Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 017: THE RED BARN

JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host, Jared Blumenfeld. This week I travelled to the green, rolling hills of Southern Vermont, New England, to give the graduation speech for The Putney School.  When I went to Putney, there were only 20 people in each year.  Today, it’s not much bigger. Putney sits on 500 acres of farmland, and every student has to get up at 5am to help clean out the cow stools, milk the cows and wash the milk bottles.  Most of the food served in the school is grown by the children. In the kitchen, the kids help cook the food, wait on the tables, and even wash the dishes. The day before graduation, I asked the children what they like the most about Putney.

 

STUDENT 1: This is my first year at Putney. Before this I lived west of Baltimore and Maryland in a city called Delicate City. It's weird living in nature because it's just like space wise there's this campus and then it's 20 minutes to like a store, even a restaurant. And at home it's like store, restaurant, store, restaurant, bank. And it's just crazy that there's just so much more open land out here and it's just different. This last year I feel like school wise, it's completely different. Like last year I attended a public school. And working while being at school is just like a completely new thing to me and to anyone that attends to a public school.   For example, even like working in a barn and having your crew and cleaning up after cows, milking cows, feeding chicken, stuff like that. It's just like completely different than I would expect. I feel like personally working while going to school, I feel like it made me more responsible in a sense where I have to work every day, and I know I have to work every day and I can incorporate it into my schedule. And you're set up for needing to do that in the future. 

 

MOLLY CAMERON: My name is Molly Cameron. There's been a lot of opportunities that I've had the chance to do. I've been very involved with a lot of the programs here. I've been most involved with the barn. I've done a lot of barn work. I'm a day student, so I work here over the summer and over breaks and stuff. I like to milk the cows. I'm really into that. I've delivered a couple of calves. And then also this past trimester, my friend and I raised 50 meat chickens in the small barn and we slaughtered them for a project week. When I think about Putney I think a lot about the community and the friends I've made here, and just how comfortable I am here. And I think I'm really going to miss everything that happens here, all my friends here, and just like how well it's worked for me in the past four years. I'm going to miss it for sure. I feel very nostalgic. I feel like every time I walk around campus it's going to be the last time, which is very sad and I feel like I have to enjoy every moment to the fullest, which is kind of depressing. But also, I'm just trying to enjoy everything, the last few days I have here. 

 

JAKE STEPHENSON: My name is Jake Stephenson. I am graduating tomorrow. Well, it's been a long strange trip for sure, especially having been, you know, born and raised in New York City. It's a really big change. And even though I've had relatives in Vermont for all my life and I've been coming up here at, I've learned things about the way people interact with each other and the differences.  And just, I dunno, I think the greatest thing I'll take away from, from living at Putney and living in New York City is kind of a combined thing is human nature in essence and how people treat each other. What I've learned about human nature, first of all is that a, people are nicer to each other. We're in, there aren't so many of them. Living in a city can sometimes feel like a rat race. And I've never felt more alone than in a crowd of people where no one is interacting with each other. No one's talking to one another. Everyone's got their head down, they're minding their own business. And just up here there's kind of a brotherly comradery and I think there's a lot of factors that kind of determine how nicely people treat each other. But I'm living up here, I've definitely gotten to see a lot of that. I didn't know that coming here would be as kind of, I don't know, the air is just cleaner, there's more space, there's more freedom in every sense of the word. And I’m not saying that New York City doesn't present opportunities or any city doesn't present its opportunities. But I definitely feel like I have a stronger connection to the land. I have a stronger connection to myself because I'm here.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I then asked them what they think are the biggest issues facing the country and the planet as I still need a bit of help on my speech. 

