Note from 2017. I’m somewhat disillusioned with large-scale organizing in the style of 350; it feels like it’s missing something. I wouldn’t preface this to say I disagree with some things I said, since I would have to preface half my older posts, but in this case I felt uneasy about it even while I was writing. While I’m still obviously in favor of not wrecking the Earth, I felt and still feel that this post was forced and perfunctory, a way to prove to myself that I was really a Good Environmentalist.
I went to Washington, DC. So far I’ve mentioned practically nothing about it, and it’s almost as if I hadn’t gone there at all, and I can’t have that happening, because while I was there I was taking part in something very, very big that I don’t want to go down in vague memory as just another one of those things that I’ve done, or “one of those exploits he’s always going on”, with none of the reason or meaning behind it ever being heard. So, I went to Washington, DC, to be one of somewhere north of thirty-five thousand people taking part in the country’s biggest ever gathering about climate. Climate change has become pretty obvious, what with the vanishing of Arctic Ocean ice, the unprecedented amount of calving of Antarctic glaciers, the droughts in the US’s breadbasket, the repeated superstorms demolishing large parts of coastlines, and of course the record high temperatures everywhere. I take the argument over whether it’s human-caused to be pretty well settled too: to think climate is, on its own whim, going haywire and doing these things that are completely out of the ordinary, as defined by all the records we have, is to believe that there’s an incredible coincidence going on—on the one hand, climate change; on the other hand, levels of carbon dioxide in the air that Earth hasn’t experienced since three million years ago, when there were still rabbits the size of dogs and beavers the size of motorcycles and woolly rhinoceroses roaming around. And yes, animals did flourish back then as well as they do now, but the climate changed slowly to that level, and they had time to evolve to cope with it.
So climate is important. That’s why all of us gathered on the National Mall next to the Washington Monument that day. And it must be one of the biggest crowds I’ve ever been in, second only perhaps to Oktoberfest, and at Oktoberfest it’s not like all those drinkers milling about were a unified whole gathered to demand something important. All of us there came together and told Obama and Congress and the country, unequivocally, that carbon emissions have to stop. Who knows how they estimate this, but we were told from the stage at the front that our numbers had just been estimated at thirty-five thousand, which I might add is roughly the population of the country of Monaco. We were crammed in so tight that, with my backpack on, I couldn’t even walk anywhere, just gradually shift with the crowd wherever it undulated.
Our focus of the day was something known as the Keystone pipeline. It’s not the only thing that’s threatening the atmosphere, nor is it even the biggest, but it is probably the biggest thing that can be stopped at a stroke, and that means that at least for now it’s what the climate movement is aiming everything in their arsenal at and also what they’re rallying around. The big idea of this pipeline is to take oil from the tar sands in remote Alberta all the way across the US to Texas and a few other refinery-type destinations. And that’s a problem. In all sorts of ways. First off, and this is the big thing, the tar sands represent a titanic amount of oil, billions of barrels, and if it all comes out of the ground, it will, of course, get burned, and go into the air, right while we’re trying to get civilization to power itself in other ways and get itself off this heroin drip of oil that it’s been mainlining for the last century. Bill McKibben, possibly the most prominent leader in the environmental movement these days, commissioned a series of calculations on how much oil is left in the world and how much warming that represents, and the results were bleak. Some warming is already a foregone conclusion – it’s already happened, in fact – but scientists have figured that if the warming can be kept to 2°C, then the world will escape the most cataclysmic of its effects. Unfortunately, it turns out that, even though the world is running out of oil, what oil we have left is about five times more than enough to take us beyond that benchmark and through a positive feedback loop into a transformed, quite possibly largely uninhabitable world. That’s why every drop of oil that we can keep in the ground is a victory.
This is what people mostly already knew when they came to the rally, and it’s what brought a lot of them from everywhere in the country. I was with a crowd of Ohioans, and nearby I saw a crowd of Iowans; there were plenty of Texans, probably a sizable contingent from North Dakota (another place where the oil companies are hard at work gutting the Earth and pulling tar sands out of it), and enough people to power a loud cheer even when Bill McKibben asked for one from only those who had bussed at least 36 hours to get there.
