The virtues of being unreasonable on Keystone
I know Andy Revkin of The New York Times writes posts like this in part to bait people like me. But like Popeye, I yam what I yam. So consider me baited. Self-proclaimed moderates like to lecture anti-Keystone XL activists that they are “distracting” and “counterproductive,” without spelling out what the hell that means, yet they seem bewildered when that makes the activists in question angry.
Let’s review. This weekend, close to 50,000 people gathered for the biggest rally ever against climate change, a threat Revkin acknowledges is enormous, difficult, and urgent. Revkin and his council of wonks took to Twitter to argue that the rally and the campaign behind it are misdirected, absolutist, confused, and bereft of long-term strategy. They had this familiar conversation as the rally was unfolding.
As a result, Revkin suffered the grievous injury of a frustrated tweet from Wen Stephenson, a journalist who has crossed over to activism. This gave the wounded Revkin the opportunity to write yet another lament on the slings and arrows that face the Reasonable Man. He faced down the scourge of single-minded “my way or the highway environmentalism,” y’all, but don’t worry, he’s got a thick skin. He lived to tell the tale.
This is all for the benefit of an elite audience, mind you, for whom getting yelled at by activists is the sine qua non of seriousness. The only thing that boosts VSP cred more is getting yelled at by activists on Both Sides.
So let’s not yell. Instead let’s take a calm look at the Reasonable Revkin take on Keystone activism, representative as it is of a certain VSP consensus. In his post, he says it could be “counterproductive” to focus an activist campaign on the pipeline. I want to dwell on that word for a second, because it’s crucial to his case.
If you want to argue that activists shouldn’t focus on Keystone, you can’t just establish that rallying around and/or blocking Keystone won’t reduce carbon emissions much. So what? Why not try it? Something’s better than nothing, after all. Even if it’s a total waste of time, that may be unproductive, but it’s not counterproductive.
No, you have to establish that the Keystone campaign is impeding or preventing something else better and more effective from happening. That’s what it means to say the Keystone campaign is counterproductive — that it’s detracting from other, superior climate efforts.
What are these other efforts, and how is a focus on Keystone impeding or preventing them? That’s the causal relationship folks like Revkin need to establish to make their case, but they are maddeningly vague about it.
Back before the election, Revkin acknowledged that “the pipeline, in isolation, is not in the national interest,” but “overall,” Obama “should not stand in the way of the pipeline.” Huh? It’s not in the national interest but he should greenlight it? Why? Because “it’s very much in the national interest for Obama to avoid saddling himself with an unnecessary issue that would be easy for his foes to distort into an Obama anti-jobs position.” So Obama should sacrifice the national interest in the name of political positioning. Got it. Time’s Bryan Walsh and Mike Grunwald echoed Revkin’s sentiment, warning that Keystone activists risked empowering Obama’s opposition and getting a Republican elected, which would be way worse for the climate than the pipeline.
[UPDATE: I fear I have unfairly characterized journalist Mike Grunwald here. I should emphasize that he is against the Keystone pipeline and, in general, not the kind of hippie-puncher I lament in this post. Also you should read his book.]
A couple things have happened since then. One, Obama got reelected, pretty easily. Two, it’s become clear that literally anything Obama does will be distorted as anti-jobs by congressional Republicans, which is one reason they are so widely hated.
Obama’s reelection is no longer at risk. He’s got nothing to lose and no reason to trim his sails to please an unpleasable opposition. Has that changed Revkin’s calculus? If so, I haven’t heard it.
Instead, we continue to hear vague references to things Obama could be doing if he weren’t stuck with these meddling Keystone kids. Revkin says Keystone is a “distraction.” (Distracting whom? What would they be doing if they weren’t distracted? He doesn’t say.) Professional wanker Matt Nisbet says it “distracts” and “limits” Obama’s ability to broker a deal. (A deal on what? With whom? He doesn’t say.) Michael Levi says it makes 60 Senate votes for a price on carbon less likely. (Less likely than impossible?) I could cite a dozen more examples, people casually accusing Keystone activism of impeding or draining energy from other solutions.
