Our Campus: Naomi Klein wouldn’t be here without student activism

Naomi Klein has wanted to live in Vancouver full-time for a while now. So as her time at Rutgers University — where she was the 2018 -2021 inaugural Gloria Steinem Endowed chair — came to a close, she knew it was time to move to Vancouver.

Klein started at UBC as a professor of climate justice in September 2021.this September. Klein is responsible for designing UBC’s Centre for Climate Justice as well as teaching courses. She is teaching one graduate class this term but will take on larger undergrad classes next year.

But Klein wasn’t always focused on climate change; she got her start in activism centred on globalism and capitalism. She distinctly remembers her first protest. It was 1989, apartheid in South Africa had yet to end, Nelson Mandela was in jail and The University of Toronto (UofT) — where Klein was an undergraduate student — pension fund was still invested in South Africa. So when a group of students decided to occupy the president’s office, Klein was among them.

“Mandela was freed, and apartheid fell soon after. So I think I had a really rosy view of how effective activism is,” said Klein, laughing.

Apartheid wasn’t the only major issue while Klein was a student. The Ecole Polytechnique massacre happened when Klein was in her first year and the Scarborough rapist was active on campus during her time at UofT.

“We were scared. We were really, really scared, and we felt our university wasn’t protecting us,” said Klein.

So she wrote about it.

Klein spent much of her time at university writing for The Varsity, UofT’s official student newspaper. In 1991, she became The Varsity’s features editor and in 1992, took over as editor-in-chief of the paper.

“Student journalism did take me, I loved it. It was my university experience,” said Klein.

Klein left The Varsity before graduating and went straight to a job at The Globe and Mail. But by 1996, she decided to go back to UofT to finish her degree. She ended up leaving the university again to write her first book No Logo.

It was then that Klein began to focus on critiquing capitalism and globalization. Klein was aware of climate change, but it didn’t seem that interesting to her until she was forced to come face to face with the scale of the crisis in 2005.

When Klein was working on The Shock Doctrine, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Klein went down to help out and write about the situation. As she witnessed the aftermath of the hurricane, she realized that the climate crisis, globalization and capitalism are inherently connected.

While Hurricane Katrina “was an incredibly painful disaster,” those who had money, cars and insurance were largely okay.

“A lot of people came out better financially, and that happens often after disasters,” said Klein.

But those who couldn’t afford a car to leave the city or who couldn’t afford insurance lost everything. Watching this, Klein learned just how directly the climate crisis and capitalism were linked.

Klein took this lesson and has applied it to her work ever since.

UBC impressed Klein with its commitment to climate action. When she reached out to the university to see if there was space for her, the answer was ‘yes.’ “And the rest is history,” Klein said.

Klein credits student and faculty activists for pushing UBC to do the work it’s done.

“I don’t think the [Centre for Climate Justice] would exist without the work of student activists,” said Klein.

Recently, Klein talked to a group of student activists who haven’t been getting the turnout they would like. “I don’t find that surprising and I don’t think we should read it as a lack of interest,” said Klein.

Activism is hard, especially for an issue like the climate crisis where Klein believes societal change is necessary to deal with the impending impacts.

“I don’t think UBC students should feel demoralized. I think they should feel really proud of the fact that they’ve stuck up to their institution,” said Klein.

This article originally appeared in The Ubyssey's October 26 print issue.