Remarks to the Class of 2021
by Keynote Speaker Ethan Brown ’94, the founder, president and CEO of Beyond Meat
Connecticut College’s 103rd Commencement
May 20, 2021
Thank you Katherine, and thank you Board of Trustees, for the opportunity to address the Connecticut College community today. Congratulations to the Class of 2021. You adapted and stayed focused during a very difficult period, my hat’s off to you.
You’ve received a truly first-rate liberal arts education at Connecticut College. I remember my courses here, from history to philosophy to economics, biology, and ecology….and that nagging feeling that I should actually be attending them….and how quickly that went away on a beautiful spring day like today (I’m kidding). There are so many qualities that recommend Connecticut College, including that if you graduated from here and live in California, as I do, and tell folks you played basketball at Conn College, at least half of them will think you are talking about Big East powerhouse UConn.
So much of what I work on today I was able to explore here given the school’s unwavering belief in a broad and deep liberal arts education. The words, teachings, and readings of Vogel, Burlingame, Green, Forester, Frazier, Neiring, Kirsmme, and other professors, stay with me today. It’s great to be back at our college on the hill.
I am going to first tell you how I wrestled with a question that would come to define my life and then my work. I do so not to convince you of my answer. Rather to ask you to seek your own personal truth as a foundation for your life.
Second, I’ll offer some key learnings that have helped me in life. Some came easier to me than others. In this advice, I hope to give you the benefit of my struggles and fulfillment so you might have more fulfillment and less struggles.
I grew up, like a lot of you and your parents, in a world where hierarchy and separateness explain the relationship to and among life on earth. The separation and ranking of life is so pervasive that our indoctrination in it as the natural order of things is hardly noticeable.
Like that rug in your parent’s home, it’s just there as we grow up, and we give little thought to its origin. The Great Chain of Being, rooted in Ancient Greek philosophy and furthered throughout the Middle Ages, is as good a place to start as any. Placing humans over other animal life, this general idea makes an enduring appearance as Dominion in the Book of Genesis. Not content with an elevated and ruling status over the rest of life on earth, throughout history we’ve sought to further segment human life itself, whether in the concepts of “chosen-ness” within religions of the world, including the Christian (my faith), and Jewish, and Muslim religions, or on the basis of race, gender, sexual preference, class, and so on and suchlike.
The Otherness Project, a description I use to describe this history of hierarchy and separation, our history, stands in stark contrast to the biological footing of life. Growing up and even now, I struggled with the sense of brotherhood I feel with life surrounding me and the conveniences and practices of my daily life. I grew up in a city divided by the color of skin and distribution of income, and live in one now. I cherished the animals in my home but ate those I didn’t know or see or hear, perhaps hoping that by some mysterious difference, say hoof to paw or mere distance, the latter didn’t feel pain or have an emotional life.
My efforts to address inconsistencies between inner thoughts and feelings, and my external actions, were themselves inconsistent. As a child, I was part of a generation that, as Dr. King dreamed of, played hand-in-hand across race as if it had always been that way, this through the conscious work of progressive educators and parents. Yet I actively benefited from the educational opportunities afforded to me, while these same opportunities were in the main not made available to my brothers and sisters of a different complexion.
As I got older I stopped eating certain types of animals, namely farmed animals, intermittently before doing so for good. My interaction with the animals on our farm outside the city made it clear what science would later reveal to me. Made from the same elemental material as us (that is, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, and so forth), using sensory and nervous systems that we once shared, and with the same DNA coding systems, animals were not machines but sentient beings, simultaneously an earlier and contemporary variation of me. Yet I still wore their skin. And I enjoyed fishing, hoping that somehow the nervous systems of the pickerel, trout, and mackerel that I caught were sufficiently different from the ancient aquatic life who broke the water line and crawled to shore, becoming the terrestrial animals I had decided not to eat. The lines were blurry in my mind. It turns out that the lines are blurred, and this is the main point. Later, the philosopher James Rachels helped me see why this is, noting that Darwin correctly observed that there are not absolute--but rather degrees—of difference among species, including us. Rachels summarized that Darwin stressed of animals “that in an important sense, their nervous systems, their behaviors, their cries, are our nervous systems, our behaviors, and our cries, with only a little modification.”
