The Common Good
September/October 2011

Drawing a Line in the (Tar) Sand

by Bill McKibben | September/October 2011

This may be the largest use of civil disobedience yet around global warming.

The usual standard for writing magazine articles is to aim for the (relatively) timeless. In this case, you won't get another copy of Sojourners for two months, and, really, an article should stay fresh that whole time. Think plastic flowers, not fresh-picked daisies.

I'm violating that rule in spades with this column -- if you didn't read it when the magazine arrived, then skip on to something else, because it will be wilted. But if you're a timely reader: We need you.

From August 20 to Labor Day weekend, some of us are mounting what may turn into the largest-scale use of civil disobedience yet around global warming. We’ll be doing daily demonstrations that risk arrest at the White House in an effort to block the ugliest project you’ve probably never heard of, the so-called Keystone XL pipeline, which will run -- if President Obama grants the necessary permits -- from the tar sands of Alberta down to the Texas coast.

The original call for the action went out in late June, from a group of individuals that included Wendell Berry, Naomi Klein, Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network, scientist Jim Hansen, and others. They stressed that the action will be entirely peaceful; in fact, if you want to come you’ve got to be "dignified in dress and demeanor." That's because we want very much to show who the radicals are in this story.

And make no mistake -- that pipeline is a radical act. It helps unlock the planet's second-largest pool of carbon, outmatched only by the oil wells of Saudi Arabia. There’s enough carbon up there that if you could burn it all off you’d raise the atmosphere’s carbon concentration from its current 390 parts per million to nearly 600. Even burning a much smaller amount of these tar sands would mean that it’s "essentially game over" for the climate, according to Hansen.

The pipeline is ugly for other reasons too -- it trashes native lands and endangers prime American farmland (can you imagine running an oil pipeline atop the Ogallala Aquifer?). But it’s beautiful for one reason: President Obama, all by himself, can stop it. Since it crosses national borders, it requires the man himself to sign a piece of paper saying it's "in the national interest."

We’re pretty sure he wants to stop it: After all, the day he secured the nomination for president, Obama said that "if we're willing to fight for it," generations from now we’ll see this as “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal." But the pressure on him will be enormous. So, as he said at the very start of his presidency, even (or especially) his supporters will need to keep the pressure on him to do the difficult things. We have to show him, and everyone else, that there’s strong support for a livable planet. As EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said in June to explain Obama's less-than-perfect environmental record: "They're not marching on Washington the way they did on Earth Day in the '70s." She’s right -- it's time for us to do what needs doing.

D.C. in August is not everyone's idea of a great vacation spot. It's hot and humid. But here's the thing -- unless we get to work right now, it's going to be hot and humid everywhere. So join us at tarsandsaction.org (and if you read this column late, you can go there now to see the pictures of what you missed -- and then visit 350.org to join the ongoing struggle for climate justice).

Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, is founder of 350.org.

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