A few years ago, it would have seemed implausible that a group of Midwestern ranchers and Native Americans would gather on the National Mall in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, as they did on Tuesday. Not because the union is so unlikely, but because the pipeline’s approval seemed all but certain.
“We bring you pickles from the heartland,” said a farmer in a red baseball cap, extending a jar to a Native American elder. At his feet lay other gifts—jewelry, blankets and more homemade preserves—exchanged between members of the Cowboy and Indian Alliance, a coalition of ranchers, farmers and Native American tribes leading a weeklong protest against the Keystone pipeline.
“All farmers and ranchers and Native Americans are environmentalists, because without the water and the land we have nothing. It’s our livelihood,” said Mike Blocher, who raises Quarter horses in Antelope County, Nebraska, on land TransCanada has claimed for the pipeline route. “If that oil runs out on my land, my grass is gone. My water’s gone. My farm ground is gone. My livelihood is gone. And what will they do? Say, ‘Here’s a few bucks.’”
Later, riders on horseback made their way down the National Mall towards a cluster of teepees, which will be the hub for other action throughout the week: traditional water ceremonies to highlight the threat the pipeline poses to water resources like the Ogallala aquifer; an undisclosed “bold and creative action” at the White House on Thursday; and a rally on Saturday that organizers expect to draw several thousand people.
Earth Day may be a shadow of its initial self, but there is still something vital in the anti-Keystone campaign, the most significant environmental movement in the United States today. No other campaign has drawn as much attention to the issue of climate change. Few environmental causes include such diverse stakeholders, from major green groups to ranchers concerned about property rights, to indigenous leaders to urban residents worried about pollution from refineries at the pipeline’s end point. Still, there is a growing tendency to trivialize the decision about the pipeline, as The New York Times did in an article on Tuesday that pointed out that the greenhouse gas emissions from KXL would amount to “an infinitesimal slice of the global total.”
The campaign against Keystone isn’t ultimately about the impact of a single infrastructure project. The link between the pipeline and the future climate is indirect—the real point is the campaign itself. While the outcome of the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule-making process for carbon emissions from power plants may make a bigger contribution to the climate fight in absolute terms, there is no single law or decision that can “solve” the present crisis. Besides, it’s hard to imagine people chaining themselves to the White House fence while advocating for stricter bureaucratic standards.
The first Earth Day illustrated how popular movement precedes political action. The 1970 demonstrations brought out some 20 million Americans, seemingly spontaneously. Within four year the agencies and legislation that undergird all of the environmental protections that matter today became law: the EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act, to name a few.