“Thank You Mr Gray. You Were a Great Teacher”

By Don Pelton

I had a slightly melancholy experience this morning. I ran across a webpage describing all my old high school teachers and what became of them. I graduated in 1959. I was especially interested to know about the one teacher — an James_GrayEnglish teacher — whom I have spoken of ever since as among the three greatest teachers of my life. His name was James Gray.

The quality I most remember was his contagious love for his subject, a contagion which infected many of his students. Delight always seemed to be bubbling just beneath the surface with him, as if he had discovered the secret of the universe, and it was pretty damn funny, and he knew that you were just gonna have to find it out for yourself.

He liked to use us as experimental subjects. From time to time, he’d play different sorts of music — classical, pop, jazz — while we wrote essays in class. Then we’d read the essays and talk about how the music might have affected the quality of the writing.

I was happy to learn that, after his stint as a high school teacher, he went on to become a Senior Lecturer in Education at UC Berkeley, and also founded the National Writing Project, “an influential and highly regarded educational reform network.” His work lives on.

When I noticed that he died only a few years ago (at age 78) I realized that although I told scores of people over my lifetime that he was a great teacher, and why he was a great teacher, I never told him.

So, if any of the teachers you loved are still out there, tell them!

Here’s an excerpt from his memoir of his early years taking the writing workshop on the road:

Our first invitation was for a workshop at San Francisco’s Polytechnic High School. The principal invited me to bring some teachers who had participated in the first summer’s program to talk to the English department. I handpicked a strong group: Cap Lavin, BAWP’s codirector; Miles Myers, a highly regarded Oakland high school teacher; and Flossie Lewis, a teacher at San Francisco’s esteemed Lowell High School. Poly was not esteemed at the time. The papers regularly carried stories of faculty unrest and political and social tension on the campus. We weren’t really surprised to find graffiti-filled halls. One inscription shouted at us, “Black is Beautiful; Yellow is Mellow; White is Shit.” The teachers were waiting for us. I introduced my colleagues and began describing what the Bay Area Writing Project was all about. Suddenly, I was hit in the face by a paper wad thrown by some guy sitting in the second row. I ignored it and plowed ahead. Another paper wad. I was dumbfounded. Here we were, excited by this first invitation and the start, we hoped, of a long line of such invitations, and things were out of control. I reasoned that the situation could only get better, so I continued on. Another paper wad! Miles jumped out of his seat, went to the board, and began charting out some plan or model when someone else in the room shouted out: “Miles, go on back to Oakland where you belong!” Cap and Flossie were agitated. Cap, who suffered from angina, popped a nitroglycerin pill; Flossie was close to tears. Nothing made sense. The paper wad thrower shouted: “Gimmie some pencils! If you want to help us, give us some pencils; we can always use pencils.” The workshop was clearly over, and the four of us left the room.

We went across the street to a bar and tried to figure out what had happened. It should not have happened—not with the group I put together. All three of the teachers were well known and even revered in San Francisco. Cap was raised in San Francisco, where he had become a basketball legend. Miles was the senior vice president of the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) and the founder and editor of California Teacher, the CFT newspaper these teachers would have read in this strong union town. And Flossie Lewis was one of their own—one of the best-known, most-respected, and feistiest English teachers in town. It was beyond understanding why we’d been treated that way. The following week, one of the teachers called me. It seemed that the principal, a very unpopular actingprincipal who was at war with the faculty, had told teachers to show up for this workshop or else! The teachers showed up, not only to keep their files clean of reprimands, but also to get even by keeping this program from succeeding. They had nothing against us. They didn’t know me. They did know Cap and Miles and Flossie, and they liked all of them. But they hated that acting principal.

That afternoon, we learned something about how to conduct a Bay Area Writing Project workshop and how not to. We vowed never again to have anything to do with mandated programs. Our workshops for teachers would from then on always be voluntary. If teachers didn’t want to attend a Bay Area Writing Project workshop, they didn’t have to, and we would make this very clear to teachers and administrators.

Time for Congress to Investigate Bill Gates’ Coup

Reprinted from Diane Ravitch’s Blog under a Creative Commons License Creative_Commons_Diane_Ravitch

By Diane Ravitch

The story about Bill Gates’ swift and silent takeover of American education is startling. His role and the role of the U.S. Department of Education in drafting and imposing the Common Core standards on almost every state should be investigated by Congress.

