Symbolic or not, Keystone is a huge win for environmentalists

Symbolic or not, Keystone is a huge win for environmentalists

You may have missed it last Friday– a day where news goes to die— but environmentalists scored a decisive win on perhaps this decade’s most prominent environmental battle: the cancellation of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project.

Flanked by Secretary of state Kerry and Vice President Biden, President Obama announced the killing of the project on the grounds that it would provide minimal economic benefit or energy security to the United States — despite the dubious but vociferous claims stating otherwise made by the energy industry and our very own Keystone cheerleader Rep. Bruce Poliquin — and went on to argue that approving the pipeline would have “undercut [the US’s] global leadership” on addressing climate change heading into next month’s international climate talks in Paris.

Predictably, oil-industry allies and proponents of the pipeline (a redundant statement) sought to minimize the perceived impact of the decision by calling the decision a “symbolic victory,” that will have little impact in a global economy built around the production and consumption of fossil fuels.

It’s true that this victory is in part symbolic. In the world of politics and organizing, however, symbols matter.

Certainly, the victory of the multi-year, international campaign to prevent up to 800,000 barrels a day of some of the dirtiest fossil fuels on earth from traveling straight through the North American heartland to the Gulf Coast is a win in and of itself: every barrel of this sludge that doesn’t flow past rivers, pastures, homes, or cities is one less that could contribute to a potential leak or spill that could prove virtually impossible to clean up. Then there’s the environmental impact of the immensely dirty process of tar sands extraction that will take place if said tar sands found an efficient route to a coastal refinery. These are real victories.

But let’s talk about the symbolic significance of killing Keystone. This campaign is one that helped to galvanize and focus an often-fractious environmental movement, as well as bring a new generation of progressive climate activists onto the organizing scene, by providing a clear and egregious national example of the increasing cost and danger in reliance on fossil fuels. In tying Keystone to that larger conversation, environmentalists were able to begin to broadcast their vision for an America that didn’t have to gamble its future in order to keep the lights on.

The broadcasting of that vision has also helped to launch or amplify other key fights within that same organizing framework, such as fossil fuel divestment and the movement toward the closure of toxin-belching coal-firing power plants.

Each of these actions could be labeled symbolic, insofar as none of them alone will solve our problems of a warming planet, acidifying oceans, or pollution or climate-related deaths that dispoportionately impact the poor and marginalized. But taken together, this patchwork of campaigns is what creates a movement, and a well-organized mass movement can move mountains.

To address a problem of the scope and scale of global climate change, every victory, both real and symbolic, must be used to build a more powerful and more credible movement for change.

Photo via Flickr/tarsandsaction

About author

Grady Burns
Grady Burns 31 posts

Grady Burns is an activist on issues involving young Mainers. He serves on the Auburn City Council and is president of the Maine Young Democrats.

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