Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment Commencement Speech (May 15, 2010)

This entry was posted Wednesday, 26 May, 2010 at 7:14 pm

Italics are for skipped sections to reduce length as there were only 5 minutes allotted.

Wow you did it! Congratulations everyone! Don’t worry about the sleep deprivation.  I remember I had been up several nights in a row, and learned the beauty of wolf naps.  You’ll have plenty of time to catch up later looking for work, right?

You are in transition from one community to another and welcome you to those that have graduated, the alumni, the real world, (with which many of you may be already familiar).  I hope you all will be gainfully employed soon, if not so already. Times are tough indeed, but I believe things are finally shifting, if not a bit late. Times will be indeed tough going forward and I am waiting for another “shoe to drop,” or the whole “wardrobe” so to speak.

I have only 5 minutes, so I want to

do a little reminiscing,

tell you a little about what you can do as a new Alumnus or Alumnae,

provide a little wisdom from what we have learned from the world in which we have been working, and

introduce the next speaker.

If folks like what I have to say, may be I’ll get invited back. This is a great honor.  I have been thinking about I would say to each of you and what other alumni if in my place would say given such an opportunity.

I must say I missed my own graduation (like the Dean), and was out on the Western Field Trip, and then tagged along with a fellow classmate studying and interviewing folks on wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone.  That was a great trip and my time here at Duke was one of the best times of my life, if not fleeting.

I do want to thank to Lynn Maguire for passing me in Decision Analysis, avoiding the embarrassment of not graduating with my class, and Dan Richter for taking me on as my advisor and wading through my 100 page MP (do I still hold the record?).  I looked at the onshore implications of oil and gas production off the coast of NC.  Timely or what? So how ‘bout that oil spill?  There is no doubt that cheap fossil fuels are killing us.  I recently tried to squeeze my way into Senator Basnights Committee that Mike Orback chairs.  No luck so far.

When I was at Duke, the Valdez spill occurred.  I arranged to have Ricki Ott, activist Fisher woman, come speak as a part of Laird Norton Speaker Series. I did my summer internship at the State OCS Office in Raleigh.  My goal was to work for the Oil industry and infiltrate the “evil empire”—no luck, they wanted geologists, engineers or MBAs.  I guess was before my time.

I also want to thank MK Williams, my partner for years on the fair trade venture and director of our non-profit, for years of putting up with my entrepreneurial efforts, the stress on the relationship and for driving me today, in a biofuel car no less.  Because of that, I am not wearing shorts today, like when I appeared at the reception for Robert Redford last year. I had a pedicab gig right after, and ever since, the Admin. looks down when they see me, just like Mr. Redford did!  He smiled, they don’t.  I blamed it on my summer at the Marine Lab and crochet matches.

But I am very proud of bringing pedicabs to Durham.  When people ask about biodiesel, I say get a bike if you really want to make a difference in your footprint, I just wished the pedicabs were self-supporting, and we could get more advertisers for them.

So who am I and what is success?

So I didn’t get that job with BP and I ended up selling woman’s handbags instead, cool handbags, though natural fiber, made by women, rural villages, sustainably harvested.  For years, we ran an annual fair trade sale in the lobby of the LSRC, selling handicrafts from some of the most biologically diverse place on the planet, working with CI, TNC, WCS, Peace Corps and USAID projects around the world.  We moved millions of dollars of these, gypsying them around to trades shows across the country, but didn’t make a penny.

Our greatest achievement was educating thousands on the importance of fair trade,  biodiversity conservation and sustainable development.  But nothing is fair about trade and certainly nothing free.  I naively hoped I would make enough to endow a wing of the School.  Don’t laugh, people have fetishes, and handbags are one of them, they are not quite on the level of coffee, tea, chocolate or drugs, but close.  We moved containers of them, like a commodity.  The funniest scene was when a forty foot container showed up at our house in south Durham and MK and I hustled to get it unloaded with a wheel barrow.  The driver watched in awe.  The house smelled like Madagascar for months.  Oh the life of the entrepreneur.

Unfortunately, we just could not get the “willingness to pay” for the price to include all costs and the large carbon footprint to ship these bags and other products half way round the world.  And thanks to the suppression of the Yuan by the Chinese, all crafts even from the poorest nations on the planet became expensive.  We did help the Primate Center with a reforestation and a educational project, but was immensely disappointed with our capacity to harness our consumptive behavior to do good.  Maybe it was our tag line, “World going to hell, try our baskets?”  What we learned is that we will not consume our way to sustainability.  We will need to reduce consumption dramatically, particularly if we want to let the rest of the world develop.

