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Keystone XL Pipeline: Why I Got Arrested

John Atcheson

On August 25, I was arrested in front of the White House along with 46 others in an act of civil disobedience protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.   

As these things go, it was a tame exercise.  No one turned water cannons on us; no one unleashed dogs, wielded truncheons, or fired at us.  We weren’t thrown into dungeons.  We didn’t risk an extended jail sentence as environmental activist Tim De Christopher did. But being arrested is not without some consequences, and some risks.

Why was I willing to take those risks? 

Well, the obvious answer is that the pipeline must be stopped, and the tar sands must be left in the ground. This stuff is an ecologic nightmare.  It produces 80% more carbon than conventional oil, and it uses prodigious amounts of fresh water and natural gas to process, laying waste state-sized tracts of land in the bargain.  

Burning it would literally be the equivalent of detonating a slew of nuclear bombs and watching them explode in slow motion. 

But the truth is, I am not optimistic that our actions will change the direction of this particular fossil fueled juggernaut. 

So why, then, risk arrest?

The plain fact is, in an age filled with cynicism, I needed to feel hopeful.  And let me be clear here: I do not view the concept of cynicism as a pejorative.  I see it as a rational response to the events of our time. 

Yet it doesn’t feel very good.  A series of “I knew the dirty rotten scoundrels wouldn’t do the right thing,” wears thin, especially when we’re talking about the future of the planet Earth, and the future of our childrens’ childrens’ children.

But hope can be an antidote to cynicism. As William Sloan Coffin put it, “Hope arouses, as nothing else can arouse, a passion for the possible.”

Not the probable, not the likely, not the expected.  But the possible!  This is what makes it so much more powerful than optimism.  It can persist long after any reasonable expectation of success has been quashed.

Without hope, horizons are shortened, vision is obscured, day becomes night, and the possible becomes impossible.

But with hope, the improbable becomes probable; we can see with a clarity and vision that enables and ennobles.

We live in a time when we desperately need to turn the possible into the probable – but it is also a time when hope is difficult to hold onto. 

When you look around, it seems as if the late great Molly Ivins was right when she said:

It's hard to argue against cynics - they always sound smarter … because they have so much evidence on their side.”

So much evidence. 

Indeed, at times it looks like the case for the cynic is a slam dunk, open and shut, straight out, undeniable fact.

Look around.   

The litany—global warming; ocean acidification; economic Armageddon; insane wars; burgeoning food shortages; evaporating jobs; an incipient slide from a democracy to a plutocracy … on and on it goes.

Those elected to solve these problems seem more intent on compounding them. Ideology trumps reason; lies and deceptions are the linga franka of politics, and they pollute the public forum.

And the press – which used to serve as the honest broker of our national discourse – now functions as a blind, mute stenographer, content to repeat lies and truths as if there were no difference.  

Indeed, the words of Eric Severied, spoken at another time when hope seemed to have abandoned us, resonate again today.

He said: “Our rigid formulae of so-called objectivity … have given the lie the same prominence and impact that truth is given; they have elevated the influence of fools to that of wise men; the ignorant to the level of the learned; the evil to the level of the good.”

How are we to have hope, when the referee has left the field, when the ignorant and the learned are treated as equals, indeed, when evil and good are treated as equivalents in our national discourse?

Yet now is a time that cries out for the power of hope.

Never before in the short history of humans, has there been such time. 

A time, when the possible—a sustainable and just world; a world of shared prosperity for all people’s, those living and those yet to be borne—has become ever more improbable and is in imminent danger of becoming impossible.

A time when the ennobling and empowering spirit of hope is most essential, yet seems least rational.  

Oh but hasn’t every generation said that the world is going to hell in a handbasket?  Hasn’t every generation bemoaned the state of the world? 

But wait... this time – in this time – we are right.  This time, it is different. This time we do face epochal choices. Choices that will shape the future in ways more profoundly and more irrevocably than at any time in human history.

 What makes this time unique, is that humanity has become a force of nature: as inevitable as the passage of day to night; as inexorable as the winds, the tides, the seasons; as indelible as the march of epochs across the face of our planet.

What we do—or don’t do—in the next few years will quite literally influence the kind of planet our progeny live on. Indeed, it will shape the world for hundreds of generations to come.

What an awesome responsibility for a once puny species to possess.

What a challenge to face, without hope.

A few short years. That’s all we have to choose the kind of future we bequeath the planet for geologic ages to come.

We can leave a legacy of a world in which hope flourishes and dreams prosper, or we can leave a legacy in which hopes are diminished and most dreams are nightmares.

Those are now our choices.  Our only choices.  We cannot kick the can down the road—we’ve run out of road.  We’ve run out of time.

Hyperbole?  Radical enviro propaganda?  Liberal hysteria?

Hardly. 

For the first time in history, humans are fundamentally changing the atmosphere on a planetary scale, pumping in enough greenhouse gasses to heat the planet beyond anything our species has ever seen; beyond what the ecosystems we evolved in can endure.

For the first time in history humans are changing the chemistry of the oceans on a planetary scale.  We risk turning the life-giving seas into sterile, acidic, and nearly lifeless crypts.

And these are not temporary changes. If, in the next few years we cross certain tipping points, there will be no do-overs, no second chances. We will have set off positive feedbacks such as methane releases from permafrost and clathrates that will make even the worst forecasts of the IPCC look Pollyannaish. We will have annihilated the carefully wrought balances of nature in ways our descendants will have to live with – and struggle against --for eons.

These are moral choices. These are ethical choices.  In fact, they are the most profound moral choices our species has ever faced.

And yet, if you were to ask me to bet on whether Obama will allow the pipeline or not, I’d have to wager he will. And if I were to bet on whether humanity will act in time to avoid the devastation that will surely result if we don’t wean ourselves off fossil fuels in the next few years I’d have to bet we won’t.

But standing there, on that day, in quiet dignity awaiting arrest with Will, Anne, Bryce, David, Lubchenka and forty other strangers, that didn’t matter.

I felt hope.

Not optimism, but hope.

And as Robert Kennedy said, “Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, these ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Hope begets action, but action also begets hope.  And who knows.  Perhaps the tiny ripples of some 2000 citizens willing to risk arrest are the beginning of a vast tide; a tsunami of change that will sweep away the foolishness that now dominates our country.

One can always hope.


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John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson, 1948-2020, was a long-time Common Dreams contributor, climate activist and author of, "A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, "WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track". John was tragically killed in a California car accident in January 2020.

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