Climate Advocate Ready to Walk the World
Issue   |   Thu, 05/19/2016 - 19:38
Ben Walker '16
Walker has fought tirelessly for the college’s divestment from fossil fuels as coordinator for the Amherst Divestment Club.

Most students recognize Ben Walker for his campus activism surrounding divestment, or for his many accolades — the most recent being the prestigious Watson Fellowship and his honors law, jurisprudence and social thought thesis. Despite his accomplishments, in person Walker is refreshingly down-to-earth.

Professor Geoffrey Sanborn, who taught Walker in two classes, said he “loved the kind of warm, open, curious presence that [Ben] brings to the room.” He added: “His seriousness is never far from his playfulness, and he’s just basically a huge pleasure to be around.”

While playful, Walker also has a depth and care about him that his friends value. Walker’s friend Athri Ranganathan ’16 said, “His words and actions are always considered and impactful — Ben doesn’t take false steps. You couldn’t ask more of a writer, thinker, and worker. He leads by example in a way few others do, especially in our college, at our age.”

Another friend of Walker’s, Bryan Doniger ’18, said Walker was a role model for “how to do serious, sustained academic work, for how to navigate through this campus without the benefit of a sports team or otherwise institutionally-sanctioned friend group.”

Whether he’s talking about climate change or communities at Amherst, Walker always returns to the theme of caring. When talking about fighting climate change, he focused on the empathetic act of caring for a common cause and a thoughtful deliberation of choices and their impact on the world itself and the global community.

The Evolution of Home
The concept of home is important to Walker and he incorporated this theme into both his thesis and Watson project. His attachment to where he is from shapes the causes he cares about. Walker hails from Plymouth Meeting, a suburb of Philadelphia that was originally settled by Quakers in the early 18th century. Now, numerous interstate highways intersect at the location. Walker recounted how it used to be all farmland, with old Quaker buildings smack dab in the middle.

Walker was attracted to Amherst because he saw it as an institution going through exciting changes. A friend he respected, an immigrant from Brooklyn, decided to attend Amherst some years before him, so Walker gave the school an especially careful look.

He quickly formed an attachment to the Pioneer Valley, loving the outdoor environment, which he got to know well through his training on the trails for a marathon during his sophomore year. Having volunteered on the farm, his favorite place on campus is the Book & Plow Farm’s greenhouse. “Cool people, cool tunes, delicious vegetables … what more could you want?” he said.

He acknowledged that the college has its flaws: “It can be overwhelming with its intense academic workload and uncomfortable at times if you are not wealthy and white,” he said. But ultimately he is grateful for his time at Amherst — thankful for the friends he has made here and the people he has surrounded himself with.

When asked what he was most proud of doing at Amherst, he responded, “I am really proud of small communities you can be a part of that took me in and said I had a chance to shape something, do interesting things.” He talked about the community at Marsh House, where he lived junior year: “They are all so kind. I felt proud to live there.”

This is so representative of Walker’s character; instead of talking about his accomplishments (this interview was all about him, after all) he deflected praise and instead spoke about others. Walker found that the relationships formed in this community make Amherst what it is. Just by sitting down with him for an hour, it’s evident he has a different way of seeing the world than most, and has a mature perspective on what makes life meaningful.

When asked what he would want to change about his time at Amherst, he said he would liked to have placed more trust in himself earlier on. When you first arrive at Amherst it’s easy to be taken aback by how talented other students are, Walker noted, saying that at times he felt he often had a different way of thinking than many others at the college. Over time, he has come to see that as a strength rather than a weakness.

Advocating for Those Lacking a Voice
Walker’s focus on the threads that connect people eventually led him to become a leading campus activist on issues related to climate change and divestment from fossil fuels. He worked for two summers in New York, first at the Long Island Civic Engagement Table the summer after his sophomore year and then at Make the Road NY. Both organizations focus on advocating for and improving the lives of working class communities of color.

The first day on the job at the Long Island Civic Engagement Table was transformative, and made Walker start thinking about the way climate change affects disempowered groups. It was a few years after Hurricane Sandy had hit, which particularly impacted the already under-funded neighborhoods with poor infrastructure. Many Latino and African American communities on Long Island were still recovering. On his first day, he went to a community center that housed a summer camp, community park and pool, in a small town in Long Island. A contractor from a wealthy white neighborhood had dumped infected waste there, making people sick, and those working to clean it up also got sick. Walker described this as a “light bulb moment” when everything came together.

“Climate change isn’t just about polar bears and glaciers; it affects people, often the most disempowered,” Walker said.

At this job he learned a set of skills he could take back to Amherst to use to push the college to divest from fossil fuels. After seeing firsthand the politics of power that underlie climate issues and how they affect real people at an individual and community level, Walker began to fully appreciate the importance of working against climate change from a higher level. “If climate change is about power, then changing our light bulbs is not going to do much,” Walker explained.

This prompted him to get much more involved as a divestment coordinator for the Amherst divestment club during his junior year. Ben described his role as a combination of a cheerleader and horse master — he encouraged everyone to come up with ideas and then corralled forces to get the job done.

He continued to think about climate change his senior year, only through a different outlet. An LJST major who admitted being much more interested in the “ST” than the “LJ,” his goal for his thesis was to find a more nuanced way to think about the future of climate change.

His responses throughout the interview were always thoughtful, yet they vacillated between being extremely well-spoken, to philosophical, to casual and laidback.

“Climate change is this problem of enormous scope and really daunting scale, in the sense that if affects everything,” Walker said. “It exists on scales of time that move past human understanding … which is a pretentious way of saying it’s gonna happen for a really long time.”

His thesis centered on the “criminally understudied” French philosopher Michel Serres’ work on climate change. Serres “models a way of thinking about the problem that is cautious and modest and still caring,” Walker said. “He cares very much about what will happen to people, but he is also hesitant to say with any certainty what will happen. And that way of thinking about a problem so daunting as climate change seems very valuable.”

Walking the World, Leaving Soft Footprints
Focusing on the individual-level human aspect of climate change became central to Walker’s plans for the year of his Watson Fellowship. The Watson Fellowship allows students to travel the world while working on a project of their choosing. Walker’s project will focus on climate displacement, and Walker will make a podcast on the stories of individuals and their changing relation to the concept of home. Walker found that his past experiences working with immigrants in the United States and climate change were very much related.

“There are all these tiny perceptual experiences with climate changes that aren’t captured when it’s reduced to a big-picture problem,” Walker said. “I’m interested in how people who are forced from their local homes think of themselves as part of a global home, living in this global community.”

He will travel to Kiribati, Fiji, India, South Africa and Bolivia and speak with activists, farmers, policy makers and people living in slums, among others. Walker wants to hear the personal stories behind choices to move and to form an understanding on a local level in personal terms.

“Even if people aren’t scientists they do understand what climate change is — they just don’t understand it in terms of climate change or global warming,” Walker said. “A farmer working his field knows what is happening to it on his own terms and that is just as valuable as the work of a climate scientist I think. Particularly because those views on the issue aren’t represented at all on the internationals stage where those things are being decided.”

Moving Forward
When asked about his plans after the Watson, he smiled, shrugged and said, “Who is to say?” This isn’t to say he didn’t have any ideas — he would consider applying to other fellowships, going back home and working with a Quaker volunteer service or working on trails.

“At the end of the day, I’d say that Ben’s a good guy,” Ranganathan said. “A guy who can do solid impersonations of American accents, from Philadelphia street vendors to Southern writers; a guy who’s good at loving (so I am told) and has a strong moral compass and follows it … if you haven’t known him now, you’ll wish you had in a few years.”