“Graduates, you may now move your tassels from right to left…”
The days of The Graduate and its restless ennui are history—the newest crop of UT Knoxville alums must immediately set to work helping America address its “unfinished matters,” including global warming and a financial crisis, former vice-president Al Gore stated at the spring 2010 commencement of the College of Arts and Sciences on May 14.
“From this day forward, you are going to be a part of the great work that our society is doing,” he proclaimed to the 1,030 graduates and 14,000 guests who packed Thompson–Boling Arena.
The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, awarded Gore, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and a native of Carthage, Tennessee, an Honorary Doctorate of Laws and Humane Letters in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the ceremony. Gore and his environmental activism were the focus of the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth. He is currently the chair of Current TV, an Emmy award winning independently owned cable and satellite nonfiction television network for young people based on viewer-created content and citizen journalism.
“Vice President Gore’s career has been marked by visionary leadership, and his work has quite literally changed our planet for the better,” said Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek. “He is among the most accomplished and respected Tennesseans in history, and it is fitting that he should be honored by the flagship public education institution of his home state.”
Joking that he was only the “second-stiffest commencement speaker” in the United States (losing out to an MIT guest who dropped dead during his own speech), Gore told graduates that they were facing many challenges, including an anemic job market and the meltdown of the financial industry.
Despite the gravity of these problems, it is the environment that is the “biggest item of unfinished business on our agenda,” Gore said. The recent massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is “far from the only uncontrolled gusher of pollution into the environment,” Gore stated, adding that the pollution leading to global warming is being put forth at a far greater rate than the oil.
Bringing his argument against pollution home, Gore noted that the billion-gallon coal ash spill at Harriman, Tennessee, is connected to our dependence on carbon-based fuels. And the mountaintop mining practices in the area and into the northeastern part of the United States poison the creeks and water for surrounding communities.
“It’s always a mistake to say a particular event, like the flood of Nashville, is caused by global warming . . . but we’re loading the dice, as the scientists say. All over the world, once-in-500-years events, once-in-1,000-years events are occurring more frequently. And yet we are still not doing much about it,” Gore stated.
“It is time for us to disenthrall ourselves from this dependence on oil and coal and natural gas and recognize the transformation to renewable energy sources, much higher levels of efficiency, sustainable agriculture, sustainable farms, and sustainable architecture. And your generation is going to be the generation that succeeds in completing this transition,” Gore said, concluding, “The truth can be inconvenient, but the single most important choice any of us make as individuals and as a society is between the hard right and the easy wrong.”
Gore received the third honorary doctorate ever awarded by the university; the first two went to former U.S. Senator Howard H. Baker Jr. and entertainer Dolly Parton.
Photos from spring 2010 commencement, along with an archived version of the video webcast, are available on the University of Tennessee’s website.