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Notes from a Small Planet: Targeting More than Tar Sands

June 3, 2013

by Jay Austin Saper

It was a Funeral for our Future. Over 100 people attended. The "chapel" was the TransCanada office in Westborough, Massachusetts. The date was March 11th. Entering with a dirge and coffin, we called attention to the severe human and planetary consequences of constructing the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport dirty tar sands oil from Alberta to the Gulf Coast.

Keystone-Protesters-ArrestedTwenty-five of us were arrested at the peaceful protest.

For me, being taken away in cold shackles was about more than fighting global climate change. Yes, the pipeline has been called the “largest carbon bomb on the planet.” Yet while we will certainly all be hurt by global warming, its effects are nowhere close to being evenly distributed. Environmental devastation is intimately linked to social inequities. To communities of color and poor folks, fighting for environmental justice is not simply about demanding a future, it is also about insisting upon a present. Funerals for folks far too young are an everyday occurrence on their frontlines.

Manchester, a neighborhood on the east side of Houston, has been selected as a processing site for the tar sands transported by the Keystone XL. Already, this neighborhood, in a region with the highest concentration of petroleum refineries on the planet, has toxin levels over ten times what is permitted for toxic waste dumps. The cancer rates highly elevated.

While Keystone XL will make matters worse, it is nothing new, just project to develop more fossil-fuel infrastructure that is guided by legacies of environmental racism, classism, and profit-making. Manchester is a town of mostly low-income Latina residents who do not want to breathe more poison, but their dissenting voices are systemically silenced and erased from dialogue concerning this profitable project.

The points of extraction and transportation for the pipeline are just as messy. The project will disproportionately affect indigenous land without consultation of Native peoples — a painful reminder of endless broken treaties. This failure to meaningfully protect sacred lands all but ensures their destruction, since all pipelines leak. Indeed, since the 2010 Enbridge oil spill in Michigan, the largest onshore in United States history, communities along the Kalamazoo Riverhave been forced to confront the tragic reality that tar sands pollution cannot really be cleaned up.

Standing against Keystone XL is an urgent call of our time. But in opposing its construction, I am not just targeting it as an isolated evil, but firmly standing against all the history that makes it a possibility and the profit motive that makes disastrous impacts inevitable. I am demanding environmental justice, based on an analysis of power dynamics that recognizes and challenges how poor folks and communities of color are hurt the worst by environmental catastrophes.

My assessment is intended to be honest, not grim. If we fail to account for the scope of the problem, then our solutions will continue to come up short. Honoring the complex injustices that undergird the pipeline positions us to learn from those communities who are most affected, who have the most acute analysis, and who are acting with the greatest resolve.

Tar Sands Blockade, a grassroots coalition of affected Texas and Oklahoma residents, called for a week of action, encouraging us all to step up with a deep commitment to environmental justice wherever we are. I was arrested in Westborough because I stand in solidarity with them. The week of action in March demonstrated that our collective power is anything but weak. It illustrated a growing resistance movement that knows no borders.

While singing to keep our spirits strong in the holding cell, I noticed a chai around the neck of a comrade. I slipped from song to silence as I contemplated how we had been driven in our action to honor life through a painful reminder of what comes at its end. To be good people in the time we are given on earth, I thought, we must disrupt histories that cut some lives too short. I entered back into song.

We may be publicly humiliated by tenured professors for standing up, and I have. We may face charges of expulsion from our schools for standing up, and I have. We may be put behind bars for standing up, and I have. I know that I am not alone. Together we will not be defeated. We are only growing stronger. We must continue to sing.

Jay Saper recently graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Middlebury College. He will soon be an elementary educator in Philadelphia and continue his studies at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. His writings have appeared in Dissident Voice, Nation of Change, Racism Review, The Nation, Waging Nonviolence.