2019 Commencement address by Dr. Jane Lubchenco

Oregon State University 150th Commencement Address by Jane Lubchenco, University Distinguished Professor, College of Science, Department of Integrative Biology

To Navigate an Uncertain Future: Embrace Change; Nurture People & the Planet; Take Charge

June 15, 2019

Congratulations, Graduates! You’ve made it! Your hard work, sacrifices, and persistence have paid off. We are proud of each of you. We are here to celebrate you and your accomplishments, and to launch you into the next phase of your lives. 

For some of you, your next steps are clear – you may have a job, or admission to an advanced degree program, plans to start a business, or something else exciting. For others, what comes next is still a work in progress. But even if the next steps for you are obvious, there will undoubtedly be surprises in store – for all of you, indeed for all of us.

You may feel like the pace of change around you is quickening. Indeed, it is! Change is accelerating everywhere, not just in your immediate world. The rates and kinds of changes are increasing across environmental, social, technological, and economic spheres. 

Make no mistake, this means that the world is increasingly hard to predict and full of surprises. Of course, not all change is bad, but this dynamism poses challenges, especially for anyone who assumes the world is stable and predictable.   

OSU’s second 150 years will be quite unlike its first 150 years. Change is upon us. Change is now a defining feature of your world and mine. 

To be sure, we all need mechanisms to relax and recharge our batteries – e.g., via physical activity, time with friends, recreation, meditation, or immersion in nature. 

We also seek and need periodic escapes – via entertainment like Game of Thrones, Marvel’s Universe, CardiB, music, or the World Cup. 

But in parallel, each of us also needs to prepare mentally to deal with the increasing dynamism of our world. Forewarned is forearmed!  

So, how can you lean into change? Rest assured, the knowledge and skills you’ve already acquired will be invaluable in helping navigate these turbulent waters – sometimes in surprising ways.  My training as a marine biologist, for example, was excellent preparation for dealing with the rough and tumble world of politics in Washington, D.C. because I already knew how to swim with sharks! 

Seriously, though, the very same training that allows me to scuba dive safely with sharks – paying close attention to the behavior of those sharks and learning what various postures were communicating – helped me to read non-verbal signals from politicians. I quickly learned that sometimes their real messages were conveyed not in what a politician said, but in where it was said or in whose company, and the body language that accompanied the words. Studying sharks really did come in handy. So, too, might much of your education prepare you in ways that may surprise you.

But, as important as your skills are, navigating change effectively requires a mindset of expecting and even embracing change. I have navigated lots of changes over the years – in both my professional and personal life – in academia, as a policy maker and governmental official, in founding 4 not-for-profit organizations, in losing a son, in welcoming delightful grandkids, and more. I also study coupled human-natural systems to understand how we can do a better job of using the natural world without using it up. 

Looking across these experiences, I have three Guiding Principles to share that will enable you to succeed in a complex, turbulent, unpredictable world: (1) Embrace change; (2) Nurture Self, Community, and Nature; and (3) Take Charge. 

Guiding Principle #1: Embrace change.  It is tempting to ignore, deny or fight change.  A better option, in my view, is to see change as an opportunity and seek ways to use it. 

I love John W. Gardner’s insight that, “We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.”

This way of thinking about change is certainly true of global environmental problems, e.g., how to deal with the myriad, seemingly overwhelming changes underway in the ocean – coral bleaching, plastic pollution, ocean acidification, illegal fishing, and more.But instead of getting bogged down in these very real and serious threats to ocean ecosystems, many researchers are seeking and helping to deploy evidence-based solutions that anticipate and incorporate change. For example, by reforming fisheries, it is possible to prevent the worst impacts of climate change on fishing jobs and food security. Because the ocean is so intertwined with other important global problems, we seek to solve multiple problems together – climate change AND fisheries AND food security. This systems approach looks for synergies and co-benefits – ways to achieve multiple outcomes with one solution.

Guiding Principle #2.  Nurture yourself, your family and community, and the planet.  Nurturing is undervalued. Nurturing is for men as well as for women—indeed it is for identities, for all people. Nurturing is active, not passive. In taking care of yourself and others, you focus on the human connections that enable us to cope and, indeed, to thrive.

Nurturing means being compassionate and standing up for what is right, e.g., the #MeToo and #Times Up! movements. Nurturing means seeking help when you or a friend need it.

And nurturing means taking care of the living planet. In doing so, you connect to amazing, glorious other lifeforms as well as the essential life-support systems they provide. Nurturing the planet means being a good steward of life on earth. Doing so is both right and it benefits us because we need healthy ecosystems and a healthy planet.

Our planet is out of balance, but it’s not too late to transition to more sustainable practices and policies – ones that take us forward, not backward, ones that seek efficiency and regenerative systems. Hundreds of solutions are bubbling up from around the world, solutions that seek innovative ways to use the planet without using it up. Solutions that work with Nature, not against it. We can be so much smarter about how we generate and use energy, about our consumption of water and natural resources. We can harness new technologies, innovation, and ingenuity to live in smarter and more equitable ways. Many businesses and communities are leading the way, driven by employees and leaders who understand the need to be better stewards of people and the planet and see business opportunities in doing so. Take heart that there are good and encouraging changes underway. Help bring them to scale. Invent new ones!

Tomorrow is Father’s Day – a perfect time to focus on the key role of fathers in nurturing their families, communities and the world. I love the powerful role that my husband and our son play in nurturing their families and their students. My husband and I take great pride in our academic kids and grandkids, and are in close touch with dozens and dozens of them dating back to our early years at OSU, over 40 years ago. I’ve seen how powerful this nurturing can be in providing stability, empowering growth and achievement, and buffering the challenges of changes.

Thus far, I’ve reflected on Embracing Change and Nurturing People and Life. The third guiding principle to deal with an increasingly dynamic world is simply to Take Charge, to Act, to Create Change. It is so very easy to become overwhelmed with challenges, with system inertia, with entrenched practices, that we often forget that each of us has the power to do something. That something need not be huge, but it can be a beginning.

Greta Thunberg, the Swedish schoolgirl who at 15 began protesting outside the Swedish parliament about the need for action on climate change did not set out to be a climate activist. She did not set out to trigger a massive mobilization of youth around the world. She simply took action in a way that she could. And eventually, it snowballed. Like-minded young people across the planet realized they, too, could take action, and their collective voice has been powerful and is being heard. And this is just the beginning. Youth will lead – you can lead.

My friend Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, an evangelical climate scientist, often says that the most important thing we can do to address climate change is to simply TALK about it to our friends and family.Any of us can do that.

But each of us can do more.We can become and stay informed.We can vote.We can let our elected representatives know what we value.We can share our education with others and use it to propose solutions. We can team up with others who have complementary knowledge or skills.We can catalyze change.Knowledge + passion + courage are a potent combination.They can be your combination.

So in summary, we celebrate and welcome you today. We invite you to take your place in shaping the world. In fact, we are relying on you to do just that. Those of you who embrace change, nurture people and nature, and take charge and create change will be better able to navigate the turbulent waters ahead and be a force of change for good.

Dynamic times call for smart, active engagement. This is your time. This is your place. This is your world. You can help make the world what it should be. Seek like-minded friends. Find mentors who can guide and advise. Become and stay informed. You have worked hard for your degree. Now use it! Take Charge! Go forth, and in the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”