 

MOLLY CAMERON: Well, since I'm so involved with agriculture here, I know a lot about big scale agriculture and how much that depletes the environment. Like, I don't know if you know this, but like one pound of beef is like 400 gallons of water or something ridiculous like that. And I think just the environment depleting and all the large-scale agricultural things, it's going to be a serious problem because there are too many people on the planet to feed and produce agriculture in a sustainable way. And if more sustainable farms could be created, I feel like that would be much better for the environment. I just think how much work goes into food when you eat it. I mean I don't eat meat, although I slaughtered 50 chickens, but just thinking about like eating bread, like someone had to grow all the wheat, then someone had to make the dough and cook it and all of that. And just appreciating the amount of effort that goes into that. Something that we take for granted. And then also including clothes. Like I make a lot of my own clothes. I'm also very involved with the fiber arts program. So, like thinking about what went into the shirt that I'm wearing. It's cotton. So, cotton had to be grown, someone had to start the plants and take care of the fields and stuff. And then it gets spun, it gets carted. And then it gets shipped off to some factory in China or whatever and then spun and woven there and then it gets shipped off to where it's being sold and long, very long cycle. And you just have to appreciate everything that goes into it.  

 

JAKE STEPHENSON: I feel like pollution and global warming is a big thing. Even just like the contrast. Like I remember say maybe when I was younger, say eight, nine, I would, I could sit outside in my backyard and look up and see like a few stars maybe. But now it's just like I can't see any. And even from a city to being out in this countryside, like there's just so many more stars and it's just due to the fact that in cities there's a lot more pollution and it's just polluting the air and making it difficult for us to really see what's going on. 

 

STUDENT 1: I'm going to say this because I'm a musician, but I feel like for me one of the biggest and most important issues I believe is that the people in general don't listen to good music or real music. It seems like a lot of the stuff people put in their ears is very, it's electronic or it's just synthesized, and it's not created out of love for and it's not created for the purposes of, of loving. And what kind of happens then is just people close their minds to the possibilities and opportunities that music can present because it has a larger influence on, on people, in their minds, in the way they go about their lives than most people know. And the fact that it is just a whole music has taken so lightly it seems. I think that if, I don't know this country as a whole or humanity as a whole were to change their path in that sense kind of lead music out of the industrial era and into another golden age. I think that you would see a lot of positivity come from that. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: When I was at Putney back in 1985 London Callingby The Clash was blaring out of the boys’ dorm and Lionel Richie was being played on cassette tapes from the girls' dorms. Okay, I've got to get serious. Here goes with the speech.     

 

MOLLY CAMERON: I’m privileged and honored to introduce to you our graduation speaker, Jared Blumenfeld, who was appointed by President Obama to be the Regional Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency from 2009 to 2010, who also served as the director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment Chair, does the first United Nations World Environment Day held in the US and founded the Business Council on Climate Change and Green Cities of California. He has worked for nonprofits including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the International Fund for Animal Welfare where he helps protect millions of acres for wildlife and hold corporations accountable. Jared Blumenfeld’s most recent project is the Podship Earth podcast, which is a deep look at a lot of science and policy related environmental issues. He's also a member of the Putney class of 1987. Please help me give a warm welcome to Jared Blumenfeld. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So good to be here. I’m excited. Okay. It was funny because I saw, I didn't know where she is now, Piper, but yesterday I walked into the KTU and she was wearing a Clash tee-shirt and when I came here in 1987 from England, I was wearing wingtip shoes, suspenders, and eyeliner. That was the time of The Cure, The Clash. It was like a big time for me. I loved it. And when I got here, it was like, especially coming from England, this is a completely different universe, like it really felt like I was on a different planet. In those days, there were very few rules at Putney, really none. Like you, we got to work with our hands growing food, milking cows, making art. There were no grades. I don't know if they grade now. We got to go on a lot of adventures canoeing in Lake George. Most people somehow managed to get their sleeping bags dropped in the lake.  So, as you'll hear in a minute, it was a good beginning to my adventures. Teachers, which was really unique for me, actually seemed to love teaching, right? They seem to love what they were teaching us. So, for me, that was like, wow, I mean if there's one thing I learned at Putney it was how to love learning and that's probably the most important lesson that I have taken away from Putney. But it really came from people loving teaching what they taught. I also loved the food. I mean, you gotta remember I came from a place where there were mushy peas and very, very boiled brussels sprouts and mutton. So, for us, food here was like incredible. It really was. When I started going to boarding school in England, I started going to boarding school at nine, I was super homesick, and when I came to Putney, I was so far away from England that really, I made this my home. Putney became my home because there was no option to go home. So, you know, that's what you've done as a community. You have no choice but to make it work and in the rest of your life that's going to be true too. My last week of Putney was memorable. Hopefully yours has been as well. In the middle of the night, we took out all the tractors, the sit-on lawn mowers, the rotor tillers, and we raced them around the campus until Ray Andrews tipped one over and the farm people came out and asked us to stop. And then we painted the steeple in the arts and craft building fluorescent yellow as one does. And we spent most of our time skinny dipping in the puddle. So that, that was like, yeah, that was the end of our… Apparently, we were referred to as the dark ages, the time that we went to Putney. But it was memorable for us. 

