Jeff Wolfe Receives Laverack Award

Jeff Wolfe receives Laverack Award for linking Climate with Human Rights


Read his acceptance speech

This is quite an honor. Thank you Headmaster Williamson, thank you Persis Laverack, thank you to the Alumni Association, and thank you to all who make Applewild School what it is today.

This is not the first award I have received in my life. However, this is the only award given to me for what I might call my thesis of life, the core motivations that get me up in the morning and inspire me. The award says it is given to an alumnus who has worked on a cause. So what is my cause?

Well, it’s like many relationships on Facebook, “It’s complicated”!

My last career (I’m creating a new one right now) was in building solar electricity systems for homes, schools and businesses, like the one on the new dining hall. I got into it because I knew that pollution from fossil fuel was damaging our environment, and that there had to be a better way to power the world. My first exploration in solar was when I was 13, after 8th grade, and I built my first solar collector. It did not work. But that didn’t stop me. It took another 25 years, but I started a career in solar energy in 1998.  At that time all the solar electric systems in the US could have powered only 2 or 3 thousands homes, less than a single big solar array today. But I got into solar to power the entire world. That was a big goal!

Today, we make most of our electricity by burning fossil fuels, like oil, natural gas, and coal. But burning them is responsible for a lot of the carbon that is going into the atmosphere creating climate change. It also makes a lot of the other pollution that goes into the air and causes billions of dollars of health problems, like asthma. I did not really understand this when I started in solar energy. I got into solar energy because I thought we could make energy locally, with less pollution. I did not understand how serious climate change is. Some people still do not understand the seriousness. There are a lot of people who are purposefully confusing the issue, spreading false information about climate change and how it works. These few people spend a lot of money to confuse a lot of people.

I’m from Vermont. A former Governor of Vermont made a speech. He said that Vermont is a small state, and that what Vermont does about climate change does not matter. That was his excuse to do nothing. But I thought, gee, I matter, what I do matters. I decided we should really push solar energy to try to make a difference. I was already working on new laws and regulations to get more solar installed. And I was working on national laws too. Well, Vermont is now a national leader in solar energy, and part of the company I founded is part of the largest solar installation company in the US. I guess I made quite a difference, and helped Vermont make quite a difference. A lot of people around the country think that what Vermont did, what I did, mattered. Even if you are small, what you do can matter if you work hard at it. Sometimes people will tell you that you can’t make a difference, that what you do does not matter. Those are not people you should respect or follow. You matter. What you do matters.

So my first message to you is to think big. If you have the passion, you can make things come true that many people might say can’t be done, just like I did. And I’m not done yet.

I am motivated, day and night, by the reality of climate change. We have proven that we are changing the atmosphere and changing our climate, and that is a bad thing for everyone. In 2012 I left my job at groSolar, the company I started with my wife, Dori, because I felt I had done everything I could do there. Not only did I need a new challenge, the world needed me to take on a new task in our fight for the climate. One thing I have done is I co-founded a transformational Symposium called Our Children, Climate, Faith, where we have highlighted the connections between all religions and spirituality and their professed belief in combating social injustice and protecting children. Climate change is now the biggest creator of social injustice in the world, creating droughts, storms, migrations, and wars. So, if you follow that path, then people of faith and spirituality must be called to struggle to change this reality, and work to stop climate change.

The symposium I helped to create is part of a broader awakening. Up to now we have had people who were protesting and battling climate change. And other people protesting and battling for social justice of all kinds, civil rights for gay, lesbian, and transgender people as well as people of all colors, shapes and sizes. And yet other people are battling for livable wages, healthcare, and real democracy.

But suddenly, and this is just in the last 6 months, many people have come to understand that ALL of those issues are the same. Climate change is about human rights. Social justice is about human rights. Civil rights, healthcare, livable wages, democracy, are all about human rights. So, I have become a human rights activist. I do that by fighting for laws and technology to stop climate change, but I am coming to understand my work in a new way. I used to try to ignore the other issues, because, it’s complicated! But it’s more complicated when you try to ignore everything. Keep your eyes open, keep your brains working, and make connections.

A few minutes ago I said that I wanted to power the entire world with solar energy. And now I’m telling you I want to fix all of society’s problems, in addition to providing all the energy the world needs. Think Big

But that is not what I came here to talk about.

Cutting and splitting wood, and birdcages. That’s what I came to talk about.

I cut, split and stacked 14 cords of wood this summer. I had never done that before. How many of you have ever split wood? When I started, I was scared. I did not think I could do it. But then, with a little help from my brother Andy, I started. And I kept at it all summer. To split 14 cords of wood, I had to pick up over 150 tons, that’s over 300,000 pounds. How did I pick up 300,000 pounds? A little at a time! Each lifting of my 8 pound splitting maul, 15,000 times. Each movement of a piece of unsplit, and then split, wood. The only reason I could finish was because I started. But too few people start. Be a starter. It’s more fun.

Bird cages. I did not make a bird cage, but I’ve been in one. Not a real one, an imaginary one. A bird cage is a nice place to be. It is safe and food gets delivered every day. In a good bird cage there is plenty of room to stretch your wings, even to fly.

The bird cage is a metaphor for a secure, unchallenged path in life.

But sometimes birds grow, and then the bird does not have the same freedom of movement, it keeps on banging into the cage walls, hitting its head. Suddenly the unchallenging path in life does not let you do the things that you know you must do, or want to do. I’ve had that happen several times in my life, where my cage was no longer big enough for me. The last time was when I decided to leave my company. The cage of groSolar had been very good for me. I built the cage myself! But it became too small. And I needed to figure out how to get out of the cage.

Funny thing about the bird cages that we each live in. The door is always open. You can always just walk out of the cage. There is only one problem. You cannot see the ground when you walk out the cage door. And that is scary. Some people choose to live in cages that are way too small for them, because they are so scared of leaving the cage. You might find yourself in that situation someday, maybe after high school or college or after a few years at your first job, or maybe even now. And I just want you to remember, the door to your cage is open. If you ever get to the point where you need to expand yourself, remember you can leave the cage, you can change your path. If you ever say to yourself, “if only I could…” Know that you can. And to be fully developed, to be fully human, to be all that Applewild helps you to be, you must leave the cage. You must sometimes take the uncomfortable, unknown, or different path in life.

So I leave you with these thoughts.

  • Have passion. It makes doing whatever you are doing worthwhile.
  • Take on impossible challenges. It is the only way to change the world, and the world needs changing.
  • Believe in yourself. If anyone can do what you want to do, you can do it. And if you fail, it is only temporary, only a step on the path.
  • Love each other, and love the world.

Thank you Applewild, for providing a sustaining cage, and many open doorways for me, and for all these children past, present and hopefully long into the future.