The Roots of the Tar Sands Movement

Some of us helped organize a massive display of civil disobedience outside the White House earlier this fall, protesting a proposed pipeline from the tar sands of northern Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. It was a good two weeks of action—1,252 Americans ended up in jail, the largest and most sustained protest of its kind in decades. But the truth? We were Johnny-come-latelies to this movement. The real work had begun years before, and has been carried out by indigenous communities on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border.

I knew just enough about the Alberta tar sands to know that the first person I should call when we started thinking about joining the protest was Tom Goldtooth, head of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and one of the most venerable and venerated environmental leaders in the country. I knew, vaguely, that he’d told me about this work before—even shown me pictures of the vast tribal lands and boreal forest wrecked by the early stages of mining for oil north of the border. But I’d never really followed up—there are lots of horrors in this world, who can pay attention to them all, excuse excuse blah blah excuse.

It was only when NASA scientist James Hansen explained what damage burning this vast pool of oil would do to the climate that it rose to the top of my priority list. (A lot of damage—“essentially game over for the climate” was how he put it.) And I’m glad it did, in part because it brought me more closely in touch with some of the greatest organizers on this continent.

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