Climate Change, the Anthropocene and Amherst's Commitment to the Neoliberal Arts

In 2004, I witnessed Hurricane Ivan, one of the most destructive tropical cyclones in recorded history. I was only a little kid when it hit. For almost two days the scene was apocalyptic: The sky was painted black while the winds screamed; houses were rocked to their very foundations because of unrelenting rain; the hurricane laid a myriad of seemingly immovable objects in the middle of the street; telephone poles, roofs, mango trees and stop signs were a few such objects whisked away like paper in a light breeze. I was 9 years old at the time, and I remember hiding under the bed in my room while the center of the Category 4 hurricane passed near Jamaica. For some reason I thought the mattress above would protect me from the winds if the roof were to be blown away. 

In two days, rainfall exceeded 35 inches and winds up to 133 mph ravaged the island. Steady electricity and water did not return to my house for two weeks. At most, we only had to repair a few broken windows and remove debris. Other people weren’t so fortunate. In the aftermath, looters came out in force, roaming neighborhoods in downtown Kingston, robbing emergency personal at gunpoint and stealing from local businesses. Times were not easy for the poor. Because of the sheer force of the storm, 18,000 people were left homeless and 17 people were killed.

In the weeks it took the country to recover, I recall the surroundings looking radically different. It was almost like I was in a different world. 

Ten years later, in the comfort and safety of my study abroad program in Japan, I almost forgot that experience. Then I saw on TV the aftermath of a massive snowstorm in Buffalo that brought almost 7 feet of snow in three days. Thirteen people died. Like Jamaica after Ivan, the images of Buffalo were almost alien: a sea of white and houses snowcapped like plateaus. This month, four major snowstorms have left much of Massachusetts transformed. Amherst College resembles a scene from the disaster film “The Day After Tomorrow.” My grim experience 10 years ago has followed me across the globe. Two clashing climates and landscapes were both brought to the brink. 

This month, White House press secretary Josh Earnest confirmed that President Obama believes climate change to be a greater threat to national security than terrorism. 

“The point that the president is making is that when you are talking about the direct, daily impact of these kinds of challenges on the daily lives of Americans, particularly Americans living in this country … more people are affected by those things than by terrorism,” Earnest said in a press briefing. President Obama is not alone. In 2013, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, commander of the United States Pacific Command, told policy specialists in Cambridge, Massachusetts that global climate change was the greatest threat the United States faced — more dangerous than terrorism, anti-vaxxers and nuclear missiles. Increased temperatures, rising seas and unstable climate “is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen … that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about,” he said. Researchers from the University of Hawaii have predicted that by 2047, if no progress is made in curbing emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, over 54,000 locations will leave behind climates from the 19th century to now. Kingston, Jamaica, the place that I’ve called home my entire life, will reach that point of no return by 2023 — eight years from now.
James Hansen, formerly with NASA, has argued that we face an “apocalyptic” future. Researchers worldwide, including Anders Levermann, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Lonnie Thompson and a myriad of others, second this view. Roy Scranton in The New York Times writes, “This chorus of Jeremiahs predicts a radically transformed global climate forcing widespread upheaval — not possibly, not potentially, but inevitably. We have passed the point of no return. From the point of view of policy experts, climate scientists and national security officials, the question is no longer whether global warming exists or how we might stop it, but how we are going to deal with it.”

The word for this new age is “Anthropocene.” It denotes this new era in the planet’s history where human beings are capable of being a force of nature. The greatest challenge in this age, Scranton posits, is a rapidly changing sense of what it means to be human. In 100 years, seas will be 3 to 10 feet higher and crop and water shortages will cause dramatic changes to human populations. If human beings survive this world, it will be significantly different from even the apocalyptic one that we currently inhabit. Instead of assuming everlasting genetic continuity, in this new world human beings as a species will need to cope with death.

It is no accident that the Anthropocene, this age of imminent destruction, coincides with the neoliberal era. In neoliberalism, the past, present and future converge, creating a single moment that denies temporality. In this age, we assume things will always be the same. We assume a never-ending present, an unfathomable future and a past that should have been. But as the carrying capacity of this planet proves itself incompatible with this mode of existence that assumes the shape of infinity (whether it be infinite resources on earth or the idea that infinite time and labor can produce infinite resources), we forget that time actually continues to march forward, leaving places like my home under threat. Amherst needs to be held to task for its economic investment in the destruction of our planet and so do each of us individually. 

The very (neo)liberal arts that teach a spatial separation between this college and issues such as climate change and systemic discrimination (racism, sexism, etc.) are the same ones that assume a personal separation from these issues. Amherst, and each of us by association, is just as culpable in these forces as the climate change denier, the economics “expert” or the overt bigot. Our guilt is discernible in the institutions we may invest in (institutions that may have explicit connections to fossil fuels or implicit ties to the U.S. prison-industrial complex). As long as we continue to distance ourselves individually and collectively from these issues, our commitment to produce “lives of consequence” means very little.

The recent decision of the board of trustees not to endorse divestment of the endowment from fossil fuels marks where the college stands in its commitment to the liberal arts mission. The liberal arts mission concerns itself with offering a broad array of courses to ensure that students are sufficiently critical and socially responsible. This mission, in specific terms at the college, is to educate “men and women of exceptional potential from all backgrounds so that they may seek, value and advance knowledge, engage the world around them and lead principled lives of consequence.” I question this mission when Amherst chooses to ignore the evidence in plain sight when my home, and the planet, is at stake. I claim that this decision to continue investing into Earth’s demise represents something altogether different: It is a commitment to the march of global capital, a dedication to modes of (non)thinking that transform education to mere business and bureaucracy and a systematic short-sightedness that preserves the status quo, a faux liberality, a neoliberal arts.