That picture captures why protests against Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline—and many other protests against pipelines in North America—will fail in reaching their broader objective of preventing the shipment—and ultimately the extraction—of oil. That picture, with its collection of simple, everyday goods does more to undermine the protestors’ cause than any number of arrests.
Why? Well, take a look at what’s in the picture: a styrofoam cooler, plastic water jugs, oranges, a plastic and metal sign, garbage bags, a bag of chocolates, some hummus, Tupperware, a can of lemonade, a sports drink, a backpack, a Tim Horton’s ten pack of coffee, and a camping chair. Did I miss anything? Oh yes, cut grass, duct tape, a steel sign, and a pipeline.
Every one of these things has two things in common: each is common, and each involves petroleum. If you doubt that claim, find out how plastic is made, where oranges come from, or whether the camping chair was made in China. The fact is even something as simple as a plastic dish of hummus is soaked with oil (and not just yummy EVO!). If you’re reading this on a computer screen, you’re implicated in big oil.
Like it or not, oil, and the infrastructure that brings it to us, is as much a part of everyday Canadian (and American, and European, and Asian, and, and . . .) life as a cup of Tim’s. If the pipeline deserves protest, so does the drive-through, and so does the Trans-Canada highway.
Which is why, however sympathetic I might be to the cause of environmental protection, I can’t help but feel that these protests are as much an exercise in catharsis as they are in effecting change.
This is not a screed against the environmental movement, nor does it suggest unmitigated support for unlimited extraction in Alberta or elsewhere. Catharsis, however great it feels, and however useless it might be in the world of policy change, often still points back to a bigger problem or a legitimate fear.
This is simply an encouragement to reconsider whether we want to continue spending as much time and media attention on cathartic acts such as these. Real protests, as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. showed, entail material sacrifice, and an articulated, embodied alternative. If you find that you cannot make those sacrifices—can anyone fully give up on oil, I wonder?—perhaps it’s time to reconsider your approach. Rather than seeing Enbridge and other members of “big oil” as the enemy, perhaps they can be engaged. Instead of seeking to “stop the flow of Tar Sands oil” why not rely more on natural gas, which would significantly lower emissions?
Why not picket Best Buy next Boxing Day with signs that ask “Do you really need that third big screen?” Why not focus on ensuring that pipelines be as safe as possible? Why not grow a garden?
It might be more work, you might not feel as good about yourself, but you’re likely to get a lot more done.