PICKING UP THE BREAD
A commencement address for Centre College
by Barbara Kingsolver
RELEASED: May 24, 2005
Hello, class of '05. I'm pleased to be with you today to share the honor of
receiving a degree from Centre College. You may have noticed it's mandatory in the
Kingsolver family to get a degree from Centre. I confess I've been recalcitrant -- I
resisted for a couple of decades -- but finally I'm here. And I get to welcome you to the
other side of Centre.
Today you join those of us who participate in the economy as our main daily
concern, rather than in the noble marketplace of ideas. You've already had your various
thrilling jobs in retail and food service, I know, but always you had this world of ideas
and fraternity parties to come home to. After today it's different. From now you'll be
engaged mainly by the world where you earn your living. And you're sitting there now
in your caps and gowns, your heads filled with the intellectual achievement of your years
of study here and your hearts filled with the emotional import of this day and you're
thinking: "Oh, man, don't remind me. I'm never going to find a job."
In just four minutes I can make you feel better about that.
Here we go. Welcome to this amazing blue green planet that's home to some
twenty five million kinds of life forms, which we are wrecking as fast as we can. Every
day more species go extinct because of habitat destruction and climate change. We're
burning the rainforests to clear pasture for fast-food beef, slashing a new plot about the
size of Kentucky every year. The world's fresh waters are almost universally
contaminated. Our greenhouse gases are producing permanent climate change
everywhere. The sea level is rising, hundreds of miles of shoreline and coastal habitats
are drowning each year. Deserts are expanding and glaciers are shrinking, with
incalculable effects on natural and human life. Just to cite one example, we're losing the
Himalayan glaciers that are the source of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. Humans
depend on those rivers to irrigate lands that currently feed more than 100 million people.
We have no plan for what any of us will do when our rivers dry up and our world is too
toxic to support us. The people who bring it up are called a "Special Interest Group." I
suppose that's because it includes only those special people who drink water, and the air
In other news, our national debt at the moment is $7,764,655,307,168.60. Your
own personal share of that, by the way, is over $26,000. You get to pay that off.
We have other kinds of debt as a nation, too. For the first time in our history the
U.S. now imports more food than we export. Our appetites have grown so enormous we
can no longer feed ourselves with the fruits of our own labor and land.
Our energy debt is even greater. U.S. citizens comprise only about 5% of the
world's population, but we consume a quarter of all the fuels burned in the world each
year. We import twice as much energy as we produce, mostly from nations that do not
have our best interests at heart. As people utterly dependent on cars and a gasoline-based
infrastructure, we're speeding toward the year -- sometime within your productive
lifetimes -- when petroleum will become more scarce than gold. We're headed for that
day with our right foot pressed down on the accelerator, our hand on the light switch or
the cell phone or the laptop or any number of other appliances we consider necessary to
life, which use power brought to us by fossil fuels. We seem to think the word "fossil" in
that term is a simile or a metaphor. It isn't. That oil was made a long time ago. When
it's gone, no amount of political campaigning will induce the dinosaurs and the
prehistoric fern forests to lie down again and press themselves into more ooze for us, on
the timetable we require. Are we working on Plan B? Not so much.
If there is something out there to be used up, we've used it. We've killed the
large predators on our continent -- the wolves, the mountain lions and bears, so the
ecosystems they kept in balance are all out of whack. The deer and elk populations they
used to keep in check have become uncontrollable tribes roaming the landscape, mowing
down suburban gardens and the trees that once covered the Grand Canyon and
Yellowstone National Park. In the oceans, too, 90% of the large fish are gone, fished out
by gigantic vessels with canning factories right on board so they don't have to come
ashore except to disgorge their truckloads of canned fish, then head back out to scrape up
what's left. The removal of the world's large fish, like the removal of predators on land,
has unbalanced the ocean habitats, leaving populations of smaller fish out of control,
effectively starving each other out so that biodiversity plummets. Undersea worlds are
stunted, coral reefs everywhere are dying. Our planet's largest and most productive
regions -- its oceans -- are pocketed with dead zones where no nutrients are recycled and
nothing lives. One piece at a time, our world and everything in it is going extinct.
Okay now, let's pause and think back a moment to when you were worried about
finding a job. That's not your biggest problem, is it?
Here are some tips on how to handle that particular annoying question. Shake
your head sorrowfully and repeat, "What am I going to do, after graduation? Like that
matters. Have you even thought about global climate change?"
This will stop their line of questioning, I pretty much guarantee it. You see, I'm a
writer. I've spent a lifetime evading questions about when I'm going to get a real job.
