Wednesday, February 20, 2013

United against the Midgard Pipeline

More than a few comic book villains have attempted to destroy the world by weather. The Mighty Thor #327 (Marvel, January 1983) gives a classic example. Thor's mythological arch-nemesis, The Midgard Serpent, coils his body in around the Earth, and gives the planet the python squeeze. The result: “all earth is ravaged by one disaster after another—typhoons and monsoons, quakes and mudslides, floods and fires.”[1] Thor rides a magical sailing ship into outer space, and hooks the giant snake with a giant fishing line. And then the thunder god performs his most iconic feat of superlative strength.

Today, we know that the power to cause planet-wrecking extreme weather is not the sole prerogative of fantasy monsters or mad scientists. By our relentless burning of fossil fuels, we humans have caused a radical shift in the earth's climate. And now, we face the droughts, floods, hurricanes, and forest fires that result.

In real life, there are no superheroes to fly in and save us. We must be the change. That is why, at 6:30 AM on the frigid morning of February 18th, 2013, I left my home in Morgantown, West Virginia, to meet a pair of buses. Their passengers: the local branch of the Sierra Club. Their destination: Washington, DC. I boarded one of the buses, found a seat, and made myself comfortable, for a long day awaited.

We were headed for a rally, called Forward On Climate. Its purpose: to demand that President Obama take action to solve the climate crisis, beginning with a rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline. The proposed 1700-mile pipeline would transport dirty tar sands oil from Canada to refineries in Texas, and have catastrophic effects on the global climate. If the pipeline is the Midgard Serpent, the protestors seek to muster the power of Thor.

On the night of February 17th, I made sure to pack a full water bottle, a full lunch, a camera with full batteries; and to lay out well-insulated long underwear and outerwear, to don in the morning. And then I set to work on a painted sign. I chose a pika as the star. After four rounds of seasonal work as a Park Ranger at Crater Lake National Park, I am fond of these adorable rabbit-relatives, and aware that global warming threatens to exterminate them. I puzzled over how to illustrate the link between a pipeline and a species dying from overheating; family members lent ideas. And so, after three hours with pencils and acrylics, I had a totem to be proud of, and to take marching.

I found some new friends onboard the bus, from among the diverse crew of students, professionals, and retirees. While I talked to Steve the philosopher, an older gentleman walked down the aisle, and offered bottles of water to his fellow activists.  I had my own water and tea; I also gulped down a few handfuls of trail mix as the bus approached DC, but forgot to eat lunch, being full of anticipation for the rally.

As the bus arrived on the National Mall, we saw a long stream of people, en route to Forward on Climate, with signs and flags in hand, and the Washington Monument behind them. “It is a good day for the first amendment,” said Steve. Indeed, and a good day for democracy. We joined the stream. Our stream fed into a great lake of people, in the field by the Washington Monument. Many people together held up a giant model pipeline, with the words “Separate Oil and State” blazoned across it. The familiar thump of AC/DC's “Back in Black” played through speakers, to give the crowd some preliminary vigor.

My cell phone rang; it was Mike, my friend from The Homestead. It was hard to talk over the boom of the music, but I told him to find me by my pika sign. And so we met up. And so we turned our attention to Reverend Lennox Yearwood, on stage. By turns, he prompted the crowd to shout, pump, jump, and hug each other. By turns, he introduced leaders from diverse movements, who had united against Keystone XL. Each gave their address to the crowd. We heard the provocative words of the environmental activist Bill McKibben, the Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, the green jobs guru Van Jones, and the Chief of the Saik’uz First Nation Jacqueline Thomas, who traveled from British Columbia, Canada, to speak against the pipeline. She warned us of the devastation the pipeline would wreakupon her community, neighboring communities, animals and plants. Van Jones warned that all the good President Obama has done or will do will be wiped out by floods, fires, and superstorms if he fails to act now to address the climate crisis. He warned that an approval of the pipeline would be like “lighting a fuse on a carbon bomb,” and that before the Pipeline runs over farmland and small towns, it will first run over “the credibility of the President of the United States of America.” Bill McKibben hailed the crowd of demonstrators for their work on behalf of the Earth. He said: “you are the antibodies kicking in as the planet tries to fight its fever.”[2]  Senator Sheldon Whitehouse from Rhode Island also spoke to the crowd, and assured us that the President is on our side concerning the climate crisis, but avoided a direct mention of the looming threat of Keystone XL.

