I was going to do a full-blown piece on my thoughts about the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline, but I have decided to scale it down. Suffice it to say, I am opposed to the pipeline; I have been at each of the 4 large-scale public rallies against KXL in DC, and I have friends and colleagues who were arrested during the initial civil disobedience in August 2011. For two excellent primers on the arguments against the pipeline, check out this post from David Roberts at Grist, and KC Golden’s piece on the Keystone Principle (i.e. first, do no harm).
That said, I do want to explore what social movement theory can inform us regarding two components of this issue: the symbolism of the pipeline and the composition of the movement against it. While I know that some commentators do not agree that constructing a social movement is the right strategy for the fight against climate change, I respectfully disagree. I fail to see how we can pressure the White House and Congress to enact policy tackling climate change without apply concerted, continual pressure to that end.
First, on the symbolism of the pipeline. We know that in order to build a broad social movement, we need to choose a rallying point around which people can organize. This rallying point should be a microcosm of the larger issue, a tangible target (something that people can see, touch, and understand), and a fight in which activists have at least a decent chance of winning. Civil rights activists didn’t start their fight by pushing for the Civil Rights or Voting Rights Acts in Congress. They staged sit-ins at lunch counters and the Montgomery bus boycott.
The fight against Keystone XL is in this same vein. The pipeline is a microcosm of the larger fight against climate change. It is being pushed by a powerful fossil fuel company – the primary source of greenhouse gases – and will create a 1,700-mile gash across the face of the United States. It will promote the expansion of the Canadian tar sands industry, which clear cuts Alberta’s carbon-fixing boreal forests and is currently poisoning the air, water, and soil of the region’s First Nations, leading to severe cancer clusters against Canada’s indigenous peoples. The tailings from tar sands are so toxic that mining companies have had to install air cannons in tailings ponds, because birds can die from simply landing on the surface of these ponds. Additionally, while some may dispute about the concrete impacts of the pipeline on the climate, we know that producing bitumen from tar sands generates around 20% more greenhouse gases than conventional oil. As renowned climate scientist James Hansen has noted, Keystone XL could spell “game over” for our Holocene climate.
Even from a linguistic standpoint, Keystone XL presents a good target for a budding social movement. “Keystone” hints at the notion that this pipeline lies at the heart of the Canadian tar sands industry; if we can beat this project, it could help bring down the whole house of cards. The “XL” portion carries a few implications. It signifies both the scale of the fight we have taken on – the habitability of our Earth is ultimately at risk – and the size of the opponent we have engaged – the fossil fuel industry is the largest, most well-financed industry in history. As Bill McKibben is fond of saying, Exxon has made more money than any entity “in the history of money.”
Secondly – and contrary to those who have argued the fight has somehow distracted from more productive action on climate change – the ongoing action against KXL has helped to coalesce a broader coalition on climate change and helps to enhance the breadth and scope of the environmental movement. As I have noted in several conversations and debates with fellow greens (including Jonathan Foley from the University of Minnesota, who is always good natured & engaging), the 40-50,000 of us who marched against the pipeline on February 17 broaden the green tent and create space for those of us fighting from the inside.
It's time to recognize that the diversity of the enviro movement is a strength. @billmckibben protesting creates space for the Fred Krupps.
— Tim Kovach (@twkovach) February 14, 2013
Furthermore, all of the post-mortems on the Senate cap & trade bill (including the controversial Climate Shift report from AU professor Matthew Nisbet) criticized climate activists for placing all their eggs in one basket. The Keystone fight is part of a broader, more diversified strategy to fight climate change on multiple fronts. Whether its direct action against the Southern leg of KXL, efforts to stop coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest, or the commitment of mayors to make their cities more resilient in the face of climatic change. In the face of a massive opponent like a changing climate, there is no virtue in being big and consolidated. We need to diversify, decentralize, and go to ground; this is at the heart ofthe KXL fight and the larger strategy being employed by 350.org.
As Bill McKibben wrote in Eaarth, “The wind has begun to blow harder, and hence we need to lower our wind resistance. The sun has begun to burn more brightly, and hence like other animals we need to reduce our size.”