What we stand to gain – and lose – in the fight against tar sands

The grassroots environmental movement has had much to protest in recent months. Activist on both sides of the US have mobilized around the July sentencing of Tim DeChristopher in a Utah court and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline connecting Canada’s tar sands to Texas’ oil refineries. The movement has long followed traditions of nonviolent civil disobedience; but the question remains how effectively these methods of protest have been carried out.

Is that beginning to change? Has it merely been an issue of scale or rather a more deep-seated failure to engage a diverse range of social groups and communicate in ways that are relevant to the larger mainstream society?

The just concluded direct action in Washington, DC to pressure President Obama to deny permitting of the Keystone XL pipeline – known as Tar Sands Action – is an interesting study. As of writing, 1252 protesters have been arrested over two weeks of civil disobedience in front of the White House. That is a significant and large number of people from many different regions, professions, religions, ethnicities, etc. But to what avail?

To those who follow such things, the issue is rather clear: approving the Keystone XL pipeline through the heart of the US will allow for the rapid and destructive exploitation of Canadian tar sands, perhaps the dirtiest source of potential fossil fuel energy in the world. Compound that with the nearly inevitable environmental and social problems that the physical pipeline is likely to cause – oil spills, water and air pollution, community dislocation – and the whole project adds up to profoundly negative consequences.

Modern industrial society prides itself on efficiency and, indeed, holds efficiency among its highest values. But there is nothing efficient about exploiting these tar sands through a process that requires as much energy to extract as it purports to create, fouls other essential resources such as water and air, and needs to be piped thousands of miles away just to process and make it usable. So even following the mechanistic logic of business and industry, this projects is questionable on many accounts.

Naturally, those who stand to profit from this pipeline present a false choice between economic recovery and environmental protection. Some say we can’t afford to not exploit the Canadian tar sands, given the unstable source of most of our oil. The deeper question, of course, is how can we truly afford to do so given the extremely destructive and inefficient nature of the process and the long-term affects on human health and habitat?

So how has the recent direct action in DC to protest this potential disaster affected political will and public sentiment?

Sadly, during the course of this protest, Obama has actually weakened his environmental record without even addressing the pipeline – by canceling newly proposed smog standards that were set to go into effect soon. Apparently the panic of business and industry overruled concerns about the health of our citizens, as many argued that new environmental regulations were too burdensome during a recession. Take a look at the projected costs though and it’s quite clear that this is a classic case of shifting the economic burden from businesses to individuals in the form of higher health care costs and increased mortality.

But that is not what is being protested, so oh well, right? But how much media attention has the protest even garnered? 1200 people being arrested in front of the White House seems like big news, but not so much in a 24-hour news cycle that needs something new and frightening to panic about every day. Riots and violence in isolated parts of London garnered significantly more headlines and news coverage than peaceful protest of an issue that inevitably affects the entire globe.

I believe the civil disobedience campaign can and will be extremely effective at spreading awareness about this important issue…at least among those who already follow environmental issues. But its potential effectiveness as a political protest lies in the fact that what matters is the response of one man with the power to single-handedly approve or (at least temporarily) scrap the pipeline project – it is beautifully targeted political action.

As 350.org founder and protest organizer Bill McKibben said in a recent Washington Post column, “Many of us [protesters] will be wearing [Obama ’08 buttons] while we sit outside his house, in an effort to show that we’re not, exactly, protesting. We’re trying to rekindle some of that passion from [Obama’s] groundbreaking campaign. We’re trying to remind ourselves and the president how good it felt to be full of hope.”

And therein lies the potential unintended consequences of this protest – if Obama fails to listen, he may very well loose the support of a group of highly passionate and often wealthy supporters. Can he – or the country – survive that loss?

DC being my home turf, I truly wish I could be there to participate in this historic action. However I, along with 618,417 others from around the world, are there in spirit. You can be too if you like – click here to sign the petition being delivered to Obama and play a small but essential role in the collective airing of grievances.

Thoughts on this protest or the effectiveness of environmental protests in general? Please share!


4 thoughts on “What we stand to gain – and lose – in the fight against tar sands

    • Hey Rachel,

      That is fantastic to hear about! Something this big needs attention on both sides of the border. No matter what happens, people need the sense of empowerment that comes from civil disobedience. Good luck to that action

  1. Hey Chris,

    Always enjoy your writing. I’m skeptical that liberals who are unhappy with Obama will actually take their votes elsewhere considering the alternatives for President, regardless of his actions on this specific issue.

    • To me, the question becomes whether any type of legitimate third party emerges, perhaps catalyzed by growing discontent on the left. I’m not really anticipating a sudden liberal shift in support of Michelle Bachman anytime soon…but the world is a strange and volatile place these days.

      But anyways, would the potential benefits of a strong third matter – no matter how inconceivable it is that one comes to power – outweigh the potential damage to Obama? Is he the best we can hope for or do we actually need to expect and demand more?

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