Today’s graduating seniors enter a century of challenging responsibilities

Today is commencement at Washington University. Several hundred of the graduating seniors will have taken a course I teach there on how biology impacts important public issues. As they graduate into a new century, I want to repeat to this broader newspaper audience what I told my students about the future they are about to enter.

On the last day of class, borrowing shamelessly from the film Dead Poet’s Society, I project on a huge screen behind me a series of faces, one after the other. Ignoring for the time being the faces that loom behind me, I summarize for the class the issues we have been discussing through the term. Finally, after perhaps 30 minutes, I finally acknowledge the images, asking the class what all these faces have in common.

Few come up with the correct answer, which is that all the people whose faces we are seeing are dead.

These faces are the Washington University graduating class of 1920. Each seems as full of hope as today’s graduates, as confident of the future. Each went on to have a life, some rich and full, others less so. In Dead Poet’s Society, the teacher admonishes his students to learn the lesson that such long-dead faces teach us, which is not to be so busy getting through life that you forget to fully live it. “Carpe diem should be your motto,” he says — seize the day.

Good advice to a graduating senior, so far as it goes. But a very important element is missing from this advice, something that goes right to the heart of the challenge today’s graduates will face in the coming century.

What is missing? The class of 1920 carpe diemed just fine, but they might have been better stewards of the world they inherited. The depletion of the world’s resources that has marked the last century has been driven by a rampant capitalism paying little heed to the planet’s long-term well being. The class of 1920 created a successful, wealthy society whose benefits I enjoy — but I cannot avoid the judgement that they should have felt a greater sense of responsibility for their impact on the world. That’s the lesson missing from carpe diem. Today’s grads should remember as well their responsibility to the future, to the world their lives will influence.

Here are three responsibilities they should not ignore, three future realities they can help shape:

1. Population Pressures. When I graduated from college the world held 3 billion people. As today’s class graduates, there are 6 billion. The world will add another billion in the coming decade as today’s graduates make their mark. Fully 90% of the added billion people will be born and live in nonindustrial societies, the developing countries of the so-called “Third World.” Every one of them will need to eat and want the opportunity to make a life. This is a future reality that cannot be avoided, but can be improved. 2. Rich vs. Poor. Today the 20% of the world’s population living in the industrial world has a per capita income of $17,900, while the 80% of the world’s population that lives in developing countries has a per capita income of $810. Fully 85% of the world’s wealth is in the industrial world, as well as 94% of all the scientists and engineers. Do you see the point, the inevitable consequence of this great inequality? International debt. If the world’s poor countries are going to develop, then they have no choice but to borrow from us — we have all the wealth! And to finance the resulting debt, we are forcing these countries to strip their land of resources. This is a future reality that could and should be changed.

3. Biosphere Management. Our world is showing the strain of supporting 6 billion people. Global warming and ozone depletion are realities that can no longer be ignored, problems created by the dumping of carbon dioxide and CFC’s into the atmosphere by industrial society. And we are losing farm land at an alarming rate: 20% of the world’s top soil has been lost since 1950, while the population that must be fed has more than doubled. Modern society is driving species extinct at a rate unmatched since the dinosaurs disappeared. The tropical forests of the Third World are being cut so rapidly that all will be gone in 30 years, driven by population pressures and the need to generate cash to pay international debt. This is another future reality that is in our hands.

The future in which today’s graduates will live is not simply something that will happen to them, like the weather, but rather something they can, and should, help create. On graduation day I find it hard to be a teacher, with wisdom (however limited) but not time. Its going to be an interesting century, and I envy today’s graduates the chance to take an active part in shaping it. Carpe diem indeed.

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