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What can the ancients teach us about sustainability? According to Melissa Lane of Princeton University, author of Eco-Republic, quite a lot. She discusses the relevance of Plato to modern environmental problems in this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast.

If you have an interest in sustainability, climate change, or the ways in which philosophy can be applied to contemporary political problems, I highly recommend taking ten minutes to listen to this interesting interview.

Progressive take on sustainability and redefining the limits of harm.

I agree with the NYTimes’s Andrew Revkin that Keystone XL pipeline protests are misconstrued and overreaching. True, there are some heavy weights on board, like Bill McKibben and James “game over” “NASA” Hansen. It’s hard to argue with such credentialed people and their deep, lifelong passions. But, I believe I can argue with them, and I will below. (I’ve emailed this post to McKibben and will post his response in a later Update).

NOTE: This is a two part post. In the first part, I explain why I reject protest as an environmentalist’s tool and offer a better alternative. In the second, I make the case for the Keystone XL pipeline.

                                                      ~ PART  I ~

Protesters apocalyptic rallying cry is ultimately going to hurt the image of the environmental/climate movement more than they could help it. Not only are they sexing-up the facts of the pipeline, they’re encouraging young people to get arrested. They need to be honest with their recruits, and tell them what the consequences are of living a life with a criminal record. A recent study(pdf) by Northwestern University surveyed the negative effects of having a criminal record and employment opportunities. “Incarceration is associated with limited future employment opportunities and earnings potential,” the author concluded.

A criminal record affects people’s careers. They could be denied a job, limited to what types of jobs they could attain, or even be denied a access to college or loans (“Have you been convicted of a felony? Yes/No”).

McKibben et al are also encouraging civil disobedience, which, if you’ve been paying attention to the fall out of the Patriot Act, could lead some activists to get busted for acts of eco-terrorism (see also); not the misdemeanor charges of the past.

Domestic Terrorists

The FBI’s position is that eco-terrorism is the number one domestic terror threat. Though no one has been killed, eco-terrorists have caused $100 million in damages to property in the name of their environmental cause. Merits aside, it must be made plain and crystal clear that people who get arrested protesting Keystone XL are most likely put on the a terrorist watch list. This is not something to fuck around with (again, before you squeal at me about eroded civil rights, I’m not arguing the merits of environmentalism, I’m warning that there is a greater reality - being on a terrorist watch list - beyond ideological truths). Thus, McKibben et al need to be honest about how arrest will affect his recruits.

Is protesting worth the personal costs?

For these high-profile people, yes - they have the money and they’re old. They have little to lose by getting arrested, and lots to gain by grabbing headlines. The consequences of having a criminal record are moot for them. Darryl Hannah will continue to act, and Bill McKibben write many more books. For a young activist that gets arrested and charged with a crime, they’re tattooed for life. Young people today go from job to job like it’s nobody’s business, and they’ll have quite the wake up call when a prospective employer denies them a job. McKibben et al aren’t telling young folks the consequences of arrest. And for that, they need to chill out and be more discriminating with their recruitment efforts.

Protest should be a last resort

You protest when the democratic process fails. You partner up with non-profits and take your opponent to court. You show up to public hearings and be active throughout the project’s permitting process. You protest only when petitions, phone campaigns, elections, public meetings, writing and other advocacy efforts fail.

Why now?

Was there a long advocacy campaign with respect to Keystone XL? No, there wasn’t. There were no active anti-pipeline campaigns worth speaking of, and the project was proposed 6 years ago, in 2005.

Above, Google Trends of “Keystone XL pipeline” shows barely any activity for “Keystone XL pipeline” prior to summer 2011. Why not?

Indeed, when I narrowed the Trends to 2009 and also 2010, there were no results to speak of. Yes, there were a few failed lawsuits. I read them, in fact, while at Vermont Law. But, a handful of lawsuits is not evidence of a concerted action campaign to stop the pipeline.

Where were these famous people in 2005/2006, when the line was first proposed?

