The Everything Change

Ari R. Ball-Burack, Phi Beta Kappa Speaker

The ice we skate is getting pretty thin. The water’s getting warm, so we might as well swim. My world’s on fire. How about yours? Whether or not Smash Mouth had anthropogenic climate change in mind when they wrote this, it’s our reality. Our ice is thinning, our water is warming, our world is on fire.

Author and environmental activist Margaret Atwood wisely said that climate change should really be called “everything change:” it will spur dramatic change in every facet of life. Terrifying as this is, I like the idea: everything change. Suffice it to say, it feels appropriate. Today, each of us begins a personal everything change. Wherever the coming years take us — academia, consulting, medicine, travel, law, consulting — they will probably look very different than the last four. Nearly all of us will have far better supermarket access — and far worse access to beautiful outdoor spaces or brilliant professors. Conference rooms will replace common rooms. Socializing will become something we must seek out, rather than something that permeates nearly every aspect of our busy lives. Many of us will be living in new places, and those of us who move back home or stay here will experience those familiar spaces in a completely different light.

So, how do we move forward? How can we constructively confront the global and personal everything changes? Three things come to my mind:

First, we must remember that little, if anything, happens in isolation. Everything we do and experience has downstream consequences that we may or may not realize. Case in point: a mere two degree increase in global surface temperature will drastically change our access to food, clean water, and shelter in the next century. The global everything change will require a wave of educators, activists, engineers, writers, doctors, economists, and even art historians; all prepared to shape brand new scientific, political, cultural, and financial paradigms for a world in flux. Williams has taught us to be critical, globally minded thinkers who can dissect a problem in its myriad contexts. As we adapt to sweeping global and personal everything change, this broad and interdisciplinary perspective will be crucial.

Second, we should strive to build and maintain strong communities around us. We are pack animals — if you’ve ever seen entries moving down Hoxsey during first days, you know what I mean — and I’m a firm believer in the power of community to elevate the individual. The necessity for community extends beyond the social: in a world of ever-specialized and interconnected careers, there is very little we can do alone. Rather, our contributions must rely and build on past and parallel contributions, and will almost certainly require collaboration. Williams has showered us with community since our first day here; now it’s up to us to foster social and intellectual communities for ourselves.

Finally, we can weather the change (pun intended) by being relentlessly grateful and hopeful. Williams has not always been an easy place to be. Sometimes it has been downright exhausting. But through the bleary-eyed problem sets and papers, messy breakups, mental health struggles, and constant barrage of scary news from beyond the Purple Bubble, we have become resilient. There’s lots more to be grateful for too: a pretty sweet diploma, lifelong friends, the mountains at sunset, the ‘chos at 82. Atwood suggests that hope is our best tool for coping with and innovating through the inevitable everything change. Not to mention, it might be the only thing that can keep us sane. I am confident that fortified by perspective, community, gratitude, and hope, we can rise to this fateful responsibility with purpose and poise. Thank you.