Convocation Address
"Saving the World"
Vincent Ferraro

Pomfret School

Pomfret, CT
14 September 2002


Good Morning.

I wish to thank Headmaster Hastings, and the faculty of the Pomfret School for their kind invitation to speak at this convocation ceremony. It is indeed an honor to speak at a school with such a distinguished legacy and such a promising future.

The beginning of a school year is quite different from most other human activities. It is one of those rare opportunities, like New Year's Day, to begin anew, with something that feels almost like a clean slate. The students, staff, and faculty are assembled here resolved to avoid all the mistakes of the past: this year, all the assignments will be finished ahead of schedule; this year, all the readings will be done and done thoroughly; this year, I will be conscientious, disciplined, and organized.

If you are like me and most other people, these aspirations will probably not survive the first week. Take comfort in the fact that you have survived all your mistakes in the past, and that, odds are, you will survive them this year as well. But hold on to those resolutions as long as you can, and remember that you have more than one shot to make those dreams come true. So if you fail, do not despair-rededicate yourself to those dreams, and try again.

The beginning of the year is also a time of great dread. We are all here assembled, students and faculty, believing that this is the year we will be exposed as frauds: that someone will discover that we do not really belong here because we are not really very smart. Somehow, by asking a question, or by tripping on a stair, or by wearing the wrong shirt, we will reveal our true selves, and some creepy people wearing robes and hoods will whisk us away to a home for the epistemologically deficient.

Don't worry-I've been fooling people for fifty-three years. You can keep it up for a long time.


I was asked to speak at this ceremony because of my expertise in the field of international relations. Since September 11th of 2001, I have been asked to speak by a number of different groups, largely because people assume that, because of my field of study, I can make sense of something which really does not make much sense at all. The assumption is not a valid one. I confess that the events of that day left me as confused and bewildered as everyone else.

The most incomprehensible part of September 11th is the apparent degree of hatred underlying the attack. I say apparent because I obviously never spoke with the attackers and really do not know what their motivations were. But even if they thought they were acting out of noble motives, something blinded them to the reality that they were committing an act of outrageous barbarity. Hate is probably the only emotion powerful enough to motivate such a wholesale slaughter of innocents.

What generates this degree of hatred? What is it about the world that nurtures these willing visions of the apocalypse?

This is not an idle or meaningless question. This is a question about the world in which you currently live. It is also a question about the world you will inherit, and, ultimately, manage.

I have got some good news and bad news. Let me give you the bad news first, and I will get to the good news in a little while. The bad news is that the world is a mess, and it seems to be getting worse every day. There is a virtual certainty that acts similar to those of September 11th will be repeated at some point in the near future. Moreover, it is likely, but not certain, that the United States government will attack the state of Iraq sometime during the current school year. We have people killing each other in Chechnya, Indonesia, the Philippines, central Africa, Israel, the West Bank, and South Asia, and some of these conflicts are taking place in the context of the possible use of nuclear weapons.

According to the Political Scientist, Rudy Rummel, more than 203,000,000 people were killed in political violence in the 20th Century-unquestionably the bloodiest century in human history. (Death by Government by R. J. Rummel (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1994)) We now live in constant fear of political violence, greatly agitated by its apparent randomness and the specter of weapons of mass destruction,

Let me depress you even further. Given current trends, it is reasonable to believe that the world will be facing some sort of major crisis around the middle of this century, one that could involve the deaths of tens of millions of people. This crisis will have as its source the twin engines of population growth and environmental degradation. Simply put, unless some behaviors change quite drastically, there will be too many people doing too many things for the earth to support.

The underlying dynamic of this problem is unforgiving and inexorable: population growth. The planet saw its first billion human beings in 1830. Up to that point, it had taken about 40,000 years for the species to reproduce to that level. The second billion came in 1930, just a hundred years later. That population explosion was due to the effects of the industrial revolution and the tools it gave humanity to control the environment to reduce the dangers of disease, accidents, and famine-the traditional checks on population growth. And there are people in this room who were alive when the human population was only 2 billion (when I was born in 1949-the population was about 2.5 billion).

