The Keystone pipeline might be approved this year, but Mark Hertsgaard says an important new book shows what activists have to do to psychologically commit to fighting for the environment.
When President Obama, to most observers’ surprise, addressed the Keystone XL pipeline in his landmark speech on climate change on June 25, 2013, it was partly because of Mary Pipher. Inside the Beltway, the conventional wisdom was that Obama would not mention Keystone, a pipeline that would carry particularly carbon-heavy tar sands oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries, because he was privately planning to approve the project later this year. In a speech designed to highlight his commitment to fighting climate change, what would be the point of talking about a pipeline that, if the president did approve it, would facilitate burning some of the dirtiest fossil fuels on the planet?
The psychological twist in the case of climate change is that we inflict the disaster ourselves.
The Trauma to Transcendence formula is straightforward enough, but putting it into practice requires some courage. You begin by facing your despair, even though “coming out of the trance of denial is painful.” In step two, Acceptance, you acknowledge the realities that brought you to despair. It’s critical to take this step with the help of others; the best way for humans to deal with emotional pain, writes Pipher, “is to turn toward other people.” You share your feelings, including your fears but above all your love—for the grandchild you want to see grow up, for a prairie untrammeled by pipelines, for the right of all creatures to share the bounties of this earth. It is love that propels you toward the final stage, Transcendence, for love leads humans to take action for the sake of their beloved, despite one’s fears and the undeniable possibility of failure.
“When I figured out what I could do, I stopped being scared,” Pipher writes. And when one person sees others taking action, that person is more likely to take action herself. When working together, people experience what Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid hero, called “the multiplication of courage.”
None of this guarantees success; hope is not a magic wand; the Keystone pipeline may well still be approved. But without the efforts of Mary Pipher and thousands of others who have spoken out, rallied and gotten arrested, the pipeline surely would have been approved by now. And as Mandela’s quote suggests, these activists’ example has attracted many others to the fight.
Last month, 22 former Obama campaign staff members were arrested after occupying State Department premises to call on the president they helped elect in 2008 to live up to his promises on climate change. And those 22 are but a tiny fraction of the 69,000 people who have pledged to commit civil disobedience to prevent the construction of Keystone.
This is how most of the great struggles for justice have been won, from the defeat of apartheid in South Africa to the winning of the right to vote for women and blacks in the United States. In the face of what appear to be impossible odds often backed by a ruthless status quo, a small number of people start talking among themselves about things they can no longer ignore. Their talk leads to action. Their actions, like twigs unexpectedly bursting into flame, kindle others to join them. The fire grows, and with luck and hard work becomes strong enough to pose a threat to the established order. Some fires overturn that order, some burn out before that. All that’s certain is that without a fire, nothing much changes. And whatever the outcome, it is the fire that warms our souls along the way.