Indy Burke's Blog

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Graduation 2018, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. May 21, 2018

(a long Blog Post!) 



Welcome to 2018 commencement of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Welcome to parents, grandparents, families and friends of our marvelous graduates. It is a huge pleasure to have you with us today.

And a special congratulations to the Class of 2018 – all 156 of you!

Today is the best day of the academic year -  the culmination of countless hours of hard work and commitment.  It is the day when we celebrate - and formally acknowledge - the achievements of the class of 2018.

We celebrate today 12 students who have successfully completed their PhD’s.  Their topics of study are wonderfully diverse, and include systemic climate risk, greywater and urban anthropology, air pollution and birth outcomes, salt marsh ecosystem function, legality verification in forest product markets, formation of soil carbon, solar installations on U.S. public lands, and much more.  One of our graduates will receive a joint degree with Anthropology.  This brief summary gives you a sense of the exciting interdisciplinary scholarship taking place at our School.

We celebrate the 12 graduates receiving the degree of Master of Forestry, 5  receiving the degree of Master of Forest Science, 112 receiving the degree of Master of Environmental Management, and 24 receiving the degree of Master of Environmental Science.

Our students are the tangible result of our partnerships: 17 graduates are receiving joint Masters degrees with the Yale School of Management, 4 with the Yale School of Architecture, 1 with the Divinity School, 1 with the School of Public Health, 1 who is receiving a joint Master’s with their Juris Doctorate from the Yale Law School, 1 with their JD from The Elizabeth Haub Law School at Pace University, and 1 from the Vermont Law School.  We also celebrate today the first set of 4 students receiving joint Masters of Environmental Management with Masters of Environmental Engineering from Tsinghua University in China. 

All of you who are receiving your degree today have accomplished a great deal.  It was hard to matriculate into this School and we have expected a lot of you.   In turn, you have given a tremendous amount…academically, and to our community . You have worked hard, played hard, learned from our faculty, challenged us to learn as well, and learned from each other.  You are all extraordinary individuals.  You have earned our respect and you deserve our congratulations.  Congratulations! (applause)

Graduates, and guests, the faculty is the heart and soul of an academic institution.  The faculty members here in our School are internationally renowned for developing new knowledge, new analyses, and new approaches to solving environmental problems. They have engaged these students in learning, and have guided them in developing their own analyses. It has been a great pleasure for me to work with this faculty during my short time here….faculty, please stand and be recognized for your incredible contributions to Yale and this School.

The staff is an incredibly important part of the community at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. From the moment you graduates submitted an application, to every trip you took and each classroom and event scheduled to every bit of software you used…the staff supported you. FES staff, please stand and be recognized!

Graduates….All of you succeeded because of your hard work, and because of the support from your partners or spouses, your friends and your families.  These are individuals who invested in you, gave you advice and support of all kinds.   Class of 2018 – stand, and give recognition to thank everyone here for their support in helping you reach this moment.

I myself have been here about two months less than most of you have -  I have so enjoyed getting to know you over the past 19 months -  in many ways, we have spent the most important months in recent history for the environment together.  

So let me talk a little about that, while I have this chance to say a few words before we give you your diplomas, and say a goodbye for now. 

We have been together in a special place, engaging in our thirst for knowledge and leadership for a sustainable future, during a time when events in our nation and in the world made our environment less sustainable.  We have been in a secure place, in many ways, during an extraordinarily unsettling time.

The planet got hotter – the two hottest years on record happened while we were here.

We just reached a record low for Arctic Sea Ice. 

We have had record environmental disasters in places some of you come from: from the worst wildfires and mudslides ever in California, to horrendous hurricanes…that still leave social justice travesties in Puerto Rico and dropped a record 60 inches of rain in Texas. 

Even so, our nation announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris accord on climate change.

Ethnic cleansing continues to occur in the Middle East, and we find racism across our own nation, disturbingly even on our own campus, and in both the history of our School and current implementation of conservation.  We have this year experienced together a national awakening to sexual harassment and reporting of sexual harassment, which pervades our society. 

In short, there is a lot to be outraged about, during the last 2 years, whatever your beliefs and priorities and values are.

And you have been what we need here and what the world needs: very alive, intelligent, articulate, and outraged students. We know from our history that engaged and active students create all kinds of discomfort through their outrage…and in doing so, change the world.  National and worldwide attention focuses on student outrage, and wars and killing have been stopped.  We need you – and we need you to continue being smart, passionate and engaged, and indeed outraged beyond your graduation…or your “commencement” into your working lives.  

Before I continue to encourage your outrage, and your willingness to bring to bear your new knowledge and your amazing leadership on things that need changing, let me just say a few words of caution about outrage.

We feel outrage when we are certain that we are right.  But we know, as scholars and scientists and indeed as ethicists that we might be wrong.  And…it uses a lot of time and energy to engage in outrage…we need to be strategic and focus our energies.

I have just finished a bit of a profane book, which I will rename to be a little more delicate for the moment, called “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Darn: A Counterintuitive Approach to living a good life,”by Mark Manson.

Manson writes about the addictive attraction of being outraged.  He quotes Tim Krieder of the New York Times saying “outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good but over time devour us from the inside out. And it’s … insidious … because we don’t even consciously acknowledge that it’s a pleasure”.  Manson goes on:

“We should pick our battles carefully, while simultaneously attempting to empathize a bit with the so-called enemy. We should approach the news and media with a healthy dose of skepticism and avoided painting those who disagree with us with a broad brush. We should prioritize values of being honest, fostering transparency, and welcoming doubt over the values of being right, feeling good, and getting revenge.  These “democratic” values are harder to maintain amidst the constant noise of a networked world. But we must accept the responsibility and nurture them regardless. The future stability of our political systems may depend on it.”

There’s a lot in that quote… .about still finding humility when we are outraged, and recognizing that we could be wrong.  About listening to those with whom we disagree, and always being respectful.  And about being strategic in exercising our outrage. We can choose what to be outraged about, and what NOT to be outraged about …and we must make those choices because we each only have finite energy. In sum: there’s so much to be outraged about, and we need to be as targeted as we can be with our energies. 

 Just this last few months, as we as individuals have struggled through our exams and our theses and final projects and grading and the flu and really critical and poignant discussions within the School – in just these same weeks,   there have also been critical assaults on the environment, on human health and environmental justice, on biodiversity – that have drawn my own outrage.  I realize that I demonstrate my own certainty and values, with all their limitations -  

            - a newly produced “secret science” rule for the EPA, with almost no time for public comment, that would essentially eliminate any epidemiological studies of dose-response or human harm from toxins from informing regulations to keep the public safe;You CAN COMMENT UNTIL MAY 30;

-       The efforts proceed this month to enact a proclamation to reduce national monuments by more than 2 million acres, with dramatic effects on indigenous peoples as well as recreationists and biological diversity

-       A third attempt to rollback the regulations of methane release … a gas much more powerful as a greenhouse gas than co2

-       The efforts proceed to roll back the clean power plan, and the waters of the U.S rule, both based on solid science. Public comment is due TODAY on whether there can be regulation of pollutants that move from the surface soil – such as a coal ash pond - into groundwater…and thus drinking water,

-       Just two weeks ago, Interior proposed removing critical language from the Endangered species act that provides protection for threatened species

-       And just this last week, Interior is proposing massive cuts if not complete repurposing of  the Land and Water Conservation Fund, established by Congress in 1964 using zero taxpayer dollars to fulfill a bipartisan commitment to safeguard our natural areas, water resources and cultural heritage, and to provide recreation opportunities to all Americans.

-       And ---federal support for Puerto Ricans suffering from the hurricane dried up last week. There are tens of thousands who remain without power, in a stunning example of disregard for social and environmental justice

It is a time when the world more than ever needs leadership…it needs your leadership, your scholarship, and your continuing strategic and discerning outrage.  

We put our faith in you.  You are among the most brilliant, passionate, strategic and energetic individuals that I have ever known.  You Will Be Leaders….as our 4900 alumni are leaders all over the world, and are making a difference in NGOs and state and local and national governments and universities and companies and local communities.  Today, we are launching another 156 scholars and leaders to move the world forward.  Look around, and think about what your peers will be doing in the coming years.  The sheer enormity of the capital you represent in intellect, knowledge, creativity, passion, energy, resourcefulness, and support for one another is immeasurable.   You, your classmates, and your predecessors will be leading for decades, far longer than any political term, through your scholarship, through your activism, through your strategic development and support of policies, and through creating new tools of many kinds to address sustainability challenges and new crises. 

Imagine….the places you are going. 4 of you will start PhD or other academic programs, and continue to develop knowledge to serve society.  Our doctoral graduates will move on to a variety of new adventures as they leave Yale.  These include postdoctoral positions, Assistant Professorships, and positions at NGO’s. We wish them the very best of luck in these new endeavors, and look forward to their continuing contributions.

Others of you have already received positions with a huge array of employers and titles that include:  Solar expert with General Electric, Alaska Supreme Court State Clerk, Renewables Finance and Strategy expert., Environmental Officer with US AID, Communications and Aquaponics director, Legal Intern for Energy Systems, Sustainable Sourcing manager for Unilever, Wood supply and forestry specialist for IKEA, Forestry technical with BLM, Food Policy Manager with United Way, Global Supply Manager with Apple, Consultant with the World Bank Group, and much more. And you are going off to areas of the globe from New England to Alaska, Arizona, Texas and California, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Brazil, Sweden, the Philippines, China, Bhutan, and more.  Some of you are adventuring for a year to learn more, and some are still searching for the ideal job…and I have confidence that you will find it.  In sum, we are collectively launching one of the world’s most powerful forces of environmental leadership into career paths across the planet.

I am inspired by your successes, your scholarship, and your outrage, and so, I have found my optimism from you, and I hope you can do so as well, by trusting your peers and your networks and yourselves to lead.  I KNOW that the world is in better hands with you launched out into it.

Class of 2018, you amaze us.  I know that each of you is in a time of change, at a time when the world is changing incredibly rapidly. Transitions historically bring great leaders. You will be among them.


Thank you for all that you have given to each other, and all that you have given to our community.  Thank you for giving us here at the School optimism about the world.  Thank you for challenging me to learn and grow  in my first years here. Stay close to each other; keep those friendships alive.  Stay close to the School; come back often.  Make a difference in the world and share your expertise and experience with those who follow in your footsteps.


We are proud of you now but we know that we will be even more proud of what you accomplish in the future.  

And … we’re counting on you. Thank you.