Saturday, September 10, 2011

When push comes to shove, where will you stand?

The hopelessness that pervades environmental issues can be debilitating. Because of the scale of the problems, does the one piece of trash avoided count? How about the car you didn't buy? Does that make a difference? What about the dam that you lobbied against? That surely has an impact, right? Or not? And the civil disobedience in protest against the building of a pipeline that would transport tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, all the way down to Texas? Does the avoidance of building that make any difference?

Most everyone will tell you no, that these individual things don't matter. What matters really is the policy of action - a systemic change. Andrew Revkin, who has very interesting posts on his environmental blog on the New York Times, Dot Earth, comes down on the side of policy. He says,
But that’s my stance on the project outside of broader contexts. Overall, I think Obama should not stand in the way of the pipeline. While it’s a potent symbol and convenient rallying point for campaigners, it’s a distraction from core issues and opportunities on energy and largely insignificant if your concern is averting a disruptive buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
The pipeline plan doesn’t exist in isolation. With the economy in its own tar pit and a presidential election approaching, it’s very much in the national interest for Obama to avoid saddling himself with an unnecessary issue that would be easy for his foes to distort into an Obama anti-jobs position.
This particular pipeline has a good chance of dying on the vine in any case if and when easier, less expensive sources of transportation fuel come online, including domestic oil and natural gas (and there are competing pipeline options and routes).
The greenhouse impact of the oil sands is also far less significant than some claims, particularly given the reality that oil consumption rates are what matters — not the amount of gigatons of carbon sitting in deposits of this sort in the ground.
But this again is a defeatist and elitist attitude towards the environment. Of course, Andrew Revkin and Michael Levi aren't affected by the pipeline directly. Most all of us are unaffected by infrastructural projects - we don't live in the line of the pipeline, and so our mobility, our accessibility, our immediacy isn't what is trampled upon. Here's what one comment in response to his blog says,
I don't see any mention in here of the pipeline being built over the Ogallala Aquifer that provides water to over 30 million people in five states. You may poo-poo the carbon effects, but you can't deny the disaster that will arise with one break in the 1,700 mile pipeline. Further, there is no mention of the destruction of arboreal forest, which covers an area the size of Florida, that the fracking has caused in Alberta. It will continue to grow in size. It is so large it can now be seen from space. Even the oil companies agree it can never be reclaimed. The food and water supplies of indigenous people in N. Alberta is being destroyed. Cancer has increased seven-fold. Caribou meat from a hunt is so full of sores it cannot be eaten.
Revkin says that the pipeline project doesn't exist in isolation [I assume he means it is not a purely "environmental" issues], but rather within the context of President Obama's politics. Of course, if the president wants to do anything, he'll have to wait until his second term, because which president would want to be a one-termer?

Revkin is correct in saying that the pipeline doesn't exist in isolation, but he is not correct in his contextual association. The pipeline in fact exists as a symbol within a wider system of dominance over nature, an unquestioned reliance on technology to solve our problems, of a thirst for energy unabated, of a imaginative and moral deficiency that is debilitating us from doing anything at all. And so we degrade our environment in the name of jobs.

Sure when you view it like that, then protesting against anything doesn't matter at all. But then do we do anything at all? Do we just live in the fear that someone will not get reelected and twiddle our thumbs? Or do we rise to the occasion, and take steps, concrete steps, in our neighbourhoods, communities, cities, to do something, anything?

Individuals and individual actions matter, because they are understood from within the context of their existence, and speak to systemic issues. It is individual efforts that provide tangible examples that provide for reflection, introspection, and consequently systemic change. Mandela, Gandhi, du Toit, Lisitsyn, Kelley, and Pineda are heroes, because they stood their ground, didn't get pushed over, didn't get shoved over, in their efforts to save their homes, their environment, our environment.

Ninety nine is not one hundred.

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