Let’s Not Screw It Up

This is now the fifth time I’ve been given the chance to speak at the Bodine High School for International Affairs commencement. It’s such an honor and a joy. As always, I need to note that what I say here are my views, not said on behalf of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.

How many of you were born in '99? How many in 2000?

For those of you born in 1999, wow, you are the last high school graduates who will have a good chance of living part of your lives in three centuries (the 20th, 21st and into the 22nd). For those of you born in the year 2000, congratulations, you are the first high school graduates who were born in this century – born into what your elders thought of as the exotic future.

Either way, you all had the good fortune to be born in the years which would bring you to this milestone today, to graduate from high school and move on toward your adult lives, in the best and most consequential time there has ever been. Anyone over 40 today is really like a time traveler in a science-fiction movie or TV show. Because of the incredible pace of change, we are visiting you and your century, but we're really not from around here.

Let me start with the conclusion I hope you’ll remember, and work backwards from there. The world is on a path to a bright future, despite all the flashing “look over here” distractions which fill so much of media every second of every day— a future of much greater freedom, prosperity and opportunity— so long as we don’t careen off course, so long as we don’t screw it up.

When I was born there were 3 billion people in the world and about 80% of them lived in absolute poverty. For that 80% of the world, not much that matters had changed in ordinary life from how people lived at the dawn of history. Life was crazy hard, and it was short.

Today, they're more than 7 billion of us and only 10% still live in absolute poverty, with that number significantly declining nearly every year. Life has gotten much easier, and longer, for most of the human race, and for those of us who live in the world’s top 20%, including virtually all Americans, life is better in countless ways than it was even for the kings and emperors of history.

If we, collectively, we humanity, don't screw it up, the population of the world will keep growing to about 11 billion. Then it will level off. The populations of China and India will grow until the middle of the century but then they will actually, gradually, decline.

And, if we don't screw it up, the 11 billion people living late in this century, including you, will live in a world that has eliminated absolute poverty. No one will be hungry. No one won't have electricity or the internet. Everyone will have clean water and healthcare far beyond what anyone has today. Genes will be edited to prevent and defeat disease. Organs will be regrown as needed. The once blind will see and the once paralyzed will walk.

If we don't screw it up, and economic growth in the world averages only a modest 2.3% each year, compared to the average of 3.4% in the United States since 1930, the world in 2100 will be an astounding six times richer than it is now, with only a 40% larger population. That’s a world in which every human being on the planet can live a better life than middle-class Americans do today and in many respects better than even the richest people in the world do today.

This isn't magical thinking. It's simple math.

If we don't screw it up, people will be living on mars and elsewhere in space and there's a very great likelihood that we will have discovered extraterrestrial life.

But here's the problem.

We may screw it up.

The world used to be able to support civilization and a degree of human progress without electricity. Now, it can't. And the lights could go out for many reasons.

The world used to be able, much more recently, to operate and to progress, without computers and the internet to connect them. Now, it can't, and these systems grow more vulnerable by the day.

Deadly plagues of disease did not used to be able to spread around the world at 600 miles an hour in the seats of planes. Now, they can, and this can be done by accident or on purpose.

The world didn't used to include major national powers with weapons of truly mass destruction. There always have been wars, but there was a physical limit to how much damage they could do. Today's power matchups, involving the United States, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran, and even North Korea, can bring destruction on a terrible scale.

The world has always had fanatics, who use terror in the name of their beliefs, but only today, with the very sophistication of our society making us more fragile, has terrorism become a global threat.

The world, the natural world aside from humanity, adjusted countless times to dramatic changes in climate, but those changes occurred over very long periods of time in terms of human experience. Today, human civilization is changing climate much faster than that and the consequences are going to have to be absorbed by human civilization in that much shorter space of time.

That is doable, in more than one way, and the alarmists crying of catastrophe for the earth are their own worst enemies, politically, but neither can the issue be simply wished away.

The world used to, for about 70 years and as recently as a year ago, be headed, in fits and starts, to be sure, towards a greater integration and interdependence among peoples, but now there is a surge of divisions and divisiveness, within our country and globally. Many people are becoming more fearful and resentful of one another and seeking walls rather than bridges.

So, we really can screw it up.

In just the last few hundred years– the blink of an eye in human history and far less than a blink in the history of the earth– the human race has actually figured it out, figured out how to create a civilization that has the potential to give every single child born a quality of life they deserve and the opportunities to make all they can of themselves.

We figured out that freedom, economic and political, will create nearly continuous improvement in science and technology and in law and culture as well, and lift us toward a world which was previously only the stuff of dreams.

And don't forget that a great part of this figuring out happened right here, in our country, indeed, right here in our city of Philadelphia— from the Declaration of Independence, to the first computer.

But, yes, we also figured out how to screw it up.

That's why this is the fifth year in a row that I've told Bodine graduating classes that your generation is the most important in history, that your generation has both the blessing and the burden of being the bridge between the adolescence and the possibility of the adulthood of the human race.

I’m asking you to promise today, to promise yourselves and each other really, to do all you can as individuals to see to it that we don’t screw it up.

Many graduation speeches talk a lot about dreams— find your dreams, believe in your dreams, pursue your dreams. All true, but I want to tell you that dreams don't come true, and won't make you happy anyway, unless they are inseparable from the idea of duties.

I want to ask you, as you leave a special school, in a special time, to find, pursue, and believe in your duty – to your family and friends, to your community, to your country, and to our world.

At the WAC, our team recently suffered a body blow, learning that one of our respected and beloved co-workers and friends has a monstrous disease, and very probably won't survive long.

This kind of thing just happens, part of the dark side of the mystery of life, and the teachings of many faith traditions urge acceptance, serenity, in the face of things which one cannot change.

I'm here to challenge no one’s faith, but for myself I want to urge you to never accept suffering, to always rage against evil, whether visited on us by nature or, even more so, by our own human failings.

Demand that the power of science find the cures -- demand, as engaged citizens, to pick just one example, that our government spend more on medical research than our country does on pet food and pet medicine (today we spend much less). And, demand, overall, that the potential of our other institutions, and of our combined commitments to do our duties, be realized to prevent the world from screwing up its best chance to achieve the adulthood of humanity. Make these things a part of your sense of who you are and why you are here in this life.

I'll close by quoting President Obama, sharing a similar view of the world, at last year's Howard University graduation:

“If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be— what nationality, what gender, what race, whether you’d be rich or poor, gay or straight, what faith you’d be born into— you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago. You wouldn’t choose the fifties, or the sixties, or the seventies. You’d choose right now.”

“Choose right now,” the 44th president said, and, let me add, choose correctly now.

Let’s not screw it up.

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