Keystone XL: A Battle Won, But the Good Fight Continues

On a balmy day in November 2015, President Obama did the right thing and rejected the Keystone XL pipeline once and for all. Although I am well aware that this is just one battle in an on-going war, still it seems worthwhile to pause a moment to savor this victory.

At the climate change rally in Washington DC, Feb. 2013

At the climate change rally in Washington DC, Feb. 2013

Back in February 2013, I traveled to Washington DC with friends to participate in the historic protests against the Keystone XL. President Obama was conveniently absent the day we circled the White House with our protest parade, but the rally was the largest ever demanding that our politicians start taking climate change seriously, and we left D.C. the next day feeling satisfied that we had done our best to get our point of view across.

And now here we are at the hottest November ever; the glaciers and poles are melting at alarming rates; and there are dramatic die-offs of marine life as the oceans warm, turning, as one headline put it, into “cauldrons.”

Terrestrial life is similarly stressed, with mysterious mass deaths in Central Asia and raging, out-of-control fires burning in Indonesia. In the Middle East drought conditions persist, and it has been alarmingly hot—with predictions that by 2070, large portions of the Gulf peninsula will no longer be habitable for humans.

I was especially disturbed by a recent New York Times op-ed arguing that the time for climate change mitigation is past, and we must now do our best to adapt to the inevitable rapid heating of the planet.

“Drastic reductions would be needed to stabilize human influences on the climate at supposed “safe” levels,” writes scientist Stephen E. Koonin. “According to scenarios used by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global annual per capita emissions would need to fall from today’s five metric tons to less than one ton by 2075, a level well below what any major country emits today and comparable to the emissions from such countries as Haiti, Yemen and Malawi. For comparison, current annual per capita emissions from the United States, Europe and China are, respectively, about 17, 7 and 6 tons.” And “even if today’s annual per capita emissions of three tons in the developing world grew by midcentury to only five tons (about 70 percent of Europe’s per capita emissions today), annual global emissions would increase by 60 percent.”

So are we doomed then? Will the world as we know it be swept away by the dramatic climate shifts ahead of us?

It’s impossible to deny the very real possibility that global warming will cause the collapse of many of the life support systems that have made human beings so incredibly successful as a species.

We are over-populated, and Mother Earth has ways of dealing with such imbalances. The only way to avoid serious system collapse is to dramatically recalibrate our relationship with the Earth. It’s not rocket science: we know that we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground, shift to renewable energy like solar, geothermal and wind, and stop deforestation. And while we’re at it, reduce our chemical dependency and shift food production into permaculture practices. Stop raising and eating so much meat, and shift to healthier plant-based diets.

We must continue to pressure our politicians to make the policy changes needed to support these crucial shifts (and another piece of good news is the possibility that Exxon-Mobil and other fossil fuel giants may be sued for lying to the public about the dangers of climate change–what I myself would call CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY).

Tonight, I raise a glass to toast Bill McKibben, 350.org and all the environmentalists who worked so hard for today’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline.

It is a wonderful victory, but we still have a lot of work to do before we can rest easy knowing that we have done our part to assure that our grandchildren will inherit a habitable world.

Of Oil, Honey and the Future of Human Civilization

do_the_math_image_1I have been reading Bill McKibben’s new book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, with a group of students in a course called Media Strategies for Social and Environmental Justice Advocacy that I’m offering for the first time this semester at Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

Oil and Honey tells the story of how McKibben founded 350.org with a group of his students at Middlebury College in 2009, and how together they went on to become the most visible American environmental organization of our time, leading the U.S. protests against the Keystone XL pipeline and creating an international movement to put pressure on governments and policy makers to quickly and decisively address the mounting threats of climate change.

Most recently, McKibben has been focusing on divestment as a tactic to push the fossil fuel industry to shift into cleaner forms of energy production.

Taking its cue from the successful anti-apartheid divestment campaigns of the 1980s, the strategy is to awaken enough ordinary citizens–including college students, church-goers and workers of every stripe–to the perils of climate change, and get them to press their hometowns, companies, churches and colleges or schools to divest their endowments, retirement funds and other collectively held investment portfolios from the fossil fuel industry.