I did a cursory search of a few names limited to the time range of January 1, 2006 to December 31, 2010 and came up with nothing. Nothing on Keystone and Bill McKibben, or Keystone and James Hanson, or Keystone and NRDC until we hit 2010/2011. So, why are they latching on to this one project and claiming it’s the most important thing they’ve ever done? It seems a sleight of manipulative hand to me, one that will backfire if Obama signs the deal. See: Obama unswayed by protests, looks to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline

The current protest is led by smart people

But, they should have had a better organized campaign against the pipeline years ago. Now, once the dust settles, they’ll have to regroup, manage damage control, and fight an up-hill battle… As it stands, it looks like they just showed up at the last minute. It seems contrived. A cobbled together, albeit high-profile group, of activists who are riding their fame to promote their respective climate causes. It has grabbed some attention - not much, but some. I doubt they’re satisfied with the results…

Protesting may be an effective approach in some instances

But not this one. I don’t think this current effort is effective with respect to stopping the pipeline. Instead, McKibben et al should - with equal vigor - encourage people to write their representatives and, god forbid, run for political office. Sideline, arm-chair, fundraising, youth movement, and sign-carrying activism is not producing results. As romantic and enticing as protesting seems, it’s really an inefficient, ineffectual waste of human energy and brain power.

As I’ve written before, writing to your politicians works.

This is not a random rant against protest nor is it a per se attack on McKibben’s position. I have thought deeply about protests for many years. In fact, I published a photo essay about effectiveness of protest-as-a-last-resort in Berkeley Planning Journal just last year. In my article (contact me if you want a copy), I questioned how a country - Denmark - could better transition to energy independence in light of massive failures in policy. After all, they pursued energy independence since the 1970s. Denmark took “We’re addicted to foreign oil,” mantra seriously, and made aggressive energy policies to reduce their addictions.

Today, Denmark, the supposed greenest country in the world, still gets 70% of its energy from imported fossil fuels

Think about that for a minute - 35 years of aggressive, socialist, left-wing environmental policies have only chipped away a mere 30% of fossil fuels imports. Worse, when we peer behind the curtains, we quickly observe that Denmark’s alternative energy regime is not so green. For example, do you see my tumblr’s background photo? It’s photo I took of an alternative energy plant located in south Copenhagen that burns hay bails and trash. At 50% efficiency, it’s considered one of the greenest power plants in the world. It still creates massive carbon and other pollution emissions, and wastes 50% of the energy it produces. Not so green if looked at objectively.

So, why model Denmark at all? And should the Danes protest for their failed environmental policies?

In 2009 there were huge protests at the COP15 held in Copenhagen. The protests were an an utter failure. So, we have to ask McKibben et al, if diplomacy and policy is too slow (as is the case in Denmark), and protests demonstrably don’t produce results - what does? What are the alternatives to inefficient advocacy?

Above, a picture I took of protesters in Denmark. There were all sorts of groups protesting at the COP15 - from Green Peace, to McKibben’s, to these very pretty anarchist clowns. Still, after speaking with a few of them, few knew specifically what they wanted. Ultimately it was an impotent, expensive, financially wasteful campaign… (Note: I’m aware these efforts lead to spin-off advocacy projects and created new funding for many groups. I would counter that this is not an effective business model…).

Run for political office

I’m starting to believe that running for office will pay more in dividends for environmentalists than not. As I said, I witnessed first hand the climate protests in Denmark at the COP15. They did nothing, really, but cost the Danish and E.U. tax payers as well as the U.N., millions of dollars in security, lost economic production, and time in the form of transportation delays. As far as I can tell, not a single environmental policies were created, changed, or altered as a result of the protests. Zilch.

Back in the US, if you’re old enough, you’ll remember the wild WTO protests in 1999. In fact, I lived in Seattle at the time, right in Belltown in the heart of downtown Seattle. I was a non-participatory witness to those wicked massive and wicked dangerous protests, known as the “Battle in Seattle" (I was also witness to the equally dangerous though oddly construed "Battle in Seattle II" held the following November, 2000).

Above, the Battle in Seattle, 1999. The largest environmental protest in history. Here’s a video (warning, you will become enraged).

What policy changes come from these battles?

Protesters want policy changes, but the effect is always the opposite: new policies were created as a result of WTO that serve to undermine and weaken protesting - not one new policy strengthened environmental laws. Police have bigger budgets, are more trained, better armed, and the law stiffened punishments. Protesters (again, ideology aside) fail because they don’t ask for anything specific. They think they are with Keystone XL, but I’ll explain why that’s incorrect, below. 

My “run for office” idea flows from years of witnessing environmental movement struggle with its business models.

As you can imagine (if you’ve read this far) I reject the old model of protest and full on embrace the democratic process. It is a better alternative to protesting. It involves an equal amount of effort, money, and public outreach. There’s no danger of being on a terrorist watch list, and you’re serving your country.

