Post #26-What Works? Good Neighbors Find Common Ground

It’s a powerful story of grassroots organizing. “Jane Kleeb vs. Keystone” details the tenacious efforts of one person in Nebraska to reach across the usual environmentalist-conservative divide in order to combat a common foe, corporate interests determined to buy up land that is in the way of their oil pipeline. (See www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/magazine/jane-kleeb-vs-the-keystone-pipeline.html?hp.) The way Jane Kleeb has built a coalition and so far prevailed is not unique; we hear similar stories of people from all walks of life coming together when a common interest is threatened. But that’s the point: learning how to find common ground around a distinctly human interest—in this case, preserving precious farmland—is a lesson that applies in many other arenas besides the environment.

In looking for ways to prevent TransCanada, a huge Canadian conglomerate, from starting construction of the pipeline, Jane Kleeb could have adopted the standard environmentalist position of describing how it would exacerbate climate change. But to Nebraskans at or near the pipeline, the project’s threat is to their water supplies and safety. A break in the line anywhere along its 275 miles would be catastrophic, and there have already been a few major spills from other companies’ lines. Thus, Kleeb’s chief allies are farmers and ranchers who don’t take kindly to TransCanada agents coming to their door and trying to buy out land that has been in their families for generations. As the Times story says, here was the galvanizing interest she had been looking for: “conservative American farmers rise up to protect their land.”

Thus, the rallying cry in Nebraska is “Save the Neighbors,” not “Save the Planet.” It’s a cry that resonates in rural areas, where neighborliness is deeply embedded in the culture. TransCanada’s selling point, that Keystone will reduce US dependence on foreign oil and will be perfectly safe to boot, is falling on deaf ears. But the company holds powerful cards: money to wage a long court battle, and the right of eminent domain—seizure of land in the path of the pipeline, with “fair” compensation.

Keystone XL’s future in Nebraska is now in the hands of the state’s supreme court, and ultimately the US State Department. TransCanada may yet win this battle; but Jane Kleeb and Nebraskans have shown that grassroots resistance still means something.

Afterthought: In recent years finding common ground on environmental issues has also become the practice of several high-visibility environmental organizations. But unlike Jane Kleeb, these groups are looking for common ground with corporations that have an awful track record. In post #20 I mentioned one example: Environmental Defense, whose leader believes his organization can work with fracking outfits to mitigate the effects of their drilling. The May 12 issue of The New Yorker carries the story of the Nature Conservancy’s pilot project with Dow Chemical in Freeport, Texas. The intent of the project is to move Dow away from some of its most environmentally offensive practices by showing that environmental protection—such as planting trees to absorb carbon dioxide—can save money. Do these approaches exemplify what works? I think not; and this is not just a kneejerk reaction to anyone who would jump into bed with the devil. It’s about the dangers of cooption. The heads of Environmental Defense and Nature Conservancy say they’re just being pragmatic, that we have to do what’s feasible because we’ll never have what’s ideal. But feasibility means ignoring the reality that companies like Dow will only “go green” when its bottom line benefits. So Dow plants more trees but otherwise goes about its dirty business, which is as one of the world’s leading producers of toxic substances. There are, in fact, no shared values or long-range commitments here as between the environmental organization and the giant corporation. But then again, maybe I’m wrong here: According to the New Yorker article, Mark Tercek, the head of Nature Conservancy, “does not oppose genetically modified food, nuclear power, or fracking, hoping only to play a role in easing their environmental impacts.” With friends like these . . .

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One Comment

  1. This is great! I love seeing the shift of focus to solutions. I eagerly look forward to more posts in this vein. Raising awareness of how screwy things are is important, but co-creating solutions is critical. Thanks Mel!
    Have you looked into this organization? http://www.celdf.org/
    “You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
    To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
    ― Richard Buckminster Fuller

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