Some may also know me from the bus driving hat.  We have been shuttling DEL students for several years and taken Norm’s ecology class out on field trips.  In fact, I leave here I am headed to the environmental visioning project over in Carrboro to push support of our pedicabs, the bike rickshaws, and then to run the BioBus for the Piedmont Wildlife Festival this afternoon.  This is really where I make my money, driving a bus running on biodiesel.  It’s a little embarrassing to have school kids say you’re the smartest/coolest bus driver we ever had.  I am one of very few Duke grads with a CDL, haz. mat, and tanker endorsements and homeland security clearance.  We value add waste veggie oil collected locally into fuel and use it in a range of vehicles.

I love this School, it’s history, it’s collective impact, it’s students. When I first came to visit they had a kegger in the class room, and The Hide Away on campus.  I thought, I could handle that. Duke was number one in basketball that year and had Danny Ferry in one of my classes. I came to the School because of its forestry history. My families money came from the forest products industry and has supported me my whole life.  I have two organizations with Forest in their names. I stayed in Durham because of this School (and I didn’t get a job either, thanks Karen!), hoping to continue engaging students and faculty in a dialog on the entrepreneurial skills needed.  It is good to see the Dean developing such a program now as we all we need to have a side income and look to local, bottoms up approaches to solving problems.  Small business and orgs. are powerful vehicles for change.

What I loved most and whom I learned the most from was my fellow classmates.  I see the resumes of the students in this program and it is mind boggling.  What is it with you guys?  I could never get into this school and it seems you all fell out of the crib with direction, motivation and grades as well as experience.  I still can’t figure out what I am going to do when I grow up.  I became fascinated with the returning Peace Corps students, the intractable nature of biodiversity loss and market externalities

It is not just about perseverance and hard work anymore.  You have to be immensely creative, and savvy.  We have had numerous challenges along the way and tight margins make any small mistake or slip up a business killer.

I fell I am the least successful graduate that I know of.  But, as in any good experiment, even in failure, we learn.  But what is success?  If experience is a measure, then we have it.  Sadly, that experience is not being maximized. We have a blog and will get emails from folks thanking us for the information, but that doesn’t pay bills.  The sad thing about a range of monetarily challenged ventures, besides the debt, is that it will burn you out.  The stress of pinching pennies day in and day out, will slowly work on you, affect on your credit and keep you from growing the business when things finally turn around.  Energy volatility is hell on small business, and even locally produced biodiesel is tied to petroleum in so many ways.  Hindsight is 20/20.  Get a real job, stay out of debt and do the entrepreneur thing on the side.

If you have to sell out, work “for the man,” and have less control, don’t forget to fight like hell for the little guy, as small businesses employ two thirds of our country.  The greening of the little guy doesn’t get talked about much, mostly changing the course of the “big boys,” with talk of triple bottom line, which I find an atrociously misinformed.  Those who have taken optimization know that if you optimize three variables and two are human, humans will be over weighted.

When we started out, we placed very high hurdles on our selves, challenging and testing the models.  Everything fluctuates, cycles.   This year green is in, but it may go out like pink and green raffia bags in winter. But I hope it is here to stay, finally.  But where was the green movement 20 years ago?  Timing is everything.  And its your time to make a splash.

What we have learned is that enormous sums are needed to manipulate markets but social media is changing that.  We also learned first hand what Ariely has shown in experiments, we can not expect altruism to provide the margins we need to internalize true costs, and you can not mix motivations of consumers, or you will get neither altruism or the sale.  We are just not wired correctly to use market forces to save our planet.  The system is so broken and needs massive change to level the playing field.

I was once idealistic and naïve and proud of it.  However, the stress of the entrepreneurial life has made me jaded and cynical, and hard to be upbeat and to be a productive educator. It has not been without rewards.  Small business owners get to work any 70 hours of the work week they want, and they, as I always have said, own the debt, not the business.  Thus, it is imperative to create balance, protect and renourish yourself, as the challenges will be enormous going forward.

So what does Graduation from NSOE mean today?

I wish I could go back to school, so much has changed in the way we view the world and teach.  One can see this in the change of the School’s name change and concentrations.  No longer do we need to be just good scientists, economists or policy people, but we need to be good community members, sensitive and empathetic to a range of stakeholders and truly committed to helping others and each other.  I use very little of what I learned in school, but more, the process of learning.  My favorite professor in undergrad. used to say “don’t let your education get in the way of your learning.”  I am always learning, and have learned, that I am no expert.  The world is too dynamic, and it is all moving targets.

It is certain change will be even more rapid in the future.  We have moved from the need for a Masters in Environmental Management to a Masters in Environmental Adaptation.  A professional degree in “managing the environment” seemed so surreal back then, how can we really manage the environment?  “Management solutions” often result in more problems.. i.e. Geo-engineering?  That is insane.

