David Foster Wallace's Advice for Graduating Environmentalists Still Resonates

david foster wallace environment adviceIntelligent Life/Promo image

The commencement speech David Foster Wallace delivered to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College is the best I've ever heard (Jon Stewart's might be funnier, but still).

Of course, Wallace's eloquent, heartfelt exhortations to keep an active and open mind are complicated by the fact that his striving always to do so led him into deep depression and, tragically, to suicide. But that doesn't make his words any less resonant.

And seeing as how it's graduation season, perhaps it's a good time to revisit those words, for the benefit of all those ambitious, environmentally and socially conscious graduates now emerging into the workforce. Despite all the prognostications they've heard about the crappy job market and the stagnant economy, they're probably wide-eyed, idealistic, and all those other cheery adjectives everyone uses to describe new grads. And rightfully so.

But as Wallace says, that optimism is headed for a collision course with the boring, devastatingly routinized real world—and, in making a point about the pitfalls of narrow thinking in general, he offers some of the best advice a recently graduated environmentalist will hear:

Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.

You get the idea.

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn't have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It's the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he's in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Read the whole thing if you haven't already. But for our purposes, here's the point I want to make:

Most of us emerge from college with our politics and any activist tendencies more or less crystalized. When entering a world, a workforce, where there's perhaps not as much time to debate Malthus over a six pack or to sit through lectures that introduce us to waves of new data, it's going to be easier to turn to those biases, turn them into crutches. Our ever-polarized, internet-calibrated mass media makes it easier than ever to do so.

And you'd better believe I'm writing from experience. With a job description that entails commenting on news items day in and day out, it's waaaay easier to isolate certain groups and refer to them in perpetuity as "bad guys" than to deploy sincere empathy on a daily basis: 50% of my blogging oeuvre bemoans entities like Big Oil, the 2010 congressional GOP, climate change deniers, or the coal lobby. And sure, some degree of generalization will always be necessary, but it's all worthless if you don't take the time to consider the complexities behind each, to consider the diverse organisms that comprise each ecosystem, as Wallace exhorts us to above.

There are droves of people who oppose any action to slow climate change or restrictions on industrial polluters or so forth. And your instinct will be to write them off as ignoramuses, as sheep blindly herded along by Fox News. That I can guarantee. But I can also guarantee that it's worth resisting that instinct, because there are real and complex reasons that people believe what they do, and a moment of actual empathy will be infinitely more valuable than broad and impulsive denunciation.

Automatically heaping such disdain on our ideological opposites isn't just bad form—it's lazy. The success of modern environmentalism hinges on victories in the political arena, and will depend to some extent on how well we are able to understand with those who disagree with us, to communicate why we want to keep our children's children from despising us for "wasting all the future's fuel and probably screwing up the climate." And we'll never be able to do that if we're too busy transforming SUV drivers and climate change skeptics into Earth-hating caricatures.

David Foster Wallace's Advice for Graduating Environmentalists Still Resonates
The brilliant writer who met a tragic end gave an inspiring speech 7 years ago; it's worth revisiting this graduation season.

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