The Climate in Emergency

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

Whose Back Yard Should Get a Pipeline?

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Weeks ago, I set out to write about the conflict at Standing Rock. I failed, more or less, and wrote something of a stub article. I promised myself I’d cover the topic at more depth, and I have fallen short again. That I’m posting this article a day late is partial indication of that. The fact of the matter is that I usually approach writing this blog as a teacher–albeit one who is often learning the material just now myself–or as a storyteller, and it is not my place to teach this topic. Standing Rock is not my story to tell.
I am not not Native* and five or six hours of research on the Internet is not going to equip me to write as if I were.

I can tell you why I keep wanting to–what’s happening at Standing Rock looks to me like another movement of one of our country’s great fault lines. Yes, the story is about environmental justice, but it is a mistake to see this only as a story about a group of people in need of clean water. Yes, this is a story about race, but the history involved, the mechanisms of oppression, the nature of the injury, are distinct. This is one of the stories that liberal white kids are raised to believe lie safely in the past, but it does not. What is happening at Standing Rock, and why, constitute a giant arrow pointing towards something the rest of us have been trained not to even see. I want to use the resources I have to make that arrow bigger, more insistent.

But Standing Rock is not, strictly speaking, about climate change.
I read an article a while back asking non-Native allies to please keep their focus on the issues of sovereignty and water rights, instead of co-opting the pipeline fight for an anti-fossil fuel agenda. I see a distinction between co-opting and finding common cause, but surely it’s  distinction that can easily be lost and that should not be lost. Yes, I continue to cover pipelines here because oil and gas transportation is part of the climate change picture, but pipeline fights are usually centered around land and water rights, not around climate per se. To ignore the immediacy and centrality of those other causes is to co-opt, to use, other people. To find common cause, one must start by asking “how can I help you?”
A friend of mine recently asserted, on Facebook, that anyone celebrating the most recent anti-pipeline victory is a hypocrite, on the grounds that if the pipeline does not go here it will go somewhere else. NIMBYism, in other words. He is missing the importance of that fault line, the relevance of the ongoing history of American conquest, but otherwise he has a fair point–moving a pipeline and its associated leaks from here to there is not really an improvement unless it triggers a certain very important question.

Should a pipeline really go in anybody’s backyard? How can we construct a society that doesn’t involve picking somebody to throw under the bus of Progress?

I wrote about NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) some time ago, in another context, and concluded that NIMBY is indeed bad when protesters want a problem moved to somebody else’s yard (such as people who prefer a coal plant they can’t see to a wind turbine they can see). But in and of itself, protecting one’s own interests is not wrong.

I tend to think that if anybody really put the matter frankly, this entire fossil fuel project would look like a really bad deal. Hey, let’s destroy whole mountains, pollute rivers, blow up small towns when oil trains explode, gum up birds and fish and poison coastlines when offshore well heads break or oil barges wreck, and warp the atmosphere so that sea level rises and a lot of people have their homes flattened by hurricanes, all so that a small minority of people can get rich and the rest of us can pretend we have a couple of spare planets available.

Sure.

We, in fact, make this deal by how we spend our money and how we vote and we do it because the chance of any of those awful consequences happening to us are very small. Most of the people who benefit from fossil fuels don’t experience injury from them directly. The costs are borne by a small number of people somewhere else. When those people object, they are called nimbys, basically for not being team players. The logic, it seems, is that what benefits a large number of people is worth the loss of life and livelihood of a few, especially if it’s not clear who those few are going to be–we don’t know where or when the next oil spill will happen, only that it will happen somewhere, sometime. Fossil fuel is like a reverse lottery, where everybody buys a ticket and whoever holds the winning number has their property stolen and distributed to everyone else. It looks quite fair from a certain perspective.

What I did not write about then is the fact that the lottery isn’t random and not all tickets win. Being poor, being Native, being a person of color, even being female, make a person more likely to be poisoned by a pipeline leak, killed by a heat wave, impoverished by drought, drowned by extreme weather, or left to pick up the pieces after a disaster. Conversely, the richer and otherwise more privileged you are, the more of the benefits of fossil fuel use you are likely to personally reap. Fossil fuel use has benefits and it has costs, but he people who pay the costs are seldom the people who see much of the benefits and they are seldom the people drafting energy policy for the nation.

We need to talk about whose back yards get trashed for whose benefit and who gets a voice in making these decisions. We need to acknowledge that anthropogenic climate change persists because fossil fuel still looks like a good deal to a lot of people–and that perception depends on a tacit agreement that the lives of everyone else don’t really matter very much.

 

 

*I understand that not everyone who might be called “Native American” actually likes the term. Generally, of course, it is better to be specific, and to say “Lakota” or “Miq Maq,” or whichever Nation one is actually talking about, but when one actually means all people whose ancestors have been on this continent for more than about 700 years…I know people who insist “we are Indians!” I know people who say “we are Indigenous!” And I know there are a lot of people I haven’t spoken to. But it sounds to me as though this is something people disagree on. I chose to write “Native American” because its literal accuracy appeals to me and because I understand it to be generally considered acceptable. If someone wants to correct me on this, please do.

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Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

2 thoughts on “Whose Back Yard Should Get a Pipeline?

  1. Pingback: Retrospective | The Climate in Emergency

  2. Pingback: One Word: Plastics | The Climate in Emergency

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