Leading the charge for change

Alumna Amita Kuttner, a current graduate student in the Physics Department, is running as a Green Party candidate for a seat in Canada’s House of Commons in order to make policy around climate change—a quest sparked by a devastating loss

Amita Kuttner
Alumna Amita Kuttner, current graduate student in the Physics Department and Green Party candidate for a seat in Canada’s House of Commons

Amita Kuttner was away at boarding school in 2005 when the mudslide hit her parents’ home outside of Vancouver, Canada.

Tons of rocks, soil, and trees swept through her parent’s hillside house, killing Kuttner’s mother, Eliza, while she slept and tossing her father, Michael, who was in the bathtub, into the maelstrom. He survived but suffered permanent brain injuries, according to Kuttner.

The slide came after several days of extreme rain, and while Kuttner, a Ph.D. student in astrophysics in the Physics Department at UC Santa Cruz, said she can’t specifically blame the disaster on climate change, she’s seen the devastating effects of recent wildfires, hurricanes, and floods that have been sparked by the Earth’s warming.  She couldn’t just sit by, she said.

Today, Kuttner, 28, is not only finishing her Ph.D. thesis but also running as a Green Party candidate for a seat in Canada’s 338-member House of Commons in order to help make policy for the changes we are facing.

Her platform includes a push to have municipalities prepare better for disasters, to strengthen social safety nets for people whose jobs are eliminated because of automation, to establish a guaranteed livable income, and to create policy to deal with the changes coming because of leaps in artificial intelligence technology.

“I love to do astrophysics,” she said by telephone from her home in a suburb of Vancouver, “but right now we have to save the planet so that we can do astrophysics.”

Kuttner said she has been fascinated by the universe and the nature of time since she was a young girl and that she pointed herself toward the sciences early on. She was 14 and attending the private Mount Madonna School in the hills above Watsonville, Calif., when the slide struck her home. If she hadn’t been away at boarding school, she said, she would most likely have become another victim of the slide.

The disaster left her with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression, she said. Yet, she graduated from high school and eventually landed at UC Santa Cruz, where she completed her bachelor’s degree in physics in 2013 and received a master’s in 2016.

According to the College Nine grad, her time at UC Santa Cruz not only led her to a study of black holes, which is the focus of her thesis, but also birthed her activism.

“The climate of the university is such that we are encouraged to not take the world for what it is but to challenge the status quo,” she said.

Kuttner led the Women in Physics and Astronomy group on campus; learned about pushing back against outdated institutional policy; and spent hours in conversation with her adviser, Professor of Physics Anthony Aguirre, on big-picture topics that ranged from climate change to artificial intelligence. Aguirre is also associate director of the Foundational Questions Institute.

Then, according to her, Donald Trump was elected president and she felt she could no longer focus only on her science.

“I was sitting in my adviser’s office, crying because I felt so powerless, and never before then had I ever wanted power,” she said. “But when I felt powerless to do anything I thought, ‘I can’t stand this. I can’t see something unjust and not want to change it.’”

Kuttner went north to work on her Ph.D. and announce her Green Party candidacy. She will defend her thesis in May. The election is Oct. 21.

“It’s very easy to feel hopeless about the magnitude of the problems we face and how much we’re heading in the wrong direction,” Aguirre said. “But if you give in to that despair there’s no way those problems will be solved. Amita has taken that truth to heart, and chosen to be motivated rather than devastated. That’s a wonderful thing to see and gives me hope as well.”

Kuttner said her campaign is very people centered. She believes that municipalities need to better prepare for the extreme weather that is coming by making sure people are ready, that communities can be resilient. She also believes government must address the root causes of people’s inability to make a decent living and also provide a guaranteed livable income, especially as jobs are lost because of automation.

Advances in artificial intelligence also make government policy changes necessary, she said. She plans to set up a think tank centered on issues around AI.

But whether she wins the election or not, Kuttner said, she will continue to work on these issues.

“The intention is bigger than the means,” she said. “In the end, it doesn’t matter how things get accomplished. I’ll just try another way.”