Despair and Inspiration

By: Michael Mortimer

[The following remarks were delivered at the November 2016 XMNR X17-Cohort meeting.]

I wanted to share a few words with all of you following the results of the presidential election just two days ago. I imagine that sounds a bit funereal, a bit maudlin. I struggled with what to say, given that there are people in this room that I’m sure voted on opposing sides. But I thought it important, as Center Director, that I say my piece.

It appears from the county-by-county election map and from the popular vote tallies that we in fact have two Americas. One urban; one rural. Two nations sharing one country, two nations differing in values, frames, and perspectives on how best to move into the future. If you’ve watched as much Dr. Who as I have, you know that two objects occupying the same space and time is a recipe for disaster. I think what some of us may be feeling is the hangover from a rip in the space-time continuum. What unsettles me is that we may not be currently equipped as a society and culture with the tools and institutions needed to manage or resolve this dualistic national co-existence. I cannot imagine that we will not have to think about our American society in new ways.

Like about half the nation, I was angry on Wednesday morning. Angry at rural America for what I saw as its short-sighted preference for President. But at some point that anger gave way to something I did not expect. A sense of sorrow. I was sorry that so many Americans don’t, for example, carry a global systems perspective, experience diversity on a routine basis, and don’t have the opportunity to travel to foreign places and meet different people in unfamiliar settings. We should all take a moment to recognize that we are here together, enjoying all three of those rare experiences.

I recognize that Donald Trump’s environmental platform sounds disheartening: doubling down on fossil fuel extraction, cutting renewable energy subsidies, eliminating environmental agencies, and withdrawing from the Paris climate accords. I don’t think anyone is sure what will eventually occur, but what’s been proposed could easily spawn a sense of despair. But despair, despair is only a hair’s breadth away from inspiration. I am more convinced than ever that the work we do here at CLiGS is critical for the future—for ours, and for our children’s. Perhaps one of the only ways to reconcile the two Americas is to provide more and greater opportunities to see a larger world, one peopled with differences. But not one to be feared and loathed. In my experience, cosmopolitan educational experiences are a surefire way to move past the fear and loathing.

Perhaps one of the only ways to reconcile the two Americas is to provide more and greater opportunities to see a larger world, one peopled with differences.

I urge all of you to draw power from the thought of the next four years—not despair. I leave for the COP22 climate meeting in Morocco next week and I can tell you that I have no choice but to draw power. You are all fabulously equipped to lead, and leadership for sustainability is, paradoxically, going to be more important than ever. Consider that we are all gathered here working on a series of projects aimed at comprehending and sharing complex environmental sustainability challenges from a place halfway around the world. That is the power of education. That is the power we share for impact and for change. You are all ideally situated to show the world the best of America—and I am heartened to be part of that. So, as Winston Churchill—and Billy Ocean—famously remarked: when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Thank you. Thank you for all your efforts, for your willingness to embrace the unknown, and thank you for leading.