The day after the Washington Post announced it was moving its top environmental reporter off the green beat to cover politics at the White House, this op-ed went up toeing an uncomfortably familiar line: by speaking out against the Keystone XL pipeline, environmentalists are “missing the climate-endangered forest for the trees.”
Leaving aside for a moment the uncomfortable irony of being reprimanded for missing the big fight by an outlet that is reshuffling focus on that very front: the editorial board, respectfully, is wrong. Not that it doesn’t have a point, but that point is concrete and incremental – and misses the entire meaning of the forest of protests over the last 18 months.
The implication in the Post’s headline is that they’re in this fight, too – that we should all be focusing on better efforts for environmental protection. But missing from the piece is to what end. Instead, they settle for referencing the State Department’s recent, controversial draft review of the pipeline proposal in reciting a list of reasons why the pipeline is not a big deal, and dismiss the protests against it as nothing more than “knee-jerk” “distractions”.
In this, the editors join the cadre of Keystone shruggers – folks whose response to developing events around the pipeline is a cynical “meh,” tinged with frustration at protesters. A prevailing sentiment among these shruggers is acceptance: it’ll get passed anyway — there’s no way it won’t. And scolding: Come on guys — it won’t be that bad. Stop the silly stuff and go do something important.
The arguments in favor of the pipeline are dubious at best. For example, it’s estimated that harmful tar sands extraction would fall flat by 2020 if not for the pipeline – which would more than double extraction and establish a harmful precedent for pulling oil from the earth. Serious potential risk to communities and environments along the pipeline’s route have been well documented. And even the State Department’s controversial report estimates the pipeline will have “negligible” impact on the jobs market.
But what really bothers me about this piece from the Post is the degree of resignation, coming from a leading journal, to the politically inevitable. Frankly, I’m tired of it. I’m tired of hearing that climate activists need to be realistic on Keystone. I’m tired of the media’s willingness to publish small vision and run pieces of least-resistance when it comes to climate issues. I’m tired of otherwise politically active, deeply soulful, justice-minded colleagues and friends adopting a posture of disinterest when someone challenges conventional Washington wisdom.
Focusing on the pipeline alone is a narrow vision — and ironically, it’s the shruggers more than anyone who have mistaken the pipeline for the real story. For those protesting Keystone XL, the pipeline is a symbol of inevitability in action. A very tangible, very real, potentially disastrous symbol, but a symbol all the same. Protesting construction goes way beyond the damage that pipeline may bring — it’s a protest against the idea that this is simply the way things are, one that urges this president and his administration to intervene and make good on his promise of change.
We do have a choice. We can say yes to the pipeline. We can say it’s inevitable, so stop wasting everyone’s time. Or we can say no.
In asking the government to say no, the growing chorus against the pipeline is asking our government, and each other, to perk up. It is articulating the chance to stop dumping precious human and financial capital down a rapacious, dead-end industry. It is reminding us to think boldly – to re-imagine what our energy investments could look like, with a simple committed change in focus. It is a demand for justice and protection and care for the vulnerable voices not invited into boardrooms and Congressional hearings. It is a request for dignity from our elected leaders to end our destructive reliance on oil, rather than wait around for markets to slowly make the choice for us.
In short, it’s a prophetic call to cut the crap and re-engage in the hard work of better loving our neighbors and our earth.
Barking up what worldly wisdom says is the wrong tree is the way that real change happens. People of faith know this. So do civil rights mobilizers; so do innovators and entrepreneurs. And today, so do the expanding climate protection and creation care movements. When we collectively say ‘no more, we have reached our limit and we refuse to go even one step further this way’ – that is when the creaking, stubborn gears of progress really start to turn.
Construction of the Keystone XL is that limit. We can say no. The clean, politically advantageous win-wins can happen later, and they will. But only by committing to “enlarging the place of our tent,” far larger than seems comfortable or practical, can we slowly move the poles closer from where we are to where we should be.
By refusing to see this, the editorial board at the Washington Post sacrificed the forest for a headline.
Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor for Sojourners.