The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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Cowboys and Indians, Part 2

This is the second of a three-part series on the recent Keystone Pipeline protest in Washington DC.
So, who were the people we joined in DC last week, to march once again against Keystone?

Individually, the people I referred to in my last post are as follows:

  • The two MCs were Dallas Goldtooth, of the Lower Sioux, and Jane Kleeb, of Bold Nebraska.
  • The water ceremony was lead by Casey Camp, of the Ponka Nation. I did not see the ceremony itself, but she did speak to the crowd as well. She was a slim, middle-aged woman of great dignity.
  • Greg Grey Cloud, of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, lead the 4 Directions song, which was actually the 6 directions song.
  • John Ellwood, of Bold Nebraska and Pray No XL, was the Protestant preacher.
  • Wizipan Little Elk, of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Meghan Hammond and Diana Steskal, of Bold Nebraska, and Eriel Deranger, of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, all spoke.
  • Steve Tamayo, of the Sicangu Lakota described the art on the tipi (I’ll explain that shortly)
  • Chief Reuben George, of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation offered a final prayer
  • Gitz Crazyboy, of the Dene and Blackfoot Nations, offered a closing prayer and next steps
  • The final performer, whom I did not stay to see, was Frank Waln, of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

The march as a whole was just part of a larger event called Reject and Protect. The leaders of the project call themselves the Cowboy Indian Alliance, and describe themselves as “a group of ranchers, farmers, and tribal communities from along the Keystone XL pipeline route.” That means not only people whose properties are crossed by the route but also, in some cases, people who are downstream of the proposed route or who depend on the aquifer underneath the route. The proposed path for the pipeline has changed over the years; some CIA members initially got involved to protest the pipeline being near them only to have the route moved onto their property as a result of other people’s concerns.

Bold Nebraska,  loosely speaking, the cowboys of the Cowboy Indian Alliance, is an organization of ranchers and farmers concerned with making the political process more diverse and participatory, but Reject and Protect is a major part of theirs. It was not clear to me whether the various Indians of the Alliance were there representing their communities–that is, has the Ponka Nation taken a position against the pipeline in the same way that Bold Nebraska has? The question may or may not even be culturally relevant.

Reject and Protect itself actually lasted from April 22 to April 27. The march was just one activity of this larger encampment of tipis on the National Mall. Other activities included multiple prayer services and ceremonies, presentations of documentaries, meetings with various officials, other demonstrations (there was one at Senator John Kerry’s home on the 25th), songs and stories, and the decoration of a tipi for President Obama.

This last was no snarky protest but a genuine and generous gift. The canvas tipi cover served as a backdrop for the talks and performances on Saturday, galloping with horses and the hand prints of many people, among other symbols. It is a true work of art, designed by Steve Tamayo and carried out by him and by many other people. He explained some of its symbolism, but he never explained exactly why giving this gift is supposed to sway Obama’s mind. Perhaps the idea is simply to say “we are here, we are people, and you cannot ignore us.”

The march I participated in was the delivery of the tipi cover to the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, which had agreed to accept on behalf of Barack Obama.

As I said last week, climate change per se was hardly mentioned by any of the organization leaders, though many of the marchers carried signs and shouted slogans that referred to climate, and of course an oil pipeline has everything to do with climate change. One way to look at this intersection of climate and other issues is the way I chose last week; by supporting these people in their fight for clean water,we can also fight for the climate as a whole. But there is another way to see exactly that same connection.

The climate issues that affect all of us means threatened drinking water to some. Polar bears make fine and accurate poster-children for the dangers of climate change, but they are a little remote for most of us to really make a priority of. Athabaskan children watching their parents die of bile duct cancer, which is super-rare except among people who live near tar sands extraction–that brings it home a bit more. And, unlike polar bears, the cowboys and Indians are perfectly capable of calling B.S. on feel-good green-washing that does not actually solve their problem.

One of the chants the organizers brought to the march was a simple call and response; they shouted “climate!” we shouted “justice!”

As long as fossil fuel remains the dominant energy source of the globe, somebody is going to be in the way of extraction, transport, and processing: Appalachian communities devastated by mountain-top removal mining; people able to light their tap water on fire because of fracking; killer smogs caused by coal smoke; or land and water poisoned by oil spills from trains, pipelines, tanker ships, or well-heads. If the stuff does not travel by pipeline through Nebraska, it will travel by rail-car across the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.

Unless it does not travel at all.

My favorite of all the signs I spotted on the march was a simple red octagon on a stick reading “STOP the GLOP.” Because that’s really what this comes down to. Every kilowatt hour generated by fossil fuel, every gallon of gas, every piece of plastic, means GLOP in somebody’s life. Climate change itself–extreme weather, sea level rise, acidifying oceans–is also a form of glopping up lives, generally the lives of the poor and disenfranchised. The fossil fuel industry and the various government bodies involved in regulating that industry may be sincere in their willingness to minimize the damage, to route pipelines and other oil infrastructures through the least vulnerable places available, the fewest people’s lives possible, but those few people who are directly affected have a right to object to being treated as collateral damage.

