Below is a speech I wrote for the closing ceremonies of the LEAF conference we Periclean Scholars helped host in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in late January. Giving this speech on behalf of our class was a truly humbling experience, and I wanted to post it here and put photos with it so those of you who followed our adventures in Sri Lanka and our hosting of the LEAF summit could understand better how we all felt at the end of this incredible journey.
Good afternoon. I’d like to begin by extending a warm thank you to our sponsors and partners who have made LEAF possible. Thank you also to our host, the University of Colombo, and in particular the Physics Department, who we have very much enjoyed working with.
Thank you to the students here today, and our guests who joined us from near and far. Finally, thank you so much to our speakers, for taking time to commit to sharing your extensive knowledge and ideas with us at this summit.
About a week ago, the Periclean Scholars of Elon University went on a full day trek through the Sinharaja rainforest with students from a local junior school in the Panangala region. We have been working closely with this school for some time now, and it was such a pleasure to finally be able to meet and interact with the students. I spent the day hiking next to a young girl named Malmi, who pointed out butterflies and plants native only to Sri Lanka to me and who found it very strange when I was too afraid to get close to the green pit viper our group had spotted. When I tried to explain my fear of snakes and even many insects, Malmi told me that maybe if I tried touching them or being around them more, I might not be as afraid.
When it comes to the environment, a lack of engagement and interaction with everything from insects to plants to fresh water prevents us from caring about and investing in our natural world. Malmi put it simply to me. Knowledge is acquired through experience, and fear and ignorance prevents from learning and appreciating. As I watched Malmi take photo after photo of Sinharaja that day, I realized that the beautiful rainforest in many ways belongs to her, and is in fact what she calls home. She cares about it in a way I almost can’t understand, and I haven’t stopped wondering why that is.
Today, I would like to take some time to reflect on why some of us are here and on what the bigger picture of the Leaders in Environmental Advocacy Forum means.
Ajantha Perera does what she does, she says, because she believes in our enormous collective responsibility to take care of the environment and of the surroundings that belong to the people we love. Dr. Tom Arcaro is here because, in his words, there is no where else he would rather be. Being part of this event that connects Sri Lankan and American students, faculty, and activists to one another is the essence of the globally connected world we live in. Both Ajantha and Tom, to echo just two voices representing the level of leadership at this summit, live and breathe the urgency that is us using our positions of privilege to encourage a better stewardship of our environment.
And we Periclean Scholars feel we are here because, frankly, the issues that have been discussed over the past two days are too important to ignore. The time to address the major environmental issues facing our world – issues such as sustainable development, waste management, and water quality issues – is now. And we know we can’t do it alone, just like we could never have helped host this environmental advocacy forum without the support of all of groups and individuals who have been so vital to this summit.
These kinds of partnerships are essential, and at LEAF, it is clear that they exist – as they must – both WITH Sri Lanka and WITHIN Sri Lanka. Experiencing the physical manifestation of these partnerships during LEAF and throughout our time in this incredible country has been humbling, to say the least. At the ceremonial candle lighting yesterday, such partnerships took on – literally – a whole new light. Educators, government officials, environmental leaders, and students from Sri Lanka and the United States opened this summit, ceremonially illustrating what the deepening of partnerships looks like.
Like environmental issues themselves, LEAF is an example of something that affects everyone, albeit in different degrees. As Professor Kotagama highlighted yesterday, humans have the same basic needs: food, water, space to live and move about in, shelter, some degree of education. These basic needs surpass national, racial, and ethnic boundaries, but it is easy to forget what we have in common when we are fighting wars and perpetuating humanitarian conflict based on our differences. Perhaps even more disturbing, we so often confuse our needs with our wants, and become disillusioned by an ever-changing list of priorities.
In his breakout session yesterday, Neshan Gunasekera discussed an obvious yet rarely considered idea: what if each of us took only what we needed? Taking that one step further, what if the environmental crisis took its place at the top of our list of global priorities? Or, as Dr. Arcaro put it yesterday, what if humanity decided that this crisis is the most imperative fire burning next to us that we need to work together to extinguish?
We cannot afford to be afraid of discussing what seem like radical proposals or asking difficult questions. To many politicians today, the economy has become more real than the physical world. As such, it should unfortunately come as no surprise that the tension between economic development and environmental stewardship increases with every poor policy decision that results in a huge step backward for the environmental movement. Professor Kotgama urged yesterday that technological advancements must be pursued within the boundaries of nature. Does that seem radical? Perhaps. But is it necessary for any semblance of a sustainable future? Unquestionably.
When I was a young girl, my parents used to tell me that I had incredibly good “selective listening” skills. I had a talent for hearing what I wanted to hear, and ignoring what I did not, no matter what the consequences might be for not listening. Today, far too many people ignore the blatant evidence that shows how our levels of consumption and our extremely good ability to selectively listen to the environment is what will leave this planet uninhabitable for those who come after us.
Perhaps, then, the new measure of positive economic development should be the well-being of the environment. Is it happy? Is it hospitable? Are we, as humans, being good guests and responsible stewards? Maybe changing the way in which we view our relationship with the environment will help us be better caretakers of it.
The question, it seems, is not so much what or why anymore, but rather, how. How do we get others to recognize the importance of protecting the environment, to care? Like many others, Elon’s Periclean Scholars believe the answer is education, and our projects in Sri Lanka – especially LEAF – revolve around helping facilitate dialogue that will help people see and care. In a discussion with a Rainforest Rescue International employee the other week, I learned how those of us who care deeply about environmental education wholeheartedly agree that knowledge truly is power. In countries like Sri Lanka, where education rates are quite high, helping to instill this knowledge shows great promise. It is a kind of education that will encourage action and, perhaps more importantly, foster a fierce desire in children of younger generations to protect the environment that they call home.
I’d like to end with the words of another child the Periclean Scholars had the pleasure of meeting while in Sri Lanka. We were at a former dump site in Colombo that is also home to numerous families, and I asked a little boy, “What is the environment?” “It’s where the trees grow,” he replied in Sinhala. “It’s what smells good outside.”
We must keep it smelling good outside. My generation, that of the university-age students in this room, is at the intersection of children like Malmi and this small boy and the wise leaders like so many in this room. Our time is now. Just as Sri Lanka’s youth is ready to take charge after decades of civil war, so are the young adults of the world impassioned to stamp out the fire that is the environmental crisis. The ancient poet Rumi encapsulated this shared global vision is in a simple phrase: “The lamps are many, but the light is the same.” If LEAF has taught us nothing else, it is that the light we are after is not only attainable, but within our reach.
But this can’t stop with LEAF, and I have confidence it won’t. “Api Yamu,” as the schoolchildren in Panangala said over and over to us when they wanted us to keep going and going through the rainforest. We will keep going. LEAF has been the most clear manifestation of the promise of the Periclean Scholars program and of our partners – this is what it’s all about, this is harvest time, and seeing the culmination of what can be achieved when individuals and groups like this come together has been humbling and inspiring. Thank you again to all who made LEAF possible.
So, thank you to our partners, and to all of you for your contributions and words of wisdom you have shared here at LEAF. Finally, a huge thank you to Dr. Arangala and Dr. Arcaro from the bottom of my heart for all they have done to help make LEAF and our travels here a reality. They are incredible educators, leaders, and mentors, and Elon’s Periclean Scholars wouldn’t exist without them.