My Valedictory Speech

Below is a transcript of the speech I delivered as valedictorian of my graduating high school class in May, 1970:

Recently, much attention has been given to the state of the environment. In fact, a day – April 22nd – was set aside this year to emphasize how man’s progress is destroying the environment he lives in. This destruction takes many forms – it is the suffocating carbon monoxide in the air of cities, the DDT which prevents young eagles from hatching, and the non-returnable bottles and cans which clutter the land.

Actually, man has always polluted his environment. In 61 A.D., Seneca complained about the “stink” and “pestilent vapours” and soot of the “heavy air of Rome.” In 1257, England’s Queen Eleanor was forced to move away from Nottingham because of the “unendurable smoke.” And in 17th century England, John Evelyn said Londoners “breathe nothing but impure and thick mist…so that Catharrs, Coughs and Consumptions rage…”

But today, pollution has suddenly mushroomed into a crisis of survival. It is no longer just uncomfortable and a nuisance – scientists say it threatens man’s very existence. Air pollution is present in nearly every city today and because our society is so urbanized, few people can escape it. In fact, pollution goes far beyond our cities – DDT can be found in the fat of penguins at the South Pole, and lead particles from car exhausts can be found in snow in remote areas of the Earth. The result of this pollution is called the decay of the environment.

But why has pollution become such a big problem since the days of John Evelyn? There are two main causes – one is our greatly expanding technology, and the other is the rapidly increasing world population.

Unfortunately, the result of American technology and the American way of life is plunder and waste. Each American child is 50 times more of a burden on the environment than each poor child of India. Although the United States contains only 5.7% of the world’s population, it uses 40% of the world’s production of natural resources. In 70 years of life, the average American uses 26 million gallons of water, 21,000 gallons of gasoline, 10,000 pounds of meat, 28,000 pounds of milk and cream, as well as $8,000 worth of school buildings, $6,000 of clothing and $7,000 of furniture. The result of massive production is massive filth or garbage. Every year, Americans junk 7 million cars, 100 million tires, 20 million tons of paper, 28 billion bottles and 48 billion cans. America also produces almost 50% of the world’s industrial pollution. Every year, U.S. plants discard 165 million tons of solid waste and release 172 million tons of smoke and fumes into the air. Obviously, Americans have done far too little to tame the polluting effects of technology. Not only should wilderness areas be preserved for us and later generations to enjoy, but also pollution must be controlled if we are to survive. Both are just as necessary.

The other, and perhaps more important, cause of the decay of the environment is the vast number of people today. The more people there are, the more pollution there is. French social anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss compares today’s human condition to that of maggots in a sack of flour: “When the population of these worms increases, even before they meet, before they become conscious of one another, they secrete certain toxins that kill at a distance – that is, they poison the flour they are in, and they die.”

From an estimated 5,000,000 people 8,000 years ago, the world population rose to 1 billion by 1850, 2 billion about 1930, and now stands at 3.5 billion. Current projections run to 7 billion by the year 2000. It is somewhat of a paradox that this surge of human overpopulation that threatens to overwhelm the Earth’s resources is due mainly to modern medicine which has curbed disease and death. The results of overpopulation are easy to see in starving, overcrowded countries like India. But America is also in trouble because the waste by each American is equivalent to that of 50 Indians. So it is necessary for America to limit, or even reduce, her population. By such action, the United States will be setting an example for the rest of the world to follow.

In conclusion, to stop the decay of the environment Americans must control both their technology and their population. It will cost money and effort, but our health and our lives are at stake. This is the last chance. The best thing each of us can do is to change our attitudes. One is that man must conquer nature. This is wrong, because man depends on nature to exist. For example, 70% of our oxygen must come from the sea – dumping chemicals into it threatens us. We must live in harmony with nature. Another fallacy is that nature is endlessly bountiful. Our supply of trees, metals, coal and other resources is all finite. And lastly, our affluent desire for more, in terms of cars, TVs, or people, is not good. All of our so-called progress is not necessarily good, as progress that destroys our environment is bad. For a clear direction through our muddied outlook, this is our last chance.