And people came up on the stage to speak, and we heard what I’ve just said about Keystone, but we also heard some new things, things that I didn’t know. Athabaskan leaders came up to the microphone. They told us first-hand what tar sand excavation does to the Earth. They’ve been living in their corner of Alberta a hundred times longer than there’s been such a thing as “Alberta”. A few years ago, oil companies came and plowed scars of gravel through their hunting lands, then put up signs warning not to go beyond this point. Of course they never asked permission from the First Nations people. Once they were in, they started taking out the tar sands. Imagine a hole the size of a city, as if an antimatter bomb with the force of multiple nukes had been dropped. Inevitably, the pipeline spilled, and now the muskeg – the swamp that’s feet thick with pure life and forms the basis of the First Nations’ subsistence and medicine and in fact their entire culture – has been poisoned and killed. The oil company responsible released a contrite statement, acted like they were cleaning it up for a few weeks, and then quit even pretending they cared. The oil still hasn’t gone away, though.
Texans and Oklahomans came to talk too, farming folks whose land the oil companies are trying to eminent-domain away, even though the companies are Canadian and even if they were American there would be no legal basis for forcing the farmers out. A multibillionaire investor came up and told us that besides everything else, Keystone was also flat-out a bad investment, with an almost negligible return on investment.
And we learned that the fight against it is, despite all the oil companies’ best efforts, alive and massive and being waged in every way possible. The First Nations are asserting their long-trampled treaty rights, and the southern farmers are refusing to let eminent domain put the pipeline through their land. Where the law has failed, at the ends of pipeline still under construction, people have devised ways of climbing inside the pipe and fastening themselves to it, so the companies can’t construct any further. And of course, there was us: thirty-five thousand people standing next to the Washington Monument to tell Obama that approving the pipeline would be indefensible, and that his historical reputation will be based on what he did or didn’t do on this issue, and for the environment, at the biggest physical tipping point humans have ever seen.
We marched right up to his house to tell him all that. Of course, he was off at the moment golfing with oil executives. Absolutely serious. The gates of the White House were only a photo op, and a symbolic gesture. But it’s not like the rally passed silently and no one noticed it. Obama obviously heard about it, and so did Congress, and it actually made news stories in big newspapers, despite our pessimism about corporate money–controlled media. (I guess we were big enough that ignoring us would’ve been even more conspicuous than running a modest story about the country’s biggest-ever climate rally.)
That was partially what we were about when we got together: being a great, unified voice to make not a request but a demand to stop the cataclysm. But of course, that’s a goal that can easily be met with complete stonefacedness from the government. There was another thing we did that day that we couldn’t fail at, simply by virtue of being so many people all standing there even against the cold of that February day. We became a movement. Rather than a miscellany of discrete groups with varying strategies and aims and memberships, we were now – Sierra Club, 350.org, Yinka Dene Alliance, Friends of the Earth, random unallied floaters like me – all one whole. This is how the civil rights movement became something that accomplished goals, and also the women’s suffrage movement, and the peace movement. And we even have advantages that they didn’t – new ways to communicate, and the inexhaustible well of knowledge on the internet. It’s a good thing we do, because our enemy is also tougher. Oil companies, which are made of money and thus made of power, are more potent than simple non-fiscal racism or misogyny ever was, and probably stronger than the disorganized if enormous group of companies that demanded more war to fuel their weapon-making or Humvee-making profits. Oil can buy advertising, pay enormous sums to people who are willing to rape the Earth in North Dakota and Alberta, and make people want the same goals as they do with a simple twitch of gasoline prices. It will take almost infinite cleverness and determination from this movement to defeat that kind of force. But from what I saw from the people who talked that day, and at the people’s congress afterward, and the talk that night about native lands, that’s something that this movement may very well actually have.
For the moment, the outlook has turned against us. John Kerry approved a statement to the effect that the pipeline will have a negligible effect on the environment. Obama hasn’t decided yet. But nothing is final yet, and in fact never will be. Even if the strategy of being where Obama is, carrying a no-pipeline sign every time he steps out of his car, fails; even if the Canadian government rules that the treaties with the Yinka Dene Alliance are as worthless as every other ironclad treaty they’ve signed with First Nations; even if the government kicks all the farmers off their land and keeps them off with military force; even if enough guards are emplaced to keep people who are willing to lay down their physical bodies for the fight from shackling themselves into the pipeline; even if it gets completed and goes operational; we’re still a movement, and we’ll still fight it, and it’s still a fragile artificed object that will, through immediate force or through the gradual working of time, will die. Other things will need to be stopped, and we’ll stop them too. As long as there’s a living planet, we’ll never quit.
I wrote this in large part for myself. I went, and I left, and that day started fading like memories do. I still have exploring left to do, and I haven’t figured out what exactly I can contribute to the environmental movement once I do stop being no more than a vagabond, but I had to remind myself that I can never allow it to be nothing.