I held my pika poster high, and pumped it vigorously when the speakers made key points. Simultaneously, other demonstrators waved their signs, clapped, tooted on whistles, and shouted in approval. Frequently, the winter wind gusted through. It caught my sign like a sail. I struggled to keep it in the air, and braced it variously with either arm, both arms, my shoulder, or my head. From training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I learned to rely on body positioning and leverage, not brute strength, and to brace weight against any of my four limbs, my torso or my head, as the situation called for it. Even so, my arms grew tired.

Despite multiple layers of clothes, the winter cold fond its way to my flesh by the end of the speeches. I was ready and raring to march. And our lake of people became a river, which flowed to the white house.  Quickly, I felt warm and energized.

I couldn't keep track of my team from West Virginia for long. And so I marched among people Wisconsin, Minnesota, Virginia, and Vermont. I marched behind a group of college students from Massachusetts, who brandished a banner that said “We must rise faster than the seas.” I marched alongside a reporter from The Progressive Magazine, and the editor of the Hur Herald. I met a young woman who was thrilled to see the Pika on my sign; she had spent the summer in the mountains of New Mexico, conducting scientific research on the pika populations. I met a father-daughter team. She rode on his shoulders, and displayed a sign reading “For my future, stop the pipeline.” There were people dressed as polar bears, and people dressed as caribou. There was a puppet of a sandhill crane. There was a giant puppet of the statue of liberty. Her sign read “It's not easy being green, but we must.” Musicians beat their drums. We chanted “Hey, Obama, we don't want no climate trauma!”

Over 130 buses came from 28 states. Over 100 different organizations joined forces to make the rally happen. Over 40,000 people made the march to the White House, to tell President Obama to say No to dirty tar sands oil, and Yes to a clean energy future. In San Francisco, California, another 5,000 marched with the same message.  Thousands more rallied in at least 23 other cities; and thousands have written or called the President.  I am unsure of the exact total number of people in this movement, but it is big.

Opponents of Keystone XL include 18 of the nation's top climate scientists, who voiced their opposition in an open letter to President Obama in January 2012. NASA scientist James Hansen signed the letter, and went further. On February 13th, 2013 he joined 47 other activists outside the White House, to demand that the President “Lead on Climate, Reject KXL Pipeline.” Among them were the aforementioned Bill McKibben and Michael Brune, the lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the actress Daryl Hannah, and the Sierra Club Board President Allison Chin. Brune and others strapped their wrists to the fence. The police arrested the group for failure to disperse and obey lawful orders. Brune and Chin became the first-ever leaders of the Sierra Club to engage in civil disobedience, and the first-ever to be arrested for said actions. Hansen, McKibben, and others were arrested previously, in a similar protest in August 2012.

Thousands have poured their heart and passion, fire and love into stopping this Pipeline. But ultimately, the decision is up to President Obama. We hope that he stands up to the promises of his recent speeches, and rules in favor of the world's children and future generations (not to mention present generations! The climate crisis is already upon us, and will get much worse if we don't act now.) With a stroke of his pen, he can lift the Midgard Serpent.

Epilogue: It was a dark and snowy bus ride back to West Virginia. The fellow who had given water in the morning now offered pepperoni rolls. There can be no doubt that he was a longtime West Virginian. Few other states know of the greasy slabs of cured pig-meat surrounded by seasoned bread. I declined, being content with the humus sandwich and peach that I had forgotten about earlier.  Other people (including Steve) devoured my home state's signature food.  When we crossed the border of West Virginia, the giver of pepperoni rolls took out a harmonica and played John Denver's “Country Roads.” Every activist has a unique home to protect from global climate disruption.  For at least one, it is the mountain state, land of processed meat and folk music.

1. Comic pages/ quote from Thor #327, written by Doug Moench, penciled by Alan Kupperberg, inked by Jim Mooney, colored by George Roussos, lettered by Janice Chiang; copyrighted to Marvel comics. Low-resolution reproduction used here for educational purposes only.
2. For recordings of the speeches, see the Democracy Now! episode from February 18th, 2013.
3. Photos: Rev. Yearwood photo by © Shadia Fayne Wood of Project Survival Media. Photo of Ross by a skillful bystander. Other photos by Ross.

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