The Dakota Access Pipeline: Two Lessons

In a major victory for the Native protestors who have been putting their time, energy, and bodies on the line this past week to oppose construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, the Obama administration announced this afternoon that the US government would temporarily halt work on the pipeline project.

This case is important for a variety of reasons, but first and foremost for the striking way that it challenges us to think about “human rights” and “environmental” issues as two sides of the same coin. After all, this one issue could be framed both ways: as a act of institutional violence against indigenous communities and as a massive engineering project designed to facilitate fossil fuel extraction. The point is that it is both at the same time. Because humans are inextricably embedded in their environmental surroundings, the way that we treat humans also affects non-humans and vice versa.

What does that mean for environmental politics? This is the second lesson of the #NODAP movement: environmentalists interested in decarbonizing American society need to make alliances with and amplify the voices of the real human beings (often already marginalized) that fossil fuel extraction hurts, and focus on challenging the powerful forces at the top of the carbonized economy rather than attempting to convince fossil fuel executives and conservative politicians that climate action is actually in their best interest. Because this is the unfortunate truth: serious action on climate change will come at the expense of the free-market society that conservatives hold dear. It will have a real cost in money and power for the kinds of people who are trying to use the DAP to improve access to crude oil and don’t care who gets in their way.

Today’s victory shows that it’s possible to achieve success with the confrontational, agonistic politics that this situation requires. Bottom-up action works, people! “Realism” and “pragmatism” are far too often held to be synonymous with moderation and capitulation. Environmentalists need to disabuse themselves of that notion ASAP.

N.B. The DAP issue is not permanently resolved with this decision. Keep the momentum up: donate to the legal relief fund for arrested protestors and keep the pressure up on the administration to turn this temporary hold into long-lasting policy change.

 

 

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