Millions of Americans who never think about climate change now know that the actress Daryl Hanna was arrested in Washington last month, and that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is an environmental threat. Millions even have some inkling what "tar sands" are. Among the 1253 arrested over the course of the two-week "rolling" sit-ins were writer-activist Bill McKibben; James Hansen, the world's most renowned climate scientist; former White House official Gus Speth; writer Naomi Klein; filmmaker Josh Fox; farmers from Texas and Nebraska whose land would be threatened by the Keystone XL pipeline; First Nation leaders whose water, ground and air have been polluted by the toxins spewed daily from existing US bitumen refineries; middle Americans from Arkansas whose water has been poisoned by natural-gas drilling; ministers; teachers; environmentalists; lawyers. Even my ex-cop-turned-activist against the war on drugs got arrested. There were many, many young people in their twenties. There were also some octogenarians and then, everyone in between.
Here's why we got arrested. 54,000 square miles of bitumen run through sand and clay beneath the pristine cold-climate forests of Alberta, one of Canada's western provinces. Buried, the tar sands are one of the planet's marvels, the remains of fossil life from millions of years past. Unearthed, they're deadly. The tar sands industry has ravaged Alberta's forests, poisoned its air and water, and wrecked the livelihoods of its indigenous peoples. Not yet built, the Keystone XL pipeline would carry 800,000 barrels every day, corrosive, toxin-ridden bitumen traveling perilously from Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast. There have already been massive bitumen spills from existing Canada-to-US pipelines; there are sure to be more. The pipeline awaits OK or denial by President Obama. If he says yes, he will turn the tar sands into a carbon time bomb. According to James Hansen, the pipeline will essentially mean "game over" for the climate.
By the end of the sit-ins 1253 people were arrested, making this the biggest civil disobedience action since 1977 and the most sustained since the epic campaigns of the civil rights movement. "It came out of nowhere," said writer-activist Bill McKibben, main spokesperson for tarsandsaction.org, "because people are ready for some action."
For me it was high time. I was sick of signing petitions and writing polite letters to Congress people, sick of the sinking feeling I have every morning when I open my paper knowing there will probably be no good news and that, yes, everything can always get worse. There were 111 of us on August 31, the twelfth day. Police vans and busses filled up and one by one carried us to the detention center. In our van were five women separated by a thin wall of steel from as many men. I leaned forward and let my arms, bound at the wrists by tight plastic bands, hang down behind my bent back, sweat streaming into my eyes behind my glasses, which I kept trying to move up my nose by ducking my face against my knees.
It was hot: very hot, but not as hot as the fetid, infamous Washington central cell block where the first group, which included McKibben was held the weekend of August 20. It was hardly as hot as sub-Saharan Africa in 1985 where I first saw climate refugees, former farmers fleeing the drought in Western Sudan, sleeping in the dust in the streets of Sudan's capital, Khartoum. I didn't know what I was seeing then; in my article about it for The Village Voice I called it "the famine." But three years later, in 1988 James Hansen named such extreme weather in address to Congress, warning that anthropogenic global warming was well underway.
This past week's New York Times reported drought and wildfires in Texas, heavy rains, wind and floods in Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. Drought ravages southwestern China; the great Russian heat wave of 2010 destroyed that country's entire wheat crop, driving up grain prices worldwide; the 2003 European heat wave, the hottest on record since 1540, killed over 40,000 Europeans, nearly 15000 of them (mainly the elderly) in France alone. Glaciers are melting world-wide. Sea levels are rising, islands are sinking in the South Pacific. In Massachusetts where I live, multiple tornadoes struck Western Massachusetts this past June. Medford, Massachusetts, where my house is, was never a flood region. Now it is.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, who stands a chance of being the next US President, denies climate change (not surprisingly, his biggest campaign contributors are in big oil). Last year a Congressman seeking to head the House Energy and Commerce Committee said God wouldn't allow global warming. Other throwbacks to the Puritan witch-hunt era say homosexuals (or intellectuals, or communists, or fascist liberals) are to blame for the weather extremes consuming the Earth.
That's one part of America. The other is what I saw in Washington. Among the people I met during the demonstrations were an evangelical pastor who believes Big Oil is blaspheming God's creation; Larry Gibson, a 67-year-old former General Motors maintenance worker from Appalachia whose father was killed by a lifetime of mining, and whose mountaintop has been removed by strip-mining. There was David Daniel, an ordinary guy in his early 40s turned full-time activist because the Keystone XL will tear up his land in East Texas if Obama gives the go-ahead; Dan Gottschall, a young Nebraska organic beef farmer whose animals would be poisoned if the pipeline spills into the Ogallala aquifer, an expanse of 174,000 square miles under portions of eight states. There were also women and men from Arkansas and Pennsylvania whose water is being poisoned by "fracking" — drilling for natural gas in the great shelves of shale lying beneath their land.
So here, again, is the lesson the oil corporations, the banks, the Koch Brothers and their hirelings want us to forget: we are all connected. From middle-Americans to Pakistanis ravaged last year by one of the greatest floods in history; to the Inuits whose traditional fishing and hunting grounds are literally melting away with the Arctic ice; to the Texans who now have to ration water for the first time.
When I returned home from Washington, I found an email from European friends, another anguished petition against Republican lunacy, this one headed, "Abolish the EPA?" I signed and wrote back to my friends:
"I was just arrested on day 12 of two weeks of demonstrations in front of the White House against the Keystone tar sands pipeline. What's going on in the US is tsunamis of stupidity, arrogance, greed, and sadism. But there really is nothing like mass protest and solidarity to make one determined not to give up. The times are too desperate for despair. — Ellen"
Keep posted for the next steps. Another action is being prepared for October 7 or 8 (on the 7th the State Department will hold its last hearing on the pipeline and the final decision about Keystone XL will be Obama's).
Ellen Cantarow is a journalist whose article on tar sands was published last April at Tom Dispatch. Since the late 1970s she has written for The Village Voice, Mother Jones, Grand Street, The Nation, Tom Dispatch, Z Magazine and other venues. Her work on Palestine has been anthologized, as have portions of her book, Moving the Mountain: Women Working for Social Change (The Feminist Press, McGraw Hill, 1980).