The KXL’s Big Fail

So the Keystone XL bill failed to pass Congress. The Big Fail marks a huge success for groups who have been struggling to expose the KXL for the dirty policy it represents. The actions taken on the day of the vote, including disrupting the Senate vote in the chamber and blocking Senators Bennet (D-Col.) and Carper (D-Del.) from leaving their offices, speak to the dedication and tirelessness of the movement to stop the pipeline.

So we can all go home now, right? We won!

The problem is that the bill will be back in January, and the congress we’re dealing with right now is very different from the one we’ll see ushered into office at the beginning of 2015. Just because the lame-duck Congress voted against the bill (barely) with its Democratic Party majority does not mean that the Republicans will have any problem sweeping it through when they take the majority.

The Democratic Party’s vote does give Obama a mandate to veto the bill next year if and when it goes through, but the question remains as to whether or not he will use it. In short, the Big Fail and ensuing celebrations from the Environmental NGOs looks suspiciously like a setup. It’s definitely not time to demobilize.

No Easy Victories

Rising Tide North America released a statement on their Facebook page going so far as to call the bill’s failure a “hollow victory.” While the Big Fail is vital, activists must stay vigilant, they stress.

“We’ve made the climate argument on this pipeline and won. We’ve made the environmental impact argument and won. We’ve even made the jobs argument on Keystone XL and won,” the group insists.

“The grassroots climate and environmental movements are obviously mobilized. Hopefully, next January becomes more about fighting Keystone XL in the streets, along the pipeline route and corporate offices than asking a political system rigged against us to smile upon our cause once more.”

As RTNA intimates, the KXL must be met through sincere and dedicated efforts at Indigenous solidarity with the Rosebud Sioux, who have called the KXL’s passage through the House an “act of war,” and others who are resisting not only the pipeline, but the tar sands as well.

This is not just a struggle to stop one pipeline; it is a struggle for the future of the Earth, and that means that the tar sands—the Earth’s largest and most toxic industrial project—must be shut down, and all pipelines extending from it thwarted. What if the bill fails in January, through some miracle, and Canada exports the oil through Canada’s Atlantic coast? Would the NGOs declare victory, or would they stand with us in the streets?

As Amilcar Cabral wrote, “Claim no easy victories.”

Pipelines Are Not the End

The day of the vote, the New York Times gave the world a striking image of what pipelines and the future of what is called North America look like with a map of major oil spills from pipelines over just the last twenty years. The grey silhouette of the US is splashed with dark circles along the Midwest and Gulf Coast. Of course these grey splashes look ominous, but do they give us an actual picture of the horror? If we extend our view to catch a glimpse of Canada, contemplation on the horrors of the energy industry becomes totally unfathomable.

The continued exploitation of tar sands in Alberta, Canada, is driving not only the worsening of climate change, but also the further destruction of the landbase. No matter how many carbon credits are given out and swapped, no matter what techno-fixes are developed, when the land and water systems are destroyed, biodiversity is exterminated, and the web of life breaks down.

Yes, targeting the KXL pipeline is both functional and symbolic, and it has merit. But no, today’s decision in Washington does not signal the beginning of a new era—only an increment in the initial, legislative phase. The Washington Post ran an article four days ago throwing into question whether or not this federal vote even matters, since the states maintain some degree of autonomy, and industry may find routes around politics. In a telling incident, a Vice President of a major energy company got into a scuffle with the editor of EnviroNews on Monday while trying to take the latter’s camera, snorting out lines like, “I do whatever I want,” and “fuck you!” This is the mentality not just of a person, but of a pampered industry used to getting its way.

While popular action has brought the pipeline to a screeching halt, the climate movement is far from packing up its gear and heading to Disneyland. There is likely a long struggle ahead, and we need to prepare ourselves for what that’s going to look like—including the struggle not only against KXL, but also the numerous fossil fuel infrastructure routes moving out to the Pacific through the Cascadia bioregion, as well as the new gas infrastructure at Cove Point.

Mobilizing against Climate Change

At this point, the Peoples Climate March and its 300,000 participants appears to be a good start towards the kind of mass mobilization that we need. Earth Day of 1970 saw some 20 million people in the streets. What if those are the paradigm-shifting numbers we need to see if we are going to take the future into our own hands and lead ourselves away from a more catastrophic failure than the Earth could ever manage?

Such movements are happening all over the world. Burkina Faso, Hong Kong, Guerrero—these are just a few places where populations are rising up, because capitalism will never be able to accomplish the goals that are necessary to secure the overcoming of exploitation and genocide. Real victory would mean transforming the basis of society from fossil fuels and corporations to local, horizontal networks of community empowerment, recognizing treaty rights of Indigenous peoples, ending environmental racism.

This means abandoning the big money approach of the Gang Green (Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund, and yes even the dynamic duo of Avaaz and 350). It means building power on community level and spreading resources to those in dire need. Cynical clickbait activism breeds cynical participation, while accumulating resources for dubious means generally focused around brand marketing and advertising makes the movement into its own worst enemy: a self-destructive and superficial PR complex mired in a corporate governance model. Real victory will never come from Washington, it will come from Washington’s ultimate disarmament and disempowerment through the self-activity of people rising up together.

Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire and works for Bark. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). This article is also being published at

Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). His most recent book Against the Fascist Creep is forthcoming through AK Press.