In late spring, we learned a couple of crucial things about the proposed pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico.
First, it was a big deal. We should have started protesting it long ago, because of the destruction it was wreaking on native lands. But I, for one, didn’t pay enough attention, not until NASA’s Jim Hansen explained why it was a threat to everyone and everything everywhere. It turns out this is the second biggest pool of carbon on Earth, trailing only the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. Burning those has helped raise the temperature of the Earth a degree; if we take the next Saudi Arabia and do the same thing, we can’t say we haven’t been warned. Indeed, Hansen put it in stark terms: Tap heavily into those tar sands and it’s “essentially game over for the climate.”
Second, the President was going to make the call himself. For once, our inane Congress wasn’t going to have a say; Obama himself has to sign a “Presidential certificate of national interest.” If he doesn’t sign, no pipeline.
To some of us, all this added up to a situation that called for putting our bodies on the line. Civil disobedience is not the only tool in an activist’s toolkit. It’s one of those ones there in the back that you reach only for on occasion. But when you need it, it can be awfully useful.
Not many people outside the route of the pipeline had heard of Keystone, and Obama was clearly getting ready to approve it as soon as the State Department finished an environmental review. (He’d make his decision by year’s end, he said.)
So a call went out from a group of leaders—people like Tom Goldtooth, head of the Indigenous Environmental Network, and Joe Uehlein from the Labor Network for Sustainability, and Naomi Klein, and Wendell Berry. People responded. As we began our two-week siege of daily sit-ins in front of the White House, I was pretty confident we’d be seeing hundreds of arrests. I was even more confident a few hours later when the police, overreacting, stuck the first bunch of us arrested in D.C.’s central cell block, instead of simply fining and releasing us, the usual course. Our treatment—three days behind bars, much of it shackled at the ankles—had the usual unintended consequence, inspiring more people to heed the call. Before the two weeks were over, 1,253 people had been arrested, the largest civil disobedience action in this country in many years. (Though it’s a record that I hope doesn’t stand for long—and indeed the folks at Occupy Wall Street may well break it soon!)
In essence, these good people anted up with their bodies, and made the pipeline a national issue—indeed an international one. Within days, ten recent Nobel Peace Prize laureates had weighed in with the President, asking that he block the pipeline. Sympathy protesters appeared at Canadian and American consulates around the world. We were in the game.
Now we have to win that game, and persuade the President to block the pipeline. It won’t be easy—the Chamber of Commerce is a huge backer, and the Koch Brothers have a lot at stake. The cover for their greed is “jobs,” even though an analysis from the Cornell Global Labor Institute shows the pipeline will probably kill as many jobs as it creates. It’s not a cover that’s working very well, and Obama has been hearing from protesters about Keystone at every stop on his early campaign tours. Groups of volunteers from his 2008 campaigns have been “visiting” his offices to demand he halt the project. In red Nebraska, where local organizers have done a great job playing up the danger of spills, thousands of Husker fans booed when a commercial for the pipeline came on the Jumbotron at halftime of the football game. The next day, the university ended its sponsorship deal with the pipeline sponsors.
Even for people who usually don’t concentrate on climate change, the fight has become a cause célèbre, and that’s because it’s as filthy politically as it is environmentally. E-mails unearthed by Friends of the Earth, and a powerful piece of reporting by the New York Times in mid-October, showed that the State Department had allowed Transcanada Pipeline to nominate the company that should evaluate its project. First on their list was a firm called Entrix, and the State Department helpfully picked them to run the process—which is shabby enough. But if you go to the Entrix website, you discover that Transcanada is … a “major client.” It simply doesn’t get sleazier than this; the Times has called it a “flouting of environmental law.” It’s more like a poster child for Occupy Wall Street; this is corporate dominance of our politics so blatant even Dick Cheney might have tried to hide it a little better.
Happily, the crime is still in progress, and Obama can still stop it. During the 2008 campaign, Obama said: “It’s time to end the tyranny of oil.” In my presidency, he added, “The rise of the oceans will begin to slow and the planet will begin to heal.” And “I’ll have the most transparent government in history.”
We badly need to find out where that Obama’s been hiding, and see if we can liberate him, in time to stop one of the worst ideas in a generation, and in time to restore some portion of the faith that he inspired last time around. If he didn’t mean it, he shouldn’t have said it—but I refuse to be a cynic till I absolutely have no choice. That's why, when we try to gather enough people to encircle the White House on Nov. 6, we'll just be carrying signs with those quotes from the president circa 2008. Maybe we can rescue that Obama from whatever basement they've locked him up in!
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, and an organizer with tarsandsaction.org.