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The Road Ahead

Daniel Ratner

Congratulations, graduates. You’ve worked hard to reach this day, and you deserve a moment to catch your breath and reflect on what you have accomplished. Be proud. Commencement is exciting. Some of you are happy to leave MIT, most are sad to part with their college friends. Four years of drinking from the fire-hose has been exhausting, but I have some bad news for you. As difficult as life at MIT may have been, the really hard part starts now.

A few things have happened in the world while you were stuck working on 5.12 and 6.003 assignments. The world you may remember from before you entered MIT no longer exists. The American democratic process was rocked by crisis during the 2000 presidential election. For many of us, our democracy failed. We have gone from exuberant economic times to a serious and seemingly endless recession. Our current president has trouble saying the word “nuclear” (would someone from Course XXII please help him out with this?). We suffered the most heinous and treacherous terrorist-inspired incident of mass murder in our nation’s history. We now live our lives according to a color-coded system that tells us how likely we are to be blown up on any given day. Our government says it’s not a matter of if, but of when.

Beyond our borders the United States was involved in two major wars, toppling two regimes in as many years. As the progenitor of preemption, American policy is an example to the world -- for good or bad. The United States has become a master at withdrawing from, or refusing to sign, international treaties and agreements (for example, Kyoto, War Crimes, Land Mines, and ABM). Unilateralism is here to stay; America plays by its own rules. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows that world opinion of the United States has dropped to an unprecedented low. On average, less than a third of those surveyed had a favorable view of America, down from 60-80% two years prior.

In the last four years, while you were working on your degree, the U.S. Federal debt rose by roughly one trillion dollars, currently at $6.57 trillion. A report commissioned by the administration shows that the long-term Federal shortfall will surpass $44 trillion. Regardless of this bleak forecast, Congress enacted a $350 billion tax cut. The bill, as signed by the president, excludes twelve million American children from an additional tax credit (from $600 to $1000), because their parents don’t make enough money (less than $26K). Reminiscent of our country’s deplorable history of slavery, these children have been valued at three-fifths the worth of their more affluent neighbors.

Do not despair; you should know that some things have not changed since you went away to MIT. No comprehensive plan has yet been made to curb carbon dioxide emissions in order to address global warming. SUVs are still as popular as ever, and just as deadly as they were four years ago. The average fuel efficiency of our cars actually continues to worsen. The hydrogen economy is still a dream. 40 million Americans still lack health insurance, while healthcare costs continue to rise. Religious fundamentalism and extremism across the globe grows unabated. The rich are still getting richer, and the poor poorer. Some things never change. Perhaps we should take comfort in that.

You are graduating into a foreign and scary world. During commencement you will be told that this is your day, the world is yours to take by the horns. This is absolutely correct, but you should know just what kind of world you are about to inherit. Your parents and grandparents have not been the best stewards of this fragile planet. As they prepare to exit stage left, you must now assume the monumental task of dealing with their legacy. The bank is bust, the world is in strife, and our planet is in trouble.

MIT has endowed you with an invaluable set of skills. If anyone can correct the transgressions of our predecessors, it is you. Science, engineering, management, urban planning, political science, economics: these are the tools that can and must be used to make this world a better place. Take one area of your specialty, focus, and choose to be a part of the solution. Where your parents have fallen short, you must now succeed. The fun is over, and there is much -- but not too much -- to do.

I join with your family and friends to celebrate your achievements. Coming from MIT gives you a real advantage in the modern world. But it also comes with a real responsibility. I am proud of you, the world is proud of you, and now we turn to you for help.

Daniel Ratner is a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry.