Why I Marched Against the XL Pipeline

My daughter and I joined an estimated 50,000 demonstrators in Washington, D.C. marching against the XL Pipeline that would connect the Canadian Tar Sands to American refineries.  After a half century on this planet, I took to the streets.  Here’s why.

The “business as usual” arguments in favor of building the pipeline as articulated by the liberal and often thoughtful Joe Nocera today in the New York Times – “Like it or not, fossil fuels are going to remain the world’s dominant energy source for the foreseeable future” – virtually guarantee ecological and economic disaster in our lifetimes.  There is no denying it: on our present course, climate change will be irreversible, unleashing unimaginable suffering and destruction for all of human and non-human life now on this earth and for future generations.  We need to name the truth.  Through its so-called balanced coverage and opinions relating to what must be understood as the unparalleled moral issue that defines our age, the mainstream media is complicit in the slow-motion catastrophe playing out in front of us in real-time.

Nocera calls the tactic – it’s just a tactic in a comprehensive offensive – to choke off a route to market for expanded Tar Sands oil mining from a rich northern economy “bone-headed,” when he should be contemplating how we are going to leave in the ground the already developed fossil fuel resources in politically unstable regions like the Middle East, where entire and unstable social systems are dependent upon oil revenues.  The Potsdam Institute revealed all the arithmetic on the carbon quotas required to limit climate warming to 2 degrees Celsius back in 2009.  Our “Big Choice” is to develop a new energy system based on renewables and to leave in the ground the vast majority of the fossil fuel reserves we have already discovered but not yet burned, or, to usher in climate (and economic) catastrophe.  Expanding that fossil fuel resource base with dirty Tar Sands oil is sheer lunacy, a “bad investment,” to quote Tom Steyer, billionaire hedge fund manager turned climate activist.

Together with the 50,000 who descended on the White House, and the millions and probably billions of global citizens who agree, I am not prepared to simply accept that inevitability without a fight.  It’s a shame President Obama felt it would be a better use of his President’s Day weekend to fly Air Force One from Chicago to Florida — nice carbon load there — and play golf with his friendly patrons, and with Tiger Woods of all people, than to look out his window and absorb our message firsthand.

Looking upon the White House, such a symbol of power, I felt hopelessly powerless and powerful at the same time with my 50,000 brethren on a crisp, windy winter day.  I also felt angry at all “the people who run the world” who for whatever reasons can’t seem to bring themselves to address the cold hard truth, even as the evidence unfolds in front of their eyes. Is the best we can do to start talking about building floodgates, rather than look head on into the systemic fallacy of our conventional thinking that somehow presumes exponential growth of carbon emissions dumped into a finite atmosphere is acceptable and inevitable?

Let me help Joe and others trapped in our present globalized free market efficiency ideology: When certain critical assumptions about a system are factually flawed — like the notion that exponential growth on a finite planet somehow does not violate the laws of thermodynamics — observations of events increasingly conflict with our ideological expectations until it no longer remains possible to ignore them.  Introducing finite boundaries into conventional (flawed) equilibrium economics will generate what systems scientists call phase transitions.  We learned how this works in the recent financial crisis-induced global recession.  The future stops behaving like the past. Ask a Greek about it.  With no changes to business as usual, we are in the process of the largest self-inflicted and catastrophic phase transition of life as we know it in the history of humanity.

Yet the news coverage in the liberally slanted New York Times on the day after the XL Pipeline demonstration appeared not on the front page, but on the business page, describing the difficult choice facing President Obama in which two special interests — environmentalists and free trade with Canada — are in conflict.   The environment is not a “special interest” Mr. President (and the New York Times).  The environment is us.  We and our beloved economy are embedded in the “environment,” indivisible in accordance with the laws (not theories) of physics.

Nothing will be easy about this challenge, economically or politically. We lack an accurate roadmap to find our way.  Our current intellectual maps of economics and finance, governance and law, and the working of our political system, are all grounded in the limitations of Enlightenment thinking, which preceded quantum theory in physics and modern biology.   The latter reveal, in fact, that everything is connected to everything.  On matters of great strategic importance like climate change, there is only our common interest.

Business as usual will deliver a virtually identical fossil fuel footprint in the decades ahead.  According to the US Energy Information Administration, we currently get 82 percent of our energy from fossil fuels.  Appallingly, by 2040, it is predicted that proportion will have shrunk only to 79 percent.  And the picture in China and India is of course dire in terms of expansion of carbon emissions.

A carbon tax to begin to “internalize the externality” of carbon pollution and shift the marginal economics of renewables is the natural place to start.  But we must also move rapidly toward hard global emission limits.  We need a much expanded government-funded innovative research program, displacing military spending that continues to prepare for yesterday’s national security threats.   This is the reality we simply must confront. American leadership is essential, President Obama.  The time is now.

Despite the amazing organizing energy and success bringing 50,000 peaceful demonstrators to Washington in what is being described as the largest environmental protest in the history of America, we have miles to go and mountains to climb.  Much more pressure will be needed to combat the overwhelming short-term economic interests in play.

Imagine the shift in moral consciousness it took to bring “one million men” to march on Washington?  Without Twitter.