This takes me to a pickerel and a still summer morning. My father and I used to take the canoe early to a pond near our farm and watch the mist clear, beavers retire for the morning, and throw lines in. The entrance to the pond is an unmarked dirt road, and I rarely saw another person. This particular summer, I was in the middle of a teenage growth spurt. Long and bony like the pickerel I pulled from the water, I was short on confidence in many regards. I was mostly releasing the fish I caught at this point, but not always. On this day, I was fishing from a small wooden bridge at the pond’s modest dam, and a couple happened to be embarking in a boat. Seeing that I was releasing the fish, the man said they’d take him if I didn’t.
Anxiety set in. Not yet a man myself and fearing that I would be viewed as soft or sentimental, I agreed and handed the fish over. As is done, he ran a stick through the gill to carry the pickerel and walked toward his truck. I didn’t know at the time the fish had A-delta and C fibers in his cranial nerves that, like ours, signal pain. Nor did I know that he had the genetic underpinnings to sprout fingers but instead expressed fins for obvious reasons, or that hosting more cell cones in his optical system meant he could see colors more vividly than I could. But as I watched him struggle, twist, and fight I did know one thing with certainty: I would do the same to preserve my life.
My discomfort must have become obvious. The man said if I’d rather have the pickerel back, I could have him. I nervously said yes. After freeing him from the stick, I quickly returned his exhausted body to the warm surface water, where he tried to find balance as he filled his circulation with oxygen, gathered himself, and darted away. I won’t tell you that this experience changed me on the spot. It didn’t. As with innovation and claims of sudden insight, the story of the sudden revelation is often oversold. I was troubled by the experience but tumbled forward with ambiguity, a sense that what I’d learned thus far about the world in my 15 years was not how I felt about the world.
As I matured, including on this campus, I became less convinced that the world is simply as it is, and more committed to the idea that the world is as we make it, for better or worse. If The Otherness Project insisted on a narrow slice of life when deciding who matters, I searched for a vastly broader border. Ultimately, I found resonance in the writings of Albert Schweitzer. The physician, theologian, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize was admired by my grandfather, a Congregational minister who lived and practiced here in Connecticut, as well as being of great interest to my father. So I was familiar with him. In fact, a few years ago, in my father’s office in our house in the Maine woods, I was thumbing through my grandfather’s copy of Schweitzer’s Out of My Life and Thought.
I found, underlined, the very phrase that I had finally come to, earlier in my life, as I searched for answers: Reverence for Life. There, bookmarked and penciled by his hand, my grandfather--long since passed--was sharing it with me, in the event I had missed Schweitzer’s words:
“I am life that wills to live in the midst of life that wills to live…..Ethics thus consists in this, that I experience the necessity of practicing the same Reverence for Life toward all will-to-live, as toward my own.”
In this broadening of the golden rule, Schweitzer saw a universal ethic: seek to cherish, not check, maintain, not destroy, life. These thoughts came to him on the Ogowe River in West Africa and reached back into my childhood heart and gave it a coherent path of expression. Here was an ethic the boundaries of which traced the biological, not cultural, circumference of life. It is of course a truly impossible ethic to adhere fully to in a practical sense. It is, however, a powerful North Star to tilt your sail toward as you live among one another and the rest of the life on earth.
For years, I sought to apply this ethic—with messy imprecision and inconsistency that it requires—in its most direct sense only to my personal choices. As a professional, I felt safer in the world of clean technology, working to address climate change.
I was advancing in this career, had gotten married, and had small children. The life I had set up made sense. I was ambitious and could see myself leading a major enterprise in the energy sector. And truth be told, there was a strong element of needing to prove myself.
And there was fear. Not of failure, but of something stronger--how I might be perceived. At this point, the pioneers who blazed a path before me in the food world were chefs or hippies or both. I was neither, had put a lot of work into a conventional career path, and was sensitive to somehow ‘bailing.’ And, you see, I like people and enjoy making them feel comfortable around me, and feared being seen as judgmental of those I love, and that my career would suddenly be about questioning something so deeply ingrained in so many good things in our culture, from hot dogs at ballgames to the work of farmers I knew well, deeply respected, and still do.
Yet the passage of finite time has a way of summoning our truth. I believed—and believe--in a world where the diversity of life—of course ethnicity, gender, orientation, but also species—is to be maintained and cherished, not checked and destroyed. I was seeing way too much checking and destroying. As a child my discomfort at the pond was with speaking my truth. As an adult, as time moved on, it became the opposite. I was not letting my life speak.
I began to look at how to apply big science and technology, and robust budgets—what I had seen in my career—to something different altogether than solar or fuel cells: the challenge of delivering meat to a growing global population without the animal.
