a chalkboard (usually filled with numbers, or, occasionally, monosyllabic rhyming words, cat/rat). Again, not much help.

Then I searched for quotations about teaching. I learned that teaching is the noble profession. I learned that a society is judged by the caliber of people to whom it entrusts its youth. I learned that physical education teachers are not known for their intellect. OK, fine—still no core idea of what teaching actually is.

In my mind, a teacher is what a teacher does. Teachers don’t “provide” learning—we try to catalyze it. We can be edgy; we ask questions, we stir the pot, we challenge assumptions. And we’re pushy; we push you to do what you’re certain you can’t do—until, of course, you do it. In the process, we can be gloomy; we hit you hard and square with the world’s problems, and we don’t try to sugar-coat it, because that would be intellectually dishonest.

Edgy, pushy, gloomy—so far, teachers sound a little neurotic. But I hope we also convince you that there are pathways forward, that they can be found, and that looking for them is a fundamental part of being alive in the world.

So, if that’s what teaching is, why should you think of yourself as a teacher? Three reasons. First, because we have no chance at a better future unless the world gets serious about learning its way out of the environmental mess we have created. The problems are large, they are pervasive, and they are not going away by themselves. We’re messing with life-sustaining systems in perilous ways, and we’re headed for consequences we don’t understand. Learning how to have a new relationship with nature is the essence of the challenge we face as a civilization, and it’s a huge one. Don’t duck it.

A second reason I hope you will take on a teacher’s identity: most of the learning that is required will never take place in a classroom. It will happen in homes, in offices, in the voluntary associations we make, in the town square (both real and virtual), and in the streets. It’ll happen right where you are, as you live your life. Be part of it.

But the real reason I hope you will take this teaching mission on board: because you can have a different wisdom. The writer Barbara Kingsolver once said that wisdom is like frequent flyer miles or scar tissue—it accumulates while you’re trying to do something else. This means that each generation will create its own wisdom. You’ve been out there doing your thing in a landscape radically different from the one I came of age upon. I didn’t have Buzzfeed to teach me about the 100 most important cat pictures of all time! And my landscape never generated anything quite like the explosion of global concern we’ve seen this past week about kidnapped girls in northern Nigeria. Your world is, or can be, fundamentally different from the one that gave us some spectacularly bad ideas: the idea that it makes sense to use six gallons of drinking-quality water to flush away a few ounces of urine…or that we should have office buildings that need air conditioning in the winter…or that it is somehow OK to build and rebuild a transportation system that demands so much violence and war and repression, just to keep the cars rolling.

As you tackle these teaching tasks, a few things to keep in mind:

First, a big part of teaching is helping people to UNLEARN some of the truths they’ve embraced. Most Americans believe the single biggest component of the trash going into landfills today is…disposable diapers. Many of you thought so too, right? Actually, it’s paper. Despite all the efforts to make recycling a modern civic virtue, it’s paper. Despite telling ourselves we’re good people because we recycle, it’s paper. Despite the digital revolution and the paperless office…it’s still paper. The problems are not always as they seem, and this is an educational gap we all have a responsibility to try to fill.

Second, change won’t come from an elite dialogue of experts. It won’t result from whispering in the king’s ear, and it won’t come from hitting people again and again with scary facts, until they submit. Neither the world, nor the princes that run it, are going to wake up and suddenly see the light on some Tuesday morning—even if it is one of these increasingly common 85-degree Tuesdays in January, with 4 inches of rain. If you’ve been paying attention, you know that’s not how social change works. This is a marathon, and the people who think it’s a sprint will soon be gone—or, worse, they’ll slip in during that last mile to try to take the credit, or take things in a different direction. Don’t be one of them. Be in it for the long haul.

Third, teach—and learn from—whoever shows up in your life’s classroom. Your life will be full of people who are one bump away from being downsized, outsourced, pushed off the land, told they are no longer useful. They’re scared, too, and for very good reasons. You need to learn how to talk with them.