The idea that the richest man in America can purchase and–working closely with the U.S. Department of Education–impose new and untested academic standards on the nation’s public schools is a national scandal. A Congressional investigation is warranted.

The close involvement of Arne Duncan raises questions about whether the law was broken.

Thanks to the story in the Washington Post and to diligent bloggers, we now know that one very rich man bought the enthusiastic support of interest groups on the left and right to campaign for the Common Core.

Who knew that American education was for sale?

Who knew that federalism could so easily be dismissed as a relic of history? Who knew that Gates and Duncan, working as partners, could dismantle and destroy state and local control of education?

The revelation that education policy was shaped by one unelected man, underwriting dozens of groups. and allied with the Secretary of Education, whose staff was laced with Gates’ allies, is ample reason for Congressional hearings.

I have written on various occasions (see here and here) that I could not support the Common Core standards because they were developed and imposed without regard to democratic process. The writers of the standards included no early childhood educators, no educators of children with disabilities, no experienced classroom teachers; indeed, the largest contingent of the drafting committee were representatives of the testing industry. No attempt was made to have pilot testing of the standards in real classrooms with real teachers and students.. The standards do not permit any means to challenge, correct, or revise them.

In a democratic society, process matters. The high-handed manner in which these standards were written and imposed in record time makes them unacceptable. These standards not only undermine state and local control of education, but the manner in which they were written and adopted was authoritarian. No one knows how they will work, yet dozens of groups have been paid millions of dollars by the Gates Foundation to claim that they are absolutely vital for our economic future, based on no evidence whatever.

Why does state and local control matter? Until now, in education, the American idea has been that no single authority has all the answers. Local boards are best equipped to handle local problems. States set state policy, in keeping with the concept that states are “laboratories of democracy,” where new ideas can evolve and prove themselves. In our federal system, the federal government has the power to protect the civil rights of students, to conduct research, and to redistribute resources to the neediest children and schools.

Do we need to compare the academic performance of students in different states? We already have the means to do so with the federally funded National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). It has been supplying state comparisons since 1992.

Will national standards improve test scores? There is no reason to believe so. Brookings scholar Tom Loveless predicted two years ago that the Common Core standards would make little or no difference. The biggest test-score gaps, he wrote, are within the same state, not between states. Some states with excellent standards have low scores, and some with excellent standards have large gaps among different groups of students.

The reality is that the most reliable predictors of test scores are family income and family education. Nearly one-quarter of America’s children live in poverty. The Common Core standards divert our attention from the root causes of low academic achievement.

Worse, at a time when many schools have fiscal problems and are laying off teachers, nurses, and counselors, and eliminating arts programs, the nation’s schools will be forced to spend billions of dollars on Common Core materials, testing, hardware, and software.

Microsoft, Pearson, and other entrepreneurs will reap the rewards of this new marketplace. Our nation’s children will not.

Who decided to monetize the public schools? Who determined that the federal government should promote privatization and neglect public education? Who decided that the federal government should watch in silence as school segregation resumed and grew? Who decided that schools should invest in Common Core instead of smaller classes and school nurses?

These are questions that should be asked at Congressional hearings.


Diane_RavitchDiane Silvers Ravitch is a historian of education, an educational policy analyst, and a research professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Previously, she was a U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education.

Smarty Pants Dance

This is what I call great parenting (not just for the teaching, nor just for the praise, but for instinctively knowing that combining praise and teaching work powerfully in a young child).

Besides … it’s really funny and endearing.

As a Feminist, I Love this Song

I caught this song on the tail-end of a segment on Democracy Now a day or so ago, and I was thrilled by the inspiring imagery — both musical and visual — of the rise of woman power.

The song — an anthem, really — is a collaboration between the Eurythmics (Annie Lennox) and the great Aretha.

I can’t believe this is the first time I’ve heard this.


PBS Documentary Looks at Right-Wing Promotion of Ignorance Through Textbooks

Texas textbooks determine what children learn nationwide.

“I believe that dinosaurs were on Noah’s Ark … somebody’s got to stand up to these experts.” (Don McElroy, former member of the Texas State Board of Education).

