Does it matter if a social movement hitches its wagon to the wrong horse?
For the food movement and its embrace of the GMO labeling cause, I argued yes in Slate, because it is
predicated on junk science and blind, simplistic mistrust of multinational corporations…The pro-labeling camp wants people to believe that eating “frankenfood” is dangerous to their health. This is simply false.
A number of very smart people feel that the climate movement is making a similar miscalculation by hitching its wagon to the anti-Keystone XL pipeline cause. (See, for example, Jon Foley here and Michael Levi here, for two good arguments.) But the galvanizing symbolism of the pipeline cannot be easily dismissed. I’ve previously written that
the complexity of climate change offers few tangible symbols. So the Keystone pipeline has become an effective rallying point…
Opposition to the pipeline has also come to embody a principle that one climate activist articulated well in a recent essay:
It’s true that stopping a single pipeline – even one as huge and odious as Keystone – will not literally “solve” climate disruption. No single action will do that, any more than refusing to sit on the back of a single bus literally ended segregation. The question – for Keystone protestors as it was for Rosa Parks – is whether the action captures and communicates a principle powerful enough to inspire and sustain an irresistible movement for sweeping social change.
Stopping Keystone nails the core principle for climate responsibility, by preventing investments that make climate disruption irrevocably worse. Again, it’s not just that burning tar sands oil produces a lot of emissions; it’s that long-term capital investments like Keystone (and coal plants, and coal export facilities) “lock in” those dangerous emissions for decades and make catastrophic climate disruption inevitable.
So I don’t agree with Joe Nocera, who in a New York Times column today refers to the sustained anti-pipeline protest as “utterly boneheaded.” Ordinarily, I’m all for increasing the pragmatism quotient in environmental debates, but when it comes to building a movement, there needs to be an outlet for idealism, too. There’s nothing boneheaded about that.
If one measures–on a climate ledger–the Canadian oil sands that would be piped into the United States, then yes, Keystone is insignificant. But that’s not how it should be measured. For Keystone has become both a call to action and a consciousness raising touchstone. It’s a fight that harnesses grassroots energy and keeps a media focus on climate change. That’s how a movement gains momentum and takes on a life of its own. That’s how Keystone should be measured.
There is one singular emotion driving the anti-GMO faction and climate activists in their respective movements: fear. Fear of GMOs and fear of global warming. Based on what science tells us, the former is unwarranted, the latter is legitimate. Opposition to GMOs–and the drive to label them–springs from a fear that is unfounded. Opposition to the Keystone pipeline springs from a fear of climate change that may be unduly magnified by some activists and scientists (which can be counterproductive), but it is a fear that is based on multiple lines of scientific evidence.
Keystone may not be the best front for the larger battle over how to decarbonize our energy economy, but it is a potent proxy that is now mobilizing people to join that larger battle. How that turns out will determine how the Keystone fight will ultimately be judged.
[2011 anti-Keystone protest in front of White House/Wikimedia commons]