What is this good-faith bipartisan progress just waiting to happen if only activists weren’t being unreasonable about Keystone? What do the VSPs have to offer? I don’t see it. I see self-pleasuring dreams of bipartisan Grand Bargains with no awareness of changed political circumstances. I see visions of elite-driven incrementalism with no sense of the ticking clock. I see, above all, the elitist instinct that activists should pipe down, quit being so darn angry and unreasonable, and let the Serious People sit down and work it out together in a spirit of comity and mutual respect. There’s no reason to drag politics into politics, after all.
Revkin himself was asked directly about his alternative strategy. He waved his hands at a seven-part video and a homily.
Keep in mind, these nebulous alternatives — brokered deals, deep thoughts on global energy poverty, China something something — are supposed to outweigh the benefits of drawing 50,000 (mostly young) people together to express their passion on climate change, and possibly to impede or block the continued development of an enormously carbon-intensive energy source.
Intensity wins in politics, as I’ve said many times before, even if — Levi’s unreasonable demand notwithstanding — its effects cannot be easily predicted. There are benefits to an activated, impassioned constituency and the social and political machinery that brings them together in large numbers. It’s what the right has: an intense core, fighting on behalf of the status quo (using the status quo’s money), that has captured one of America’s two political parties. It’s what the fight against climate change does not yet have: an intense core, fighting on behalf of social and political change, with at least one political party that is scared to cross it.
Intensity is built through conflict, through the drawing of political and moral lines. That’s what activists like Bill McKibben are trying to do, with activist logic, not wonk logic, taking advantage of symbolism and opportunity. If there’s some other groundswell for change from which those efforts are “distracting,” I haven’t heard about it.
Revkin seems preoccupied with the fact that Keystone is part of larger systems and not particularly significant in light of that context. And it’s true: Everything is insignificant in light of some larger context. Climate change is a “wicked problem,” which means that everything passing as a solution will be flawed, partial, and impermanent. What to do? We are rapidly losing ground, on the verge of locking in a trajectory scientists tell us will lead to disastrous and irreversible consequences. We can sit around and fill our blogs with reasons why this or that solution is the wrong one, inferior to some better one that we’d already have, goldarnit, if those meddling pushers-of-other-solutions weren’t “distracting” from ours. We can fall in love with the ineffable intellectual tangle, as Revkin has, and accept that anything specific enough to build an activist campaign around will be meaningless in the context of global energy demand and emissions. We can read the Serenity Prayer and get used to the fact that it’s all out of our hands anyway.
But some people want to fight! Some people actually haul themselves out from behind their keyboards, call a bunch of friends, put on warm clothes, and go stomp around in public yelling about it. These are the folks throwing sand in the social gears, the ones trying to wrest the levers of power out of hostile hands. As a professional word-typer, like Revkin, I have come to believe that those people deserve a certain level of respect and forbearance. Maybe shouting advice down to them from the bloggy heights isn’t as helpful as we word-typers are inclined to think. At least we could refrain from pissing on them while they’re rallying.
No one wants to shut down discussion, insist on One True Way to sustainability, or banish Revkin to “the highway.” Those are strawmen. I admire Revkin immensely as a reporter, like him as a person, and would love nothing more than to see him and Phil Aroneanu play banjo together. We can disagree without ill will.
The argument of Keystone protestors is not that there’s One True Way, but that eventually there has to be some way. Somebody’s got to start taking these dire warnings seriously and do something, something specific and concrete. You can’t support Doing Something but oppose Doing This Particular Thing forever. Sooner or later, people have to draw lines and take sides. Progress does not happen without struggle.
Maybe Keystone isn’t the right line. Maybe the next line won’t be the right one either. But the longer folks like Revkin hover over such fights at an ironic distance, never quite satisfied with this target, or that spokesperson, or this policy, or that strategy, the more they’re going to get blowback from people gripped by a sense that there’s not a lot of time left to fuck around and at the very least we have to stop making it worse. The ranks of such people are growing. At some point, dithering over incrementalism in the imaginary center will come to be seen as a failure of moral clarity and judgment. I wouldn’t want to be the last person dug into that trench.
The situation calls for large-scale, rapid, systemic change. That kind of change doesn’t happen when wonks and bloggers agree on the perfect solution and achieve multiple PDFs. It happens when people put their asses on the line and fight. It happens when power shifts.
Editor’s note: Bill McKibben serves on Grist’s board of directors.
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