“Do something that matters” were the four words of advice U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, PhD, gave the Class of 2010 during the 149th Commencement ceremony at Washington University in St. Louis.
“When you are old and gray and look back on your life, you will want to be proud of what you have done,” Chu told the approximately 2,600 students gathered before him May 21 in Brookings Quadrangle.
“The source of that pride won’t be the things you have acquired or the recognition you have received,” he said. “It will be the lives you have touched and the difference you have made. Nothing will give you greater satisfaction.”
Chu, as secretary of energy, is charged with helping the United States invest in alternative and renewable energy and address the global climate crisis, among other tasks. Chu said he looks to the graduates, with their idealism and intelligence, to help solve the world’s energy and climate challenges by working to engage political leaders and finding technical and policy solutions.
Chu told the crowd of more than 15,000 that in order to meet the world’s energy and environmental challenges, a second industrial revolution must take place — one in which humans can provide energy in an environmentally sustainable way.
“The first industrial revolution supplanted human and animal power with machines powered by fossil fuel,” he said. “Today, we use the power of two horses to dry our hair. We go to the local market under the pull of hundreds of horses and fly across our continent with a hundred thousand horses.”
The United States, he said, has the opportunity to lead in a second industrial revolution and “build the foundation of our future prosperity.”
“I believe there will be Nobel Prize-winning discoveries in the solutions to the energy challenge,” said Chu, a Nobel Prize-winner himself in physics. “The development of successful green energy technologies will create personal wealth, new jobs, and will be a cornerstone of America’s future economic prosperity.”
But sustainable energy is not just an economic issue, Chu said. It also is a deeply moral issue.
“Some business-as-usual scenarios predict that there is a 50-50 chance that the average temperature will be at least 4 degrees centigrade hotter by the end of this century,” Chu said. “This increase may not sound like much, but let me remind you that during the last ice age, the world was only 6 degrees colder.
“We have to confront the possibility that our actions are placing future generations at serious risk,” he said. “One of the cruelest ironies of climate change is that the ones who will be hurt the most are the most innocent: the world’s poorest and those yet to be born.”
Chu himself was born in 1948 in St. Louis while his father, Ju Chin Chu, DSc, was an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Washington University.
“It is a special privilege to return to the campus where my father began his career as a professor of chemical engineering,” Chu said.
Chu said his only childhood memory of St. Louis was holding his mother’s hand on a street corner during an extremely hot day.
“When I was a child, weather records show that the temperature in St. Louis rarely reached 100 degrees,” he told the graduates. “By about the time your grandchildren graduate from Washington University, there is a chance the temperature will be above 100 degrees for about 60 days each year.”
Chu, who received an honorary doctor of science degree during the ceremony, began his remarks by noting that 2010 is the 40th anniversary of his own commencement, in 1970 from the University of Rochester.
“I promise you that your next 40 years will rush by in a blink of an eye,” Chu told the graduates.
He noted that the 1960s and ’70s were a time of great turmoil and great achievement, and that current graduates are entering the world at a time that is “no less stressful, no less exciting, no less critical.”
Since his own graduation, Chu said he has been “an incredibly single-minded nerd” whose “central focus and professional joy was doing physics.” Chu has served as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University as well as a researcher at Bell Laboratories before becoming director of the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2004 and U.S. secretary of energy in 2009.
“Although I am now the secretary of energy, in my core, I will always be a professor,” he said. “Nothing makes me happier or more hopeful than being around young students like you.”
Though he had to leave academia to take his current position, Chu said, the sacrifice is worth it.
“Despite the trials and tribulations of running a large bureaucracy and being part of the political world, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be,” he said.
“I believe that the energy and climate-change problem is one of the most pressing problems that the world has to solve,” Chu said. “As part of President Obama’s administration, I can contribute to helping guide America toward a sustainable energy future.”
Chu congratulated the Class of 2010, urging them to receive their degrees, celebrate “with champagne,” and to go make a positive impact.
“You, the Class of 2010, are the recipients of some of the best our society has to offer. You have been allowed to stretch your intellectual wings. You have been given the privilege to wonder, to think, to create,” he said. “As the beneficiary of this opportunity, the question is ‘What will you do in the coming years?’
“Pick something you care about, and give it your all. If it doesn’t work out, move on. Even if you are successful in your career, don’t be afraid to move on and explore new territory. Your biggest regrets will not be over the mistakes you made, but over the opportunities not seized,” he said.
“Help save the world,” he said.
For a transcript of Steven Chu’s Commencement address, visit news.wustl.edu/news/Pages/20800.aspx.