Fourth, remember what does empower people to create change—a positive vision of the future. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of the classic work The Little Prince, once said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them (teach them!) to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Right now, this room contains more people than perhaps anywhere in DC who know that you can ride a bike in this city—and that you can get around faster, better, and happier by doing so. We know that you can grow good food in this city. We know that its trees, and rain barrels, and community gardens—what the bureaucrats are learning to call “green infrastructure”—aren’t just infrastructure for resource management. They’re infrastructure for a better quality of life and a better fabric of community. And we know that these things can be true in Ward 9, across the Anacostia River, just as much as over here in Ward 3.

Finally, recognize that you have resources—more than you realize. First, you have privilege. We are privileged in all sorts of ways I won’t bother to recount. For me, privilege means you give up the right to be discouraged. Second, you have passion. I know this group; you’re idealists who care about the world. Passion is an essential ingredient. But passion alone is never enough. Knowledge is also required, and you have this as well. Privilege, passion, knowledge…maybe that’s a pretty good definition of a teacher, right there.

So, whatever role you choose in all of this—to be an insider, working within the system; or an outsider, critiquing it; or an inside-outsider; or an outside-insider— whatever you decide you should be doing, I hope there’s room for some teaching, in whatever classroom life puts before you.

Thank you. And to our graduates, my heartfelt congratulations.


 From GEP graduate, Joe Thwaites:

I am surprised and honoured that you’d entrust one of the most sacred rituals in American civic life – the graduation speech – to a Redcoat.

So thank you, and I apologise if you have trouble understanding me: we are, after all, two nations divided by a common language. I’ll do my best.

I don’t really feel qualified for this: I’m not going to give rules for how to hand out business cards, and I didn’t spend a decade blocking the UN climate negotiations, so by SIS standards I’m really a bad choice of speaker.

But if Paul Williams and Paula Dobriansky are the definitions of success, then I’ll embrace failure. Which is a good thing, because we all fail, often. But as Samuel Beckett so wonderfully put it: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

So I’ll embrace this speech as an opportunity to fail. I’ve already failed to thank our parents, our family and our Professors, which I should have done upfront.

Thank you. We owe you the most enormous debt. You have nurtured is in ways we will never fully understand or appreciate until the time when we are in your position. So forgive us for the fact that our full gratitude will be delayed. But this is as much your day, for it is your success in educating us as passionate and concerned human beings which we’re celebrating.

And of course, thank you to you, classmates, friends, and now, Masters.

In trying to figure out what I should say today, I decided to study the genre: I watched and read an unhealthy amount of commencement speeches. There’s a reason they limit them to once per degree. The past few weeks I’ve been an insufferable bundle of positivity and feel-good clichés. I’m sorry to anyone who has had the misfortune to be around me. It might not sound so bad, but unwavering, unwarranted optimism is really not the best state of mind to be in when writing final papers.

But what did I learn from this rhetorical binge? Be yourself, follow your dreams, be kind, help other people. But you knew all that already: after all, you chose this, a superbly altruistic graduate degree. You don’t need me to plagiarize wisdom, and that’s good, because I’m too young to convey it with any credibility.

Instead I’ll speak about our experience at AU. You each have your own precious memories which I cannot do justice to in the few minutes I have, but bear with me.

When we arrived here we quickly agreed on a shared diagnosis of the problems the world faces – things are indeed VERY BAD. For proof: look at the extreme weather events that have bookended our degree: Hurricane Sandy and the Polar Vortex. We did the maths; we know the way things currently work just doesn’t add up.

But we have diverged on the answers: reform or revolution? Capitalism or something else? Sloths or pandas?

We divided into optimists and pessimists. The division remains friendly – some of us have switched sides a few times in the past years. Heck, I switch sides several times a day. But in the end, for all this divide has seemed important, our differences are not so great.

We all deal in really big, existential questions. What is an appropriate metric to measure how much trouble we’re in? What does ‘sustainable’ actually mean and how do we get there? Where is the Watkins building and how do we get there? The feeling of existential crisis is particularly heightened now, as many of us are still trying to figure out what we’re going to do with our lives.

