Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
On November 9, like a lot of people around the world, I was stunned and devastated. In the days and weeks afterward, I was hit by new waves from that same feeling, worrying in turn about Muslim registries, the undocumented, the future of life on a rapidly warming planet, and much else.
The specifics have only become more grotesque. It didn’t occur to me, for example, that Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau might raise the specter of reviving Keystone XL. Unlike Trump, Trudeau knows climate change isn’t a hoax (Chinese or otherwise); he is surely aware, too, that one of his country’s most respected energy researchers has concluded that “Canada cannot meet its global climate commitments while at the same time ramping up oil and gas extraction and building new export pipelines” (emphasis mine).
It’s like a bad dream; even most Trump voters support action on climate. The KXL battle was hard enough with Obama in office—so with Trump and his band of Koch brother oil-and-gas-lackeys running the federal government, how can people exercise enough power to retain the possibility of a decent future?
Ironically, we should listen to Trudeau, who reminded us last spring that “governments might grant permits, but only communities can grant permission.” To understand our power as citizens of the world, we have to remember that in countries where it’s still frowned upon to murder environmental activists, fossil fuel companies cannot operate without our consent. What does that consent look like? It looks like the Standing Rock Sioux deciding not to defend their water and their sacred sites. It looks like Seattle shrugging when an Arctic drilling rig is in our port, and figuring well, they’re going to do it anyway. It looks like Keystone XL being built in 2011, because ranchers and Native Americans and young people across the country believe the industry when its arrogant executives tell us it’s a done deal. It looks like people leaving their money in banks that fund these terrible projects, because they don’t see how it matters, or they think the banks are all equally bad.
In a democracy, passivity is implicit consent. In any political system, hopelessness is self-fulfilling. When we fight, we win.
All the oil and gas in the Bakken fields, all the coal in the Powder River basin, all the tar sands bitumen in the Athabasca: it’s all got to travel by pipeline, road, and train for many thousands of miles, right through our communities—above our watersheds, next to our schools, and through our farms. As the Lac Megantic explosion and the Deepwater Horizon spill and many others have tragically shown, there are reasons to be deeply disturbed by this even without considering the terrifying urgency of climate change.
When we do consider that terrifying urgency, we understand that what those pipelines, trucks, and trains really carry is the end of history. We cannot simply let them pass. If we refuse to let this happen—if we find the most inspiring, safe, and effective ways possible to stop this transport, we can force our political system to reckon with the climate crisis. People like Exxon CEO and Trump Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, or climate denying US Senator Jim Inhofe, don’t need to have a change of heart, and they won’t. If we make it impossible for the fossil fuel companies to carry on their deadly business because they have to deal with protests and blockades around every corner, they become financially unviable (as they are already becoming, because of the plummeting cost of renewables, as well as concerns about stranded assets).
And while transport is one of the most obvious weaknesses of the industry, it is by no means the only one. At the moment, the whole system props up our dependence on fossil fuels, so there are many rotten legs we can kick: what would it look like if constituents beset the offices of their elected representatives (local, state, and federal) by having weekly prayer vigils or lock-downs? Exactly how much of their deadly business-as-usual would they be able to get done, under these circumstances?
Or how about the banks? In Seattle, we’re having daily actions at Wells Fargo branches as part of the #DefundDAPL campaign, and learning many lessons that we intend to take into a broader campaign through the winter, focusing on all financing for projects catastrophic to the climate. If each of these banks is exposed to relentless coverage of its funding of projects that essentially presume we’ll be using fossil fuels at current rates for decades—which scientists tell us means we’re marching straight to our doom—how long, exactly, do we think these projects will be attractive investments? It took mere months for some big investors to start pulling out of the Dakota Access Pipeline. And if we remove our money from those banks, and put it into community banks that loan to small businesses in our cities—how long before our communities are healthier and more resilient?
We need to show the world that real change is still possible, and that even when conventional public input like voting and attending hearings is inadequate—and on climate change, it has been profoundly inadequate—we can be effective, creative, demanding, and inspiring. We can refuse to give our consent.
On October 11th, four friends and I initiated the shut down all of the major tar sands pipelines into the US—five pipelines in four states, which together represented 15% of daily US oil supply. Predictably, there were many reactions, from admiration to outrage, but all along the political spectrum, one of the main reactions seemed to be astonishment: you can do that? There were no guards, and just flimsy locks?
You can do that. Just like you can put hundreds of kayaks in front of an Arctic drilling rig, or chain yourself to earth-moving equipment, or sit down with your friends on an oil-train track, or block a truck, or lock yourself inside an office.
We don’t all have to do the same thing, nor should we. But we all have to do something. Because otherwise, we’re passively consenting to the devastation of most life on earth.
Sometimes people accuse activists of being unrealistic, and wanting to stop all fossil fuel use tomorrow. But this is exactly wrong: only by greatly reducing the use of the dirtiest energy now can we continue using some oil and gas for another decade or two. That’s why we focus on tar sands oil and coal, the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive fossil fuels. Our options, essentially, are ambitious and targeted reductions now, or absolutely wrenching changes in a few years. Or, of course, the end of history.
There’s a lot of legal risk in lock-downs and valve-turning, of course, so it’s harder for many people—young people at the beginning of their careers, people of color, people with small children, undocumented people. But removing our money from banks that fund these projects—and telling them why we’re doing it—is something anyone can do. For that matter, you could go in and stage a moving public reading of such a letter—that’s not illegal, and even if they make you leave, you’ll know you’ve played a small part in the restoration of the web of life. And you’ve withdrawn your consent.
There are roles, in other words, for everyone. The point isn’t civil disobedience itself; the point is disrupting the inertia of a system that’s poised to devastate everything we care about.
If we leave it up to the Rex Tillersons of the world, we know exactly where this will end—in a future of devastation. We must do all that’s in our power to avoid that future, and history tells us that this late in the game, the only thing that has a real chance of doing so is active, nonviolent resistance.
We have the power to withdraw our consent. We have the power to do things differently.
We only have to understand that deep in our bones, and then use it.
© 2016 This Changes Everything. Published in Common Dreams.
Emily Johnston is a poet, writer, and climate activist currently facing criminal prosecution for her participation in a #ShutItDown direct action in 2016.
‘The point isn’t civil disobedience itself,’ writes Johnston. ‘The point is disrupting the inertia of a system that’s poised to devastate everything we care about.’ (Photo: Alex Milan Tracy)