 

So, Putney is a work in progress, right? It's an experience in experimental living. We heard this before, it kind of sounds like all of us, from the kids who gave great speeches to the adults, kind of prepared the comments in unison. They're all little different, but back in 1935, Carmelita Hinton - the founder of our unusual school – she wanted to foster an environment in which children could become independent progressives. She wanted us to be curious and courageous. She said, “there's no use living on year after year just to live…that's not life. If I can contribute, that's one thing. To stop creating is to die.''. Emily Jones seems so measured by comparison, but don’t be fooled. As those who know her can attest, she too is a firebrand at heart. Let’s give a big rousing thank you to Emily and all the staff and volunteers that make Putney, Putney Since Putney’s founding, the outside world, with the brief exception of the late 1960s, has become more cautious, more conservative, and less accepting of the values taught underneath the elm tree. 

 

Today, as you to take leave of this stunning hilltop, I am already nostalgic for you. In the case of Putney, this instant nostalgia is warranted because for the rest of your life you will reach back to the Putney community and ideals as source of inspiration. Putney represents a wellspring from which you will continue to grow long after you leave the campus today. 

 

When I graduated, the speaker standing where I am now was the actor Wally Shawn of Princess Bride fame – he was himself a Putney graduate, and he taught me a very important lesson which is “to never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.”

 

Let’s be clear from the outset, just like Wally Shawn, graduating from Putney means one thing above all else: you are not normal – you’renot even close. The sooner that you understand the depths of this truism, the sooner you can stop trying to conform to meet the expectations of those who desperately want you to be like everyone else. At college and beyond, very few people will understand the experience you have had at Putney and fewer still will want to hear about every single one of your amazing Putney adventures. Those that are intrigued will likely assume that you made most of it up. The shared experience of Putney - both good and less so - is why your classmates sitting with you today become more important with the passage of time - they were here. They remember. 

 

At Putney I became an addict - a maple syrup addict. Over the years, I have found there really is no cure and for that I am glad. After Putney, I went back to England and was at a friend’s house for a pancake breakfast. I politely asked for the maple syrup. They brought out some hideously sweet, grotesquely sticky confection that bore no resemblance the amber nectar I had helped make in vats at Putney. I was faced with a tough choice. I could abstain, but the pancakes were super dry, so I put on a brave face. It was so much worse that I could have imagined. At that moment I wished I had turned Putney into a five- or six-year experience -- because, as you will each find out, a maple syrup addiction can be really expensive and in many parts of the world it’s simply not available. England was one of those.

 

