It is not uncommon to see Concord Academy welcome speakers. We host our own almost every morning. Speeches are hard. Long speeches are very hard. A good speech can change minds. So what made Ed Rafferty’s speech, delivered at the chapel pulpit on the indolent afternoon of April 20, so memorable?
Good speeches tend to stick with people. In the immediate aftermath, you forget every minute detail except for how it made you feel. Over time, the accelerating amnesia changes direction. You start to remember. The rhetorical moves, the sweeping references to global events that in their conciseness feel like mantis crab jabs to your solar plexus.
Rafferty opened his first section about looming death with this quote: “We face, it may seem, the four horsemen in our Anthropocene age: pestilence—COVID and other zoonotic diseases connect to human systems and human-induced changes in the environment; war—the current conflicts in Ukraine, Yemen, and elsewhere are as much hydrocarbon wars as they are parts of the political landscapes of postcolonial change (and colonialism itself has its environmental linkages); death—little needs explanation here; and famine—the war in Ukraine, for example, indicates some of the environmental problems associated with globalization and industrialization of the food system.”
There must be something alluring, as English teachers Laurence Vanleynseele and Andrew Stevens might say, about invoking the imagery of hell on Earth. I myself insist that more exists, lessons from which all might bring something home.
Rafferty’s first move was a nagging specificity. Rafferty referenced writers and researchers on environmental history and personal events liminally a part of environmental history, from Lois Gibbs to Keith O’Brien and Janissa Ray and CA itself and Earth Day. Uncomfortably, in the study of most histories, obsession with “movements” —the Radium Girls and environmental justice as one big, amorphous blob—sidelines those who, during the time of said “movements,” were shunted backstage or, worse, kicked out of the theater altogether. Specificity informs history, but it also brings nuance; every single case for climate justice is just a little bit different. In itself, that acknowledgment brings something humanizing, perhaps even unifying, to an environmentalism movement that can (as Rafferty said in his speech) so often seem deprived of all hope.
The second move was an insistence upon “We.” Rafferty’s speech was entitled “Tales Along a Crooked Road: Place, Home, and Humility in Environmental History.” Fitting, perhaps, as what Rafferty did was blend one form of storytelling—the narrative—with another—recasting history.
I imagine quite a world of difference exists between firsthand operators and secondhand operators of storytelling. The first are those whom CA usually brings in, who are by some metric qualified to talk about their journeys, their careers, and whatever personal relevancy they happen to hold to the subject matter at hand, be it organ donation or radical self-love. This is fine. The second are those who get paid to weave together strands of scholarship, fieldwork, and social climate into something notable, accessible, and energizing. They are students, in essence. Generally speaking, the second are most engaging, as we are a school of students.
Rafferty’s final theme of humility conceives that the destruction waged upon our homes is, collectively, our fault. “We still have a kind of ‘ignorant arrogance’ about the ways that we might use science, markets, growth, and consumption to solve the problems of environmental change and damage done by science, markets, growth, and consumption; we seek solutions from the very systems that have created the problems,” Rafferty spoke. This might be well-remembered when having expertise becomes equated with the right to ignore or the right to remain superior.
I originally planned this article to reignite good feelings of a Centennial that has come, passed, and passed from memory. Evidently, it has evolved into a reflection upon the role of the teacher at CA. Believe it or not, our teachers know things. They are here to share these things with us. CA, please feel free to invite our own faculty to the pulpit more often. And, now that finals have finished, remember to thank them sometime. Happy spring.