Last night I had the honour of giving the Occasional Address at Curtin University’s graduation ceremony. Here is what I said:
Good evening Acting Chancellor Sue Wilson, Acting Vice Chancellor David Wood, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
It is a great pleasure to give the Occasional Address at this evening’s graduation ceremony, and I would like to thank Curtin University for inviting me to speak.
I would also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Whadjuk Nyungar people and pay my respects to elders past and present.
University graduation ceremonies are wonderfully inspiring events. I can’t help but be reminded of my first university graduation ceremony which was around 20 years ago.
I remember excitedly printing out my last assignment on my Apple Mac SE. A beige square box with a tiny screen and a handle on top. It didn’t have a hard drive but came with floppy disk drives and a (not so) massive 512k of ram. In comparison your average computer today has 8 gig of ram which is almost 16,000 times as powerful.
But this was 1995 when Google didn’t yet exist – in fact its co-creators were yet to even meet. The first video was still a whole decade away from being uploaded onto YouTube. Mobile phones were both very expensive and very hard to fit in your pocket. If someone had of suggested to me in 1995 that in 20 years most people would own a hand held device that would not only make calls and take photos, but could hold 1000s of photos, your entire music collection and most extraordinarily could be used to find the answer to almost any question that came in to your head in a few seconds – for free – I would have thought they were dreaming the impossible. Today it’s just plain ordinary.
Over the last 20 years since I, like you are doing tonight, walked down to receive my graduation certificate, large parts of our world have radically transformed themselves. The information revolution, the internet and new media has gone from the big idea to how we understand and experience the world. It has been a period of rapid change.
My challenge to you tonight is this – the world you’re about to graduate into is one that will need to transform itself even more dramatically over the next 20 years than it has over the last 20 years. Over the next 20 years we face the enormous challenge of transforming our society and economy by de-coupling economic growth and prosperity from increased carbon emissions, while simultaneously increasing prosperity especially for the world’s poorest people.
Let me explain further the magnitude of this challenge. Scientists tell us that we must radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by over the next 20 years if humanity is to have a prosperous future. This is a huge ask because over the last 20 plus years we have instead globally increased our GHG emissions by over 60% despite us been fully aware of the problem.
Last year the American Association for the Advancement of Science said:
Climate scientists agree climate change is happening here and now. Based on well-established evidence, 97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening.
And it is happening in a way that left unchecked will change the world as we know. The World Bank says we are currently on track for a 4° C warmer world by this century end – marked by extreme heat waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems, and life-threatening sea level rise. The World Bank also goes on to say that “There is no certainty that adaptation 4°C world is possible”
Despite this stark warning I am not depressed about how much trouble the world is in. In fact I feel incredibly excited and optimistic about the future. One of the reasons I remain hopeful for our future is because of graduates like you tonight. Without a doubt your areas of built environment, sustainability policy and education are going to be a vital key to this necessary transformation. Let me explain.
In the last few years humanity crossed a monumental threshold – now more people live in cities than outside of them – for the first time in human history. As Herbert Girardet powerfully said “The cities of the 21st Century are where human destiny will be played out, and where the future of the biosphere will be determined. There will be no sustainable world without sustainable cities.”
This means transforming our cities away for car dependent sprawl to denser cities linked by high quality public transport and cycling lanes and walking streets. This doesn’t mean cities of no cars however. In fact I got here tonight in what I believe will become an increasingly ordinary means of transport. It was via an electric car charged from the solar panels above my office at the City of Fremantle. It was quite strange to drive at first – gearless and completely silent. But it definitely feels like the start of a different future.
Australian buildings are also a major challenge and opportunity. They are currently responsible for around 20% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and without a major change in direction this is projected to more than double in coming decades. The good news however is that around one-third of building sector’s greenhouse gas emissions can already be eliminated at a no cost. In Fremantle we are working with researchers from CUSP here Curtin to design the first zero carbon housing development in Australia – one that my not even need to be connected to the electricity grid.
This is only possible because of the massive transformation that is taking place in the area of energy. We are now seeing more global investment each year in renewable energy than we are in fossil fuels and as a result the cost of renewable energy is rapidly coming down in cost. For example, the price of solar PV has dropped by 2/3rds over the last 20 years. As a result at Fremantle Council I no longer have to make the economic case for putting solar on the roofs of all our buildings because it is a no-brainer. Solar PV generally pays for itself in less than 7 years.
But perhaps the biggest transformation that is yet to come will be in the area of batteries which are rapidly coming down in price and are now close to the point where a combination of solar and batteries can provide 24 hour a day electricity more cheaply, cleanly and reliably to your home than what you would get down your power line from the coal fired power station. This is going to mean a transformation even more radical than we saw telephones go through over the last two decades. Electrical wires may very soon follow old copper phone lines down the path of an increasingly redundant form of infrastructure.
But technological change and the redesigning of our built environment alone will not be enough to see us through this necessary transformation. Education is also going to be a vital ingredient. Education is key to ensuring that our society has the knowledge and the lateral and creative problem solving skills that are going to essential as we approach a fast changing future. Independent, critical and informed thinking will be essential to this necessary transformation and enabling this change to occur.
Speaking of education, you have all already achieved far more in this area than most people. In Australia despite recent increases in attainment of tertiary education still only one in four people has a bachelors level degree. Internationally only around 1% of people have a university degree. Each of you is now part of that exclusive group. For those of you graduating with a post graduate degree tonight you are in even more rarefied circles. You are part of a privileged global elite and with that privilege comes responsibility. As of tonight you become the influencers, the change makers. My challenge to you is to use this influence to be part of the necessary transformation
Finally, it is customary at graduation event such as these to give advice for a successful career and life post university. Twenty years on from my graduation I still don’t feel qualified to offer it but I can give you a few small tips:
- Do what you love and love what you do. Then put the time and energy into getting good at it. Competence and passion are a rare combination in this day and age.
- The more you give to your community the more you’ll get back. A good life is not about getting what you can for yourself. It is about how you can best give.
- Keep on learning – finishing uni is just the start – stay open to new knowledge, new ideas and new things;
- In this rapidly changing world also make sure you hang on to your friends. Some of those around you tonight will be your friends and companions for the rest of your life. Treasure that and look after them.
To paraphrase – Henry David Thoreau – “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined” and be the change-makers for the necessary transformation ahead.
I wish you well and congratulations.