I loved the movie Captain Fantastic. I hope many of you have seen it. - the magical scenes where Ben, the character played by Viggo Mortensen, is running through the forest with his six kids. It’s like Putney. Tomorrow is like the second half of the movie, set in Tucson. It’s not better or worse, it’s just very different. Which is just a Buddhist way of saying it’s worse.  In the years since I left Putney, the school has remained very close to its values. Yes, it's made changes. It's modernized, but it's fundamentally still a beacon of hope on a hill. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the outside world. I'm not going to bombard you with a litany of facts and figures about the demise of the living world at the hands of industrial civilization. What I will say is that the is that the misadventure humans are on is very unlikelyto turn out alright. You need to be prepared for that. At the same time, there's never been a more exciting time to be on the planet, filled as it is with breathtaking beauty at every turn. Holding this dynamic tension in balanced is the only way that I know of both being productive and sane during these times of rapid change and great uncertainty. Putneyhelped me deepen my love of nature, which it started as a young child, bicycling through the fields outside of Cambridge, England. Putneygave me the time to lie down, actually right over there in the tall grass and look up at the shape of clouds passing by overhead. I remember walking through the woods down by the old theater and realizing for the first time that nature was not nonjudgmental. It just was. My work has been in pursuit of the love I feel for nature. As a teenager, that love showed itself as anger. I was so angry at the crimes being committed against nature. I studied law because I wanted to right these wrongs. There were times in my career when I got lost in the fight itself, not feeling the spirit of why I was fighting. During these times, I'd go hiking or mountain biking or canoeing deep into nature. The last time this happened I was in need of a complete reboot. I'd been an environmental bureaucrat for way too freaking long, so I quit my job at EPA and walk from Mexico to Canada. I thought I was setting myself up for a physical challenge, but 90 percent of the struggle was in my mind.  Being completely alone for days at a time made me aware that we are not alone. 

 

Thirteen and a half billion years ago, there was no time. There was no space, and then from a single infinitely dense particle - a grain of stardust -the universe was born. With a bang, space and time began to expand. Every single facet of our universe shares this same beginning. Their creation is our creation. Everything on earth - rocks, trees, water, fish, humans - share a common descent. The same 355 genes exist in every living thing. The night sky, that you can see so clearly from Putney, contains more stars than grains of sand on all the world's beaches. We are part of creation and creation is part of us.

 

Given that we are connected to all living things we must now finally acknowledge that we are equal to everything else in nature. The myth of human superiority has been used to boost our egos by making us feel above nature. We act in every way possible to detach ourselves from nature: to show that we are better, smarter, and different from the rest of the natural world.  This has given us a fake license to hold dominion over all other living things. The myth of human superiority represents the philosophical cornerstone that underpins our destructive relationship with nature. Our intelligence is used to justify a great deal of short-sighted ignorant behavior towards the environment and others. 

 

Inhuman treatment including torture has long been justified by dehumanizing humans. In every genocide, from the Nazi Holocaust to Darfur, the oppressor casts the victims as a subhuman species for which the normal standards of care do not apply. We treat everything non-human as disposable. That is why human rights and environmental protection are so intimately connected. Our relationship with each other and with the planet is currently dysfunctional. It is not acceptable. It is not okay. We must fight for radical changes to how we treat each other and nature.

 

Our arrogance, desire for status, wealth, power, security, and comfort, are the reasons we have put our hands in our pockets and looked the other way as nature burned. Even when we take action, it has consisted of half measures when we knew full well that bold steps were required.  Your four years at Putney have trained you to be effective advocates in the fight for planetary survival. You already know the importance of speaking up when you see that the emperor is wearing no clothes. Now is such a time. You have learned - mostly through osmosis - the critical elements needed to create the ecological U-turn we require. Let’s start with community.

 

You have spent thousands of hours helping make Putney a community - it took hard work, early mornings, shoveling cow manure, planting crops and showing up to class smelling like shit. Community is the critical ingredient to a functioning democracy. Being part of the Putney community, means that you share a common destiny, not that you agreed with everyone’s views but rather that you listen and respect everyone’s opinions, this is the only healthy means by which consensus and a clear path forward can be forged. You are stronger because of the community that surrounds you today. They will be with you for the rest of your lives. Tomorrow as you enter the real world you will, by default, become defenders and rebuilders of community. From hollowed-out rural farm communities to suburban gated communities to gentrified city communities - there is one critical thing missing - actual community! You are some of the few people in this country who at 18 have already exercised their community muscles - you know what community looks like, what it tastes like, and because of Putney’s love of singing, what community sounds like. We need to keep a strong connection to what moves us. Music has always moved me. The second powerful skill you have learned at Putney is curiosity.

