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McKibben’s Folly

Last Saturday in LaFayette Park, as the two week protest of the proposed “Keystone XL” pipeline drew to a close, the mood across from the White House was jubilant. In an organized act of nonviolent civil disobedience not seen from the environmental community in years, more than 1,250 protestors had been arrested for trespassing, nearly 250 on that sunny morning alone. Throngs cheered as their compatriots were perp-walked to idling buses, some somber, others beaming despite the nylon ties binding their hands, and the entire assembly roared when each new busload rumbled off for booking. In the distance across the lawn, brightly-adorned figures passed in and out of the White House front doors. Surely they could hear the commotion – but could President Obama?

The protestors want Obama to stop Keystone XL, which would pump an estimated 900,000 barrels of tar sands oil daily from Alberta, Canada across six states to refining facilities in Texas. Tar sands oil is extracted by pumping a solution of water and chemicals into the earth’s crust – a process known as “fracking,” which threatens groundwater aquifers and produces huge amounts of waste. And because tar sands oil is dirtier and harder to refine than conventional oil, the protestors liken Keystone XL to a “carbon bomb” that would make climate change irreversible.

Obama can kill the project simply by denying it a certificate of “national interest”. But despite the celebratory atmosphere outside the White House, the signs are not good. Secretary of State Clinton has said she is “inclined” to recommend approval of the pipeline, and Obama himself marked the protestors’ penultimate day by announcing, that Friday afternoon, that he had directed Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa P. Jackson to withdraw the agency’s tightened emissions standards for smog-causing ozone. In a statement, Obama cited the need to reduce “regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty” for businesses.

It was odd, then, that many of the arrested protestors were sporting “Obama ‘08” memorabilia. This was no accident. A broad coalition including nearly every major environmental group opposes Keystone XL, but if the protestors have a single leader, it is Bill McKibben, author, activist and founder of the climate action group 350.org. McKibben, who was among the first to be arrested, was also wearing an Obama ‘08 pin, and in an online invitation, he joined rally organizers in suggesting, as a “sartorial tip,” that others do the same.

Taking the stage in LaFayette Park, McKibben explained the rationale behind the protestors’ seemingly schizophrenic strategy. Obama the candidate, he recalled, had pledged that if he were elected, the rise of the oceans would begin to slow and the planet would begin to heal. “I believed it,” McKibben said, and so did the others wearing Obama ‘08 gear, and this gave them a position of “moral authority” from which to confront Obama the president.

McKibben then delivered what was perhaps his most emphatic statement of the day. What the protestors would not do, he declared, is “attack Obama,” because that would only allow the

administration to “marginalize” them. Instead, McKibben said, they would work to “hold Obama to his promise.” It was a “delicate line” to tread, McKibben acknowledged, but he offered an example of the tactics the protestors would pursue: a few had already visited Obama’s newly-opened 2012 campaign headquarters and “firmly and directly” voiced their opposition to Keystone XL. What McKibben did not say – and it’s not clear that he knew – is that rally organizers had uninvited at least one speaker who surely would have attacked Obama.

Following his arrest, McKibben blogged that he had discovered an even deeper respect for Martin Luther King, Jr., as a “tactician” who “really understood the power of nonviolence.” But King also understood the famous dictum of Frederick Douglass, that “power concedes nothing without a demand.” No one has worked harder than McKibben in the fight against climate change (including Al Gore, who supported but did not attend the protest), and he is probably right that his coalition has succeeded in transforming Keystone XL from a “regional” to a “national” issue. But what is their demand?

McKibben said after the rally that Obama will “send a jolt of electricity” through his supporters if he rejects Keystone XL, but he reiterated that his coalition would not “do President Obama the favor of attacking him.” Assuming Obama heard the commotion outside his window, the question for McKibben is why Obama would listen, when he is so busy conceding to the demands of others.

Oliver Hall can be reached at:  oliverbhall@gmail.com.