"The system of systems that sustains our planet is at risk. Build a system of systems of human beings, to collaborate and foster creativity. Our planet needs you. And you need it."
Dr. Susan K. Avery
Remarks to Graduate Commencement
Vietnam Veterans Peace Memorial Amphitheater
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
May 26, 2012
Thank you Chancellor MacCormack.
Good afternoon, everyone.
It is truly a privilege to be here, and a thrill to feel the energy from this assembly of soon to be graduates and their families and friends. As graduate students you have put in a lot of hard work.
If you were mechanical systems, you could say that you are full of potential energy. You've put in the energy to coil the spring. And for all your hard work, today you'll receive an acknowledgement of your accomplishments.
But in addition to a graduation, as speakers have said on these occasions since time immemorial, this is a commencement, a beginning. You've barely started, and you still have a lot of work ahead of you. I say that not to diminish everything you've done, but to point out the phenomenal opportunities--and challenges--that lie ahead of you on each of your paths. In many ways, the same is true of our planet. It faces great challenges, but also great opportunities.
Many of you know that you are on the cusp between Generation Y and Generation Z. But you may not know that, geologically speaking, we are also on the cusp between geological epochs. Since the end of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago, we have been in the Holocene Epoch -- an epoch characterized by relatively stable climate.
But the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Paul Crutzen -- whose work alerted us to the depletion of Earth's ozone -- has popularized the idea that the Holocene ended sometime in the 19th century with the dawn of the Industrial Age. He and others have suggested that we are now living in a new epoch, which is called the Anthropocene. It is named after the new dominant force that is changing our planet: us.
The Anthropocene marks the period when human activities began to have so much impact, that we are now a force that affects the Earth's natural systems.
Human industry and land use have dramatically raised levels of heat trapping gases in the atmosphere. As a result, the air and the ocean are warming.
If only the problem ended there. But with that extra heat, things get very complicated very fast. Warming leads to more melting of ice sheets and glaciers. Frozen water on land turns into liquid water, which goes back into the ocean, raising sea levels. In the end, the very geography of our planet is changing.
Its chemistry is also changing. As carbon dioxide levels rise, more of the gas dissolves into the ocean. This makes seawater more acidic. Corals and other small marine animals will have a harder time forming shells. The marine food web will be disrupted. And our ocean's biology will change.
Even its physics will change. Warm temperatures cause more evaporation, and warmer air can hold more water vapor. The result is that our planet's water cycle will intensify. In fact -- it is intensifying. We are already seeing signs that rain and snow are falling more often and more intensely, in some places, and less so in others. Floods, droughts, storms and hurricanes will become stronger and more frequent.
My point is not to overwhelm you with doom and gloom. Every generation -- not just yours -- has had difficult problems to solve. This is yours. Rest assured, however, that you have the knowledge, talent, technology, and energy to address it. Maybe not now, but over time, you will gain more knowledge and experience and tools. You will gain confidence to act, a sense of ownership of this time, and a feeling of responsibility to those who will come after you. (I would understand if you feel this is a burden that my generation has unfairly laid upon you.)
My point, rather, is to try to show you that we are dealing with more than one complex system demanding the attention of more than one discipline or perspective or talent. Each component of Earth -- its atmosphere, land, ocean, ice, life, and societies -- is itself a complex, dynamic system deserving of attention. Together, we are dealing with the convoluted workings of a system of systems that sustains life.
Even if you could understand how each individual component of a system worked, you would still need to understand how they interact with each other. An event or a change in one part of the world can bring far greater change to far distant or vastly different parts of the planet. In a system of systems, there are no simple cause-and-effect relationships. Instead, what one system produces will change how another system works. The whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. And in an interconnected world, this inevitably means surprises.
But interconnection is also our greatest tool in tackling this problem. We have to make connections to create a force greater than the sums of our parts.
One of the most interesting projects I have been involved in is a concept that some people have been calling a co-laboratory. In this co-laboratory, 270 scientists from around the world were brought together. There were scientists from a broad range of fields, who studied different components of Earth's complex system. We used cyber infrastructure to put together a virtual conference that lasted for a month. All these people -- online and in real time -- shared their data and their ideas and, more importantly, their unique ways of looking at complex problems.
All those people, from diverse societal and geographic settings, with diverse skills, and diverse perspectives, could continually examine and discuss data, and bring up and refine questions, propose experiments, then analyze results. They discovered a new feature of the sun-atmosphere system -- something that would not have been noticed or understood by examining only one part of the system.
Amazing advances in technology have made such things possible. But what this really enables is the opportunity for creative thinking. In his book, the Rise of the Creative Class, author Richard Florida wrote that "Creativity involves the ability to synthesize. It is a matter of sifting through data, perceptions, and material to come up with combinations that are new and useful and unexpected and even playful." The humanists and artists amongst you probably know this better than we scientists: Creativity flourishes when you bring together a diversity of information, tools, and perceptions, from a diversity of places and perspectives and you are asked to make sense of the chaos.
Humans have collaborated to create some complex problems. To find solutions, we're going to need a lot of creativity and collaboration. Our first co-laboratories included people from a broad spectrum of scientific disciplines, physicists, chemists, geologists, biologists, and engineers. But if we are going to succeed in a world that is complex and chaotic, our work cannot rely on just the input of scientists.
If warming in the Arctic diminishes sea ice, we'll need scientists to figure out the cascade of impacts that will occur: how solar radiation will be absorbed by a dark liquid ocean -- rather than be reflected off white sea ice. But that just starts the ball rolling.
How does that change the temperature and circulation of the ocean?
How does that affect the marine food chain from algae and zooplankton to crustaceans to fish and birds and mammals upon which so many native populations depend?
These are people who are struggling to keep their cultures alive -- cultures that may, in their accumulated knowledge, hold keys to adaptation for the all societies. If Arctic sea ice diminishes, it will open new shipping and trade routes, as well as energy and mineral reserves, which means new business opportunities - and new potential disputes between nations.
Invariably, everything leads back to people, because we are part of the system we are also influencing.
For example, recently in Massachusetts, several people became sick from eating shellfish infected with a pathogen related to cholera. It's a naturally occurring bacterium in the ocean. But it doesn't become a problem unless water becomes warm and salty enough. Ocean temperatures, apparently, are becoming warm enough and reduced runoff and increased evaporation could be making the bays and estuaries saltier.
Beyond understanding the physical-biological issues in this example, there lurks a host of other problems requiring special knowledge. Public health experts and medical professionals will certainly be called upon. It may require new, smarter regulations from policy makers and legislators. These will have economic impacts that might require different business approaches to how we utilize the ocean. A smart, young engineer might invent something new that will have to navigate mine fields of the patent process and start-up landscape.
In our co-laboratories of our shared future, we'll need all of you as specialists and generalists and as educated, concerned citizens to come together and engage in effective -- creative -- problem-solving and decision-making. Because we're all in this together.
As you graduate, you are among the first to enter an epoch in which humanity has to reckon with its power to change the Earth. At the dawn of the Anthropocene, you have fabulous new technology at your disposal, which you will undoubtedly make obsolete with your new, better inventions and adaptations. But for all the newness and change in your future, one thing will not change: us. New York Times columnist David Brooks said it well: "Information can now travel 15,000 miles in an instant," he wrote. "But the most important part of information's journey is the last few inches -- the space between a person's eyes or ears and the various regions of the brain."
So: Harness all that potential energy that you now contain.
Celebrate your accomplishments, but do not rest. The system of systems that sustains our planet is at risk. Build a system of systems of human beings, to collaborate and foster creativity. Our planet needs you. And you need it.