Watch “The Revisionaries,” on PBS tomorrow night, January 28th:

Aaron Swartz And The Obama Administration’s War On Public Access To Information

From Jonathan Turley’s blog:

The suicide of famed programmer and free access advocate Aaron Swartz shocked the world. However, the underlying story of the how the Obama Administration prosecuted — and, in the eyes of many, persecuted — Swartz for seeking to publish academic papers which were later released by MIT without charge. Nevertheless, United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz and the Obama Administration relentlessly pursued Swartz and sought an absurd 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines before he took his own life. His family blames the Justice Department and Ortiz for his suicide.

Swartz was one of this country’s most extraordinary individuals. At age 14, he helped create RSS, the tool allowing people to subscribe to online information. He later was a founder of a company that merged with Reddit where we get many of our daily stories.

Read the full posting here.

Why Are Our Public Schools Up For Sale? Privatization Isn’t Working.

Reprinted from Other Words (August 6, 2012)

While charter proponents claim that their schools are less bureaucratic, more efficient, and more effective, the evidence doesn’t really back that up.

By Jeff Bale and Sarah Knopp

“Back-to-school” sales seem to start earlier every year. These days, more than binders and backpacks are on offer. Now, public schools themselves are for sale.

In July, Muskegon Heights, Michigan became the first American city to hand its entire school district over to a charter-school operator.

More than 1.6 million American kids attend charter schools, which emerged in the early 1990s. Whatever their original intent, charters are fundamentally restructuring the school system by placing it in private — often for-profit — hands. They’re making teachers and staff work harder and longer for less pay, usually without union benefits or protection.

In May, Philadelphia’s schools announced a plan to close 64 schools and outsource 25 more to so-called “achievement networks” run by charter operators. The goal: that 40 percent of Philadelphia’s children attend charters by 2017. Detroit’s plans are similar.

Restructuring may seem the best option. Urban school districts have long struggled to serve their students. And many of us know firsthand — as former students, teachers, administrators, or parents — that many of America’s public schools require radical change.

Charter proponents claim that their schools are less bureaucratic and more efficient, and thus save taxpayer money. Yet evidence is mounting to show that the opposite is true. When Philadelphia first announced its restructuring plans, the budget earmarked for charters stood at $38 million. By July, that figure was “rounded up” to an astonishing $139 million. Since when is a $100-million cost-overrun a sign of cost-effectiveness?

Moreover, charter proponents argue that competition and choice pressure all schools to perform better. This assumes that schools operate on even playing fields. However, Detroit officials followed their restructuring plans by imposing a contract on teachers that caps class sizes at more than 40 students starting in kindergarten and at a staggering 61 for sixth grade through high school. No school can possibly “compete” under such conditions.

Finally, consider Muskegon Heights. The city hired charter operator Mosaica Education, a for-profit company premised on earning more from contracts to run schools than it pays out in expenses. In fact, Mosaica expects to earn as much as $11 million in its Muskegon Heights deal. That’s roughly the same amount as the current budget deficit that officials gave as the reason to hire this outfit in the first place. Apparently, officials weren’t troubled by Mosaica’s record elsewhere in Michigan — its six other charter schools performed on average at the 13th percentile, according to the state’s annual ranking in 2011.

That none of these developments has made national headlines is mind-boggling. Perhaps this has something to do with the institutional racism that led to the Supreme Court’s crucial Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.

Muskegon Heights is a highly segregated African-American community adjacent to the predominantly white Muskegon. In Muskegon Heights, median household income stood at just over $26,600 in 2010, with over 30 percent of residents living below the poverty line.

It’s primarily in minority-majority communities like this where schools are being sold off to the highest bidder, regardless of those bidders’ track records.

The same story has played out in Chicago for almost a decade. The city has closed dozens of neighborhood schools and considered replacing them with charters. What’s different in Chicago, though, is that the Chicago Teachers Union is leading the fight against this agenda. After several years of building strong alliances with parent and community groups, the union is challenging Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s attack on public schools. In July, Emanuel blinked and agreed to reinstate 477 laid-off art, music, PE, and foreign language teachers.

The union is demonstrating that teachers and students share common interests. Together with their parent and community allies, Chicago’s teachers and their unions are proving that they can put public schools back in the public’s hands and win the funding required for the world-class education that all our children deserve.


