Anthony Cortese Remarks

Remarks by Dr. Anthony Cortese
Dedication of the Richard S. Shineman Center for Science, Engineering and Innovation
SUNY Oswego
October 4, 2013

Dr. Anthony Cortese speaking at Shineman Center dedication

President Stanley, Professor Emerita Barbara Shineman, Honorable James Wright Senator Emeritus, Trustee Lichtman, faculty, staff and students of Oswego State and members of the greater Oswego community. It is with great honor, gratitude, delight and humility that I am now an honorary degree recipient of Oswego State. I am now a proud Oswego State Alum and will do my best to live up to your standards!  I am also honored to participate in this important milestone for the university and the Oswego community with the dedication of Richard S. Shineman Center for Science, Engineering and Innovation.  I am honored to have my loving wife and partner, Donna DiGioia, and our cousin Frank DiGioia, a proud Oswego State alum, here with me today.

Humanity is at crossroads without historical precedent. Because of the extraordinary and exponential growth of population and the expansive dynamic of industrial capitalism, humans have become a planetary force comparable in disruptive power to the Ice Ages and the asteroid collisions that have previously redirected Earth's history. Despite all the work society has done on environmental protection, all living systems are in long-term decline and are declining at an increasing rate. We are severely disrupting the stability of the climate and the earth's ecosystems, which made human progress to date possible.

There are also huge social, economic and public health challenges worldwide - e.g, nearly 3 billion people are without sanitation and make less than $2.50 per day; over 1 billion lack an adequate supply of safe drinking water and/or adequate nutrition.  The gap between rich and poor within and among countries (including the U.S.) is increasing and is greater than it was in the "robber baron" days of the early 20th century.  This is happening with 25% of the world's population consuming 70-80% of the world's resources. The big question for us all is: How will we ensure that current and future humans will be healthy, live in strong, secure, thriving communities and have economic opportunity in a world that will have 9 Billion people and that plans to increase economic output 2-4 times by 2050?

It is arguably the greatest civilizational, moral and intellectual challenge that humanity has ever faced. It is not about saving the planet. The planet has survived 5 major biological extinctions, the last being 65 million years ago in the age of the dinosaurs, and it will survive the sixth,which is being caused by humans.  It is about saving a complex human civilization for generations to come.  In order to do so we must remember that we can only live about 3 minutes without breathing, 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food.  We utterly depend on a clean, safe biosphere. We count on the Earth's biosphere for food, shelter, fuel, pharmaceuticals, water and many other goods and services including sophisticated ecological services that help convert our waste products into useful substances.  One of the chemotherapeutic agents, vincristine, which saved my life from acute leukemia 34 years ago, was extracted from the Rosy Periwinkle plant which was found in the rain forests of Madagascar.  Today 90% of those forests have been cut down.  What other life saving substances have we lost with the 30% reduction in biological species that have been eliminated in the past 50 years?  Our society is wholly embedded in the biosphere, and our economy is embedded in society. None of our activities (with the rare exception of space travel) take place in isolation from the biosphere.

To make this a reality we must realize that the road to a thriving sustainable human society is one of culture and values as much as it is about scientific and technological development. It must be guided by the arts, humanities, social and behavioral sciences, religion and other spiritual inspiration as well as the physical and natural sciences and engineering.

Marginal improvements to business as usual will not work. We need a transformative shift in the way we think and act individually and collectively.  Albert Einstein famously said that we can't solve today's problems at the same level of thinking.  Higher education must lead the way in our role to provide the knowledge and the educated citizenry for a thriving civil society.  We need an economy that sustains people, community, culture and nature.  Imagine an industrial production and consumption system that runs on renewable energy and in which the concept of "waste" is eliminated because every waste product is a raw material or nutrient for other people, businesses or institutions, or returned into the cycles of nature (the way it is in nature).  (The human species is the only one that operates in a linear 'take, make, waste' fashion.)  Imagine that we are managing human activities in a way that uses natural resources only at the rate that they can self-regenerate - the ideas embodied in sustainable forestry, fishing and agriculture. By doing so, we could live off of nature's "interest", not its capital, for generations to come.

Higher Education's rapidly expanding response to this challenge over the last two decades has been one of the most positive and inspiring trends in society - it is a beacon of hope in a sea of turbulence. 

Oswego State, under the leadership of President Stanley, has been a leading light among colleges and universities in New York State and in the country in this effort.  Being one of the charter members of the 675 schools in the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) it has committed to become climate neutral and sustainable in operations, provide the educated workforce and help the City of Oswego and the surrounding region improve economically and socially as well as deal with the rapid environmental challenges that are becoming more evident daily - witness Hurricane Sandy, wildfires and drought across the country and the devastating floods in Colorado.  (There are 53 ACUPCC members in NY State; 17 in the SUNY system.)

The Shineman Center is an important early prototype of how we must renovate the 75% of existing buildings that will still be in existence in 40 years and how we must build all new buildings.  Not just because of the health, environmental and productivity attributes for students and faculty which are critical.  It is also because the building will greatly enhance the kind of transdisciplinary and cross-sectoral learning community that President Stanley and many other leaders in higher education, business and communities deem to be essential. 

Can we do this?  Yes, thousands of businesses and communities are heading down this path.  As the old saying goes, "Necessity is the mother of invention".  They cannot succeed without higher education, the anchor institutions for social, community and economic development as a full partner in anticipating and informing society of the challenges we face, finding and modeling solutions.  Higher education is the primary secular sector in society designed with a long-term focus. It is the only one with the ability to provide the knowledge and skills that all today's and tomorrow's businesses, government and professionals - architects, engineers, attorneys, business leaders, scientists, urban planners, policy analysts, cultural and spiritual leaders, health professionals, teachers, journalists, advocates, activists, and politicians - will need on a broad scale.  What we must do is make the seemingly impractical or impossible inevitable as we have done so many times in society - witness the elimination of many infectious diseases, modern medicine, space travel and improving human rights among many human achievements.  The unprecedented challenge we now face provides the greatest opportunity that higher education has ever had to demonstrate its crucial and ever-growing importance to society, especially in a time where higher education is under pressure because of accessibility and affordability issues.  If we don't who will?  It is not likely to be the government with its 2, 4 and 6 year election cycles, nor business with its focus on quarterly earnings.  It is we in higher education that must lead the way as we have in providing the education, research and community outreach which has made modern life possible to date.

Thank you, President Stanley for your vision, leadership and commitment and to the entire Oswego State and greater Oswego community for your commitment to creating a healthy, just and sustainable society for all current and future generations - it is deeply moving and inspiring.