I just wish that the econ classes had included the part about humans and their “predictably irrational” behavior.  We have based our whole modus of operation on rational actors in free markets and objective self-interested thinkers.  Nothing is further from the truth.  “Sustainability,” what a weird word and begs a natural analog. Nature is dynamic, it oscilates and is occasionally punctuated by cataclysmic events. We are truly struggling with the words we need to build the future.  We have gone past “sustainable” to needing things like “rejuvenative” and “restorative” structures and principles.  Good luck on selling that one to the Corporate America, or our hyper consumers.

Even the University is captured by the same old paradigms we are trying to change and shift out of.  The University is a place of great creativity, ingenuity, revolution, yet is full of issues of bureaucracy, turf and ego that keep us from moving forward.  Ambition, competition, hyper-critical thinking and perfection drive us, yet also undermine our ability to connect and find balance, to open our eyes and step back and get perspective.  The world is changing so fast.  We must be able to lift our heads, regularly and get our bearings, our moral compass and them clamp down and dig hard.
The tools you have been provided are excellent, but not the end.  Take some time for reflection, get out into the open spaces and the natural world, that third parent that is so critical to our development.  Learn to take time to rejuvenate. We need balance, we need to reconnect to the Earth, and each other and build strong new relationships

As you transition to your new community take these things with you, share and bring others along.  Spend less time on career building and more on relationships with the world and people around you from all walks of life.  I have learned a lot from working in east Durham the last five years.  I believe it’s harder working there than in many of the developing countries we have worked.  It’s tragic.  We are scarred by our past and it is hard to get people to look beyond race to that which unites us all, the natural world.  It knows no color and is blind, yet will damage the poor the most as we begin the roller coaster of climate disruption.  We must look to these communities on which to base our policies.

As alumni, you can engage and give back to the School, to this community and help it become better.  If you don’t have the money to endow a wing with basket sales money, then give your time, participate in alumni events and engage the students.  They need to hear from you and your experiences.  Help change the curriculum to give them the tools they need and prepare them for the future.  This is enormously helpful and have heard this over and over from students.  This is a community.

It is good to see the Dean’s new initiatives, some driven by the need to follow the money, as well as prepare students for the future.  Things are changing rapidly.  The School that is to lead us this Century is still the poor kid on the Duke block with billions going to ridiculous areas of research and professional development.  It is shameful to see so little resources allocated in an area that will literally keep us from crashing our planet.  Resources are caught up in old paradigms.  This has to change if we are going to succeed.

Recommendation for the new job: “Get your spirituality right and everything else will fall into place.”

Gore challenged us to a “Moral duty” and EO Wilson said recently, it is our “Sacred Duty” to protect the planet.  Where are the educational tools for these approaches?  Where are the classes on sacredness and moralty?

In America today, the political right a small group of very fervent activists control much of the debate.  They tend to be Christian fundamentalists, who hold a literalist interpretation of the Bible, Libertarians, bound to outdated and perceptually challenged ideology, or corporate free marketers.  How do we speak to these people, their fears, their hopes?  What unites us?

Today the thing I am most proud is when I was in school I initiated a dialog between the Divinity School and School of Environment.  Today, you have a joint degree and a course in Env. Ethics that the students say is wonderful.  One said they came to the program fired up about the environment but not really knowing why and this course taught them how to communicate with many on transcendent yet core principals.
The Future is scary, I feel we are off the cliff and don’t quite realize it.  The science from all areas points to a massive extinction event in our life times.  Yet there great things happening at the local level, but have been slow to gel.  Everything we need is here and now, in fact has been here.

Yet we can not sit idle, distracted or caught in some cultural relativism, saying they are many views.  One is entitled to their own opinion, not their own facts.  And the fact is, we have to change, fast or as Gore said, go far fast.

I will leave you with the wisdom of Thomas Berry:  We must “reinvent the human at the species level.” When I had first read this, I was skeptical, but now understand that we as humans have to change the core of our understanding of ourselves, how we fit in and reconnect with the world around, as if our very survival depended on it.

I hope that your lives will seek out, find and embody grace, beauty and the sacred duty that is life.  Good luck everyone.

The student speaker is a representative of the graduating class of Master of Environmental Management and Master of Forestry students elected by popular vote of the class.

Lisanne Petracca is a Doris Duke Conservation Fellow graduating in the Ecosystem Science and Conservation concentration. Her primary interests lie in the conservation of the world’s big cat species. She graduated from Tufts University in 2006, and spent the two years after graduation serving as an English and Science teacher in the Marshall Islands. Her conservation fieldwork has taken her to Tanzania, Belize, Costa Rica, Australia, and the French Alps. She plans to spend the upcoming summer with the jaguars of Belize and the lions of South Africa.

Ladies and gentlemen, your student speaker, Lisanne Petracca.