It seems like a good strategy, and yet it did not elicit much enthusiasm from the students in my class.

They were more interested in thinking about how to educate younger kids about the beauty and value of the natural world, and moving from that basic platform out into activism.

Kids today spend so much time indoors, in front of screens, that they have little sense of connection to nature, my students said.  And without that connection, it’s very hard to understand why it’s important.  What’s all the fuss about?

This is what it’s about.

Bill McKibben asks us to “do the math” and understand that if we were to actually succeed in burning all the fossil fuels that are currently in the ground, we would heat our planet to a level not seen for millions of years.

It would definitely be game over for human civilization, and it would take millions of years for the planet to restabilize.

What it is about this simple math that human beings today do not want to see and understand?

Part of it is simply that we’re so easily distracted.

The big news yesterday was that Federal Aviation Administration will now allow airline passengers to use their computers and tablets right through take-off and landing.  We can be in front of our screens to the very last second of the day!

Meanwhile, while we’re busy on our computers, not paying attention, the fossil fuel industry is going around the resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline by massively investing in railway terminals, lines and cars for carrying its tar sands oil down to refineries and tankers on the coasts.

B3029FCC-5228-4E57-B879-F8A83ABF036B_mw1024_n_sAnd up in the darkness of the Russian tundra, 30 Greenpeace activists are languishing in cold solitary prison cells, held without trial for the crime of trying to raise awareness about the destruction of the Arctic by Russian and international oil drilling.

Where is the outrage?

In the book Oil and Honey, McKibben ingeniously compares corporate behavior to bee behavior.  Corporations are like bees, he says, in being relentlessly “simple” and focused on their one crucial task—for bees, making honey; for corporations, making profit.

They don’t change their focus, no matter what.

But humans are more complex than that.  We can change and adapt to new circumstances.  We can recognize and act upon moral imperatives.  We don’t have to follow suicidal corporations blindly over a cliff of their own making.

Although it’s true that the alarming dependence of Americans on screens of every size can get in the way of a connection to the natural world, on the other hand, the fact that so many people are networked together through the media presents great opportunities for activism and change.

With my students this semester, I’ll be thinking about how to harness the power of the media to create a different kind of swarm—not following our current corporate leaders, but moving in an entirely different direction.

We’re not alone—there are many groups working on this now, from the Transition Town movement to the Pachamama Alliance to even such formerly mainstream organizations as the Sierra Club.

The task: to awaken a critical mass of people, worldwide, to the reality that we are living in an end-time of biblical stature; and to get them to understand that we have the power to change the storyline from doom-and-gloom cataclysm to a positive shift into a whole new relationship of humans to our planetary home.

Working cooperatively, bees are able to turn small grains of pollen into vast tubs of honey.  Human beings can do that too–when we work together for a common cause we can do almost anything.

So what are we waiting for?

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Dispatch from the heart of the American clean energy movement

 

My son Eric and I at the rally

My son Eric and I at the rally

On this cold, blustery day in Washington D.C., thousands of people braved the elements to send a resounding message that we will not stand idly by and let Big Oil continue to run the great ship Earth straight on to the reef of global heating.

Although my body feels battered and tense from standing clenched against the wind so many hours, my physical discomforts pale beside the sheer joy of the memories of today’s climate rally.

The most exciting part was when the whole huge, enthusiastic, orderly crowd began marching from the meet-up point by the Washington Monument, signs and banners and flags flying high, drumbeats and chants rising up into the clear sky above Washington, winding ourselves into a huge coiling serpent wrapping itself around the White House, parading and prancing and stomping and making all the joyful news we could as we passed by the iron gates under the watchful eyes of security.

On the march!

On the march!

It was somewhat deflating to know that the President was not home–and even worse to get word that he was golfing in Florida, no less (my regular readers will recall how much I detest golf courses and consider them symbolic of all that is wrong with humanity’s relation to the natural world).