So then what are we celebrating today? The culmination of several years’ hard work, certainly. But once we get out into the dreaded ‘real world,’ which is now awaiting us with terrifying imminence, will we get a celebration like this every couple of years? Perhaps, if we’re lucky. Maybe we should make that a goal: to find something in our lives that will make us feel as valued as we do today.

I guess my question is: why are we leaving? We are so lucky, and we will miss this. Yes, it sucked not to be able to fully switch off at the end of the day, to have poorly defined weekends, and the practicums, theses and SRPs were completely draining. But what a privilege to have our only work be to read, write, think and debate with some of the best minds in the business. If we messed up the worst repercussion was a B minus! So today is a day of celebration, certainly, but also a little bit of sadness.

There is a bright side, though, and that’s that the world out there needs us. We live in the right time, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. It’s true we face an uncertain future. Things are probably going to get worse, but we can try and get better.

If that sounds like wisdom, rest assured, it’s not coming from me, but from Paul Wapner, who writes: “confidence comes not from knowing everything and being able to control our experience but rather from knowing that we do not know everything, and nonetheless finding ways to live meaningfully and work on behalf of life.”

I draw hope from all of you – professors and classmates, mentors and friends – that this is possible. You don’t just talk and wring your hands about the dismal situation we’re confronted with; you’re taking action to change it.

The arc of the moral universe doesn’t bend because of Buzzfeed or Upworthy, but because people get out there and actually do something. So please stay involved – if for no other reason than to give me hope.

Because we’ll all need that hope. We’ll meet a great many people who say things are too difficult to change, that it can’t be done. It is tempting to retreat into the false comfort of cynicism. But in the end, no matter how miserable and depressing environmentalists can come across, if we were true cynics, we wouldn’t be here today.

So while others are busy proclaiming they cannot imagine a different world, let’s make one. To those who say it can’t be done, retort with the words of Nelson Mandela: “it always seems impossible, until it’s done.”

Congratulations, and good luck.


From NRSD graduate, Cassie Mullendore:

Thank you Judy. I would like to thank our professors, families, friends, colleagues and of course, my beautiful graduating cohort for being here. I would like to extend a special thank you to the graduation committee who had enough faith in me that I could go 5 minutes without using my favorite four letter words. I won’t let you down.

I’d like to start by thanking the families, friends, colleagues and mentors who are here today as well as those who couldn’t make the trip. There is no doubt that you are our rocks, our basis of stability, our lifelines and enormous contributors to our accomplishments. We do not exist nor triumph without you and based on the success and intelligence of this cohort, this achievement is yours as much as it is ours. Whether your support is intellectual, emotional, financial or all of the above, we are forever indebted.

To our professors, our intellectual guidance throughout this two year journey, I’d like to thank you for sharing your enormous wealth of expertise with us, for challenging us to think beyond our established paradigms and discourses, for keeping us humble with your constructive criticism, for providing crucial job recommendations, for always extending your office hours to make time for us, for breaking up arguments when us capitalists enraged the masses, and for encouraging us to get published when no one had ever believed in our writing before. Even after two years of this program I still read your professor bios and get extremely intimidated before I remember that I’m on a first name basis with some of you. It is without question that this department attracts brilliant faculty and it has been an honor to get to know so many of you.

And finally, to my beloved NRSD cohort. Almost two years ago we all sat in a Ward classroom with just us. It was the first time NRSD had been together face to face with only our cohort. I don’t remember much about what we talked about in that meeting but I do remember something Judy said. We’d just sat down and she looked around the room looking completely happy and at ease in the presence of extremely nervous 20somethings (plus Moses) and said, “I know you’re all strangers now, but by the end of this program you’re gonna be be eating off each other plates and finishing each others sentences.” At the time it seemed like such an odd comment to me. Everyone I knew who was already in grad school greatly disliked their cohort members and based on how smart and accomplished everyone sounded in their introductory emails, I was terrified of all of you. I was pretty sure I would have to be a complete anti-social nerd to keep up with my cohort and the amazing things you had done before entering this two year adventure.