I could spin for you today a story that says you don't have to take this mess very
seriously since we're all going down the tubes anyway. You can look out for yourself,
earn your daily bread, go ahead and use up -- if you are the average U.S. citizen -- the
same amount of material goods that would support thirty citizens of India. Who cares?
Well they do. But why should you assign any moral value to the way you use resources
and make your living? Americans have not really done that before. Some of them
declined to hold slaves, maybe, or directly damage other people's lives. But the ways we
manufacture and consume have not been troubled by considerations of morality.
In fact, prosperity is so highly regarded by our culture, I would say that avarice --
formerly a deadly sin -- is now an American virtue. Our Manifest Destiny, when we set
forth upon this continent, was to cut down the trees, plow the fertile plains, and feed
ourselves as much as we could, as fast as we could. George Washington surveyed the
forest-covered Appalachians and he did not see the forests, he saw lumber, and dollar
signs. The pioneers rolled west and saw more dollar signs. We have taken as our
national identity a kind of heroism organized around using things up and getting rich.
Even our spirituality gives us this entitlement. The trees and bison are not our brothers
and sisters. They're our stuff. Most of us do believe, implicitly or explicitly, that all
other life was put here for us to use.
We're still a young country, with very little sense of history. It's not the
American way to dwell on our past. Our consumer choices suggest we don't want to
dress the way we did five years ago, drive the same car, or even live in the same house.
We like to buy new stuff, and throw the old stuff away. And if we don't like to look
back, we don't even know how to look forward. We use petroleum twice as fast as we
produce it, we're using up forests a hundred times faster than they grow, we've just
opened the last of our roadless wilderness to mining and logging, we are truly acting like
there's no tomorrow. Our businesses and legislation all operate on the short-term model
-- if they show gains in one fiscal year, or in one election cycle, that is considered success.
We have run our show this way for 200 years. Time is running out on this paradigm.
My generation resisted the model for awhile. We questioned mindless
consumption, we actually were suspicious of wealth. Like you, we came of age with our
country mired in a war that was killing people in a faraway land where our army was
mostly unwelcome. Our government tried to convince us it was necessary -- back then
the magic word was "communism," rather than "terrorism," but just like now, it was a
war on a concept rather than a sovereign entity, unwinnable and technically boundless.
We saw, as you do, that power taken by force is an expensive quagmire that has to be
forcefully maintained forever. We longed for a better way of behaving in the world.
We tried to define our lives by work we believed in, rather than by the money we
could make. We eschewed the business major in favor of the philosophy major, causing
our parents to worry that we might end up moving back into their homes to pursue our
philosophical vocations in perpetuity, with loud music turned all the way up.
I'm one of the lucky ones, for whom the plan of following my heart has worked
out pretty well. I do what I love. When I sit down to work, I never think, "What could I
write today that will make a lot of money?" Trying to write what's popular would be like
trying to coerce people to like you. "Hmm, what can I do that will force people to think
I'm a pleasant and agreeable individual?" Not so much. We have a story in my family,
from when my daughter was little and had to ride the bus with big, bossy girl named
Vicki. One day my daughter had scored a chocolate bar at school. Vicki plopped down
next to her, sized up the situation and said, "Hey. Give me that candy bar or I won't be
your friend no more."
Nobody wins allegiance with a demanding tone. Writers sure don't. Some of you
may have been required to read a book of mine at some point, but we writers can't
depend on the Freshman Book to keep us in business. We earn readers the way you earn
your friends, one by one, through thoughtful openhandedness. I begin my work by
thinking about what worries me most, because my readers probably share those worries,
along with our common language and a sense of what's wrong in the world. I search my
soul for the things I wish I could fix, or at least address, and get people talking about.
This is probably a useful way for anybody to begin a day on the job, whether we
are doctors or lawyers or engineers or philosophers. Not with the question, "How can I
get paid here," but with the question, "What's wrong here, that I could fix?"
This was the dream of my generation, to be judged not by the cost of our jeans but
the generosity of our hearts. As men we fought against the draft, and as women we
fought against discrimination that had kept us out of meaningful professions. We won
those fights. The draft ended, we got our boys home, and women made huge progress
toward equal rights. And we spent less money on clothing than any teenagers since the
Our problem, alas, turned out to be that old American problem -- we lacked a
sense of history. We didn't analyze the past, or organize our hopes around any real plan
for the future. We just wanted to be. Our motto was "Let it Be." We had "Be-ins."
