Focusing our energy


On Sun., Mar. 2, 2014, several hundred students were arrested in an act of civil disobedience at the White House. chaining themselves to the fence, students called upon President Obama to block approval of the planned Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport large quantities of crude oil from tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to the United States. The tar sands are widely acknowledged as some of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive deposits of oil in the world, and use of these deposits would yield roughly 15 percent more greenhouse gasses than using conventionally acquired crude oil. Nonetheless, I can- not agree with the protestors’ stance on the pipeline.

I am a backcountry-loving, vegetable-eating environmentalist. Find me a tree and I will hug the sap out of it—so it might surprise some that I didn’t support the Keystone XL protest. In fact, I was saddened to see such vibrant and enthusiastic people misallocating their time and passion. In the fight for environmental protection, the Keystone XL pipeline is the least of several evils. Without the pipeline, the United States will continue to use roads and rail to deliver the oil. These means of transport carry higher spill risks than pipelines, as well as higher carbon footprints. If the United States chooses to import its oil from elsewhere, the tar sands will ship oil overseas in tankers to China, which has already invested several billion dollars in Alberta crude, creating a greater risk of catastrophic spills.

The energy spent fighting against the Keystone XL pipeline could be put to better use reshaping the message of environmental advocacy. Too often, the movement is trumpeted by a zealous, energetic few who come across as alarmist rather than pragmatic. Describing the Keystone XL pipeline as “game over for the planet,” as activist James Hansen did in 2011 is gross exaggeration at best, and only serves to dilute the impact of harsh language that should be reserved for more critical systemic issues, such as the long-term effects of continued reliance on fossil fuels for the planet.

Changing the environment affects everyone, so activisits should focus on making the issues more accessible to people who aren’t so intimately in- volved with the environmental movement. That’s why supporting initiatives like the Yale Sustainable Food Project is so important. That’s why I lead trips for Yale Outdoors, and why I’m so honored to be a part of FOOT. These organizations allow ordinary people with other priorities to experience nature within the scope of their own lives. Many Yalies with whom I’ve spoken don’t see the relevancy of the Keystone XL protests, and don’t feel the need to take concrete action, but they overwhelmingly support the ideas behind the issues. Getting Yalies involved with ur- ban farming, recycling initiatives, and local sustain- ability will go a long way towards showing that there are things that individuals can do to positively and appreciably affect their local communities.

According to Gallup, 50 percent of Americans in 2014 say that the environment is more important than the economy, an astonishingly high percent- age just four years after a major global recession. But while a majority still say that environmental pro- tection should take priority over economic growth, that percentage is at its lowest in history, and has dropped dramatically from 69 percent in 2000. Increasingly, Americans are growing tired of a pessimistic message that has not changed in de- cades and has been mired in fatalistic predictions of future disaster.

Yes, people should be outraged, but that anger needs to be channeled into action to make a real dif- ference, or it will just be perceived as empty noise. Environmentalism needs to become more focused on productive and positive action rather than sym- bolic dissension if we want people to see it as rel- evant. People need to be shown that global climate change, waste accumulation, and overconsumption represent as salient and immediate a threat to their children as pollution, dirty air, and unclean water was for their parents, or we risk the relegation of nature to just another special interest issue.