This Changes Nothing (Updated)

The Class of 2019, like every recent Amherst College class before it, is reading a book this summer to discuss among peers and professors once school starts. Last year’s book, Whistling Vivaldi, seemed an astute choice for an institution of Amherst College’s diverse makeup. Later, in the wake of #BlackLivesMatter and (sigh.mp3) #AllLivesMatter, my feeling was that the administration’s imperfect attempts to foster a campus-wide conversation about race were consistent with the values they were attempting to instill in my class, attempts that largely began with a book in the mail. The administration conveyed a few clear messages: Amherst wants to be an institution where everybody can succeed, Amherst will attempt to address the ways in which it is failing that mission, and Amherst students’ views, experiences, and grievances matter. For better or for worse, the Day of Dialogue came about as a direct result of the actions of Amherst College students – both the incredible organizers of Black Lives Matter: Awareness Week and the misguided individuals who put up #AllLivesMatter anti-abortion posters.

Let’s now consider the book assigned to the next generation of Amherst students, This Changes Everything. By many accounts, it is a powerhouse volume that clearly identifies climate change as the urgent social justice and environmental issue of our time, as well as urging anti-capitalism and a unification of leftist causes as means to avoid this crisis.

According to an interview with This Changes Everything author Naomi Klein in Dazed Digital, Klein believes that climate change has been the catalyst for abolishing communities’ perceived divide between the local and the global — more so than the internet or the growth of social media, more so than any other contemporary issues facing the world today. According to Klein, individuals’ deep love of place and the force and voice of activist communities coming together for the global good is going to change everything. Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The New York Review of Books, “Klein contends not just that emission trends can be turned around in time, but that pretty much everything else that’s wrong with society today—inequality, unemployment, the lack of access in large parts of the world to electricity or clean water or health care—can be righted in the process,” rightly calling This Changes Everything a “deeply optimistic” book—perfect fodder for young liberal arts minds entering a new era of learning, progress, hope, change. Except.

Except Amherst College has already demonstrated its non-commitment to the exact kind of radical initiatives Klein is advocating. In the same Dazed interview, Klein speaks specifically about the role of student activist groups in the fight against climate change,

One part of the divestment movement that I’m really excited about is the moral delegitimisation of the fossil fuel profits that is happening – that students and the faith groups who are making the argument that these are not legitimate profits to benefit from. You might get good returns from your Exxon stock but it is not acceptable to profit from a business that is betting against our future.

If her words sound familiar, it might be because this same argument was made by student activists pushing for divestment earlier this year. Students, led by the Green Amherst Project, urged the Board of Trustees to take a moral rather than an economic position in an upcoming vote to divest all future endowment funds from the dirty, reckless coal industry. A “yes” vote would be a vote of no confidence in the coal industry, making Amherst College a leader among peer institutions and asserting our community’s commitment to far-sighted and sustainable growth.

On Tuesday, February 24, the Board of Trustees officially announced “the unanimous approval of a statement on sustainability and investment,” or, in plainspeak, a “no” vote on the extremely popular student-led initiative to divest. Effectively, the Board ruled that it is indeed acceptable to profit from a business that is betting against our future, even when the people ostensibly reaping the rewards of that profit (current and future Amherst students) disagree.

While it would be a feat of extraordinary micro-management for the Board of Trustees to have a hand in choosing the book given to the freshman class, I’m left wondering: what would lead the DeMott committee, the group responsible for choosing the book, to actively encourage an open discussion of climate change (and the responsibility individuals and institutions have in stopping it) in the wake of a decision that proved unequivocally that Amherst will not be a leader in this movement? A decision that proved how a tangible measure supported by a large portion of the student body, propelled by exhaustive student organization and activism, could nonetheless be ignored from the top down? It’s a work of cognitive dissonance at best, and of deep cynicism at worst. What’s the point of opening up the conversation, instilling hope in a whole new class of Amherst students, when the Board of Trustees has already demonstrated that it is unwilling to take the steps necessary to fully address student concerns?

In writing this, I am not carelessly lumping together together the DeMott committee and the Board of Trustees in a wild conspiracy. I’m simply pointing out the broader context under which any discussion of climate change should be had on this campus in the near future.

My advice for the Class of 2019 is the following: read the book and sharpen your arguments. We’re going to need to get a whole lot louder to be heard.

Update: After the publication of this article, a member of the DeMott committee reached out to me on Facebook. We briefly discussed of this piece and, according to this member (who obviously cannot speak for the whole committee), the decision was, in fact, a deliberate attempt to continue the campus-wide conversation on divestment. Of course, this answers the question I posed in the above paragraphs re: what led the committee to choose this particular book. Writing this article was the first time I had heard about the committee – there is no public mission statement or information available online – and I hope you will all forgive me for not ascribing the best possible intentions to a rather obscure bureaucratic body. That said, I’m pleased to hear this book was picked for the best possible reason, to arm students with arguments in favor of divestment and to create a sense of urgency on campus in the wake of a disappointing defeat.

Update to the update: I was forwarded an e-mail that was sent to all DeMott committee members, and which contained the following information (also available if you ctrl+f ‘DeMott’ in this document):

The Benjamin DeMott Memorial Fund, established in 2005 by Alan P. Levenstein, Class of 1956, and other Amherst College alumni, friends, and family members, is a permanently endowed fund at Amherst College. Income from this Fund shall be used to provide funding for the Benjamin DeMott Memorial Lecture at Amherst College, which will take place annually as part of the Orientation of all first-year students at the beginning of the academic year. The Fund shall support honoraria, travel expenses, and other associated expenses. The DeMott Lecturer shall be a person who, like Professor DeMott, represents an engagement with the world marked by originality of thought coupled with direct social action, with special emphasis on intellectual participation in issues of social and economic inequality,racial and gender bias, and political activism.

This is a broad directive, and no official mention of the DeMott book is made. According to the committee member I spoke to, Dean Rick Lopez, who is in charge of orientation, could very well pick the book by himself. Instead, he created the committee to involve students in the decision. Book recommendations were solicited during the Spring semester and This Changes Everything was picked from a pool of about 25 titles.

I would love for the DeMott committee to publish a statement along with each year’s book selection with some background on why a book was picked and why it matters to the community at a specific point in time but I am also happy to speculate and provide context for them.