Jeff Bale is an assistant professor of second language education at Michigan State University. Sarah Knopp is a public high school teacher in Los Angeles. They are the co-authors of the book Education and Capitalism, published this year by Haymarket Books.
Distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org)

A Jubilee for Student Debt?

Reprinted from Yes! Magazine (October 20, 2011)

Some—including Wall Street protesters—say relieving students of nearly a trillion dollars in loans will help the rest of us, too. Ellen Brown asks, could it really work?

By Ellen Brown

Among the demands of the Wall Street protesters is student debt forgiveness—a debt “jubilee.” Occupy Philly has a “Student Loan Jubilee Working Group,” and other groups are studying the issue.

Commentators say debt forgiveness is impossible.  Who would foot the bill?  But there is one deep pocket that could pull it off—the Federal Reserve.  In its first quantitative easing program (QE1), the Fed removed $1.3 trillion in toxic assets from the books of Wall Street banks.  For QE4, it could remove $1 trillion in toxic debt from the backs of millions of students.

The economy would be the better for it, as was shown by the G.I. Bill, which provided virtually free higher education for returning veterans, along with low-interest loans for housing and business. The G.I. Bill had a sevenfold return, making it one of the best investments Congress ever made.

There are arguments against a complete student debt write-off, including that it would reward private universities that are already charging too much, and it would unfairly exclude other forms of debt from relief.  But the point here is that it could be done, and it would represent a significant stimulus to the economy.

Toxic Student Debt: The Next “Black Swan”?

The Occupy Wall Street movement is heavily populated with students—many without jobs—groaning under the impossible load of student debts that have been excluded from the usual consumer protections.  A whole generation of young people has been seduced into debt peonage by the promise of better jobs if they invest in higher education, only to find that the jobs are not there when they graduate.  If the students default on their loans, lenders can now jack up interest rates and fees, garnish wages, and destroy credit ratings; and the debts can no longer be discharged in bankruptcy.

Total U.S. student debt has risen to $1 trillion—more than U.S. credit card debt.  Defaults are also rising; and with a very tight job market, the situation is expected to get worse.  The threat of massive student loan defaults requiring another taxpayer bailout has been called a systemic risk as serious as the bank failures that brought the U.S. economy to the brink of collapse in 2008.  To prevent a repeat of that disaster, we need to defuse the student debt time bomb before it blows.  But how?

The Federal Reserve could do it in the same way it defused the 2008 crisis: by aiming its fire hose of very-low-interest credit at the struggling student population.  Since September 2008, the Fed has made trillions of dollars available to financial institutions at a fraction of 1 percent interest; and in audits since then, we’ve seen that the Fed is capable of coming up with any amount of money required—accounting entries, available with the stroke of a computer key.

The Fed is not allowed to lend to individuals directly, but it can buy Treasury securities; and with the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) of March 2010, the Treasury is now formally in the business of student lending.  The Fed can also buy asset-backed securities, including securitized student debt; and there is talk of another round of quantitative easing aimed at just that sort of asset.

The Market Wants More

When the Federal Reserve’s expected “QE3” turned into the tepid and ineffectual “Operation Twist,” the stock market reacted by plummeting.  To appease investors, Chairman Ben Bernanke then assured them that the Fed was “ready to do more.”  How much more and in what way wasn’t specified; but Alan Blinder, former Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, suggested some possibilities.  He wrote in the Wall Street Journal on September 28th:

“To maintain the size of its balance sheet, the Fed has been reinvesting the proceeds in Treasurys. But starting “now” (the Fed’s word), and continuing indefinitely, those proceeds will be reinvested in agency bonds and MBS instead. . . . A future round of quantitative easing (QE4?) that concentrates on private-sector securities like MBS, rather than on Treasurys, is now imaginable … Indeed, if we indulge ourselves in a bit of blue-sky thinking, we can even imagine the Fed doing QEs in corporate bonds, syndicated loans, consumer receivables and so forth.”

Syndicated consumer loans include asset-backed securities (ABS) of the sort purchased by the Fed through its Term Asset-backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) created in November 2008. According to the Fed’s website, that includes securities backed by bundles of student loans.

Quantitative easing is a tool reserved for economic crises, and toxic student debt appears to be the next “black swan” on the horizon. Buying up a trillion dollars in student loans could be a nice stimulus package for the economy.