But it was gratifying to see the media out in fairly substantial numbers covering the march; many, many video cameras were rolling and iphones were snapping and people were even wandering around the crowd doing spot interviews about what had drawn the protestors to DC this fine, cold Sunday.

I think I can speak for many when I say that what drew us out was a deep concern for our planet, and a desire to draw a line in the sand–in this case, the Keystone XL serving as that iconic line–to indicate our opposition to the continued rape and pillage of our Mother Earth.

No more impunity! If the fossil fuel magnates win this round and the Keystone is built, let it not be with impunity. Let our whote-hearted opposition to this misguided investment be duly registered in Washington, today and at re-election time next November.

At one point today as the wind whipped over the crowd the speaker observed wryly that “we like wind!” and everyone waved their “Forward with Clean Energy!” signs vigorously and laughed.

Standing up for the Sandhill Cranes of North Dakota!

Standing up for the Sandhill Cranes of North Dakota!

A small tribe of seagulls circled overhead for a while, wondering if there would be potato chips on offer at this gathering, and a young woman dressed in a lifesize Sandhill Crane outfit poked her long, elegant neck way above the crowd.

The gong has rung to signal the start of another round in the long struggle for a transition to a sustainable human relationship with the planet.

A good 35,000 people turned out today to tell the President and Congress, loud and clear, that we want real action on the climate disaster-in-the-making, and we want it to start RIGHT NOW.

If the New York Times is any indication of whether those in the mainstream halls of power are getting our message, the prospects look good, because the front-page story this evening is precisely about the Keystone XL issue and today’s big rally.

We the people do have the power to direct our elected officials to safeguard our interests. Our interests, not the corporate “persons'” interests.

As the chant went in the march today, “This is what democracy looks like!”

YES!

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Postscript, President’s Day 2013:

Even the MSM press was on to this rally!  The New York Times covered it, as did The Washington Post.  HuffPost Green did a good job, and of course we could count on Common Dreams to be one of the first to cover Bill McKibben’s victory speech at the end of the day!  Right next to yours truly, I am truly honored to say.

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Bill McKibben: Stand up to the fossil fuel industry, or start growing some gills!

Last summer Bill McKibben and 350.org, the organization he and a group of Middlebury College seniors founded in 2006 to fight global heating, brought thousands of protesters to Washington DC to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline. As you’ll recall, they circled the White House in a ring five people deep; thousands were arrested over the course of two weeks; and the construction of the Keystone was at least delayed, if not entirely crushed.

This summer Bill will be at it again, taking on the fossil fuel companies even more directly. As he told us last night during his keynote address to the Strategies for a New Economy conference, put on by the New Economics Foundation and hosted by Bard College, the focus of this summer’s activism will be joining Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) in pressing for the removal of some $113 billion in annual federal subsidies for American fossil fuel companies.

Bill reminded us that Exxon Mobil and the other big oil, coal and gas companies are by far the richest in the world.  Why should they be getting subsidies for doing business when those funds are sorely needed by citizens for basic services like education, health care and retirement?

And why should we be rewarding companies that not only pollute the environment, but also are responsible for spewing the greenhouse emissions that are rapidly making our planet uninhabitable for many current species, including humans?

“No other industry is allowed to dump its garbage in the streets,” Bill declared.  “Why should it not only be allowed, but subsidized, for the industry that is responsible for the most dangerous product of all, the CO2 that could totally destabilize our planet?”

Bill began his speech by noting apologetically that he has become known as a “professional bummer-outer,” and it was true: it was impossible to come away from his hour-long talk without feeling shaken by the severity of the future he laid out for us.

He gave several hard-hitting statistics and anecdotes of the gathering steamroller of global heating: the melting of the Arctic ice pack, the acidification of the ocean, the increase of floods, droughts, storms and disease.

Bill laid the blame squarely in the laps of the fossil fuel industry, which, he said, has been using its vast wealth to forestall political action on moving to renewable energy.

“Their business model is the problem,” he said.  “It’s either wreck their business model or wreck the planet.”

He’s not talking about destroying Exxon-Mobil and the other oil giants; just about forcing them to re-invent themselves as clean energy companies, and start putting their great resources behind the swift transition to renewable energy technologies.