It turns out that the very feature that caused my childhood discomfort—the broad unity of life across species—was also the solution. I only needed to marinate long enough in the problem to see it. Reflecting the origin of life itself, basic materials and genetic code are shared not just among animals but also between plants and animals. Once you see this fact, it’s hard to unsee it. Just the other day, I was hiking above the Pacific coastline outside Los Angeles before work. From a distance, 10 or so feet ahead I see what is I think is an unremarkable collection of grey leaves scattered across the path. As I get closer, I realize it is in fact feathers of bird, who had likely been taken down as prey.
Why did my mind mislead me? In the dim light of dawn, I saw a familiar pattern— bilateral symmetry. The design and size of the left side of the object matched that of the right, as leaves can do. This is of course the same as a feather, and hence my mistake. One of plant origin, the other of animal origin, --same coding system, and common elemental materials.
It is this unity even across plants and animals, that makes Beyond Meat possible. Animal muscle is, at a high-level a collection of amino acids, lipids, trace minerals, vitamins, combined with water. All of these are also in plants. With technology, we no longer need to use the animal to consume plants and turn them into the meat that we love to eat.
As I explored the ideas that ultimately became Beyond Meat, something happened.
I came across research that made a compelling case that emissions from livestock was a greater contributor to greenhouse gases than fossil fuels for automotive use, the area where I had spent much of my career. With this, the animal meats served at various clean energy and climate conferences I attended with colleagues started to take on new significance for me. So you see, by bringing my whole self to my professional world, far from leaving the field of climate, I came anew to it with an even more powerful solution.
This was my journey; it need not be yours. I share it with you to reinforce the importance of the first of my 3 pieces of advice.
1. You decide who to be. Then go be it.
Believe endlessly in yourself. If you let them, people, even entire institutions, can assign limiting beliefs, or sometimes equally debilitating, graft expectations onto your life. By your age, you are likely carrying a mix of both around with you. It can be heavy freight to carry forward with you, and with time will only become heavier.
How do you shed this weight? Do the difficult and probing work of finding what is In your heart, and then allow your mind and life to serve it. Doing so connects you to the life force that is within you and can give you remarkable strength to overcome obstacles.
2. Face your fears early and often. Study and fight them. If you are anything like me, you will defeat some, and others you won’t. But at least you will know them as fears, where they come from, what motivates and feeds them, and in doing battle versus letting them unconsciously influence you, you’ve made progress.
Most of all, do not fear failure. And when you fail, do two things. One, look inward with that middle-of-the-night-in-the-bathroom-mirror-honesty and ask: what could I have done differently? Your nervous system is ready to listen, and the answers can inform habits and judgment for years to follow. Two, stay in forward motion. I have failed multiple times in my life, including on this campus. I came here so excited to play in the NESCAC. I never visited the campus, and the only staff or faculty I had spoken to was the basketball coach. Yet almost upon arrival, I experienced a cascading series of injuries mostly to my knee that had me on crutches for long stretches each season, and ultimately forced me to the sideline for good. But I stayed in forward motion, and I can't help but think that this challenge had something to do with me finding the corner desk in the Chapel basement library, leaving here a far more serious student than when I arrived.
3. Pitch a big tent. Despite my own journey, I count among my close friends and advisors avid anglers and hunters. The vast majority of my friends and family consume animal meat. I love, cherish, and respect them deeply. Celebrate your friends and loved ones for who they are, not how similar or conforming they are to you.
In closing, I want to share a quote that my father, to whom I am indebted for a lifetime of encouraging me to peer behind the curtain and seek to understand the world for myself, shared from a gift he gave me for my 21st birthday before I returned here to New London in the fall.
The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.
In Thoreau’s words, I find a plea that we awaken to the potential of our own being, that we seek truth versus blind acceptance of dogma and tradition, and that we always, always, live with a sense of forward possibility.
As you seek to awaken to your own potential and live a life of possibility, remember your starting point. We are a challenger institution. Our doors opened in 1911 to provide women with the rigorous higher education they were being denied elsewhere. We broadened the circle of who and what matters. When Professor of Botany, Richard Goodwin, saw a threat to biodiversity in the 1940s and early 1950s, he helped found The Nature Conservancy and twice served as its President, an organization that has now set aside 125 million acres for life to live on its own terms. We broadened the circle of who and what matters. Countless graduates have gone on from Connecticut College not to accept the world as it is, but to strive toward that which we can make it.
You are part of this challenger institution, and part of a generation that is marching, pushing, and demanding change. Keep challenging, keep broadening the circle of who and what matters, and free of limitation, reach deep into the beauty of your heart and fill the blank canvas that awaits you today with your own, special, story.