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.
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.
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.