Of course, rare to vanishing is the choice that does not make somebody’s lives harder. Shutting down the fossil fuel industry, for example, would destroy a lot of livelihoods, leave unemployed a lot of people who cannot afford it. Part of the job of government is to make decisions about who gets the short end of the stick because, in almost all cases, somebody has to for the greater good.

The question is, is perpetuating the fossil fuel industry really for the greater good?

Is fossil fuel and all it has wrought really worth continuing to glop up somebody’s life? If not, then rather than trying to reroute the pipeline or try to get the cowboys and Indians to simmer down, or arguing that transporting oil by train is worse (which may be true but is beside the point), perhaps our energy is better spent in stopping the glop and figuring out something better to do instead?


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All You Need Is Love

This is a repost of an article I published about two years ago. I’m repeating it now because it is thematically related to the Keystone protests. The next post in the Keystone series will come out next week, either Tuesday or Thursday–there are some current events in development that may require their own article.

Last May two of my grad-school buddies and I were spending way too much time in the library. With too much to write before the end of the semester and not enough time, we had each parked ourselves in front of our favorite computer on campus, and by chance all three computers were in a row. I think it was the third or fourth day that we started getting punchy. Tyler mimicked birds. Brent started “eep”ing. I got the giggles. In retrospect, I suppose it was inevitable the Beatles would become involved.

“All together now!” sang Brent.

“All together now!” I responded, to make sure he knew I got the reference.

“All together now!” he replied.

“All together now!” I continued.


We repeated this, at intervals, for something like a week and a half. We were trying to cope with the monotony of theses and term papers and internship paperwork that just wouldn’t get finished. We were also, I think, trying to nail down an in-joke, bank the fires of circumstantial friendship against the ending of that circumstance, just days away. This is grad school, and finishing up papers can take years, but classes were over. We’ve scattered now already. I see them on Facebook occasionally.

We are, or will soon be, masters of science, two conservation biologists and a resource manager, respectively, assuming we all get jobs. It would be nice to think of ourselves as girding on the sword-belts of scientific expertise to fight the demons of biodiversity loss and climate change with the Green Ray of Knowledge. That was certainly our intent when we started this, or at least it was mine.

But climate change really isn’t a scientific problem anymore. Oh, sure, there’s details to sort out; how fast, how bad and where, there’s a lot we don’t know—enough to keep thousands of researchers busy forever, if not exactly paid. But we know the basics; carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and several other gases trap heat in the atmosphere, and we are producing these gases in large quantities, making the Earth warmer. All kinds of problems are ensuing as a result. We’ve known that for decades, and the obvious solution has not really been tried, not on a large scale. How much more do we need to know?

No, climate change is a political problem. The collective will isn’t there. Maybe it’s complacency, maybe it’s fear of change, maybe it’s that certain industries have more dollars than sense and can dominate political discourse. Maybe it’s Blue Meanies.

I’ve just finished watching “The Yellow Submarine,” the cartoon Beatles vehicle I’m young enough to have grown up watching. The film opens in the paradise of Pepperland, where the people sing all day, until the attack of the Blue Meanies who turn everyone grey. Occasionally, one of the grey people cries, or notices a butterfly and smiles, only to be bonked by a Bonker-Meanie. A child holds a brightly-colored pinwheel until a Meanie notices and eats the toy in passing. At last, the Beatles arrive and sing, the people become colorful again, and revolt, singing All You Need is Love.

Silly, yes, but how come the people turned grey to begin with? Why did they stop singing when the Meanies attacked, if song makes Meanies go away? All too often, this is what people do; a huge number of people act against their own interest because the Blue Meanies told them to do it, and the Beatles haven’t shown up yet.

But sometimes people don’t wait. They sing and laugh and get bonked for it. Sometimes they win. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, they become the change they want to see in the world.

The Transition movement, for example, consists of towns and cities acting on their own to get off fossil fuel, prepare for Peak Oil, and prepare for the effects of climate change. Steve Chase, a co-founder of Transition Keene, in Keene, argues that the local work of the Transition movement, in addition to being worthwhile for its own sake, could also spark national and international change. To support his argument, he cites the Civil Rights movement, which Steve grew up watching, and which fought for recognition sometimes “one lunch counter at a time” before ultimately winning Federal legal support.

Steve acknowledges that Transition differs from the Civil Rights movement in its organizing model. The American Civil Rights movement was what Ghandi called the resistance program. Although the movement was non-violent, it was also aggressive, a deliberate attempt to stop other people from doing things they wanted to do (murdering with impunity, for example). Non-violent protest and civil disobedience were attempts to stop a moving wheel by calmly, gently, even lovingly, thrusting a stick between its spokes.

The International Transition movement is instead doing what Ghandi called the constructive program; creating the community structures of the new world without waiting for the structures of the old world to go away.

In an unpublished article on the Transition movement, Steve Chase acknowledges that this may not be enough. The Transition movement is, as yet, too small and too young to attract official attention, but eventually Transition Towns will likely be sued, legally reined in, or otherwise threatened. In this country, we are unlikely to be physically attacked, but fear can be effective whether or not the threat is real. Even simple discouragement can make the people go grey.

But we know that can happen. We can prepare. Let’s make up our minds that when the Blue Meanies come, we won’t wait for the Beatles.

All together now.