Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak to you here in the hallowed halls of my imagination, in this remarkable place where iconoclasts like me are asked to give speeches at major universities. This is a tremendous honor.
As I’m sure you all know, commencement means beginning. The word is synonymous with start, onset, outset, inception, and initiation. Thus under ordinary circumstances, I would be expected to tell you about the glorious future that awaits you on the other side of tomorrow’s hangover. But this speech will not be ordinary, because these times are anything but ordinary.
In fact, it makes much more sense for me to talk about endings—things that are finishing, stopping, terminating, concluding, ceasing, and dying. The list, unfortunately, is long, so I’ll mention only the grandest of finales.
Let’s start with the fact that we’re currently witnessing—and causing—the most significant geologic shift in 65 million years. The Cenozoic Era, which began with the relatively sudden extinction of the dinosaurs and initiated an unprecedented explosion of biodiversity, is now closing with the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history. Our only known living companions in the universe are disappearing at a staggering rate, never to return. This information is so overwhelming that each one of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to process it.
Yet if we don’t start processing it, in our schools and institutions and media and ultimately in our hearts, our own species might soon join the dearly departed. This would mark the last stop on the evolutionary journey of a species uniquely capable of reflecting on and celebrating its own existence, considering its own mortality, and feeling compassion for other living and dying creatures. This is to say nothing about symbolic language, poetry, music, dance, art, Facebook, and other uniquely human forms of expression.
In terms of duration, the next longest period wrapping up is one that should be familiar to all of you: the end of Mayan calendar. Technically, December 21st, 2012, is widely thought to be the terminus of the current Long Count calendar, which has a cycle of about 5,125 years. Whether or not this coming winter solstice will be the actual end of the world is up to you, this year’s graduates. To be fair, it’s up to all of us who are alive today. Surely we cannot expect to be saved from our own ignorance, arrogance, and irreverence by Jesus in a spaceship.
Interestingly, the period of the Mayan Long count corresponds roughly to the period of recorded history, most of which has indeed been his story: an account of bearded patriarchs, masculine messiahs, virile warriors, powerful rulers, intrepid adventurers, and founding fathers. In short, it’s all been about Empire—the quest for domination and control rather than partnership and cooperation. So how’s that been working out? Not so well, obviously, especially for the life-bearing members of our Earth community, and for Mother Nature herself. Thankfully, this juvenile phase of our existence is also coming to an end as its faulty phallocentric assumptions crumble under the weight of its excessive armor.
The end of history itself was proclaimed in 1989 by Frances Fukuyama, who saw the culmination of mankind’s ideological evolution in liberal democracy and free market capitalism. Unfortunately, Fukuyama was a neocon—one of those economic fundamentalists who worship the “invisible hand” while ignoring the all-too-visible fist that smashes real democracy by imposing structural adjustments and austerity measures upon debtor nations, thereby killing the middle class and relegating the population to perpetual servitude to the World Bank and IMF.
A similar process is now happening in the Divided States of America, the last and largest national empire in history. Although the demise of our country has been happening for a few decades, it has become painfully apparent as we confront deepening crises in the areas of economics, politics, health care, criminal justice, education, and the arts. With the rapid rise of our prison system—the most expensive and extensive in the world—and the introduction of automated spy drones, free speech zones, warrantless wiretaps, and countless other measures, we are steadily becoming a police state: one nation under surveillance. So ends the greatest experiment in human freedom, with a barely audible, muffled whimper.
The American Empire has been fueled in large part by cheap oil, the disappearance of which signifies the end of another era. In a pathetic effort to keep our economic engines running on long-dead organisms, we are now tar-sanding and fracking our selves and our planet into oblivion. These extraction processes are extremely costly, both economically and ecologically, representing a frantic attempt to scrape the bottom of the barrel. Comparisons to a junkie searching for a fix are not merely metaphorical; they are the only explanation for our profoundly irrational and self-destructive behavior. In an article entitled “Welcome to the Asylum,” Chris Hedges writes:
“When civilizations start to die they go insane. Let the ice sheets in the Arctic melt. Let the temperatures rise. Let the air, soil and water be poisoned. Let the forests die. Let the seas be emptied of life. Let one useless war after another be waged. Let the masses be thrust into extreme poverty and left without jobs while the elites, drunk on hedonism, accumulate vast fortunes through exploitation, speculation, fraud and theft. Reality, at the end, gets unplugged.”
This disconnection from reality, from Nature, from history, from sanity, from our own heart-minds, makes us susceptible to becoming mere automatons—robotic entities running on unconscious, destructive programs fed to us by the Military-Industrial-Corporate-Media-Education Complex, which understands only one word—profit—and obeys only one directive: more. The Empire Machine, although created by people and granted the rights of persons, does not speak any human language. Knowing only quantity, it is blind to quality, to truth, to beauty, to love. It does not understand the language of the heart, nor does it speak the language of life. In fact, it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that The Machine is programmed to destroy life on Earth, and by all accounts it is doing an excellent job.
At this point on our history, we know better than to listen to the Washington politicians and Wall Street banksters who slavishly serve The Empire Machine. They feed it with life energy in the form of natural and social capital, and in return it feeds their collective addiction to power, prestige, and money. These worldly treasures will be offered to you, too, just as they were offered to Jesus during his ordeal in the desert, and to the Buddha on the eve of his enlightenment. Indeed the shimmering spoils of Empire are dangled in front of your eyes at every waking moment, through the sophisticated and relentless efforts of media and advertising.
I am here to beseech you: resist the allure of power and money with all your might. These are counterfeit forms of wealth, fool’s gold. Not only will they will fail to make you happy, they will destroy your capacity for happiness. At best, they will provide the illusion of happiness, just like any drug, and at worst they will turn you into an addict who will lie, cheat, steal, and betray those he loves in a desperate attempt to maintain his habit. I urge you to let the pusher know that you are not a pushover.
Do not buy into the myth of progress. Things are not getting better, and they will not get better, unless you make them better. And the way to do that is to break the cycle of addiction and put an end to Empire, to take part in the revolution to end all revolutions. This is your mission, should you choose to accept it. It will not be easy, but it will be rewarding beyond measure. You will get to apply your natural abilities and creative gifts while engaging your deep capacity for caring. You will make real friends and experience true intimacy, most importantly with yourself. Instead of feeling hollow inside, you will feel holy inside, and thus see sacredness everywhere you look.
In order to succeed in stopping The Empire Machine, we must also unplug the machine within ourselves: the unconscious impulses and false stories of our deficiency. Despite what you have been taught, you are enough, just as you are. You are beautiful, talented, knowledgeable, capable, and complete. Not only that, but you are also a member of the largest, most ecologically conscious, politically aware, culturally sensitive, technically savvy, and interconnected generation in history. The success of your mission is all but guaranteed, should enough of you embrace it fully.
One of the keys to happiness is having a sense of purpose. Because of how much is at stake, we who are alive today have the opportunity to live the most meaningful lives that have ever been lived. Either that, or the best and brightest minds, with all their unique capacities and gifts, will be squandered, along with the infinitely precious gift of life itself.
May the force be with you.
PS: Good luck paying back that student loan.