In July 2010, the  New York Fed posted a staff report titled “Shadow Banking,” showing that the money supply had shrunk by about $4 trillion since the 2008 credit crisis.  The shrinkage was hidden because it was not in the traditional banking system but was in the “shadow” banking system—an array of non-bank financial institutions including investment banks, hedge funds, money market funds, SIVs, conduits, and monoline insurers.  Adding back a trillion dollars in student aid could go a long way toward curing this shortfall.

What this could do for the economy was suggested by the G.I. Bill, which provided free technical training and educational support, along with government-subsidized loans and unemployment benefits, for nearly 16 million returning servicemen.  Economists have determined that for every 1944 dollar invested, the country received approximately $7 in return, through increased economic productivity, consumer spending, and tax revenues. The G.I. Bill not only made higher education accessible to all, but it created a nation of homeowners, new technology, new products, and new companies.

Eliminating, reducing, or deferring student loan debt will free up the budgets of millions of students, allowing them to spend more on goods and services, increasing demand and creating jobs, and adding to tax revenues.  As long as the money is spent on goods and services rather than on financial money-making-money schemes, the result will not be inflationary.  Retailers will just put in more orders for goods, causing producers to produce more and to hire more workers.  Supply will rise along with demand, keeping prices stable.  Overall prices will not increase until the country hits full employment, which is far from where we are today.

Interest-free Student Loans: Taking a Cue from Abroad

The government of New Zealand now offers zero percent loans to students, with repayment to be made from their income after they graduate; and so does the government of Australia.  The loans in the Australian Higher Education Loan Programme (or HELP) do not bear interest, but the government gets back more than it lends, because the principal is indexed to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which goes up every year.  They are contingent loans, payable only if or when the borrower’s income reaches a certain level.

Assume, then, that the Fed bought up $1 trillion in U.S. student debt and waived the interest.  With a default rate even as high as 10 percent, it would get back $900 billion of this money.  The $100 billion difference is only one-seventh the bailout money authorized by Congress to rescue Wall Street banks; and if the Fed’s investment generated anything close to the returns from the G.I. Bill, its $100 billion outlay could produce a several-hundred-billion dollar return.

To prevent abuse of the system, colleges should be required to stay within certain well-defined parameters for providing affordable, high quality education; and students should also meet well-defined standards.  Properly monitored, a federal investment in higher education can be a win-win-win—good for the economy, the government, and the people.  A generous student loan program will create jobs, increase tax revenues, and give young people a fair shot at the American dream, a dream that has become a mirage for 99 percent of the population.


Ellen Brown is an attorney and president of the Public Banking Institute. In Web of Debt, her latest of eleven books, she shows how a private cartel has usurped the power to create money from the people themselves, and how we the people can get it back. Her websites are Web of Debt and ellenbrown.com.

Interested?


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Remarkable Commencement Address by Former Nevada Union Student

Editor’s Note: I first ran across this essay, a commencement address given by Paul Hawken to the lucky University of Portland graduating class of 2009, in a beautiful book of inspirational essays called Hope Beneath our Feet. When I wrote to Hawken to get permission to reprint it, his reply included this postscript: “I went to Nevada Union High School between Nevada City and Grass Valley!” As I explained to him, occasionally a work of art is so moving that I get what I call the “aesthetic response” (really just goosepimples). I’ve had that happen with Georgia O’Keefe paintings, frequently with music, and again to my surprise with Hawken’s wonderful words in this memorable speech.

by Paul Hawken

When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked if I could give a simple short talk that was “direct, naked, taut, honest, passionate, lean, shivering, startling, and graceful.” No pressure there.

Let’s begin with the startling part. Class of 2009: you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation… but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that statement. Basically, civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.

This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken. Buckminster Fuller said that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really good food—but all that is changing.

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring. The earth couldn’t afford to send recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.

When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.” There could be no better description. Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refuge camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums.

You join a multitude of caring people. No one knows how many groups and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more. This is the largest movement the world has ever seen. Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance, it strives to disperse concentrations of power. Like Mercy Corps, it works behind the scenes and gets the job done. Large as it is, no one knows the true size of this movement. It provides hope, support, and meaning to billions of people in the world. Its clout resides in idea, not in force. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants, businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government workers, fisherfolk, engineers, students, incorrigible writers, weeping Muslims, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without borders, grieving Christians, street musicians, the President of the United States of America, and as the writer David James Duncan would say, the Creator, the One who loves us all in such a huge way.

