Wear Sunscreen? This Year, It's More Like "Wear Waders"

It's May, and graduation season is in full swing. I know this because I think I'm hearing "Pomp and Circumstance" in my sleep.

As the sitting president of American University's Alumni Association, I just assumed I was a shoo-in to deliver the school's 2010 commencement addresses.

Well, that didn't turn out so well. Apparently, AU thought some folks with names like Eric Holder, Donna Shalala and Janet Napolitano were a better "get." (I know, I know. There's always next year.)

This wouldn't be so bad if I hadn't already prepared my remarks. Stealing not too directly from the famed "Wear Sunscreen" faux graduation address - which has been attributed erroneously to Kurt Vonnegut, but was really written by a Chicago Tribune columnist in 1997 - I had a message for the graduates that would really grab them.

Alas. Instead, there I was listening to Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano. Since she's recently been speaking out about the federal response to the BP oil spill, I paid particular attention to her speech, which touted the value of vision. Napolitano listed major representations of change in the last four years: the financial collapse, Ted Kennedy's endorsement of Barack Obama, the advent of Twitter, and even the AU men's basketball team's ascension to the NCAA tournament (does she know her audience, or what?).

"These moments may seem to have little in common... but together they show the breadth of change possible in today's world. And most importantly, none of them were accidents. They all resulted from somebody's vision. They were all made possible by knowledge and skill. They all represented seized opportunities."

All true. And a great speech. But if AU had been visionary enough to pick me as their speaker, I would have drawn heavily on one thing Napolitano didn't even mention: current events in the Gulf.

So allow me to dispense with the crying and moaning and pull a "Wear Sunscreen" of my own. Here's the commencement speech I would have delivered:

Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2010: Wear waders.

Especially when you're on a beach in Louisiana, or Florida, or North Carolina. Because any scientist - or Greenpeace activist, or even Fox News reporter - worth her salt will tell you that your clothes don't stand a chance against all that oil sludge that's lapping up onshore. Don't even get me started on the tarballs.

Seriously, though: You've spent four years wading through classes, scouring your required reading lists, drilling deep into group projects... perhaps even siphoning through a late night at the Tavern - which, unlike the Gulf, turns out to be "dry" these days. And surely you've gained invaluable real-world experience from your professors, your advisors, your work-study jobs and internships. But the next four - or 40 - years are the ones that really count.

So here's the question: How will you apply all that you've learned to the world's many pressing problems? To be blunt, I hope that more than a few of you are planning to grapple with the choices we make about our energy use - because there are few more pressing issues today than energy.

If you studied journalism, or took any classes on government or democracy in America, as I did, you might be particularly surprised by the most recent news coming out of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Aside from the arrival of oil to some of Louisiana's most sensitive marshland ecosystems, now we hear that Coast Guard officers prevented a CBS camera crew from documenting those affected ecosystems - threatening them with arrest and offering a troubling cop-out: "This is BP's rules, not ours." A Coast Guard spokesperson later said they were looking into the incident. Whether the officers acted alone or under someone else's authority, it's sobering to consider that this disaster has gotten so bad - and so hard to control - that even government officials would go out of their way to limit its documentation.

If you studied biology or physics, or even photography, you were probably appalled by NASA's latest satellite photo of the BP spill. A huge swath is spreading south into open ocean and entering the Loop Current, which could propel it east to the Florida Keys - and maybe Miami and Cuba - in as few as eight days.

And if you studied engineering, I hope you have a better idea than I do of how the heck a tiny siphon will offset a gushing, broken oil pipe.

Actually, if you're an engineer - could you please find a way to fix this oil gush? A fix that actually works? Now that we've finally seen footage from the sea floor, experts have estimated that the rate of oil spilling in the Gulf is up to 10 times higher than we originally thought.

The best idea I heard all day was Rep. Edward Markey's. In a letter, he has asked BP to make publicly available what it already has: a live stream of video from the oil leak site, which is monitored 24/7 by robots wearing cameras. And it looks like he'll get his way.

Which is great - because I have to believe that if Americans take a look at what's actually happening down there, we'll finally see some real outrage. As a popular news station likes to say, "You decide!"

But seriously, where is the outrage? Where is the shame? A poll in today's USA Today says that almost 50 percent of American adults plan to "do nothing" in reaction to the oil spill. Where are the folks with enough vision to get us out of this mess for the long term? This is a huge moment for American renewable energy technology, and as a nation we're just not paying as much attention to it as we should be.

But there is hope.

Take Solana, for example. Solana is a planned concentrating solar power plant that will be built 70 miles southwest of Phoenix, Arizona. It's being pioneered by the largest utility in Arizona - APS - and once operational it will provide enough power for 70,000 homes. Think of that! Electricity for 70,000 homes, and not a single trace of greenhouse gases. If it were up and running today, it would be the largest solar power plant in the world. Now that's what I call vision.

So, you decide: Siphoning oil off the ocean floor, or generating enough clean, renewable energy to supply a small city.

Meanwhile, solar panels and solar hot water heaters are catching on across the nation, as people learn how effective they are at both generating electricity and cutting those monthly energy bills. And, quite frankly, the only thing you'll have to wade through here is some paperwork that will help you get the rebates and incentives that can improve your bottom line. But even that's getting easier every day.

So, back to you, graduates. It's no accident that your parents sent you to college. For one, they love you. And they were hopeful that what you would learn here would help you tackle our nation's biggest problems. Beyond these walls, people like those who created Solana - and those who have decided to install a solar panel on their rooftops - are out there, ready to work with you on tackling our planet's energy problems. Are you ready to be a part of the solution?

I think you are. This university has prepared you for it. And besides, waders aren't really your style.

Oh, and wear sunscreen.

Brian F. Keane is President of SmartPower, the nation's leading non-profit marketing firm dedicated to promoting clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency. To learn more, visit www.smartpower.org.