On Feb. 17, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., to lodge a protest against the Keystone XL pipeline that is planned to carry crude oil from a tar sand deposit in Canada to refineries in Louisiana. The “Forward on Climate” protest was called by Bill McKibben and 350.org, an organization that asks us to do the math and stop burning fossil fuel. Burning carbon-based fuels, like coal, wood, gasoline and the like, puts more CO2 in the air, creating a greenhouse-like covering — a blanket that traps heat around the earth.
To put the march of 30,000 to 40,000 in perspective, consider that 100 years ago a march of 5,000 women changed the course of history by focusing attention on the women’s pleas for suffrage. That march was more like an organized parade, with thousands more watching the various clubs and floats pass by … the delicate lady of long ago, olden days in the home, and then crowds of female workers, symbolizing women in shops and factories.
In 1932, Cox’s Army, 25,000 men marched to protest unemployment and demand that the rich pay an inheritance tax. When Herbert Hoover demanded to know how they got the gasoline to travel to D.C., aides traced it back to Andrew Mellon, president of Gulf Oil, who asked his service stations to supply it for free.
In 1965, a Vietnam War protest was held in D.C., drawing 20,000, launching protests all over the nation and finally bringing the US out of the War.
So, look, these marches are important and bring attention to issues that politicians would rather ignore. But the new political strategy — arrest the protesters while the media ignore them, and the rest of us act like everything’s just fine — won’t move the discussions forward.
What will move the discussion forward is our own civic participation and our creativity in problem solving. If we start advocating for more solar, wind and water power — for our traffic lights, schools, our churches, our homes, our shopping centers — we’ll have solutions that demonstrate a fossil-free future is possible. If we install systems that are appropriate for the problem — solar collectors on street lights, windmills on the roofs of tall buildings, dams in waterways — we can cut fossil fuel consumption without cutting our quality of life. If we caulk and insulate and ride bikes instead of driving cars, our determination and action will solve problems before the politicians even figure out what the argument is.
On Feb. 18, the day after the climate-change rally, the PBS news program, NewsHour covered interviews with a couple of experts who saw the Keystone pipeline from different points of view. There was very little discussion about the rightness of the project. Instead, they argued about where the tar sands oil, once refined, would go. One thought it would help balance our trade deficit, be refined in the US and then traded to Asia for more computers and cars. It would be bad, he seemed to feel, to trade our environment for more stuff. The other thought it would help America overcome our fuel deficit with the middle east. It would be good, he seemed to feel, to get away from our dependence on an uncertain patch of desert half a world away.
Either scenario seemed possible, but, truly, neither of the guys seemed convinced that they knew.
To Bill McKibben and the enviros, the end use of the oil doesn’t really matter. The point, to them, is that the planet can’t afford the carbon output, no matter if it’s burned in New York or Beijing. They point to the increase in carbon and the heat it traps, globally speaking. They say, “leave it in the ground and figure out new ways to take care of our needs.” They point to a 10% decrease in fuel consumption since Obama has taken office and say that’s great and we can do better.
Bottom line: 30,000 to 40,000 people took the time to make their passions heard. That’s hardly a number that can be ignored. Mass arrests, including Daryl Hannah and Robert Kennedy Jr., are the way this administration has chosen to send their message. Mass arrests will, they think, stop the protesters. For some folks, that will work. Nobody wants to be arrested time after time, pay a fine, do some time, miss the bus back home.
For others, the “Forward on Climate” movement has gone past the stage where people are scared of the police. Indeed, being arrested in D.C. can become a badge of honor. Protesters, including Sierra Club members, are choosing Civil Disobedience as a tactic. If the media doesn’t cover this, the protestors will become investigators on their own, and learn what’s been happening behind the curtains of big business and bought-off government. This is how revolutions begin. This is what democracy looks like if the peaceful messages are ignored.
Obama can step up to the plate and defuse the anger. He can talk to the protestors, stop the pipeline, make his climate change promises real.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. She blogs at progressivepopulist.blogspot.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2013
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