Friday’s episode of “The Current” discussed the case of Michael Foster who — after warning the pipeline control centre to shut off the pumping stations — turned a valve to shut down the flow of bitumen through the Keystone pipeline in North Dakota. It’s a very self-conscious act of civil disobedience, with Foster sending video to the company in real time showing that the shutdown was imminent and discussing beforehand his expectation that he would be convicted of a crime (transcript / MP3).

Few who take climate change seriously would see this action as unjustified. Canada should have started shutting down the oil sands decades ago and should never have developed them to their current size. There is much debate, however, on the effectiveness of such actions. Their logic depends on influencing external actors: either the general public or the legal system.

Fairly recently my friend Stuart was involved in a non-violent direct action blocking automobile access to Heathrow airport. The objective was essentially “consciousness raising” (he said it was to “stir up the national debate about Heathrow”), that the willingness of activists to put themselves in legal jeopardy would make people accept how terribly unethical our casual use of air travel is.

In the Heathrow case, it’s hard for me to imagine that outcome. Air travellers are stressed and deeply entitled. They feel totally justified in complaining about any inconvenience, and I doubt more than a trivial number would reconsider the broad context of their air travel use when exposed to an action like this.

The situation discussed in the pipeline shutdown case podcast seems to offer a little more hope, largely because of the opportunity to use the legal proceedings as a vehicle for public education. Pipeline companies are already seen as villains by many, and the public and the courts may be more sympathetic to the value of disrupting them than of disrupting the air travel of ‘normal’ people. That said, the courts are a bad mechanism for trying to change climate policy for several reasons: they tend to defer to elected politicians on questions of policy, they can prohibit specific things but rarely order broad outcomes, and rulings requiring broad policy changes are often ignored.

We don’t have good options though. The general public are entitled, selfish, and determined to defend the status quo even when it imposes catastrophe on others. It’s common to say that they are apathetic, but I think that’s a misdiagnosis; it’s less that people have accepted the need to act but are unwilling to do so personally and more that they are constantly acting to support the system that is destroying nature and the prospects of all future human generations. They are unwilling to change their lives or their politics nearly enough or nearly quickly enough to avoid climate catastrophe. No political party in Canada, the U.S., or U.K. has a serious plan to meet the Paris Agreement targets, much less to actually avoid dangerous climate change. And so, in an unprecedented situation and with no good options, activists are trying what’s available and sacrificing their freedom to do so.

One of the most insightful comments about climate change is George Monbiot’s observation that:

[The campaign against climate change] is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but against ourselves.

No matter how strong the scientific consensus and how undeniable the real-world evidence becomes, nothing so far has convinced people to take action even slightly commensurate with the scale of action required, and people turn all their intellectual and rhetorical skills to justify that inaction (such as by pointing to the other good things they do). Overcoming those psychological responses may be just as important as breaking the power of the fossil fuel industry in a global campaign that can keep us from imposing so much suffering on future generations that we threaten the very ability of human civilization to endure.

Related:

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It’s rare to see an article on a news website speaking so directly to a current question of current scholarly interest. In 2012, Doug McAdam and Hilary Boudet published Putting Social Movements in their Place: Explaining Opposition to Energy Projects in the United States, 2000-2005, which generally encourages scholars of contentious politics and social movements to consider other explanations for political outcomes. I have personally wondered about how to evaluate and feel about climate change activist effectiveness.

A CBC News opinion piece from two days ago: “Social movements played a huge part in derailing Energy East

It expresses the common and convincing activist argument that just delaying projects and adding perceived risk is helping to slow the pace of fossil fuel exploitation:

The pipeline was originally scheduled to be approved by the end of 2014 and in operation by the end of 2018. Instead, delays won by Indigenous communities, grassroots groups, labour unions and NGOs prevented Energy East from being built when it was still economically and politically feasible, back when the price of oil was well north of $80 per barrel.

These delays also created space for Energy East opponents to carve out new expectations of the environmental and social burdens of proof needed for an energy project’s approval, making it even harder to build.

Two events in particular each drove about two years of delay. First, there was the September 2014 grassroots-funded legal challenge on risks to beluga whales at the project’s proposed Cacouna Marine terminal, which triggered a long process of TransCanada trying and failing to find a new Quebec location acceptable to the public.

And second, there was the Charest Affair, where an apparent conflict of interest called into question the overall validity – and legality – of the National Energy Board’s hearing on Energy East, causing delays.

It is this groundswell of opposition that created the political space for policy-oriented opponents to Energy East to successfully advocate for a review of the National Energy Board’s approval process, and for new interim measures to be applied to Energy East. Among them was the consideration of the climate change impacts of the project — something that, ideally, would be a given for an environmental review of a fossil fuel project.

The pipeline’s new review, if it had been restarted, would have been the first to include consideration of greenhouse gas emissions both up- and down-stream from the project. These added requirements, in combination with the dour economic outlook for bitumen export and the risks of direct action during construction, mean Energy East has become impossible to build. So yes, the cancellation of Energy East was a business decision, but it was one made in a landscape that’s been successfully engineered by social movements.

You see a similar argument from fossil fuel divestment activists; even if their target institutions choose not to divest, they are spreading the idea that big new fossil fuel projects may be financially risky within the community of institutional investors, including other schools, municipalities, etc.

The author is also of interest: “Bronwen Tucker is a community organizer and climate policy researcher. She is currently investigating the impacts of anti-pipeline campaigns as a graduate student at the University of Oxford.”

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The annual Massey debate is the main opportunity law students get to amuse an audience. I got some photos at tonight’s.

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For at least a year now people have been quite appropriately doing important work in questioning legacies of racism and institutionalized forms of racism at Massey College, including in the traditional use of the title “Master” to refer to the head of the College.

A hurtful, callous, and offensive remark made in the dining hall has added urgency to the discussion. It was described in the resignation letter of the scholar who made it as “a poor effort at jocular humour” and a “bad joke”. In part, Dr. Michael Marrus’ letter from 1 October 2017 says:

First, I am so sorry for what I said, in a poor effort at jocular humour at lunch last Tuesday. What I said was both foolish and, I understood immediately, hurtful, and I want, first and foremost, to convey my deepest regrets all whom I may have harmed. What I said was a bad joke in reference to your title of “Master,” at the time. I should never have made such a remark, and I want to assure those who heard me, and those who have learned about it, that while I had no ill- intent whatsoever I can appreciate how those at the table and those who have learned about it could take offense at what I said.

I’m not going to link the rather foolish editorials published by The Globe & Mail and the National Post (two papers that seem to share lazy assumptions and ineptitude much like Canada’s Liberal and Conservative parties). Some more meaningful commentary has already been in the public press:

Op-ed: Reconciliation at Massey College
An Indigenous Junior Fellow shares her story
By Audrey Rochette

Op-ed: The importance of forgiveness
A former Don of Hall reflects on moving forward from conflict at Massey College
By Juliet Guichon

Black faculty members pen letter condemning Marrus, coverage of incident
Open letter criticizes media outlets for framing incident as “political correctness run amok”
By Aidan Currie

In my six years at Massey College, I have had regular routine and polite interactions with Dr. Marrus. My only exposure to his academic work has been two lectures he gave on the theatrical quality of trials.

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