06/07/2010 06:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Which Impossible Dream?

I'm in Bar Harbor, Maine, as the commencement speaker for the College of the Atlantic. I'm struck by the seeming contradiction between the two words we use for these events: graduation and commencement. Surely they are opposites? It's clear what the COA Class of 2010 is graduating from -- but what, precisely, are they commencing to? Life? Obviously not. Adulthood?

I imagine that was the original idea, but I'm not sure it was appropriate even when I graduated in 1967. I'd already done some fairly adult things, like being cuffed around by a Southern sheriff. It's certainly not appropriate for this graduating class, whose knowledge of the world and experience in it far exceeds mine when I skipped out on my 1967 commencement event.

So I tried to eat a little generational humble pie in my remarks. Sadly, as I reflected on the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico, this was all too easy. Does anyone of my generation really belong on commencement podiums this year -- purporting to share experience, knowledge, wisdom?

Instead, I offered up three of my generation's biggest blunders as examples to be avoided.

One blunder was to trust either tribal folklore (i.e. -- everyone else like me thinks this way) or priestly secrets (i.e. -- experts know more than I do) as a way of knowing. Deepwater Horizon shows, most spectacularly, this error. The tribal folklore of the people who actually did this work in the oil industry was that they had it mastered -- a catastrophe like this couldn't happen. Clearly that was wrong, as tribal folklore often is, because cementing the tribe is more important than getting the facts quite right.

But the high priests in this case -- the regulators of the Mineral Management Service -- were, to be blunt, even more pathetic, because they knew they didn't know as much as those they were charged with holding accountable. In the extreme version of the story, they simply sent the oil industry their environmental assessment forms and then signed whatever was sent back -- and it's very clear they didn't even read closely what was submitted.

Common sense -- what philosophy professors call heuristics -- got lost. It made no sense to assume that blow-out preventers (which regularly failed and had to be repaired in 500 feet of water) simply would not fail at 5,000 feet or that we would be able to easily repair them if they did. "Heart surgery in the dark," as BP's CEO famously put it. But we did assume. We should be ashamed.

The second generational blunder I noted was the fashion of treating ethics like an accessory -- the handbag you pick up after you have chosen your outfit.

In particular, it seems to me, my generation failed to learn the ethics of restraint -- of not doing certain things even if you think you can get away with them. We pushed everything to the limit -- concentration of CO2, depth of oil drilling, dependence on foreign oil. We were almost openly dismissive of prudence, humility -- the Apollonian virtues.

My third point was harder to explain. It was the question of how to choose which impossible dream to embrace.

For forty years, we have been told that it is impossible and impractical to get off oil -- or even off of imported oil -- although every president since Nixon, including George W. Bush, has promised he would figure it out. Immediately thereafter, though, the energy experts would unload their "it can't be done ammunition" on our leadership and, indeed, nothing was ever done.

What was actually impossible -- indefinitely continuing our dependence on oil -- was embraced as simple and practical, even if it involved shipping millions of jobs overseas, drilling for oil in water so deep that we had no idea what we were doing, and shipping hundreds of billions of dollars each year to regimes that used much of the money to fund our enemies.

So the issue for the College of the Atlantic Class of 2010 is not whether to be bold. The problems they face are so big that any response will have to be bold. The question is how to know which impossible dreams are the right ones to embrace. And that is where their values, and common sense, should enter the picture.

After all, are trains that are as good as China's, cars that are as efficient as Europe's, electric cars and natural gas trucks, and neighborhoods with sidewalks really so impractical? Do they make less sense than depending on holes that we drill six miles below the surface of the ocean or on nuclear power plants that no one will insure or pay for except the taxpayers?

The real dreamers are the people who think we can keep on doing the same old thing, only in more extreme forms -- and not end up regretting it.