The Necessity of Activism

Van Dillard/Cleveland State University
The first Earth Day in 1970 produced the largest protests in U.S. history and spurred a generation of environmental leaders and activists. In many ways, anti-Keystone XL pipeline groups are modeling their work on this precedent.

The fight against the Keystone XL pipeline has been one of the most publicized environmental controversies in the United States over the past decade. The proposed pipeline would bring oil derived from tar sands in Alberta to the coast of Texas. Since the pipeline crosses an international border, the U.S. State Department must complete an environmental impact assessment of the pipeline and President Barack Obama ultimately has authority to approve its construction. The pipeline was on track for approval by the president until a coalition of grassroots environmentalists led a series of protests last summer and fall to voice their opposition. During August and September 2011, 1,252 protesters were arrested in front of the White House in acts of civil disobedience and, in November, over 12,000 people encircled the building to pressure President Obama to kill the pipeline. As of this writing, the pipeline is still in limbo. The State Department is conducting another review of its environmental impacts, and it is unclear whether President Obama will ultimately approve it.

What brought so many people out to protest the Keystone XL? The approval and construction of other pipelines carrying tar sands oil to the United States attracted little attention. The continued extraction and consumption of tar sands oil, and the greenhouse gas emissions that come with it, have become emblematic of the failure to stop or even slow climate change. Approving another pipeline to transport it seems like folly to the Keystone activists. Even if the pipeline is approved, what can environmentalists and the climate movement learn from the ability of tar sands activists to mobilize people and attract attention to their cause?

As a start, those fighting the Keystone XL realize the political system is broken and that civil disobedience and demonstrations are now necessary. For too long, the environmental movement has largely—though not exclusively—tried to tackle climate change through lobbying, letter writing, and normal legislative channels. But thus far it has failed. The 2009 climate negotiations in Copenhagen ended without nations reaching a binding agreement to reduce carbon emissions. In the United States, even supporters of a diluted Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill could not muster the votes to pass it. Like earlier bills, such as the McCain-Lieberman climate bill, Waxman-Markey failed. What’s remarkable is that the legislation made it as far as it did given that there was no vocal, public outpouring of support.

With international negotiations going nowhere and domestic politics stymied, the opponents of the Keystone XL adopted tactics employed at other times in American history when politicians were unresponsive: public demonstrations and nonviolent civil disobedience. Activists marched and went to jail for years before the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. The golden age of environmental reform in the late 1960s and early 1970s only came about because of the concerted efforts of grassroots activists at events such as Earth Day 1970. Most of the key pieces of environmental legislation passed during this era—NEPA, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the establishment of the EPA—were signed into law by President Richard Nixon, a man who personally cared little about the environment.1 But he saw the public outcry over pollution and supported initiatives to address them in order to curry favor with voters. The climate movement can learn from this. As Bill McKibben recently said, “We’ll never get the solutions we need…unless we build the movement first.”2 This is precisely what environmentalists did in the 1970s. It is a lesson worth remembering today.


Milan Ilnyckyj
Having exhausted many conventional avenues to change, Keystone activists staged one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in 30 years. Bill McKibben, shown here and one of the movement’s central spokesmen, was also one of the first arrested, on August 20, 2011.

But how can climate activists spread their message and garner support? Again, the Keystone XL protesters offer some telling lessons. The protest organizers deftly employed an array of social media: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, as well as websites. It is easy to dismiss these tools as ineffective (Upset about something? Create a Facebook page and sign an online petition!). But anti-pipeline activists used social media to spread information about tar sands extraction and the Keystone XL pipeline. They took an issue that was little known, even among environmental professionals, and inspired hundreds of people to participate in the protest.

Protesters did more than harness these tools to spread facts and figures: they employed them to foster a sense of community. Tar Sands Action, the main grassroots group behind the demonstrations, released a number of videos related to the protests as they were underway. These were well-crafted films, not unedited video clips of the actions thrown up onto the Internet. One video showed scenes of protesters being trained in nonviolent civil disobedience at a church the night before the event.3 The film highlighted leaders such as McKibben, but most of the activists shown in the video were just ordinary people. One young, unnamed woman was singled out. During the training, she confesses, “Oh my gosh, I am scared out of my mind” to get arrested, but it “just feels like something that has to be done.” Later shots showed her calmly sitting in front of the White House before the police arrested her and led her away in flex cuffs. Another video showed a medley of people speaking in front of the White House: Native Americans, an African American pastor, the climatologist James Hansen.4 Many were then shown one by one, presumably after their arrest and release from custody, staring silently into the camera. Collectively, these videos show (literally) the faces of people opposing the pipeline: not radicals, not strangers, but everyday Americans.

Keystone activists certainly understand the importance of images. As historian Finis Dunaway has shown, such images have a unique ability to “bring aesthetics and emotions into politics.”6 The YouTube videos produced by Tar Sands Action form part of a long history of photographs and films created in the struggle for environmental reform, a list that includes: The Plow that Broke the Plains, Pare Lorentz’s documentary about the causes of the Dust Bowl; The Place No One Knew, Eliot Porter’s coffee-table book of photographs about Glen Canyon; anonymous photos of people in gas masks on the first Earth Day in 1970; and the films of Greenpeace activists in Zodiac boats preventing whale harpooning. What is notable about the videos produced by anti-pipeline activists is how few of them show tar sands extraction in Canada or other pipelines. Rather they display hopeful, caring people working together to challenge the pipeline and address climate change.

The activists quickly realized that making films about tar sands would not, in the absence of other forms of activism, bring about the desired results. Even in our digital, Internet age, taking to the streets and facing arrest still matter. Thus the organizers chose to focus their actions on the White House—an appropriate site since President Obama alone had the authority to approve the pipeline. Each day for two weeks, protesters dutifully walked across the street from Lafayette Park, sat down in front of the White House fence, and were arrested and led away by National Park Service police. Over 1,200 were arrested, making it one of the largest civil disobedience actions in the United States during the past three decades. The crowd that encircled the White House in November participated in the largest environmental protest that has ever occurred there.


National Wildlife Federation
The anti-Keystone movement has deftly used media to convey its message, focusing on hopeful and diverse groups working together for positive change instead of negative images of tar sands extraction, like this tailing pond in Alberta.

More than most environmental protests, the tar sands actions successfully reached out across divisions of race, class, and region. For nearly a generation, scholars and environmental justice activists have criticized the environmental movement for being too white, too middle or upper class—in short, too elitist.6 Many of those involved in the Keystone XL protests were liberal, white environmentalists, but other participants included Native peoples from Canada and the United States. Farmers and ranchers from Nebraska also joined—not the type one expects to see at an environmental protest. Also, when planning the actions, organizers sought the participation of young and older Americans. While the demonstrations were by no means a complete spectrum of American society, the Keystone protests attracted a broader coalition of Americans than most environmental actions do, showing, at least in this instance, how the environmental movement could reach across race and class barriers.

Movements also need leaders. Bill McKibben has emerged as the chief spokesperson and a leading strategist of the tar sands protests and has become the most prominent figure of the climate movement (at least in North America).7 Grassroots environmental protests value consensus-based decision making and nonhierarchical organizations. Yet the media hungers for leaders to eloquently represent their cause, and that task has fallen largely to McKibben. A former New Yorker staff writer and well-known environmental author, McKibben has more media experience than most activists. Thus Tar Sands Action has benefitted from having a lively, prolific spokesperson. Contrast this with the Occupy Wall Street movement, which comprises a collection of groups and people without an acknowledged leader. This makes it difficult for those outside the movement—even those who are sympathetic to its grievances—to know whom to turn to for the movement’s agenda.

The anti-Keystone pipeline actions, then, offer a number of lessons that the climate movement can apply down the road: a willingness to engage in street protest and civil disobedience; a savvy use of social media; a deft selection of demonstration sites; an ability to construct a diverse movement; and a persuasive, media-savvy leader to champion its cause. While the Keystone activists are not the first to draw on social media, or even the first environmentalists in recent years to use protests or direct action to attract notice to their cause, they were more successful than most in generating interest in their aims.

Such tactics are no panacea for the climate movement. Challenges abound. The Keystone activists are vastly outgunned by the fossil fuel industry. Also, the Republican Party and some Democrats staunchly oppose them. President Obama could eventually approve the pipeline to placate angry voters who see its construction as a way to boost an ailing economy and lower energy prices. The Keystone protesters have also drawn heavily on the statements of climatologist James Hansen to highlight the urgency of climate change and the threat of continued tar sands development. Hansen has repeatedly said if the tar sands are fully developed, it is “game over for the climate.”8


Josh Lopez (via Flickr)
A protester on November 6, 2011, approaches the White House, where the anti-Keystone movement centered its actions. President Obama has sole authority to approve or strike down the pipeline.

Tar sands activists aligned themselves with the Occupy Wall Street movement in the fall of 2011. Both movements shared some features in common, especially a concern with corporate influence on the political process and the failure of our political leaders to deal with pressing problems, be it income inequality or climate change. While a significant percentage of Americans supported the Occupy movement in the fall, by the winter, some had grown weary of the city encamp-ments across the country and the movement’s seeming lack of clear goals. If Americans grow tired of Occupy, they might also turn away from groups such as Tar Sands Action who have aligned themselves with it.

Yet even if the pipeline is approved, the anti-Keystone movement is an important chapter in North American environmentalism and the budding climate movement. Given the failure of meaningful political action on climate change, either domestically or internationally, the temptation to resort to protests and nonviolent civil disobedience will likely only grow. The most long-lasting impact of the anti-Keystone protests might come in the future. The first Earth Day in 1970 was not just the largest protest in U.S. history; it was an incubator for new ideas and the training ground for a generation of environmental activists, community leaders, and policymakers.9 Although the Keystone XL protests were not on the same scale as the first Earth Day, history may show they were the breeding ground for a new generation of activists that infused the climate movement with a vitality and imagination it desperately needed.