Homo erectus, the first hominids theorized to leave Africa, existed for nearly one and a half million years before the emergence of our species. In spite of their survival for one hundred times that of our recorded history, excavations have turned up only a smattering of skeletons, amounting to less than a professional football team. Beyond their rudimentary tools and hunting practices, anthropologists can only speculate as to whether they shared in our ability to form deep, emotive bonds, or ponder the great questions of existence.
Our own fate is not unlike that of our ancestors. Each moment of our seven or eight decades of life will be solely contained within a set of fossils, if we are so lucky. There will be no truly lasting record of our storied accomplishments or material wealth. We are born only to be fleeting memories in the grand scheme of the universe.
Despite the inevitability of irrelevance, humanity holds vast influence over our planet and the life that occupies it. In the past 20 years, ecologists have recognized our time as the Anthropocene: the age of man, which along with significant advances in medical care and transportation has led to the sixth mass extinction and irreparable damage to our ecosystem. Though Homo sapiens have irrevocably solidified their place in Earth’s history, doing so has seemingly served to simultaneously promote our demise.
Of course, this is not news for the majority of seniors beginning the Great Job Search this fall. Most are no doubt aware of their individual contributions to climate change and the implicit ways in which they propagate social inequality. In response, some become vegan, take shorter showers, and use public transportation wherever available. Others denounce the evils of capitalism and advocate for radical economic change.
Still, in order to maintain or improve their quality of life, many students ultimately pine for high-paying positions at financial firms or consulting companies. The Career Center, once an imposing reminder of the crushing reality following graduation, will become a second home. The idealism held by many underclassmen will gradually transmute to a begrudging form of pragmatism once real-world responsibilities set in.
To be sure, obtaining a lucrative job is not a simple process. Students might spend months absorbing “Case in Point” before a succession of day-long interviews in which nearly every aspect of one’s college career is closely scrutinized. Maybe one has already devoted an entire summer, or longer, to working 60-hour weeks to later obtain a full-time offer on Wall Street.
Despite these additional hoops, rest assured that this path is the “Easy Way,” that which holds the least resistance. From the outset, your salary and myriad benefits insulate you from the effects of poverty and climate change. Rising sea levels or droughts are unlikely to displace your home and capricious policymakers will never dictate your health insurance status. The majority of your groceries will not come from corner stores nor will you go to bed hungry.
Indeed, this outcome is inevitable for anyone earning well above a living wage and should resemble, at least in part, a standard of living achieved by all in society. The issue lies instead with the inherent moral crisis of work that largely benefits the wealthy and does so to the detriment of the poorest in society. Worse still, it won’t always be immediately obvious when certain projects and clients perpetuate or further obfuscate systemic injustices.
As a graduate of Wesleyan, we hold a moral obligation to be conscious of the extent to which our communities hasten the pace of climate change or further societal inequity. Few have the good fortune to attend such an elite institution and receive instruction in subjects that remain inaccessible to billions of others. While our lived experiences greatly differ, particularly in the amount of institutional support and recognition received, all students obtain some level of intellectual wealth during their time at Wesleyan.
This richness, however, is not conferred in a vacuum; affixed to it is a great responsibility to use those tools to promote good in our world. Precisely because it is such a rare commodity, that intellectual prowess carries the moral imperative to embrace the Hard Way, declining careers that aim only to boost profit margins, and instead seek ways to better our education system, increase food security, or mitigate institutional discrimination.
Those who choose the Easy Way may justify their decision by noting the abundance of bright individuals already dedicating their lives to worthwhile causes. An additional set of hands, the logic goes, wouldn’t make a significant difference. A pledge to philanthropy in retirement and to conduct pro-bono work when time permits are similar attempts to realign one’s moral compass when the content of their work may feel less than savory.
Material wealth certainly allows one to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle, though it is perhaps so desired because affluence imparts a feeling of importance in society. The rich are firmly able to believe their time on Earth has not been fruitless, and that in the incredibly short period in which they have existed, they have mattered.
Resist this allure. The surest way you can make a lasting impact on this planet is ensuring you make no impact at all. One should endeavor to leave behind so few marks of one’s existence that no further organisms are impeded by our time here, that our malignant influence does not compromise the only known forms of life in our universe.
Above all, do not forget that you maintain autonomy in this matter. It is entirely up to you whether to saunter along the Easy Way or tread the Hard. In the enduring words of the Tao Te Ching, “A leader is best/When people barely know he exists/Of a good leader, who talks little,/When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,/They will say, “We did this ourselves.”
Ayres is a member of the class of 2017.