Cheers! Dr. Woody Harrelson talks up the environment

A nervous Woody Harrelson admitted to those present at York’s 2009 Fall Convocation ceremony on Saturday, Oct. 17, that public speaking was not his strong point. As an actor who delivers other people’s words for a living, he confessed that writing and delivering his own convocation address had kept him up at night.

Harrelson interrupted a busy promotional tour for his most recent movie, Zombieland, to come to Toronto to accept an honorary doctorate of laws from the University. "This means more to me than any other award or accolade I’ve received," said the star who won an Emmy for his work on the 1980s sitcom "Cheers" and an Academy Award nomination for The People vs. Larry Flynt. He flew into Toronto on Friday night, spent some time with York students, and treated them to an exclusive preview of his next movie, Defendor.

On Saturday, Harrelson proved to those present that it is cool to be ethical. In his soft-spoken Texas drawl, he spoke of his concern for the environment, fear of public speaking and respect for the University and its environmental initiatives."I will be honest, my initial reaction when told about this honour was one of intense suspicion," he said. "I thought surely they have the wrong person. When I did realize that the Faculty of Environmental Studies was nominating me for this honorary degree, I was deeply grateful because this is one of the finest faculties in the world.

Right: Woody Harrelson, LLD

"Once I realized that this was all legitimate, I had to deal with my fear of public speaking. [Jerry] Seinfeld once said that people have two fears, the first is public speaking, and the second is death. So at a funeral, it is better to be the one in the casket than to be the person delivering the eulogy."

He spoke about his recent visit to a Jewish community centre in New York City. There he met a rabbi. They talked of the rabbi’s most recent sermon. "He told me that God, when he created the universe, he first created the Earth before he created the mammals, he created the ocean before he created the fish, he created the sky before he created birds and the rabbi asked me ‘Do you know why?’ I said ‘Is it because everything needs its space?’. He said to me, ‘That is exactly right, everything needs its space’."

The sermon, said Harrelson, could be applied to all kinds of areas of one’s life. "I met a woman in Costa Rica who was an amazing gardener. I asked her what her secret was, and she told me ‘I always leave a space for the wild things. I thought it was a great idea because you don’t see that kind of thing in the totalitarian agriculture that we have going these days," said Harrelson.

"I think this is one of the big problems in today’s world. We are not leaving any space for the wild things and it doesn’t seem like we have any consideration for Mother Nature. In fact, it seems like we have made the decision that Mother Nature is just a resource for us to use – a way to make money," he said. "I believe the Picasso quote that nature is God’s art."

Expressing disgust with large industry and practices such as mountain top removal and the Alberta tar sands, which Harrelson said were the result of collusion between big business and government, he added: "I like to call them the beasts and the collusion between industry and government makes me crazy."

He started to look at his own footprint and responsibility to the environment. He adopted a lifestyle based on simple organic living, became an ethical vegan and looked for ways to reduce his footprint. "I started to look at my relationship to everything and what my footprint was in the world," he said. "The clothes I wear are created from organic cotton, hemp and flax. Where I live, all of the needs for the house are taken care of by solar energy and I drive a bio-fuel car.

"I like to see innovative things that others are doing. York University is involved with the construction of a subway that will remove 1,700 buses from campus. I look at it not as if we can change everything today, but that we can evolve," he said.

"I am psyched about how sustainable York University is," he said, citing the University’s seven LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certified buildings and its recent high ranking in a sustainability report on US and Canadian universities, the College Sustainability Report Card.

To close, he offered a few words of advice to the graduating class:

"Appreciate your friends like they won’t be around one day because one day, you will be right and they will be gone, or you will be gone, so appreciate yourself too. My kids taught me that play is everything and the next one is obvious, work is not everything. Most people say that success begets happiness but actually, happiness is success.

"It took me a long time to realize that our government is a bunch of businessmen working for bigger businessmen. Oil is only the second biggest industry because war is the first.

"Think of your life as a canvas, you as the brush and love as the paint. Paint something beautiful every day. Do not be dazzled by the things of the world. The happiest folks I met have had the least. So give away as much as you can and be happy.

"Lastly, never take advice from a confirmed slacker."

To watch archived video of convocation ceremonies, click here. This speech is part of Ceremony No. 3.

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor