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Keystone XL Protests in Washington Promise to Spark New Environmental Inspiration

I’ve always loved the fact that the word “inspiration” comes from the Latin spirare, to breathe. And breathing, in Latin, shares the same root as spiritus — spirit. The yogic wisdom embedded in that etymology has often been a kind of comfort. I like the idea that inspiration — to infuse with spirit — means breathing life into something.

Photo courtesy Pembina Institute From Aug. 20 to Sept.3, thousands of people will converge on Washington, DC, to demand that
President Obama nix a planned pipeline that will move crude from Canada's tar sands into the US.

Finding inspiration has been difficult for environmentalists in this season of diminished expectations. So the story of Tim DeChristopher has been especially welcome. DeChristopher’s powerful example of conviction has breathed new life into the environmental movement — and that’s something I think we needed.

In case you missed it, here’s the background: In December 2008, DeChristopher, then 27, attended a government auction to sell off oil and gas drilling rights near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. While protestors chanted outside, DeChristopher went into the auction, grabbed a bidder’s paddle, and quickly snapped up 22,000 acres of land — “spending” $1.79 million he didn’t have. When the carbon barons realized that the young man wasn’t, in fact, an aspiring oil tycoon, the auction was shut down and DeChristopher was arrested. In March, a jury found him guilty of violating the Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act. A judge sentenced him in July to two years in federal prison and a $10,000 fine.

DeChristopher’s creative monkeywrenching and his grace during the trial have galvanized environmentalists. He has demonstrated what it looks like to stand up for your principles and to suffer the consequences if necessary. DeChristopher told me in an interview this summer: “Being obedient to the system and staying on the path that we are on now — that to me is a more terrifying situation [than going to jail].”

Such words are more vital than ever given the accelerating pace of global climate change. As Maureen Nandini Mitra reports in the upcoming cover story for our Autumn 2011 edition, weather disruptions from unchecked greenhouse gas emissions are upon us. Climate change isn’t “approaching;” it’s here, now. The floods, the droughts, the fires — they’re all part of an increasingly unstable climate. It’s no longer enough to prevent climate change. We must also prepare for it.

Climate experts say that global warming adaptation must center on resilience. We need to rebuild our communities so that they are resilient enough — flexible enough — to withstand higher waters and drier weather. But even as we make our preparations, it’s essential that we stay focused on mitigation, wonk-speak for slashing greenhouse gas emissions. If resilience is the key to adaptation, resistance must be the center point of mitigation. To successfully confront the fossil fuel companies and their political puppets we will need much more Tim DeChristopher-like rebelliousness.

I’m happy to report that such resistance is underway — and gaining steam. From August 20 to September 3, thousands of people will converge on Washington, DC, to demand that President Obama nix a planned oil pipeline that will move crude from the Canadian tar sands into the United States. At least 2,000 people have committed to engage in non-violent civil disobedience at the White House. Expect to see dozens of arrests at Obama’s front door every day for two weeks. There will also an anti-tar sands concert on August 27 and a big rally on September 3.

The upcoming tar sands protests are a big deal for a couple of reasons. First, and most obviously, this project is a horrible idea. Unsatisfied with the existing Keystone pipeline, the oil vendors in Alberta are ordering up the Keystone XL — which sounds to me like the supersizing of climate destruction. According to Cambridge Energy Research Associates, getting a barrel of oil from the tar sands mines to your car involves 40 to 70 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than does an average barrel of oil. Or, in the words of Bill McKibben, one of the organizers of the upcoming White House demonstrations: Keystone XL is “a 1,500-mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent.” Investing new financial capital into additional fossil fuel infrastructure is the exact opposite of what we need to be doing to stabilize carbon emissions.

Secondly, the protests should provide a shot in the arm to an environmental movement still bruised and confused from the defeat last year of comprehensive climate legislation. Since it crosses an international border, the pipeline’s fate rests with the US State Department; which means that, if he wants, President Obama can put a kibosh on the whole idea. But that kind of political courage on the part of the president will require some grassroots pressure. The concerned citizens rallying at the White House gates are there to provide that. Equally important, the tar sands warriors will be providing others with an example of what courageous citizenry looks like. The organizers of the White House protests claim the action will be "the largest collective act of civil disobedience in the history of the climate movement."

I sure hope so, because one infusion of insipiration isn't enough. Yes, DeChristopher has been an inspiration to many. But as we know, respiration is an exchange. Inspiration works similarly. It isn’t a broadcast medium, with one hero sending out radio signals of valor. Inspiration is more like the Web, a network in which people barter hope for courage and trade vision for action.

With DeChristopher now in jail, it’s our turn to breathe some life into him. Are you ready to join?

Jason MarkJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is the Editor in Chief of SIERRA, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, and the author of Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man. From 2007 to 2015 he was the Editor of Earth Island Journal.

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