Commencement remarks by Caroline A. Jones

Delivered at the SA+P Advanced Degree Ceremony — May 30, 2024


It is truly powerful to have reached this moment with you all, to bask in your justified pride, and to celebrate along with your families and friends. It has been a tough year in a string of tough years—yet that has forged in you the resilience that brought you to this moment. Like the well-known film Powers of Ten by designers Charles and Ray Eamesyou found a way to scale your research from the smallest instance of a problem to the largest possible solution. While you’re sitting for a few more moments, take that scalar gift and imagine yourselves with a new title. Yes, you are masters and doctors—but you are also geo-nauts—navigators and crafters of this beautiful planet.

Yes, some of you might, in fact, also be astro-nauts. But I want to summon the geobiosphere of this planet for a moment, bringing us to imagine its terraforming by life itself. Sure, it took a while to get going, as chemicals found ways of linking up in primordial waters, energized by the sun, beginning to organize themselves into what we now call life. Novel forms of carbon and biological ways of fixing calcium into shells and diatoms were early steps in crafting an ecosystem, leaving their mineral deposits over 3.7 billion years, discovering how to creep out of the ocean, innovating lignin to lift light-cupping chlorophyll up toward the sun. Life crafted itself a habitat, accelerating toward the present. As science writer Ferris Jabr puts it: “Life breathed oxygen into the atmosphere, dyed the sky blue, concocted the modern oceans, and converted barren crust into fertile soil [becoming] a critical component of our planet’s capacity to regulate its climate and maintain balance.”[1]

What does this science lesson have to do with you? Your fields of architecture and planning and media—and certainly real estate—are uniquely aimed at training you in methods to shape our oikos, or home, through physical alterations and social thought, with ethics and care. I’m thinking about how you can commence the next phase of your careers with that Greek root oikos in mind, summoning your brilliant capacities to bridge the “econ” deployment of that root with its gentler, more compassionate “ecological” interpretation. “Econ” places folks at the pinnacle of extractive utility. “Ecos” leaves us aware of our role as symbionts and participants in reciprocal relations. On this oasis in space, we humans are utterly dependent on the thriving of all diverse forms of life, even as we wage wars of all kinds against the “with living” reality that the word symbiosisactually means.

Last year at this event, I wielded a cane and made jokes about my prop. I had been rushing down some stairs, in a tizzy of forethought—otherwise known as plans. What lies between forethought and afterthought, plans and regrets? Perhaps we can capture this state of equipoise as “commencement,” the state of beginning.

You are in this state, you geo-nauts—beautifully poised between all the forethought you brought to your education and all the after-thinking you did to learn from your time at MIT. Take this wonderful punctum between apogee and perigee simply to celebrate where you are on this planet orbiting the sun. Let the after- and fore-thoughts flow into a calm sea of pasts and possibilities that are there to buoy you, right here and now. Like the mindful steps I now try to take at every stair tread, plan to be present to the place and time you are in, even as you sail forth.

The work needed in our oikos is pressing, but the energy we bring to it comes from the Earth itself. It’s all around you. Attending to birdsong, crickets, breathing, kombucha; watching the moon; eating what condenses the sun’s energy—whatever life-form enters your domus, and whatever feeds you, celebrate its origins. Supporting you as you wage peace, build sustainably, cultivate compassion for yourself and others, make space for your own thriving and that of our more-than-human companions—your breathing and attentiveness will be ready to accompany you in your geo-naut journey. We’ll be here to cheer you on.

It has been a great privilege to learn from you and with you on your adventures in the School of Architecture and Planning—be here now, commencing.


1. Ferris Jabr, Becoming Earth: How Our Planet Came to Life (New York: Penguin Random House, 2024).

Caroline A. Jones is Associate Dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning. An art historian, she teaches in the History, Theory, and Criticism program of the Department of Architecture. She was a curator (with Natalie Bell and Selby Nimrod, with research assistance by Krista Alba) of the recent MIT List Visual Arts Center exhibition “Symbionts: Contemporary Artists and the Biosphere”; an exhibition catalog was published by MIT Press. This project brought together international artists whose work “prompts us to reexamine our human relationships to the planet’s biosphere through the lens of symbiosis, or ‘with living.’”

Photo: Mim Adkins