The third billion came in 1960 when I was eleven; the 4th billion in 1976 when I was 27; the 5th billion in 1986 with I was 37 and the 6th billion in the year 2000 when I was 49. In the year 2050 we will be living with at least 8 billion other people. Or, to be more precise, you will be living with at least 8 billion others--the actuarial tables of the life insurance industry suggest that I will not be around then.

These are staggering numbers, both in their size and in the rapidity of their growth. Human population has more than doubled in my lifetime, and it might in yours as well if the worst case scenarios come to pass.

But the numbers are not really the issue. The planet could easily handle 8 billion people who lived simple lifestyles, which basically means living off the land. The world cannot handle 8 billion people who want to live like Americans, with SUVs, air conditioners, three showers a day, and a diet rich in animal protein. When I survey the world, however, I see far more people aspiring to the American standard of living than those who seek a simpler life.

Therein lies the paradox of modern life. All the technological advances of the last 200 years have made it possible for human beings to enjoy a higher level of comfort and security than ever before, but it now appears as if we will choke to death on the effects of those changes. We can drive our cars--as long as the traffic permits. We can cool our homes--as long as the power is on. We can eat our Big Macs--as long as the climate allows us to grow crops and raise animals.

And we, in this room, are the ones that are better off. Let me deepen your depression one more time and then we'll turn to happier topics. The vast majority of the human population cannot engage in the activities I've just described, and yet, if there is some penalty for how abusive we have become to the global environment, they will pay the price as well. In other words, they get the worst of all worlds: they don't get the advantages, but they have to pay the price. They are already paying a heavy price: A sixth of the world's people produce 78 percent of the world's goods and services and receive 78 percent of the world's income-an average of $70 a day. Three-fifths of the world's people in the poorest 61 countries receive 6 percent of the world's income--less than $2 a day. The net worth of the 358 richest people is equal to the combined income of the 2.3 billion poorest people in the world.

There is no reason to believe that such a world is stable. Indeed, what I have just described is the cause of the hatred I spoke of at the beginning of this speech.

This is your world. Your job is to save it, and I mean that quite literally. Because if you don't save the world, you're not going to be able to save yourselves.

You are now all thinking a number of different things. Some of you are thinking that saving the world is too overwhelming and that the best thing to do is to follow the advice of King Arthur as interpreted by Monty Python: Run Away! Run Away!

To those of you who are thinking about adopting this strategy, I simply say: to where? Where will you go? To an island in the South Pacific that might disappear because of the rising seas caused by global warming? To some gated suburb that will require you to spend several hours in a car built by a Japanese firm and powered by Saudi Arabian oil to get to work for a German Corporation? To the Amazon basin that is rapidly disappearing because of the rate of deforestation in Brazil? There's nowhere to run and there's nowhere to hide.

Others of you are simply saying to yourselves that you'll just mentally check out and decide upon a profession that won't allow the outside world to intrude. Perhaps you could become a doctor and just deal with people in your local community. You still have to deal with imported diseases like West Nile virus, AIDS, or Ebola, or heal people who can't speak your language. Perhaps you could become a lawyer. You still have to deal with questions of immigration, civil liberties, international tax laws. Or perhaps you'll just work on a factory line. Until you lose your job because the product you manufacture is produced more cheaply abroad. There is no possibility to insulate yourself from the world in which you were born.

No, I think you're stuck. You didn't create this world, but you've got to face the necessity of saving it.

I know this situation is unfair and I wouldn't pretend otherwise. But don't get stuck feeling sorry for yourself. No generation has ever had the ability to choose its world, and whining about that unfortunate fact is an exercise in grotesque self-indulgence.

Instead, think about the problem in a completely different way. You, your generation, has the imperative to recreate a more self-sustainable and livable world. Indeed, you are the best-educated and the most capable generation in human history. You finally have a challenge worthy of your intellect and skills.

So let me give you some advice about saving the world since that will be the main activity of your lives.

Rule #1: Saving the World Means Saving Yourself First

This is not a rule that justifies selfishness. It is, rather, a frank acknowledgment that people who do not understand either themselves or the world in which they live and who cannot control their intellects and their emotions will probably mess up the world even more. Indeed, many people wrap themselves up in global causes in an unwitting attempt to avoid thinking about their own problems.

The best advice I've ever been given is that advice ritually offered by flight attendants on airplanes. We're told that is the oxygen masks drop down, we should put ours on before we try to help anyone else. The logic of the advice is irrefutable: it's unlikely that we can save anyone if we ourselves are gasping for breath.

In this world, what are our oxygen masks? What do we need in order to save ourselves?

The first oxygen mask is knowledge. Intelligence is also important, but since you're here at Pomfret, we can easily stipulate that you are highly intelligent. But you don't really know much about the world just yet.

You're not alone. There's a tremendous shortage of knowledgeable people in the world, and there's often an amazing disconnect between knowledgeable and powerful people. Osama bin Laden, for example wields extraordinary power, but his true understanding of America is astonishingly thin. The same could be said of some policy-makers in the American government about their understanding of the Arab world and Islam.

The acquisition of knowledge is always an act of faith. By definition, if you don't know something, you can't know whether it might be interesting or useful to know. All information, therefore, is potentially crucial to your personal development. Work hard to learn as much as you possibly can about how the world-the entire world-works.

The second oxygen mask is self-control. We often find ourselves in situations where our natural reactions are exactly wrong. Drowning people, for example, often panic-an emotion I can easily understand. Those who do panic often die; those who do not often survive. Generally speaking the worst situations typically elicit the most counterproductive responses--it's a genuine perverse relationship.

Up to this point in your lives, discipline has been imposed from the outside--by your parents, your teachers, and other authority figures. All these people have tried to enforce boundaries on your behavior for your own good, and often this external discipline has made all the difference in your development as human beings. Slowly and surely, however, you must learn to place more reliance on internal control. Self control is a magnificent achievement and is the one true hallmark of maturity. You will find yourselves in situations where you will believe that you are metaphorically drowning--you must train yourself not to panic. To obtain self-discipline, you must learn to trust yourself.

But to trust yourself, you also need to know what you think, and this is the third oxygen mask necessary to save the world: you need to figure out what you, and you alone, believe to be true. This task is the most difficult we face in life. Many times I will read an essay and say to myself: "This argument is true." And then I will read a completely different essay with completely different conclusions, and will say to myself: "This argument is true." Does this ambivalence testify to my inadequacy as an intellect? Or does it merely reflect the ambiguities of life?

I choose to believe that the latter explanation is more accurate. It's very difficult to figure out what is true, largely because we have all sorts of people telling us their own version and not all of those versions are compatible. But you are now embarking on your own journey to the truth and ultimately you will come to some conclusions. Be sure that you are very demanding of yourself--always accept that any conclusion needs hard evidence, transparent logic, and clear articulation; also be sure that you are willing to revise your beliefs as new information or insights become available. Acknowledge that you could be wrong, but don't let the fear of being wrong prevent you from taking a stand. Because if you never take a stand, there is no possibility that you will ever be right.

This is a touchy subject, because many of us naturally shy away from asserting ourselves in this way--we want to be right, but we don't wish to impose ourselves on others. But Rule #2 can help us out of this dilemma.

Rule #2: Saving the World Means Embracing it, not Controlling it

My description of the current and emerging tensions in the world leads to a feeling that something ought to be done to fix it. We too easily succumb to a very romantic and simplistic view that "if only" people would agree to do this or that, then everything would be fine. That view always leads to the problem of what to do with the people who don't agree with the proposed solution. Given that the stakes seem to be quite high, we tend to believe that coerced agreement can be justified. Shigalov, a character in Dostoevsky's novel, The Possessed, stated that" "There is but one solution to the social problem, and that solution is mine." Unfortunately, his solution involved the killing of millions of Russian citizens.

I wish that such an approach were only the creature of Dostoevsky's somewhat tortured, but nonetheless brilliant, mind. But many leaders throughout history have used this approach, and they are not well regarded: Hitler, Stalin, Mao. These men killed millions of their own citizens sincerely believing that their actions would make the world a better place; their successors all had to work very hard to undo the damage done.

Don't fall into the trap of believing that one needs control over others to save the world. We will probably need political power to make the changes necessary to save the world, but not necessarily power over others. The exercise of power as a coercive instrument is always a confession of failure; the real source of political power is legitimacy and authority--the condition that motivates people to do the right thing voluntarily. That is the power to which you should aspire.

But what if people disagree? you might rightly ask. Let's hope that they do. And let's hope that they articulate their disagreement in a thoughtful and intelligent manner. One of your great tasks at Pomfret is to learn how to disagree well. Never tell anyone else that they are wrong--you don't have the right to make such a judgment. Merely tell them that you disagree and open up a dialogue to figure out if there's common ground so that you can both move forward.

There is no one way to save the world--the world is actually a vague concept and no one has any idea what it is. In truth, we can only save the world one person at a time, and that person is the one with whom you are interacting at any given point in time. And you save that person by letting them know that you care about them and their concerns, and that you understand your responsibility to acknowledge fully and completely their integrity as an individual.

Often times, some will attempt to make themselves feel secure by making others feel insecure, and we all have experience with people who make cruel jests or nasty remarks. I feel sorry for those people. They live their entire lives desperately concerned that someone will be better at the game than they and that they will be the butt of cruelty. Whatever satisfaction they gain is clearly temporary, and, like addicts, they will desperately seek another victim to gain the high of feeling superior. In the end, these poor souls are doomed because they will forever be insecure.

There actually is no secret about how to embrace the world. Indeed, life itself is not a mystery and there is remarkable unanimity on what the right course of action is--virtually every moral framework acknowledges the truth of what the Christian faith calls the "Golden Rule:" "You shall love your neighbor as thyself."

From the Baha'i: "And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbor that which thou choosest for thyself."

From Buddhism: "Hurt not others with that which pains yourself"

From Confucianism: "Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence."

From Hinduism: "This is the sum of duty: do naught to others which if done to thee would cause thee pain"

From Jainism: "One who you think should be hit is none else but you. One who you think should be governed is none else but you. One who you think should be tortured is none else but you. One who you think should be killed is none else but you. A sage is ingenuous and leads his life after comprehending the parity of the killed and the killer. Therefore neither does he cause violence to others nor does he make others do so."

From Judaism: "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow men. That is the entire Law: all the rest is commentary"

From Islam: "No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself."

From the Yoruba: "One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts."

I am sorry for the extended emphasis on these proverbs, but I wanted to make a simple point: human beings actually do know the right way to behave. They merely have to ask the question: "Would I want to be treated this way?" If the answer is no, then the action should not be taken.

Why don't we act this way all the time? There are two reasons. The first is that we are selfish and believe that we deserve to be specially treated. We are all well aware of how much effort we have put into our lives and how much pain we have endured to become who we are and how many obstacles we have overcome. We cannot believe that others have worked so hard and therefore we believe that we should be treated in a privileged fashion.

Each of you is special. And each of you has overcome hardships that others have not shared. But if this is true, then, while your individual obstacles have been unique, your general circumstances are common. Thus, none of you deserves special treatment. So divest yourselves of the selfish idea that you are privileged to special treatment: you are not.

The second reason why humans don't adhere to the Golden Rule is because we fear that others will take advantage of us. By treating another as you would treat yourself, you leave yourself open to a sucker punch: your generosity will not be reciprocated, and someone will take advantage of your openness.

This is a genuine fear. And I will concede that someone will, in fact, stab you in the back in the future.

