Naomi Klein Visit Draws Focus to Divestment Movement
Issue   |   Wed, 10/07/2015 - 01:51

Naomi Klein, the author of “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate,” addressed the Amherst community at the annual DeMott Lecture on Wednesday, Sept. 30. Her book was this year’s required reading for incoming first-year and transfer students. After the event, Divest Amherst held a rally to urge the college’s board of trustees to divest from all fossil fuel industries.

In “This Changes Everything,” published in fall 2014, Klein argues that the effects of capitalism on the environment will lead to a less habitable and increasingly inequitable planet. “There is still time to avoid catastrophic warming, but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed,” Klein argues. “Which is surely is the best argument there has ever been for changing those rules.”

Klein opened the event by saying that she hoped her book would have the potential to catalyze social change. “I am really excited to see what the class that has read this book chooses to do, and what social issues they mobilize around,” Klein said.

After a brief reading, Klein expanded on her thesis, and discussed what she described as a conflict between an “ideology of growth that has our politicians in its grips, and a need to do something radical about climate change.”

Klein also addressed what she perceived as previous failures of the environmental movement. She said that environmental activists fall into the trap of arguing that climate change is the most pressing issue and should therefore be prioritized above all other unresolved problems. “This misses the point that we should see climate change as an accelerant and facilitator of other important social changes,” Klein said. “When you are choosing temperature guidelines, you are literally choosing which countries will survive. For places like Africa, a two Celsius degree increase would be nothing short of a death sentence.”

Klein also discussed some of the environmental movement’s recent successes. She pointed to Germany, where citizens are now obtaining 30 percent of their energy from renewable sources. Klein argued that this could not have been achieved had it not been for a major restructuring of the economy.

“In Germany, they have broken some of the rules of this neoliberal ideology, and there has been a movement there for private towns and governments to take back their energy from the big companies,” Klein said. “This is what we need. It’s not that we need a post-growth economy, but rather we must change the parts of our economy that are going to grow.”

Before concluding the talk, Klein characterized activism and grassroots movements as important catalysts for positive change in the environment.

Leaders of the student group Divest Amherst held a rally following the event and called for the college to divest its endowment from fossil fuels.

Last academic year, the Green Amherst Project asked the board of trustees to divest from the coal industry. The board eventually responded with a “Statement on Sustainability and Investment Policy,” which it released on Feb. 24. The statement expressed the board’s desire to achieve a carbon-neutral footprint on campus. But the board wrote that it “does not endorse divestment of the endowment from fossil fuels.” Although the board’s statement did not directly address arguments against divestment, critics of the divestment movement contend that divesting would have little impact on the fossil fuel industry, and that colleges should focus on other ways of fighting climate change.

This year, the newly formed Divest Amherst has escalated the Green Amherst Project’s previous demand and is now urging the college to divest from all fossil fuel industries.

“Amherst is an institution that wants to prepare for the future, but by investing in industries that are harming our future, Amherst contradicts its fundamental mission,” said Ben Walker ’16, a Green Amherst Project and Divest Amherst member.

“If the board is so worried about us living lives of consequences, they should consider the consequences of their actions here and now.”

Walker said the group decided to be more forceful with its demand after the board released its statement in February. “We have kept our campaign contained up to now,” Walker said. “We thought that by working with the board, we would be likely to win, but what’s clear is that we have to use different tactics and make a more public commitment to the board.”