Mr. Obama, Why Re-routing is Not the Answer

If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading
~ Gautama Buddha


You have probably heard of Standing Rock protest via social media by now. If you haven’t, I encourage you to inform yourself, the mainstream media is catching up slowly and may be a bit biased, as usual, but that’s part of the problem. The fact that by yesterday (November 2), 1.4 million people around the world had “checked in” at Standing Rock reserve tells that many support the cause. If you haven’t done so but care about things that are sacred (such as water and respecting cultures and their ancestors), I encourage you to do so. It is an act of solidarity, and even when you may be just behind a screen, it tells a story: that we the regular people, the 99% are waking up and tired of not being heard. That we care for each other and what’s important.

I’m not going to go into the details or speculate whether we are seeing another cultural emergence in this Standing Rock protest (cultural emergences are moments in history when the patterns of a system are disrupted, the system becomes fluid and there is an opportunity for intervention and change how the system behaves. This is well known in systems theory and in certain approaches of life coaching and therapy, where we use disruptions to stop patterns of erosion or harm and create patterns of regeneration, creativity and abundance. The concept can also be found in permaculturist Looby McNamara’s book “People & Permaculure” and in her post on Cultural Emergence).

Summarizing, however, Standing Rock is a protest started by the Sioux people who saw their water and sacred land threatened by the construction of the North Dakota pipeline. The pipeline has already been rerouted as the first intended location was too close to a city source of water. After months of peaceful protests, things starting to heat up in September and became really ugly in October, with more than 400 people arrested, military-style police approaches and complete disrespect of human rights and no cultural sensitivity.

You would think that at this point the US federal government (and also those promoting themselves as the next leaders of the most powerful country in the world), would have said or done something. But the only words they got from President Obama after weeks of silence were “we are going to let it play out for several more weeks and determine whether or not this can be resolved in a way that I think is properly attentive to the traditions of the first Americans”. He also suggested “re-routing” the pipeline.

What’s wrong with the above picture?

Too many things are definitely wrong and the only reason I bring them up here is because of what they represent: beyond Obama or any other world “leader” and beyond the attitudes, words and actions of all the representatives of power (from governments at all levels and corporations, there are fundamental flaws:

  • Lack of understanding of how systems, specially ecological and biological systems function, but also social and economic ones.
  • Lack of ethics around any potential consequences that don’t directly affect them
  • Lack of long-term vision
  • The idea that technology and political will would solve anything just because they say so
  • Arrogance about the role of people in the planet and their own role as “leaders” (re-read Obama’s words, specially the piece “…the way that I think is properly attentive to the traditions of the first Americans” (I wonder why the first Americans are not the first consulted about what’s properly attentive, instead of being Obama’s opinion)
  • The (mistaken) perception and attitude that the world belongs to them and they can do anything as long as it is “legal”, forgetting that the world does not belong to humans (it is the other way around) and that legal doesn’t equal ethical or the best for everyone.

Now let’s review the issues one by one:

  1. Re-routing a pipeline won’t solve the issue. It may solve what is superficially perceived as “the issue” (i.e. the potential pollution of these people’s water source and the real destruction and disrespect of their sacred lands). But the real issue is that more pipelines just extend the harm that extracting, transporting and consuming fossil fuels are doing to the planet’s ecosystems and its climate. If we remember for a second that our very lives depend on a certain stability of the climate systems, that our food (crops) are affected by these changes and that the soil and water we also need to stay alive are affected by climate change, then we may see the connection.
  1. Pipelines last an average of 40 to 50 years. They require maintenance to function well and even with the highest safety precautions, they always represent a high risk for spills, explosions, etc. The destruction caused when they are built, plus the highly likelihood of the damage in case of leak or explosion, will last for centuries. These issues will impact entire ecosystems and the livelihood of the people and communities living close to these pipelines but they may also affect peoples and communities down a river or stream, and just for the fact that they emit CO2, they will affect the wellbeing and even the survival of future generations.
  1. Continue investing money and efforts into fossil fuels creates the illusion that we can continue this way forever. It perpetuates the “need” for fossil fuels and all the different processes, exchanges and products that depend on them and don’t provide any incentive to try a different way to live and an alternative for the type and source of energy we use.
  1. The science behind the effects in the environment of processes like fracking and mountaintop mining, tar sands processing and the like says that all these things not only emit CO2 and other dangerous chemicals, but also destroys watersheds, forests and entire ecosystems. In most cases, it also destroys communities as these projects tend to use aboriginal’s lands and small villages and towns. The effects of the consequent processing, transporting and use of these fossil fuels (including coal, gas, bitumen and oil) not only show in climate change, they show in pollution of water, air and soils.
  1. A lot of people bring the “we need jobs” argument to gain followers from unions, social justice groups, the left and the liberals. The problem with this argument has two faces: first, the jobs created by pipelines, LNG facilities and the like are minimal. They may generate a few hundred of temporary jobs related to construction at the beginning, but these jobs end once the project is built. The actual jobs created may be around 40 depending on the type of facility and involve engineers, a few managers and maintenance. That’s it. The amount of existent jobs they destroy is higher, and they also destroy the potential for other, more resilient and sustainable jobs that will benefit the community for decades to come and not just a couple of years. The second face of this is that we cannot compare jobs with life. There are no jobs In a dead planet. If we continue supporting destructive energy and technologies, we will soon not have a society in which jobs are available. We will have more mass migrations, “natural” disasters increased by climate change, illnesses and famines…what kind of jobs justify those horrors?
  1. Another argument used to defend the support for fossil fuels is that we all consume them. The reality is that we consume what’s available. A few of us may be able and willing to reduce consumption and even go off the grid but the rest is stuck in a systen that allows for small room on alternatives: there is not enough public transportation, there is not enough support or encouragement for the adoption of renewables, there is not enough support for people to access land and spacesm skills and tools to grow their own food and stay local and so on. The descent into a lower energy demanding society that is also more just will come only if both grassroots and individuals with the support of governments and business work on those goals together. Yes, there are things we need to do such as fly and drive less or nothing, get jobs closer to home, grow food locally, consume less products and make sure they are ethical and so on, but this will not happen en masse until we decide to get away from fossil fuels and adopt new ways to see our “needs” and our place in the world…and fossil fuels won’t help in that.
  1. Fossil fuels are also limited. Even if climate change wasn’t an issue, there are still the issues of limited resources and pollution.

So no, re-routing is a poor response. A more serious and responsible response would be being completely honest with the public and doing something that requires a lot of courage and is radical but necessary:  explaining the issues clearly, calling for locally-based committees to look for locally appropriated solutions that lead to energy descent action plans (EDAP) that show the understanding that humans don’t own the world: they are dependent on the natural ecosystems they are destroying and can’t continue destroying them and taking things for granted as if there was abundance forever, or they may be risking extinction, something that may already be underway for many other species, including humans in less privileged countries.

Re-routing spells extinction, disrespect for other cultures and arrogance. It also spells a terrible ignorance. Luxuries we can’t continue affording: it was not OK when we were one or three billion as resources, land and technologies then seemed infinite.  But now with seven billion, it is not only not OK, it is a crime. Resources are not infinite…and the window of time to act has already closed. The only ethical next step to take now is to work together to make the fall less destructive and painful.

Only real leaders will have the courage to get us there, so the work is on each one of us. We are the ones we have been waiting for…

It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
~ Nelson Mandela

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