But don't abandon the Golden Rule. There is another strategy: accept the temporary loss. When someone does betray your trust, the first thing you should do is forgive him. He has proven himself to be weak which is merely another way of saying that he has proven himself to be human. You forgive to heal yourself, and not for the benefit of the offender. Without forgiveness, you will never be able to move forward and you thereby double your losses.

But your mother didn't raise a fool. When next you interact with that person, the rule of reciprocity still applies. No special consideration was given to you, so none should be offered by you. Don't seek to punish or penalize-just don't agree to help out. The offending party will understand, in which case you've helped to rehabilitate him and thereby have saved him. Or he won't understand, in which case he should cease to be part of your world. You will simply move in different directions.

This strategy requires a great deal of patience. But, in the long run, it saves your energy and strength. You need to work only with those people who will work with you.

My time is almost up, so let me give you the third and final rule for saving the world.

Rule #3 If You're Not Having Fun, You're Doing It Wrong

I know that I have painted a fairly bleak picture of the future. But for those of you who have been listening carefully, you are aware of the distinction I have made between your world and "the" world. At this point in your lives, there is a tremendous gap between your world and the world. You will find, as you grow older, that that gap will decrease. Indeed, there are some individuals sitting in this hall right now who will achieve positions of great power and influence-there's most likely a future Secretary of State listening to me right now-who will achieve a near unity between the two worlds.

The gap is important because you're not ready to save "the" world until you've made greater progress in saving your world. And there's every reason to believe that you will succeed in this endeavor--at the very least, you have the fabulous resources and support of one of the most prestigious schools in the nation to help you on your way. As your personal strength increases, so will your responsibilities, although you always will think that the latter is often a bit greater than the former.

But don't be overwhelmed. If you keep your attention focused on increasing your knowledge base, your self-discipline, and your personal truths, you will find that there will be nothing that you cannot accomplish--as long as you are willing to pay the price for the person you want to become.

The will to be is ultimately the key to it all. And there will be days when you will simply say to yourself: "I can't do it" or "It's hopeless."

When you find yourself with these emotions, it's time to slap yourself around. Don't be pessimistic or cynical. These are irrelevant and self-indulgent emotions. And they are a clear indication that you've missed the point. These emotions suggest that you've become worried about some external definition of success or failure. The struggle to become the person you wish to be is the only definition of success that should concern you.

Consider, for example, the "success" of a rose. While growing, is the rose thinking about whether it is going to please some passer-by with its fragrance or exquisite beauty? Does it wonder if it is going to succeed as a flower? Does it worry about whether other roses will like it? Not at all. It just struggles to be what it is. And without a shred of self-consciousness or awareness of others it achieves a harmony and symmetry that quite literally takes one's breath away.

How much more you can accomplish if you simply will yourself to become who you are! And it matters little what career you choose, as long as it is one that plays to your strengths and talents. The world needs everyone to work, but, more than that, it needs everyone to work efficiently and well. Make choices that will enhance your abilities, and make sure that those choices bring joy into your heart. Because that joy will keep you going, even in times when it seems as if you're not making much progress.

Saving the world is serious business, but we're not saving the world because we want just to be serious. We save the world because we want to laugh and sing and dance.

Right now you're finding your own song, and your friends are those who weave their song into yours and your song into theirs. And, as your circle increases, the song becomes more intricate, more interesting, and more inclusive. It is impossible to imagine a more exciting or joyful process.

Keep true to yourself and you will never fail. Don't confuse making mistakes with failure. We all make mistakes; we fail only when we choose not to rectify those mistakes. Keep true to yourselves and each other and you will save the world.

Look around you. You are surrounded by allies involved in the same noble task. Treat them as brothers and sisters and learn how to help them to realize their full potential. The task ahead requires that all of you work together: you will need each other's courage, intelligence, and devotion.

So get to work. This isn't a dress rehearsal. Don't waste time looking for the "rewind" button--it doesn't exist.

I salute you all and wish you Godspeed.


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