But I quickly discovered that there’s something different about this program, maybe about this specific group of people. We fell right into friendships, we partied on H Street together, we brunched at DuPont, we argued about the definition of sustainability in and out of the classroom, we trolled climate change deniers on Facebook, we took care of each other when we inevitably contracted numerous diseases in Costa Rica, we helped each other during emotional breakdowns and break ups as well as sharing joy during some of our best moments, we had pool parties in El Rodeo, we listened to Sam rant about Jared Diamond, we were taught how to do yoga by the ever-patient Jamie, we sang along to Howard’s Alaskan animal songs and we laughed as Mark described the entertaining and sometimes dangerous aspects of growing up with three brothers. But most importantly we respected both the personality and ideas of each and every one of our cohort members, and considering just how hard it is for most people to make solid, lasting friendships out of a group of complete strangers, I think we did pretty well for ourselves.

I’m new to this field and have discovered that environmentalists in general are a weird group. It’s like this quirky, depressing club that knows exactly how bad things are, but also has to struggle with a sense of complete helplessness about how to fix this broken world we live in. It’s the kind of club that you sometimes wish you weren’t a part of because it’s so frustrating to see the monumental mistakes and missed opportunities that appear to be endemic to our nation and world leadership. We live in a time when being ignorant dooms our planet to destruction while being cognizant dooms our souls to constant disappointment, annoyance and of course, occasional slight depression.

On our very first day of the mandatory SIS 660 back in August 2012, Professor Ken Conca subbed in for Judy and began the class with this line:

“All the reasons given for the causes of the world’s problems, when you really drill down, usually come back to one of two things: ‘people are stupid’, or ‘people are evil’. While that may be true, ideally we’d like our analysis to be a bit more nuanced.”

I’d like to think that after two years of arguing about what exactly sustainable development is, whether the Green Economy is the worst thing that ever happened or not or how to reconcile the fundamental conflict between protecting the environment and caring for the world’s poorest communities, that I have better analysis than that. Sadly, at the end of the day Professor Conca was right, people are stupid, people are evil.

So let’s start tweaking that narrative, let’s not be stupid or evil. Let’s infiltrate the World Bank and keep pushing climate initiatives, let’s work our way through the state department to positions of power where we can start making a difference, let’s start a local NGO that makes people and the environment’s lives better. Let’s minimize evil and maximize effectiveness.  We all sacrificed and committed in order to be in this program, whether it was spending time away from loved ones, making large contributions to this country’s overall student debt portfolio or passing up career opportunities, which means that somewhere in all of us, we really believe that things can be fixed. We may disagree on the means to achieving change, but the big secret to this ambitious task we all signed up for is that there is no single means to altering the system. It’s not just market mechanisms, or hippie communes, or Marxist revolutions, or top down or bottom up development, it is everything. And that’s why it’s so daunting and frustrating. But that’s also why I have complete faith that we’re prepared, because we’ve just spent two years debating every aspect of the environment, economics, poverty, development and literally every single issue in between.

A few months back, Ali, one of our cohort members, and I attended a potluck. We were getting food and I don’t even remember which one of us grabbed a plate, but there was this unspoken understanding between us that we would be sharing. There were plenty of plates, that really wasn’t the issue, and in that moment I finally understood what Judy meant back at orientation. I understood how the bonds of this program go far beyond being disgusted at the germs another person might have. I don’t get along well with most people, but liking the individuals in this group came so effortlessly both in and outside of the classroom, that I know we have something special here, something different. Let’s use our moxie to change the narrative, let’s be a small group of people that’s not stupid or evil. Let’s use what we’ve learned here to be smart, compassionate and influential. I’m so done talking about natural resources and sustainable development in the confines of a classroom, let’s go out there and do it. Thank you and good luck.

Author: sisgep

The Global Environmental Politics program in the School of International Service at American University offers a unique, specialized, and world-leading graduate environmental studies education. We have two degree tracks: Global Environmental Policy (GEP), and our dual-degree Natural Resources and Sustainable Development (NRSD) option with the UN-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. Join us!

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