“The only way we can put a stop to it is by putting our own bodies on the line. All other avenues have been exhausted at this point.” - Annette Klapstein
For many of us engaging in work to avert civilizational collapse, there comes a point when all else has fallen away, and it becomes clear that the one thing left for us to do is to put our bodies in the way of the machine.
Each of the tar sands valve turners has had a point of personal moral reckoning, having worked on climate change from various angles for collective decades. Annette Klapstein is a retired lawyer, and knows what it means to work within the system. Ken Ward has tried to steer US environmental institutions to take climate seriously. Michael Foster has been helping kids plant millions of trees to sequester CO2, and working on the effort to sue governments for failing to protect inalienable rights. Emily Johnston has been building a grassroots movement 350 Seattle. Leonard Higgins has been opposing fossil fuel extraction and transportation infrastructure by organizing in lobbying efforts, lawsuits, and civil resistance.
The political context.
But those personal motivations are not the whole story: this action occurred in a political and historical context.
In the summer of 2016, it was readily apparent that decades of climate campaigning in the United States had led to practically no effect. The 2015 Paris emission reduction pledges are not nearly sufficient to stave off climate cataclysm, and no current policy proposal targets the dramatic emissions reductions necessary for a stable future. Climate strategies premised on an insider political strategy and complex bureaucratic mechanisms had failed.
“If people are not acting as though there is an emergency, people don’t believe that there is an emergency.” -Leonard Higgins
What’s needed is a strong movement, and we know that bringing that movement to life and power requires visceral and energizing acts of conscience that embody the change we seek.
There are individuals in all walks of life and across the political and ideological spectrum who know in their hearts that the direction we are heading is wrong. Devastatingly wrong. And if given a vision of how to respond in a serious and responsible manner, people will do so.
This action was an attempt to try a different strategy. Obviously one action won’t be sufficient to solve the climate crisis, but might it achieve something meaningful? We thought of the goals of this action in two different categories. The first was direct and political—and also unlikely. The second included longer term movement-building goals.
“We’re confronted with a situation where mostly society is telling you ‘pretend nothing is happening’, and most people know that is not true.” - Ken Ward
The immediate goals are obvious: could such an action provide President Obama an opportunity to do the right thing, declare a climate emergency and keep the tar sands valves closed? We knew this was unlikely, but such actions, with many others, arguably persuaded Obama to abandon KXL. Could a serious and bold action break climate change into the media cycle and perhaps even the presidential campaign discourse? Might it be possible to have a case stemming from such an action in federal court where we could make a strong public trust argument that would be a necessity parallel to the ongoing Children’s Trust litigation?
If we are to build a powerful movement that can create the substantial change necessary, we need to experiment with ways of building energy and focus among those who care about climate. We believe actions like this do so in two broad ways: as direct action they showcase the agency of individuals and groups. We believe that the way we take action communicates more than just the direct aspects of the action; the symbolic. In her recent book, “Why Civil Resistance Works”, and article in The Guardian, Erica Chenoweth describes extensive research showing that peaceful, nonviolent civil resistance is the most effective method to bring about social change. The research shows that it only requires the participation of about 3.5 percent of the population removing their consent for injustice through civil resistance.
The intrinsic value of the act.
Shutting down five tar sands pipelines is not a symbolic act. The valve turners, according to reporting by Reuters, shut down 15% of the US oil supply on October 11, 2016. Every minute of pumping tar sands towards the atmosphere is one too many. Every hour that we deny the fossil fuel industry their profits is a success.
“I still can’t believe it. Look at these hands … these shut off the Keystone oil pipeline!” - Michael Foster
It was no mistake that we shut down tar sands oil - the most dirty liquid fuel in the world. If we are to have a habitable planet, we must close down tar sands operations and coal production first. If we’re going to shut something down, we should start here.
We showed that it CAN and MUST be done - over and over, until the fossil fuel companies get the message that they are no longer going to profit by destroying the planet we need to live on.
The symbolic value of the act.
The value of an action is not merely in the hours that pipelines are shut down, or the financial cost to pipeline companies.
It is also in the sense of hope lifted up in the hearts of the climate movement.
The more-than-literal value of the actions tells a story about the type of action, and the type of life, that is needed in these times: about the scale and sense of urgency of the crisis, and about the individual and collective responsibility that is now required of us. The valve turners decided early on that their approach to this action would be transparent—they would tell the stories that led them to their personal moments of decision, and accept responsibility for the actions they took, so that others might also find their way into action.
Although the Valve-Turners have diverse spiritual backgrounds and beliefs, they share a sense of moral duty to act, even when there is no certainty of stopping the harms of climate change.
Why go to court?
“I don’t feel brave at all, but I am much more frightened of climate change than of jail.” - Emily Johnston
If we can convince a random jury of citizens to agree that the climate situation is sufficiently desperate that shutting off a pipeline is excusable, it will be a vindication that telling the truth of the dire situation we are in with openness and compassion, with the personal commitment to back it up, is a winning strategy. That outcome, we know, is unlikely.
But if convicted, the valve turners will be a powerful example of the moral fortitude required in the face of this challenge.