When we were finished with all that being, we were kind of done. You could say we
failed to sustain our momentum. When the Reagan administration rolled around it was
suddenly fashionable again to be wealthy and pushy and wear expensive clothes. There
we were in our patched jeans and our peace-love-and-understanding, with no plan for
post- Age of Aquarius. People my age are almost old enough now to be legislators and
leaders of industry, and yet our country shows no sign of becoming other than what we
are now: the 5% of people who use most of the stuff.
Now it's your turn. Your adulthood has been defined by world events in a way
that's unlike any generation that came before. When you were a brand new college
student here, still trying to figure out how to fit all your stuff into your dorm room and
find your classroom buildings, without a clue what your major might be, you walked to
class one September morning and heard this terrible news. Remember that morning?
First you thought somebody was making it up. Then you got more of the story, maybe
saw the images on a television: our country, our buildings, attacked, destroyed by planes.
For the first time in your life, or in your parents' lives, for the first time anybody could
remember, we were attacked in a terrifying way, on our own soil.
What has changed for you, I wonder? What does it mean to have that as the
defining event of your college career, subtly influencing your sense of what your life is
supposed to be? I can only imagine. But I know this: you cannot hold the delusions that
the rest of us have long held dear. America the great, the beloved, the people everybody
else wants to be -- our parents used to tell us that's who we were. We can't tell you that.
You'd laugh. You know we are a nation both great and dreadful, a mixed blessing on the
face of the globe. Some people want to be like us, and some don't. Many are not happy
with what we do, what we use up, what we send out into the world -- our pollution, our
armies, our sense of what belongs to us. We've refused to cooperate in the global
community in some important ways: we have scorned the World Court. We refuse to
sign the Kyoto Protocol, the first international agreement to curb air pollution and global
warming. The rest of the world has ratified it, so they're moving on without us. But how
can they not resent our refusal to cooperate? We have created ourselves in an image that
is powerful, for sure, but not universally held to be glorious. We have modeled a system
of international friendship that sounds a lot like that big mean girl on the bus: "Give me
that candy bar or I won't be your friend no more."
That's the America you get. One that's riddled with promises and debts and good
intentions gone wrong. You get to see if you can do any better.
I suspect that you will. I believe this, mainly, because you don't have a choice.
You don't get to live on delusions while you use up your kids' inheritance of wilderness
and good will. That money is spent. As you make your choices about what to do with
your life, you'll make them in a new context of scarcity. The fuel you get to use, the
trees you get to cut down -- limited. The food? Sorry, not enough to go around. The
markets you can develop, the allies you can rely upon, the goodwill you may squander
through careless mistakes -- it's all limited. And you know it. That's what's new.
Here is the deal: Scarcity is the mother of morality. If you see a table piled with
loaves of bread, and nobody's around, that bread might go to waste anyway and you're
hungry so you pick one up, tuck it under your arm, walk away. Nothing wrong with that.
Now, let's approach that table again -- a hundred years later. This time we have
only five loaves of bread and fifteen hungry people, some of them big and strong, some
little and weak. Some are really hungry, and you're only a little bit hungry. What do you
do? The same simple act of picking up a loaf of bread and walking away becomes a
different event in these circumstances. It becomes a moral choice.
You're about to walk out of here and start picking up loaves of bread off that
table. The choices you make about what you will produce, and what you will consume,
will be moral choices. It's not the first time people have attached some moral value to
their professions, and their consumption. But it's probably the first time we need to do
this every day. To measure what we could gobble up against what we really need. To
pursue work that will lead to more equitable distributions, more sustainable consumption,
for the sake of peace in the present and survival in the future. It's not something we even
thought of, in the past -- to see loaves of bread and not pick them up. But when scarcity
becomes evident, it can shock us or inspire us to think twice about what we take.
Since I started off with a depressing litany of the ways the world is dying, I owe it
to you to end with some happier stories. For every group of people whacking something
into extinction, there are others who are making the world healthier and better through
their choices of livelihood. Let's start with the oceans: in recent decades, fishermen in
many parts of the world have gotten desperate over the spreading dead zones. For them
it's not an abstract sadness -- it's nets coming up empty and kids going hungry. And so,
in recent years, in consultation with marine scientists, hundred of fishing communities
have voluntarily set aside marine reserves where nobody fishes. It works on the honor
system, but it works. In these marine reserves the big fish are coming back, and with
them, entire marine ecosystem, including coral reefs. The researchers who monitor these
areas have been amazed to see the recovery that's possible. From these reserves, fishing
areas are gradually replenished and a livelihood returns to communities that have come to
understand a morality of fishing. The human profit motive ultimately is trumped by the
ecological economy of planet earth. The highest law of the land, whether we accept it or
not, is this one: the law of the land. We can only keep taking if we learn to save some
back for the future. Successful systems of community-based marine reserves have been
established all over the world, in more than 40 countries, mostly by small groups of
individuals working together with environmental advisors. In case after case -- in the
Caribbean islands, Mozambique and Indonesia, little patches of ocean life are recovering.
