Demonstrators call for the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline during a rally in front of the White House. (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)
This article was originally published by the invaluable GenerationProgress.
It’s early March and raining as I ride through the mountains of the Mad River Valley. Where white usually paints lines thicker than the lane marker, there is no snow. As I hitchhike through Vermont with two talkative strangers, I’m worried by the stories a mother tells one of my teenage companions. This native Vermonter recounts the winters of her childhood, full of snow and flurries, while her daughter stares out at the pavement, as grey and dry as sky. I look out the window myself, only to see sleds abandoned and pale yellow tracts of grass. The stories of this woman’s childhood now pass as legend. The daughter grimaces as her mother tells a story she’s heard many times before.
It’s as apparent as ever: human activity is shifting weather patterns. We do not live on the same planet that our parents did. And while the leaders of yesterday and today have known about climate change for almost forty years, the burning of fossil fuel continues largely unabated. What is the value of science if it does not inform decisions? Scientists and citizens have interpreted climate change thus far—now it’s time they fix it.
The move to divest college endowment funds from fossil fuel companies marks a fundamental shift in the “ask” of environmental groups as a whole. Instead of asking individuals to decrease demand, the divestiture platform asks fossil fuel companies to decrease supply. This alone brings nothing problematic to the table. However, it is important to note that the mainstream environmental movement has adopted this rhetoric.
On February 17, approximately 40,000 people rallied at the Washington Monument to protest President Obama’s possible approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Speakers of diverse professions and ethnicities addressed the crowds with emphatic speeches. The attendees cheered as speaker after speaker renounced the greed of the fossil fuel industry. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (RI-D) captured the rhetoric of the crowd best: “The big oil companies don’t want you to be heard. The polluters don’t want you to be here.” Inherent in the language of both the divestment campaign and the Keystone XL Pipeline protest is a psychological split between the polluter and the activist. This distinction could not be further from the truth.
It’s almost inevitable that such a split would have to be made, for, as Albert Camus reminds us, “Rebellion, after all, can only be imagined in terms of opposition to someone.” It’s clear that a scapegoat ideology has emerged in mainstream environmentalism; this is where things get problematic.
The consumer culture that plagues America today was no less apparent at the Keystone XL rally than it has been on any street corner. The true enemy of growth and the wealth that it has brought were both present in full force, mostly unbeknownst to the crowd. So will a whole lot of shouting, dancing and screaming effectively change oil companies into alternative energy companies? Is the mainstream environmental community truly willing to sacrifice what it would take to combat climate change? Can symbolic gestures such as protests overturn the market maxim of supply and demand?