 

You will be entering a world with more information than ever before but very few ideas on how we can live in harmony with each other and with nature. We are told that curiosity killed the cat because, just like in Oz, society doesn’t want you looking behind the curtain. Don’t be fooled. Curiosity will make you successful. Asking difficult questions and not giving up until you are satisfied that you have found the truth makes for complexity. Financial interests don’t want the boat rocked because that makes waves and waves make people nervous. You will make people nervous. You are already making me nervous, nervous in a good way - seeing your energy and desire for change is a rush and it’s a little scary at the same time. 

 

It often seems like the world is purely based on producing and consuming stuff we don’t need. This cycle is rapidly making the planet uninhabitable. This is not trivial. This is about whether 100 years from now we will have so diminished the web of life on earth that the web can no longer support life.  Getting the planet back on track will take large bold steps. Yes, we need to recycle but we really need to reform the way that goods are made and used. Yes we need to save water, but we really need to radically rethink the value of water, yes it’s fantastic that tesla and other companies are producing electric cars, but we need to radically redesign cities so that we can walk or bicycle - never needing a car, electric or otherwise, yes we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but we also need climate justice for communities already suffering. 

 

When my son Markus was nine, an environmental speaker (luckily not me) came to his school and told the children that it was now up to them to solve the world’s problems. Markus put up his hand and said, actually it was still up to the adults. The truth is that it is going to take all of us. Another skill you learned at Putney is how to talk to adults. That is a skill that will help you forge coalitions to take on the big challenges facing our planet. You don’t need to wait, you can already start the campaign for your college to divest from fossil fuels before you even get to campus. 

            

At college, there will be a lot of pressure for you to be someone you are not. Life is too short to pretend. Knowing who you are takes time, so be compassionate with yourself. Try and differentiate between the things that make you tick and that give you joy and the things that your parents, friends, and people magazine expect from you.

 

Putney has left an indelible mark on each of you - whether you relished every moment or struggled to maintain a sense of equilibrium, whether you felt alone or supported, Putney is part of who you are. You will find it hard to sit on the sidelines and watch the world go by - you will be community builders. You will not be able to sit in a cafe without remembering serving food yourself, you won’t be able to drink a glass of milk without remembering either the cows in the beautiful red barn or the farmers who work long hours to keep it all running.  

 

There are a ridiculous number of challenges ahead of you and yet all of them pale in comparison to the love your parents and guardians feel for you at this moment. Love is ultimately the only agent of change that has the power to transform our world, to create the future we all desire.  We only protect the things we love. And we only love the things we experience. We love Putney because we got to experience it so deeply. Try and spend as much of your life outdoors as possible - rain, shine, snow, wind as you found out at Putney - are all just weather - so go out no matter what. The energy, resilience and endurance we need to protect nature can only come from being in nature. 

 

Right now, I would like each of you to stand up and hold hands with the person next to you. Please shut your eyes. Now take a long breath of the fresh Vermont air and now release that breath. I often forget to breath and it really helps get through life.

 

I never wanted the spirit of Putney to be too far away from me, so I married my classmate Alex Nichols - ‘87. The twinkle in her eyes, the crazy art projects she drags me into the desert to create, her love of life and passion to make it better is like being at Putney every day.  The next time you crave a dose of Putney, take an action to build community, stay curious and fill your life with courage and purpose. And if that fails, crack open a big bottle of maple syrup, pour it over a thick piece of French toast, and remember how sweet life really is.Thank you and congratulations to the Putney Class of 2018!

 

Being back at Putney, I'm so glad that I had the opportunity to talk with such smart and idealistic youngsters. If we ever meet someone who went to Putney, ask them how it changed their lives. In fact, going to high school graduation gave me a sense of optimism that anything is possible. If you still have a chance this year to go to a local graduation event, even if you don't have a relative participating, just show up and cheer.  In return, you'll gain a new spring in your step. I promise steps. Next week, I'll be hiking on the Continental Divide Trail in New Mexico's Carson National Forest with my cousin. We'll be recording a Podship diary every day and then we'll edit it together for next week’s show. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. From the entire Podship Earth crew, engineer Rob Spate, producer Nancy Ferranti, executive producer David Kahn, and me, Jared Blumenfeld, have a fabulous week.