How to accomplish this sea change?

“We’ll never match their money, so we need to deal in a different currency,” he said, “the currency of movements: passion, spirit, and creativity.”

Bill showed pictures from around the world of climate activists, most of whom, as he observed drily, “do not look like Sierra Club environmentalists, but they care just as passionately about saving our planet.” The movement he envisions must be international, but since Americans and Europeans bear most of the blame for the dramatic rise in greenhouse gases we have a special responsibility to work hard to make things right.

“I’m a writer,” Bill said.  “I’d rather be sitting home in Vermont typing.” Instead, he’s on the road much of the time now, addressing groups and working behind the scenes to build a climate movement powerful enough to take on the fossil fuel lobbies and head off disaster.

At this conference of economists, there were many gray heads in the hall, and many people wearing conservative professional clothing.  Bill called on the older folks, in particular, to join the movement to head off global heating, because “once you’re past a certain age, it doesn’t matter so much if you have an arrest record.”

“We have to get more confrontational,” he said, recalling the civil disobedience campaigns of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Among the confrontational tactics we can look forward to this summer are “Nascar-style” blue blazers for members of Congress, with the logos of all the corporations from which they’ve accepted cash blazoned on their backs. 350.org will also be hosting an online Congressional scoreboard, so that citizens can easily see how each  senator or congressional representative has voted with regard to climate stabilization and environmental health.

“We’re not radicals or militants,” Bill insisted. “We’re actually quite conservative.  We want the planet to stay the way it is, or go back to the way it was when we were born.  The radicals work at the oil companies,” he declared to applause.

Bill ended by reminding the audience that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently issued a statement saying that there was no cause for alarm about climate change, because human beings will be able to adapt our behavior and physiology as the planet warms.

“What are they imagining?” Bill asked indignantly. “Are we going to start growing gills?”

It’s not gills we need, but guts—to follow Bill McKibben’s lead and force the politicians to represent the will of the people, rather than the will of the industries that are destroying our planet in the name of the next quarter’s profits.

Something tells me it’s going to be a hot summer.

Building on the Keystone “victory”–from endless growth to steady states

In his Op-Ed in today’s NY TimesMichael Levi, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the Administration only agreed to put off the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline because of “not-in-my-backyard” pressure from Nebraskans, which had little or nothing to do with the urgent issue of cutting carbon emissions in order to avert climate disaster.

“For green groups,” Levi says, “the shortest route to blocking fossil fuel development appears to be leveraging local opposition.” The problem with this approach, from Levi’s point of view, is that there is going to be “local opposition” to green energy initiatives like solar and wind farms too.

What Levi, like most Beltway insiders, doesn’t seem to appreciate is that the green movement is not just about opposition.  It’s about positive action.  It’s not just about environmental protection.  It’s about social change.

It’s about a shift from a mentality that seeks to keep growing our energy-dependent economy indefinitely, to a mentality that seeks a sustainable steady state.

Steady states are anathema to capitalism–a quarter without growth is a quarter wasted, as any CEO would tell you.

But steady states are exactly what have made our planet a livable environment for the past several thousand years, during which the human species, along with countless others, has thrived.

Rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline is just a small step in the right direction, towards a society that puts effort and money first into reducing energy consumption, and second into developing energy infrastructure that has the lowest possible impact on the ecological web of life.

The Michael Levis of America don’t understand that this is the real push behind the green movement today.

Yes, we’ll seek allies where we can find them, and make use of whatever sources of power we can find (even pro-oil Republican Nebraskans) to achieve our goals.

But our movement is not about “leveraging opposition.”  It’s about mobilizing support, through raising awareness about the threats to our civilization and our planet if we continue along with business as usual.

It’s also about leading the way towards the alternatives that are already within reach if we choose to veer off the beaten path into new, much more stable territory.

Endless growth is a social model that has proven itself to be highly unstable, whether we’re talking about national economies or energy systems.

It’s time to use our intelligence as a species for the good of ourselves and our planet.  There is really no other way forward.

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