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Speeches By EPA Administrator

 

Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, University of Washington 2012 Commencement Address, As Prepared

06/09/2012
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As prepared for delivery.

Hello class of 2012! Thank you for asking me to be with you on this special day. I am very excited to be back at the University of Washington and honored to welcome you all into the world of college graduates. Thank you to President Young, to the Board of Regents, to the Deans, to the faculty and staff and the alumni and the entire University of Washington community.

Let me also join our graduates in saying a very sincere thank you to the family and friends in the audience. Today would not have been possible without the help of all of these people over the years. We owe them much more than a round of applause – but it’s a good start. Please join me in thanking them.

And let me send a quick shout out to one of today’s graduates who grew up in the 9th Ward of New Orleans just like me. Luke Koeferl – your parents wrote to me at the EPA just to tell me how proud they were of you today, and I thought I’d let you know while I’m up here.

Now, there are lots of good reasons for the Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency to be at the University of Washington. And I’m very excited to be here. When I was asked to come and speak, the only question I had was whether they would let me wear my UW Swagga Suit under my robe. But really – this school has a number of extraordinary environmental accomplishments. It ranked first in Sierra magazine’s Coolest Schools for 2011, and is one of only 16 universities named to the Green Honor Roll by Princeton Review. The UW also earned a grade of A-minus on the College Sustainability Report Card – and has achieved this grade five years in a row. You don’t usually see A-minuses for five years in college. In addition, the EPA has a children’s health center here at University of Washington, and we’re very proud of the work being done there.

I’m also glad to be here because I have also gotten to know one of your esteemed alums quite well in recent years – Governor Christine Gregoire. Governor Gregoire has been a leader in protecting the people of this state from pollution, and moving forward on a range of environmental and energy issues. To name a few, she has turned Washington from a state that produced no wind power to one of the nation’s leaders in wind. She has supported cleaner cars and cleaner fuels for those cars. And she has launched a cleanup of the Puget Sound, the waters that shape the way of life for so much of this region.

I must also confess a connection to another University of Washington Alumni. A young man by the name of Kenneth Bruce Gorelick, class of 1978. Most people know him as Kenny G. I haven’t actually met Kenny G, but he will always be part of my memories. Back when I was younger, I went on date where we ended up on the beach at night. This was in New Jersey, so I should say the Jersey Shore, which is much nicer than you think. We were sitting on the sand, and the stars were out. We had a blanket and a picnic. And we had a little stereo. At one point my date reaches over and turns on the stereo, and plays some Kenny G. That was the man I married. We’ve been married for almost 20 years now and have two wonderful sons. So this is one of the first life lessons I want to share: When you have found the person who is right for you, I hope you can marry them even if they listen to Kenny G.

This is actually a good example of what I want to talk to you about today. You have spent the last four years learning everything you can – about your major and about life. Each and every one of you has built an extraordinary store of knowledge, which is what you have to do to graduate from such an incredible university. As you get ready to start another chapter in your story, you may be worried about the things you don’t know. I am here to tell you not to worry about that. There’s an old phrase that goes “It ain’t what you don’t know that get you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Ironically, no one really knows who said it first. Some say it’s Mark Twain... some say it’s an old slave saying... some have attributed it to Satchel Paige, others, Will Rogers. But regardless of who said it, the substance still stands. “It ain’t what you don’t know that get you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” That’s what I want to talk to you about today.

I’ll start easy – take, for example, your fashion choices. I’m sure a lot of you know that the clothes you’ve been wearing for the last four years have looked good. You know it. But let me warn you, I graduated college in the 1980s – the days of big hair, and the introduction of spandex – and I can tell you that my friends and I felt the same way you do now. We knew we looked good. Soon you will realize, it just ain’t so. It’s even harder for your generation because – with Facebook – you live out your fashion mistakes in real time, with a permanent, digital record. So – good luck with that.

Now – another thing you’ll probably be surprised by will be your career. As I said, I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana, where there are lots of jobs working on and for oil rigs. There was a time in my life when I thought for sure I would go to work for an oil company. But as you can see, I took a slightly different route. I actually started college thinking I was going to be a doctor. I took some premed classes, but I also enrolled in engineering classes. In chemical engineering, I learned about chemicals in our environment, and how they get into our bodies and can make us sick. I heard about a community called Love Canal just outside of Buffalo, New York, where tons of industrial waste and toxic materials were buried in the ground, and years later began leaking into people’s houses, into their yards, making them sick and destroying their health and the environment.

I knew that a doctor could help people when they got sick. But I realized that if I knew more about chemistry and science, I could help keep people from getting sick in the first place. So I decided to pursue environmental protection. I’m sure some of you have had a similar transition from when you started here – and you’ll have transitions still to come. My old friend Kenny G graduated magna cum laude with an accounting degree. He didn’t make a career of it, but it probably comes in handy now that he is the biggest-selling instrumental musician in the modern era. But even when you get it right on the first try, your career is going to surprise you with something you thought you knew that just ain’t so.

Somewhere you’ve probably already had your knowledge undermined – or almost certainly will – is in love and relationships. I have had a number of my own certainties overturned in this arena – things I thought I knew that just weren’t so. Bear in mind, I’m not just talking about bad things. The good things will surprise you too. Each of you probably has a list of what you think you want – the “resume” of a perfect partner. Someone who likes to cook, or someone who wants to travel, and a long list of deal breakers. But it doesn’t work that way.