When you run for office, you participate in a process rarely available to billions of people around the world. We are lucky it’s our right, and if we don’t use it, we’ll surely lose it. Democracy is one of the core values of the left, but for some reason do not understand the ins and outs of actually being a policy maker.

Intellectuals, introverts, and thinkers can be effective leaders

Harvard Business is just now researching and concluding that introverts and thinkers (eg, including enviros) may be the best, most effective leaders to get things done. I’ll leave it to you to click those links. The result, if elected, is the chance to exercise environmental idealism much more effectively.

Further bonus: this position counters other political forces, such as the savvy tea party (not deserving upper case letters). This party, along with the GOP generally, are on track to take a majority of seats if the left continues to shrivel away in fear, (see Mike Lofgren’s dazzling goodbye to his party, the GOP). Why waste time gawking with false-hope at newsclips of McKibben getting arrested? Why not force him to run for office, instead of pulling media stunts?

I’m sorry to say, but the old models of environmental activism are just that, old. They don’t work. It’s time for enviros to put on a suit, kiss stranger’s babies, and end the reactionary, bleeding heart whining.

                                                          ~ PART II ~

Why the Keystone XL pipeline should and most likely will be built

NOTE: One of the strongest arguments against the pipeline is HERE; counter supporting argument HERE (via LATimes, pdf); my previous coverage, HERE.

Above, the Keystone XL pipeline: "TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, L.P. (Keystone) has applied to the U.S. Department of State (DOS) for a Presidential Permit authorizing the construction, operation, and maintenance of facilities at the border of the United States for the importation of petroleum from a foreign country. Authorization is being requested in connection with Keystone?s proposed international pipeline project (the Keystone XL Project), which is designed to transport crude oil production from the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin to existing markets in the Texas Gulf Coast area. The Keystone XL Project would have a nominal capacity to deliver up to 900,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil from an oil supply hub near Hardisty to existing terminals in Nederland (Jefferson County) near Port Arthur, Texas, and Moore Junction (Harris County) in Houston, Texas. In total, the project would consist of approximately 1,702 miles of new, 36-inch-diameter pipeline, with about 327 miles of the pipeline in Canada and 1,375 miles in the United States.” Source: Entrix

Short term argument: Jobs

The most obvious reason it should be approved, like it or not, is it’s politically prudent. Keystone XL will create much needed jobs in the short-term. The actual number of jobs created is unclear; I’ve read anywhere from a few thousand, to 100,000. Either way, Obama has the support of several unions, who have come out for the pipeline. Further, Obama passed on tightening smog rules for economic reasons.

Obama likely to approve the pipeline

Roll Call reports that, “President Barack Obama appears to have concluded that the economic benefits of an oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico outweigh the vigorous protests of environmental activists.” NYTimes Revkin, and Kaufman both agree that he will sign off on it.

Oil will not be exported (sort of)

The oil will be delivered to refineries in the US and will be sold to the US market. Some of it will be refined into diesel fuel, and that will be exported.

Alberta Tar Sands will be developed, with or without the pipeline

If the pipeline is blocked, the oil will still be extracted and sold, and not fully to the United States markets. The NYTimes reported that the fight against the pipeline is little more than a “symbolic clash of ideology” and that development will not slow down, regardless of protests or Obama’s pen.

The developers have also said that the oil sands will be developed, with or without the Keystone XL. They have willing buyers in Asia (NOTE: this link only looks blocked. Click through, and choose “print”).

There are thousands of miles of existing oil pipeline in the United States

There are tens of thousands of miles of oil pipelines in the United States. Many of these lines are aging, leaking, and in need of replacement. The Keystone XL will alleviate pressure from these lines, and even, I surmise, help retire some of them. McKibben et al should be protesting the existing state of oil pipelines and aging refineries, and not Keystone.

BP alone has spilled 5,000 times (not a typo) in 2010 alone. Those are official numbers from the Federal Government. See here. Why isn’t McKibben fighting this reality, rather than Keystone XL, which has far less risk?

The pipeline will have a short lifespan so long as the US continues to transition to alternative energy

The nut of it is that as long as the US becomes less dependent on fossil fuel use, the less relevant the pipeline will become. Revkin wrote that in “Obama approving the pipeline while pursuing energy and climate policies that would, in the end, render it insignificant and uneconomical.” It will be a slow transition, considering how weak the political left is currently. But with demand for solar, alternative energy, new technologies, and more efficient vehicles, there will be a lower the demand for oil.

On that note, I can’t think of a more hopeful ending to this nightmare…