Monday, May 12, 2008

Notes From My Knapsack 5-18-08
Jeff Gill

Notes To a Commencement Speaker

Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, received an honorary degree from Denison University last weekend, and was the commencement speaker for the Class of 2008.

He seemed from a distance to be a charming and thoughtful man, who was aware of the significance of the day for the 5,000 family members crowded into the Mitchell Center on a rainy Mother’s Day afternoon. So he kept the focus on the grads and the future and the brightness thereof, without casting too many shadows across their still developing path.

That’s no doubt as it should be, but I’ll admit to wishing that, as one of our nation’s leading writers and scholars in the area of global climate change, Dr. Cicerone had said a bit more to the graduates on the way out the door on his subject and their future.

What I kept thinking about, looking across that mortarboarded band about to disperse to their jobs and job searches, Fulbrights and fellowships, to the Peace Corps and to parts of Wall Street, where they will trade abstract entities they can’t quite explain but can quickly price . . .

Dr. Cicerone reminded them that Americans use five times as much energy as other world citizens. That’s no doubt true, while the Department of Energy says the ratio is really six times global energy consumption.

I might prefer to point out that we have an energy deficit in this country that can’t be sustained, producing over 70 quadrillion BTUs while burning up 100 quadrillion of the little buggers. That other 30 Q comes out of our hide, financially, politically, and yes, to a certain degree, morally.

And while I take second place to no one, let alone the President of the United States, in my admiration of the marvelous powers of “switchgrass” (check transcripts of old State of the Union addresses), my trust in biofuels and geothermal and other uses of Greek prefixes to solve our energy needs someday is pretty minimal.

The greatest source of new energy resources in this country isn’t in ANWR or Athabascan oil sands or deeper mining of Wyoming coal. It’s in figuring out how to improve fuel efficiency in our vehicles and myriad other conservation techniques and tricks which can cut our energy consumption by a third with the speed we need. Is there any way to do that short of $200 a barrel oil and $7 a gallon gas? We’re running a brief pre-test of this question right now, and short-term declines won’t mean the test is cancelled.

Most of all, I wish the graduates had been challenged to think about the fact that they were about to radically change their carbon footprint just by leaving campus. Even if you didn’t live at the Homestead, or even go out once for a nice lentil casserole, you lived more energy efficiently by being part of a campus. Your energy consumption was much less than the American norm because you shared living space and transport issues and power generation and meal prep. The total carbon output of your everyday lifestyle is about to go back to the current American baseline of radically individualized, one person per car, separate residence, mower and trimmer in every garage, atomized and particularized personal gear for everything.

What choices can you make, Class of 2008, as you go out into the world, that would preserve some of the community and collaborative values that were yours for the having here on campus? To maintain even a portion of those shared advantages will, from this day forward, take intention and effort for you to put them at the center of your lives: will you make that effort?

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him your story at

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