It's happening on land too. The nation of China, probably the most polluted and
polluting country on the planet, has lately gone green around the edges. Civic activism
has erupted among more than 2,000 grass-roots environmental groups that have
persuaded Chinese businesses to become more sustainable. The domestic Chinese
market for environmental technologies -- ranging from solar energy to automobile
recycling -- has grown from practically nothing to an $18 billion industry.
And here, even as the U.S. refuses to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, U.S. businesses
are realizing how this puts them at a competitive disadvantage internationally. Some
pioneering companies are switching to clean air technologies and improving their
efficiency. Federal Express, to name one, is voluntarily moving over to hybrid electric
delivery trucks. Home Depot, McDonald's, Ford Motors, some of the biggest names in
U.S. industry are working in active partnerships with environmentalists -- always because
a handful of people inside these companies had a passion, and formed a plan.
You don't have to be a Gandhi or Mother Teresa to find more successful motives
in life than simple greed. As we run out of stuff we reach the end of a purely profit-
driven form of success, and that is just a fact, plain as a box of rocks. Governments tend
to be slow on the uptake, but individuals can change quickly -- working people, thinking
people, entrepreneurs. One person with only ordinary resources could, for example,
found a bank that lends money to half a million women villagers in Bangladesh, allowing
them to found small businesses, raise their families out of destitution, and work with
dignity. I know this because it was done, by a man named Mohammed Yunus. Creative
social entrepreneurs are building sturdy, valid businesses that advance positive changes in
human life and environmental sustainability.
This is the kind of thing you'll get to be a part of, like it or not. Probably you will
like it, because it feels good to marry your work with your heart, to spend your days on
the job doing things that feel right to you. It's not just a paycheck then, it's paydirt, it's
knowing you are not just taking up shelf space in this world, you're honestly living.
What will be required of you is a paradigm shift, the novel idea that making a
living is not just about picking up the bread, hauling off all you can carry, but about
living with an eye to what you really need, and on what you could spare for the future.
You could distinguish yourselves as the first American generation that behaves as if
there's going to be a tomorrow.
We have the resources to bring energy independence, agricultural independence,
solar technology, every kind of sustainable living not just to ourselves but to our planet.
We could develop the skills to live well with less and create abundance for others. In our
scholarship, our laws and the things we invent and create and sell, we could begin to give
the future more than we take from it. We could be the most generous nation on earth,
instead of the greediest. Let's face it, we're not going to get much farther on the social
paradigm of "Give me that candy bar or I won't be your friend no more."
I've always wished our national anthem were not the one about the bombs
bursting in air, but the one about purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain.
It's closer to the heart of what we really have to sing about. If we can agree on anything
as a nation, it must be that we have the potential to grab less from the world's table.
We've inherited the grace of the Grand Canyon, the fertility of the Great Plains. We
could crown this good with brotherhood. Can you imagine what an inheritance for your
kids that would be, if we were to become a nation beloved for our generosity?
It's not just something to think about. It's something you could actually do.
So now, when people around keep asking you that horrible question -- "What are
you going to do now that you've graduated?" -- try this one on them: "I'm participating
in a paradigm shift. I'm going to consider the moral consequences of my work, my
material acquisition and my consumption." If they say, "Oh, how nice," you reply:
"Thanks, but you people with your rampant consumption of the world's finite resources
have really left me no choice."
Most likely they won't say anything, because when you're leading the way
toward a paradigm shift, those who've gone before don't understand you very well. They
think you're misguided and heretical -- they can't assimilate your vision. They'll mostly
stare at you, puzzled and impressed. And maybe they'll take you to lunch.
Good luck. Do good work. Do better than we did. Thanks.
Copyright 2005 Barbara Kingsolver. All rights reserved.
- end - Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Centre alumni, known for their nation-leading loyalty in annual financial support, include two U.S. vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices. For more, visit http://www.centre.edu/web/elevatorspeech/ For news archives go to http://www.centre.edu/web/news/newsarchive.html.
Copyright 2005 Barbara Kingsolver. All rights reserved.
- end -
Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Centre alumni, known for their nation-leading loyalty in annual financial support, include two U.S. vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices. For more, visit http://www.centre.edu/web/elevatorspeech/
For news archives go to http://www.centre.edu/web/news/newsarchive.html.