Say you grew up in New Orleans and lived in New Jersey. You know you’re going to end up with a jazz musician who listens to Prince and Bruce Springsteen. Then one day you meet a computer programmer who plays Kenny G while you’re on a date – and you realize that he is the one. Maybe you even start to like the music, just a little. Love is one of those experiences where – when you finally know what you want – you realize that what you thought you knew before just ain’t so. Where you find yourself saying “Hey – I just met you...and this is crazy...but here’s my number...so call me maybe?”

But these are not things you’ll learn by me telling you. You’ll learn them the way we all do – by living through them. So let me turn to a field I know a little more about: politics.

A recent study from the Pew Center found that as a nation we are more divided in our political values than ever before. This is probably not a surprise to most of you, but they have produced numbers showing that the average partisan gap has nearly doubled in the last 25 years. In other words, we have more people today – on two different sides – who know with certainty that theirs is the only path our country can follow if we hope to succeed. They are equally as certain that people who think differently than they do are wrong – or worse. This attitude of absolute certainty – a total refusal to listen and compromise – is toxic. It’s not only reductive and corrosive, it’s also insufficient to our complicated challenges, which don’t tend to conform nicely and neatly to absolutes.

These rigid ideologies are what another graduate of the UW – the author Marilynne Robinson – would call “a straight-edge ruler in a fractal universe.” And once again, what people think they know just ain’t so. A good example is my own field of environmentalism.

From the divisive discussion about environmental protection today, you might expect that the EPA was founded by a tie-dyed, peace sign, flower power liberal. But that doesn’t quite fit the description of President Richard Nixon, who created the agency in December 1970. Nor does it fit the description of the first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, who has a center named after him at this university. Like President Nixon, Administrator Ruckelshaus was a Republican – and he did an incredible job of setting the precedents of health and environmental protection that the EPA has followed for 40 years. He also returned to the agency in the 1980s – during the Reagan administration – when EPA was facing difficult times, and needed to get back on track.

He still gives me advice and counsel, as do many of my predecessors. That includes like William K. Reilly, who as administrator helped shape the Clean Air Amendments that were signed by the first President Bush.

Today, the environmental debate is centered on a choice between our economy and our environment. As if we can have only one or the other, and we have to choose. But it’s a false choice. The truth is, our economy would be less prosperous if we let industries pollute our air and water and make people sick. And our environmental protection efforts would be less effective if we didn’t find ways to work within a growing economy. Our air would not be as clean if we constrained the innovative, open marketplace that brought us products – not just tools but products that American companies are making money with – like smokestack scrubbers that reduce soot from power plants, and the catalytic converters that cut lead pollution from cars.

That thinking may not fit any partisan ideology – but it has worked for the past 40 years. And losing sight of it has made it more difficult to deal with challenges that were difficult enough in the first place. These are challenges like cleaning up the Puget Sound, or protecting children from mercury – a neurotoxin that gets released into the air from many power plant smokestacks.

It’s very difficult to address climate change when a majority of the time you spend on the issue is responding to accusations that you’ve formed a conspiracy with 97 percent of the scientific community. Never mind the question of why in the world anyone would form such a conspiracy – it’s certainly not for the money or the popularity. My point is – there is no either/or way ahead – despite the certainty with which some people will tell you that there is. That applies to environmentalism and just about every other issue we debate today. What they think they know just ain’t so.

Not addressing climate change now means it is the issue that is most likely to shape and influence the country and the world you will lead and that your children will be born into. The polarization around the issue means we are wasting precious time arguing when we could be implementing "no regrets" strategies. One on my favorite political cartoons – I have it in my office – is by Joel Pett. It is of a professor at a climate change summit and behind him on the board are a list of benefits of clean energy – energy independence, jobs, livable cities, clean water and air, healthy children, preserving rain forests, etc., etc.

And an angry guy in the audience stands up and asks "What if it's a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?" Your challenge as graduates now is to take all that you know, move the issues around clean energy, environmental protection and sustainability forward by finding win-win strategies that are built on making the world better. Find ways to talk to those who know they are right – on both sides – and move forward to create your future.

Let me close with something I do know for certain – which is that whatever you encounter out in the world, there will be plenty of people supporting you, and ready to help when you need it. I bring you that message today from the President of the United States. We know you are graduating into difficult times, and we are working to make sure that you have as many opportunities and as much security – and as clean an environment – as possible. That starts with helping you pay for the investment you just made in your education. President Obama will continue to push Congress to act so that interest rates don’t rise on student loans. When college has opened up so many doors to you, we don’t want loan payments to be something that hold you back.

But even more important than the president – don’t tell him I said that – but even more important than the president are the people who are here with you today and will be with you through everything to come. The people who, through the course of your life, have always been there: Your teachers and mentors, your family and your friends, your fellow graduates. Last I heard there were about 4,000 graduates today and as many as 40,000 audience members. That’s a 10 to 1 ratio, so the odds here are very good.

So go forth – with everything you know, and everything you don’t know, and all the things you think you know but you really don’t. One of the things I know – and that everyone here knows – is that you are ready for whatever comes. You have proven that. I’m happy to celebrate with you today Class of 2012, and I’m excited to see where you will take us.

Thank you very much and congratulations.