There is a rabbinical teaching that says if the world is ending and the Messiah arrives, first plant a tree, and then see if the story is true. Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice,” is Mary Oliver’s description of moving away from the profane toward a deep sense of connectedness to the living world.

Millions of people are working on behalf of strangers, even if the evening news is usually about the death of strangers. This kindness of strangers has religious, even mythic origins, and very specific eighteenth-century roots. Abolitionists were the first people to create a national and global movement to defend the rights of those they did not know. Until that time, no group had filed a grievance except on behalf of itself. The founders of this movement were largely unknown — Granville Clark, Thomas Clarkson, Josiah Wedgwood — and their goal was ridiculous on the face of it: at that time three out of four people in the world were enslaved. Enslaving each other was what human beings had done for ages. And the abolitionist movement was greeted with incredulity. Conservative spokesmen ridiculed the abolitionists as liberals, progressives, do-gooders, meddlers, and activists. They were told they would ruin the economy and drive England into poverty. But for the first time in history a group of people organized themselves to help people they would never know, from whom they would never receive direct or indirect benefit. And today tens of millions of people do this every day. It is called the world of non-profits, civil society, schools, social entrepreneurship, non-governmental organizations, and companies who place social and environmental justice at the top of their strategic goals. The scope and scale of this effort is unparalleled in history.

The living world is not “out there” somewhere, but in your heart. What do we know about life? In the words of biologist Janine Benyus, life creates the conditions that are conducive to life. I can think of no better motto for a future economy. We have tens of thousands of abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned people without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed regulators on how to save failed assets. We are the only species on the planet without full employment. Brilliant. We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time rather than renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet. At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it. We can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people and cause untold suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich.

The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries ago, and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams. Literally you are breathing molecules this very second that were inhaled by Moses, Mother Teresa, and Bono. We are vastly interconnected. Our fates are inseparable. We are here because the dream of every cell is to become two cells. And dreams come true. In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe, which is exactly what Charles Darwin foretold when he said science would discover that each living creature was a “little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars of heaven.”

So I have two questions for you all: First, can you feel your body? Stop for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going on simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to ignore it, and wonder instead when this speech will end. You can feel it. It is called life. This is who you are. Second question: who is in charge of your body? Who is managing those molecules? Hopefully not a political party. Life is creating the conditions that are conducive to life inside you, just as in all of nature. Our innate nature is to create the conditions that are conducive to life. What I want you to imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a deep innate wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the past.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television.

This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring creation. You are graduating to the most amazing, stupefying challenge ever bequested to any generation. The generations before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hope only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.


Paul Hawken is an environmentalist, entrepreneur, and author. His work includes starting ecological businesses, writing about the impact of commerce on living systems, and consulting with heads of state and CEOs on economic development, industrial ecology, and environmental policy.

He has appeared on numerous media including the Today Show, Larry King, Talk of the Nation, Charlie Rose, and has been profiled or featured in hundreds of articles including the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Washington Post, Business Week, Esquire, and US News and World Report. His writings have appeared in the Harvard Business Review, Resurgence, New Statesman, Inc, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Mother Jones, Utne Reader, Orion, and many other publications.

He authors articles, op-eds, and peer-reviewed papers, and has written seven books including four national bestsellers The Next Economy (Ballantine 1983), Growing a Business (Simon and Schuster 1987), and The Ecology of Commerce (HarperCollins 1993) and Blessed Unrest (Viking, 2007). The Ecology of Commerce was voted in 1998 as the #1 college text on business and the environment by professors in 67 business schools. Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution (Little Brown, September 1999) co-authored with Amory Lovins, has been read and referred to by several heads of state including President Bill Clinton who called it one of the five most important books in the world today. His books have been published in over 50 countries in 27 languages. Growing a Business became the basis of a 17-part PBS series, which Mr. Hawken hosted and produced. The program, which explored the challenges and pitfalls of starting and operating socially responsive companies, was shown on television in 115 countries and watched by over 100 million people.

If You Still Have a Student Loan Balance, You Probably Shouldn’t Sleep in Your Underwear

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