We’re in the middle of our series through several of this year’s notable Commencement speeches. First, we looked at Stephen Colbert’s address to Wake Forest University, and we heard from Ian McEwan, on the gift of free speech. Last week, we listened to Katie Couric’s warnings about technological distraction. Today, we hear from Bill Nye, a distinguished scientist who will probably be forever known as “The Science Guy” due to his popular children’s program on PBS. He spoke last month to the graduates of Rutgers university.
The Biggest Crisis in Human History
People tend to think of “fiery prophets” as belonging to religion, but after reading this speech, I wonder if this wouldn’t be an apt description of Nye as a scientist. In this speech, he paints a stark picture of the future (“We are now deep in the most serious environmental crisis in human history”) but then expresses hope that this generation can “avoid this looming disaster.” He writes:
The oncoming trouble is Climate Change: It is going to affect you all in the same way the Second World War consumed people of my parents’ generation. They rose to the challenge, and so will you. They came to be called The Greatest Generation. I want you all to preserve our world in the face of Climate Change and carry on as The Next Great Generation.
More than 70 million people died in World War II, a human toll that is simply staggering when placed alongside all other wars of history. Unless we are facing the imminent deaths of millions of people, I find it difficult to believe that climate change will motivate the same sort of urgency as WWII did. Ironically, according to Nye, the world’s biggest problem is human beings — there simply are too many of us.
We have almost 7.3 billion people breathing and burning an atmosphere, which is, in the planetary scheme of things, quite shallow. We all share the same air. That’s why our climate is changing.
So, the biggest threat to the vast numbers of humanity is climate change, and the biggest threat to the climate is the vast numbers of humanity.
Change the World (Literally)
What is the best way to fix the climate change problem? Nye turns to technology and is hopeful that entrepreneurs will invent whatever is necessary to save our problem. But he worries that techno-optimism (placing all our hopes in technological advance) is just another way of living in denial. According to Nye, climate change is happening so fast that we simply cannot wait. So, he urges the students to push for environmental legislation.
Now, most commencement speakers urge students to “change the world,” to the point it has become something of a joke. But when most speakers talk about “changing the world,” they are referring to society. Nye means it literally. Change this world, the very environment we inhabit. He offers several ideas for moving forward, and seeks to inspire the students to see themselves as the Next Great Generation, a label he returns to more than once.
Humanity’s Inspiring Smallness
But it’s here that the inspiration takes a strange turn. He writes:
We are one species — each of us much, much more alike than different. We all come from Africa. We all are of the same stardust. We are all going to live and die on the same planet, a Pale Blue Dot in the vastness of space. We have to work together.
Our species is “worthy of the future,” he says, because we find joy in increasing our knowledge. “That’s what drives us.” He then describes his state of mind after hearing for the first time that there are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on the beach.
In that long-ago moment I was paralyzed by self-doubt. I am just a little kid standing on a beach. And, that beach is a one of many beaches on a planet that turns out to be, in the cosmic scheme of things, pretty small — a speck really. Furthermore, my home speck, the Earth, is just a speck orbiting a star that really, considering all the other sand-grain-numerous stars, is just another speck in the galaxy of stars. The galaxy, in turn, being another speck, among galactic specks. I am a speck on a speck orbiting a speck in the middle of deep spacey specklelessness. I don’t matter at all.
But then I think, wait. I have a brain, albeit only this big. (My old boss’s — somewhat smaller.) And, I can imagine all of this. That is wonderful. That is remarkable. That is venerable — worthy of respect!
It is intriguing to watch a naturalist who sees the dissolution of the universe as inevitable seek to inspire graduates to save the planet. If the planet is doomed and humanity is meaningless, just why should we endeavor to save this place?
Nye is right to see human beings as worthy of respect, but it’s unclear where this respect comes from. Why is having a brain or an imagination something venerable? We are all going to live and die on the same planet, a Pale Blue Dot in the vastness of space, he writes. Just how is this inspiring?
It’s hard for believers to see how this is attractive or compelling to people. But we ought to step into the shoes of the naturalist for a moment to see it from the inside. Nye doesn’t see a contradiction between his denial of transcendence and his belief in human significance. The believer might be frightened by the idea that we are alone in the universe, but the unbeliever might find such an idea exhilarating, much like a kid who has left home for the first time and is in the middle of a busy train station without any authority or guardian looking out for him.
Nye doesn’t deny the world has meaning; he just reduces it here to our physicality, this present moment, in this small speck we call “a brain.” And because we can think and exercise our imagination, we ought to see ourselves as “worthy of the future.”
What Is Man That You Are Mindful of Him?
This isn’t the place to take Nye’s naturalism head on. Instead, I’d like to close this summary by mentioning how not one of the other speeches we’ve looked at (or will look at) ever challenges this naturalistic understanding of our world. The other speeches were not delivered by committed naturalists like Nye, but they all assume that this world is all there is, or at least they offer no hint of anything transcendent.
All the challenges to change the world, all the inspiring words delivered to student, they are all spoken from the earth’s horizon. We are all on the ground, speaking to one another. We never hear from the skies.
Ironically, Scripture also contains a trace of Nye’s wonder at humanity’s insignificance in light of the vastness of creation. The psalmist wondered: What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?
The believer and the unbeliever can stand on the same seashore, look up at the stars, and be awed by humanity’s smallness. The believer is in awe when considering the mind of God. The unbeliever is in awe when considering the mind of man.