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Sierra Club president to NCCC grads: See government as a wetland

May 16, 2017
By CHRIS KNIGHT - For the News ( , Lake Placid News

SARANAC LAKE - The president of the Sierra Club asked North Country Community College's Class of 2017 to help restore the diversity of the swamp, not drain it, during a commencement address Saturday, May 13.

Standing before a gymnasium packed with 300 graduates, their family and college faculty, Aaron Mair acknowledged that some people believe the country's democratic institutions are a swamp that needs to be drained.

In the world of business and industry, Mair noted, a swamp is land of little value that should be filled in for the benefit of humanity. But a swamp is made up of complex and diverse wetlands, he said.

Article Photos

Sierra Club President Aaron Mair delivers the commencement address at North Country Community College Saturday, May 13.
(News photo — Chris Knight)

"When you think of our government as a wetland," Mair said, "the issue is not such much draining it, but how do we restore the diversity of the ecosystems that are there so that it can once again can pass legislation to clean the air, water and soil, so it's left in a better and thriving condition for future generations."

Mair is the Sierra Club's 57th president and its first African-American president. He became a Sierra Club member in 1999, following a decade-long battle that he led to shut down a solid waste incinerator in an inner-city community in Albany. His efforts ultimately led to a commitment by the state to shut down the facility and a $1.6 million settlement award to that community. Mair was also a figure in the fight to clean up toxic PCB sediments from the Upper Hudson River, and he's been involved in efforts to promote diversity in the Adirondack Park.

At the outset of his remarks Saturday, Mair promised to deliver what he called a "very partisan" speech, saying it was necessary "because we're at a crisis with our planet with regards to the effects of anthropogenic climate change.

"I've sided with the planet," Mair said. "I want you to understand that there's no such thing as a Republican environment. There's no such thing as a Democrat environment, a white environment, a black environment. ... There is just the environment. It is that common place and space that, depending on our stewardship, we are able to preserve not only our lives, not only humanity but all species."

Mair acknowledged that some people question the validity of climate science and its impacts, but he said, "We cannot afford to be ignorant, blind or let stand arguments that try to push back the data and the evidence."

He called on the college's graduates to be the next generation of stewards of the planet, be active citizens and help transform the country's economy by focusing on clean technology.

"Jobs for jobs' sake is unsustainable," Mair said. "But jobs that build on our humanity, that build for the next generation and the next seven generations are the calling for this education.

"It is up to you, as the Class of 2017, to rise to these challenges and restore, not a swamp, but restore our national, cultural and institutional wetlands to reflect the beauty and diversity and sustainability of all of us in the wake of this global crisis."

Earlier in the ceremony, college President Steve Tyrell congratulated the graduates for their accomplishments.

"This is a special day for you," he said. "It represents a new educational credential earned and the next step in your discovery in life. We're so very proud of you, and we know you'll do great things as you journey down your path in life."

Before handing out degrees and certificates to the graduates, Tyrell announced a series of awards, including the SUNY Chancellor Awards for Student Excellence, which went to Alexandria Elliott and Marcus Johnson. Two faculty members were also recognized. Nursing professor Michael Shepard received Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching. The Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Faculty Service went to Tina Lamour, an assistant professor of art.

This was the college's 49th commencement ceremony. Next year will be its 50th. To mark the occasion, a series of anniversary events are planned starting in the fall, including the first induction into a new Athletics Hall of Fame and an alumni reunion.



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